Rickety Piketty: the road to non-market socialism

Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the diving off point for the opening session of the recent Historical Materialism Australasia 2014 conference in Sydney. Valuably, Piketty exposes increasing economic inequality, highlights the burgeoning filthy rich and argues that deep inequalities are the natural state of any capitalism unfettered by state redistributive and welfare programs. But the panel I led raised a number of concerns about Piketty’s approach. Here I draw from my talk about the vexed issued of inequality for the Left in general and the particular stance of non-market socialists.

The gesture to Marx’s Capital in Piketty’s title is annoying given Piketty engages cursorily with Marx. In a New Republic (5 May 2014) interview he even misrepresents him, saying: ‘In the books of Marx there’s no data.’ Not surprisingly Piketty only offers a narrow statistical analysis of developing inequalities in income and wealth especially recently and mainly in advanced capitalism.

Inequality represents a double-edged sword for the Marxist left. Inequality in owning assets and income levels are living breathing proof of capitalism’s deepest failings. But addressing inequality often slides into reformism. Union demands generally support capitalism unless linked overtly to a revolutionary agenda ending capitalism. Unionisation has fallen since the 1980s. Radical unionism has been decimated.

The Left, in terms of anarcho-communist currents, is no longer a force in political debates or visible in mainstream media, university coursework and student discourse. We live in a thoroughly commercial culture with solidarity and mutual support reduced to charity and volunteering, pleading with governments and industry, victim mentalities and political blame games — rather than strikes and revolutionary demands. We have lost any sense of our real power. The will of the left is in tatters.

Meanwhile, climate change is only the tip of the iceberg of broad environmental crises, including peak oil and peak soil. Continuing with capitalism is species suicide. Yet addressing environmental sustainability often raises reformist, market-oriented solutions too — taking us into a quagmire of perceiving and ‘re-imagining’ the world in terms of exchange values.

Debates on economic inequality are bound by monetary language and practices. Money perpetually creates inequality in a world producing and distributing on the basis of exchange values. Inequality and equality discourses and activism sit in a capitalist black box.

So, ‘How can the radical Left more adequately address the twin issues of socio-political and environmental inequality and injustice in ways that allow capitalism to collapse and develop a society based on social and environmental values, i.e. use values?’ And, given the planetary environmental collapse and the crisis of capitalism, ‘How can we act appropriately and with the necessary speed?’

In Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (1987), Rubel and Crump call non-market socialism the ‘thin red line’ of socialist and communist thinking. In my introduction to non-market socialism in Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (co-authored with Frans Timmerman) non-market socialists are defined as advocates and activists for a money-free, market-free, wage-free, class-free and state-free society where everyone’s basic needs are met — and power, responsibility and […]