[Marxism] How Will Capitalism End?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 22 07:49:56 MST 2016


LRB, Vol. 39 No. 1 · 5 January 2017

A General Logic of Crisis
Adam Tooze

How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck
Verso, 262 pp, £16.99, November, ISBN 978 1 78478 401 0

‘Whatever it takes.’ These words, spoken by the president of the 
European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, to a crowd of investors in the City 
of London on 26 July 2012, have come to represent the symbolic end to 
the acute phase of the global financial crisis. In the political sphere, 
by contrast, where words are supposed to be everything, we have not yet 
been able to draw the line. More than four years on, we know that in 
2012 the political fallout was only just beginning. It was in December 
2011 that David Cameron reopened the European question by opting out of 
the new ‘fiscal compact’ drawn up by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy 
with the aim of enforcing budget discipline across the EU. In the US in 
spring 2012, Mitt Romney emerged as the candidate from the Republican 
primaries, but the freakshow anticipated the Trump campaign to come. In 
Italy the ousting of Berlusconi in a backroom coup in November 2011 and 
the installation of the ‘unpolitical’ economist Mario Monti as prime 
minister set the stage for the emergence of Beppe Grillo and Five Star 
in the local elections of May 2012. In France as the fiscal compact 
began to bite, François Hollande’s presidency was dead almost before it 
had started.

Amid all these events, Germany can easily seem like a bastion of 
stability, with ‘Merkel über alles’ its anthem. But beneath the smooth 
surface, Merkel’s grip on the chancellorship has since she took office 
in 2005 been supported by three successive coalitions. And by early 2013 
it was clear that her partners since 2009, the free-market, libertarian, 
liberal FDP, were in trouble. They were being outflanked on their 
right-wing by a new formation, the AfD, the Alternative für Deutschland, 
whose focus in 2013 was not immigration but passionate opposition to the 
euro. Like much of the German right the AfD was indignant not about 
austerity, but about the failure of Merkel to back an even harder line. 
The AfD didn’t break the 5 per cent threshold required to enter 
parliament at its first try, but it took enough votes from the FDP to 
drop it out of the Bundestag, leaving Merkel to form a new coalition 
with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The AfD wasn’t the only force in German politics fuelled by the belief 
that things could not go on as they were. In spring 2013, for the first 
time in decades, the German left had begun to mount a principled 
critique of a major element of the European institutional structure – 
the euro. It was Oskar Lafontaine – ‘Red Oskar’ – who broke the silence. 
‘Hopes that the creation of the euro would force rational economic 
behaviour on all sides were in vain,’ he said, and called for the single 
currency to be broken up so that southern Europe could recover. 
Lafontaine is a former SPD finance minister, from the left wing of the 
party, once described by the Sun as the ‘most dangerous man in Europe’, 
who in 2005 split from the SPD and took tens of thousands of followers 
with him to join forces with the ex-East German communists of the PDS. 
Out of that coalition emerged Die Linke, arguably the real alternative 
for Germany, which the entire Bundestag has since conspired to keep at 
arm’s length. Until 2013 Die Linke’s line was that it opposed 
Euro-austerity not the euro. And at first the impact of Lafontaine’s 
heretical intervention was contained. He had just resigned from official 
duties in the party. But Cyprus and the elections to the European 
Parliament of 2014 kept the topic on the boil, and then came Syriza and 
the intense crisis of 2015.

In 2015, even before the refugee crisis surged to the top of the agenda, 
the German right was in uproar at what was seen as Merkel’s surrender 
over Greece, which should, it believed, have been unceremoniously kicked 
out of the euro. The ECB, in its adoption of quantitative easing, had 
revealed itself as an inflationist Trojan horse. Meanwhile, the left was 
divided over the now unavoidable question of whether the EU was 
neoliberal to the core, and if so, should be regarded as irredeemable, 
and rejected. Though the main part of Syriza pulled back from leaving 
the euro, Lexit – the left-wing case for leaving the union – was born 
that summer, and not only in Britain. In September 2015 Lafontaine 
popped up again, this time in Paris on a platform alongside Yanis 
Varoufakis, calling for a Plan B for Europe, a Europe beyond the euro.

In the German Lexit camp, alongside Lafontaine and his one-time state 
secretary in the Finance Ministry, Heiner Flassbeck, the most prominent 
voice has belonged to the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck. His role is a 
sign of the times. Until recently a long-term SPD member, Streeck had 
done teaching stints at major US universities before becoming the 
director of the prestigious Max Planck Institute. It was the financial 
crisis that returned Streeck to his youthful roots on the far left. In 
Buying Time (2014) he argued that the crisis of the euro could best be 
understood in terms proposed by the Frankfurt School. Social theorists 
like Jürgen Habermas, Claus Offe and others had been right, he said, 
when in the early 1970s they argued that democratic capitalism faced 
profound and irresolvable problems. What they had underestimated, 
however, was the sheer aggression of capital and the inventiveness of 
its functionaries in devising makeshifts to maintain profits while at 
the same time keeping workers and consumers from becoming discontented. 
Three successive strategies of displacement had kept the show on the 
road. In the 1970s inflationary wage and price increases had promised 
more than was actually available. Then, in the 1980s, state debt had 
swelled. Finally, neoliberalism became the dominant current in global 
governance, inaugurating the austere ‘consolidation state’ and 
simultaneously expanding private debt. Underpinning it all was an 
unfettered consumer culture that has transformed every aspect of our 
lives – as consumers, workers, family members and citizens. Europeans 
like to imagine they were selective in what they took from this package. 
But the post-2008 crisis revealed, in Streeck’s eyes, that Europe and 
its political institutions, notably the EU, were in fact the purest 
expression of neoliberalism. Streeck was one of the first to dig up a 
now widely read essay by Friedrich Hayek from 1939, where he argued that 
liberals should favour international federation because members would be 
able to agree only on a minimal set of prohibitions on the restraint of 
trade. Despite its protestations to the contrary, the EU was a 
free-market vehicle and the euro was its logical fulfilment – a monetary 
system cut off, like no other before it, from the control of democratic 
politics.

