“I’m not trying to [tear down the Western economic system and replace it with socialist redistribution of wealth]. You know, I turned 18 when the Berlin wall fell, so I have never had any temptation with communism, I am just trying to see how we can ensure that everyone benefits from globalization.” –Thomas Piketty on The Colbert Report
Despite the various theoretical problems with Piketty’s work (see Harvey’s critique for example), we still have to discuss the significant practical issues, associated with the tactics and strategies of our struggle. Piketty’s overall solution to our problems is nothing but the contemporary social democratic response of trying to better manage capitalism; to humanize capitalism, as the picture bellow illustrates:
For a more detailed discussion on the contemporary debates regarding tactics and strategies between anarchists, revolutionary socialists, and social democrats, see this article; but it is useful to briefly go over something economist Paul Sweezy has been arguing since 1942, which basically foresaw the failure of what was to become the social democratic project.
Sweezy argued in his Theory of Capitalist Development (1942: 349), “the state in capitalist society has always been first and foremost the guarantor of capitalist property relations” and has unmistakably been “the instrument of capitalist class rule.” Sweezy concludes that for it to be possible to use the state to manage capitalism, and/or impose higher, more substantial taxes on capital, as Piketty suggests, a certain combination of requirements must be met. The political actor must be a mass party that 1) is strictly free of capitalist interest, 2) has acquired state power and eliminated capitalists and their representatives from key positions, and 3) establishes a firm position so it would be overwhelmingly plain that any resistance by capitalists would be futile. If experience shows that these are the necessary conditions for such a project to work, “it also indicates no less clearly the impossibility of their fulfillment” (350-1). While it is conceivable in the abstract, in reality “capital holds the strategic positions.” “Money, social prestige, the bureaucracy and the armed forces of the state, the channels of public communications,” are all controlled by capital and “will continue to be used to the utmost to maintain the position of capital.” Sweezy concludes it is a law of capitalist politics that the outcome of these strategies will merely be the bankruptcy of reform (351-2).
In fact, Sweezy (351) also argues that this liberal reform, due to these requirements, is no less a task than a gradual transition into socialism. Thus, we may ask ourselves, if we ever actually have sufficient political power to truly manage capitalism, why not transcend it? If we ever have the political will and power to impose Piketty’s global tax on capital, we will most likely have the will and power to engage on a transition into a new economic system, superior in every way. We will most likely have the means to build a new system, where a return to our current predicament is not as simple as eliminating Piketty’s tax and re-allowing capital free reign.
If/when we finally have the means to slay the beast, why put a smiley face on it?
Brief comment on some ideas common among liberals and social democrats.
Those who contend that the failure of 20th century socialism and the impressive levels of standards of living in northern Europe prove capitalism is the superior system are truly ignorant to the dynamics of capitalism as a whole, integrated, world system. Capitalism can only improve the material conditions of one part of the world if it is impoverishing people elsewhere. Its robust machinery generates war and corruption, while it has the ability to swallow whole any project that intends to humanize it. Socialism is not the unrealizable dream in this picture. The true dream is the idea that someday we will be able to guide capitalism toward a more just society. We would be no more than a medieval knight trying to reason with a bloodthirsty dragon instead of slaying it.