The significance of 2008, according to Streeck, was that this sequence 
of makeshift mechanisms of crisis resolution – inflation, public and 
private debt – had reached its endpoint. Streeck knows his Marx. But the 
core of his crisis theory is non-Marxian. It does not rest on the 
violence of original primitive accumulation, or on the alienation or 
exploitation inherent to the productive process, or even primarily on 
the declining rate of growth or accumulation. In one disarming passage 
he describes capitalism as a ‘a non-violent, civilised mode of material 
self-enrichment through market exchange’. What makes capitalism toxic is 
its expansiveness, its relentless colonisation of the rest of society. 
Drawing on Karl Polanyi, Streeck insists that capitalism destroys its 
own foundations. It undermines the family units on which the 
reproduction of labour depends; it consumes nature; it commodifies 
money, which to function has to rest on a foundation of social trust. 
For its own good, capitalism needs political checks. The significance of 
2008 and what has happened since is that it is now clear these checks 
are no longer functioning. Instead, as it entered crisis, capitalism 
overran everything: it forced the hand of parliaments; it drove up state 
debts at taxpayers’ expense at the same time as aggressively rolling 
back what remained of the welfare state; the elected governments of 
Italy and Greece were sacrificed; referendums were cancelled or ignored.

In early 2014, as the likes of Habermas and the late Ulrich Beck called 
on their fellow Germans to make the elections to the Strasbourg 
Parliament the constitutive moment of a European demos, Streeck’s mind 
was on darker themes. In January 2014 at the British Academy, he gave 
the lecture ‘How Will Capitalism End?’, which lends its dramatic title 
to this collection. If, as events in Europe and the US seemed to 
demonstrate, capitalism had broken free from its constraints, then 
visions of an ‘ever closer union’, at least in the form of the EU, were 
out of touch with reality. We should be bracing ourselves for a 
prolonged and agonising decomposition of the entire social fabric. It 
has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the 
end of capitalism: Streeck believes we may one day witness the proof of 
that. Capitalism will end not because it faces serious opposition but 
because over the course of the coming decades and centuries it can be 
relied on to consume and destroy its own foundations. We should expect 
ever intensifying stagnation, inequality, the plundering of the public 
domain, corruption and the escalating risk of major war, all of this 
accompanied by a pervasive erosion of social order, generalised social 
entropy. Indeed, according to Streeck we have at least since the 1970s 
been living in what he refers to as a ‘post-social society … a society 
lite’. We cope individually with conditions of increasing uncertainty, 
while at the macro level both society and economy become increasingly 
ungovernable. ‘Life in a society of this kind,’ he writes, ‘demands 
constant improvisation, forcing individuals to substitute strategy for 
structure, and offers rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords while 
imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the 
long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called 
the Dark Age.’

Streeck isn’t merely making a diagnosis, but a call to arms. He 
encourages his fellow sociologists to break through the ‘disciplinary 
truce’ that in the 1950s divided the economy from the rest of the social 
world and hived it off as the exclusive domain of economics. But his 
hopes extend beyond the academic: ‘Sociologists and political 
scientists, in alliance with heterodox economists of different stripes, 
have begun working on a new sort of political economy, a socio-economics 
that would again make the economic subservient to the social rather than 
vice versa, first as a theoretical and then, hopefully, as a political 
project’. Streeck draws urgent practical conclusions: ‘Bringing 
capitalism back into the ambit of democratic government, and thereby 
saving the latter from extinction, means de-globalising capitalism.’ 
Capitalism must be cut back to the scale of the nation-state, because it 
is at the level of the nation-state that Europeans have over the last 
two centuries been able to establish ‘social cohesion and solidarity and 
governability’.

The brutality of the Eurozone’s containment of the Syriza government in 
Greece seemed to vindicate Streeck’s warnings. His following has soared. 
In the Anglophone academy his work has been embraced as a refreshing 
return to the basics of Marxisant crisis theory. In Germany his impact 
has been more ambiguous. By contrast with the UK, France and the US, 
where Euroscepticism has always been a strand on the left, in Germany 
Lexit has not. The early days of the Federal Republic, when the SPD was 
bitterly opposed to Adenauer’s policy of Westbindung (‘attachment to the 
West’, involving European integration and membership of Nato), are long 
forgotten. Since the 1960s the mainstream German centre-left has settled 
into a position of unquestioning loyalty to the project initiated by the 
CDU. Franco-German opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 burnished Europe’s 
reputation as the good side of ‘the West’. Against this backdrop, 
Streeck’s claim that unwavering commitment to the EU and the ‘European 
ideal’ might itself be of a piece with neoliberal ideology comes as a shock.

It didn’t take long for Habermas to pick up the gauntlet. In 2013 he 
accused Streeck of ‘nostalgia’ in favouring a retreat to ‘national 
fortresses’. Earlier this year Streeck retorted that Habermas favoured a 
‘political universalism’ that vainly tried ‘to match the infinite 
universalistic advance of money and markets’; apparently Habermas 
regarded ‘the predetermined course of historical evolution [as] 
normatively desirable and technically necessary at the same time’. Why, 
Streeck demanded to know, should we fall in with ‘Angela Merkel and her 
frivolous claim that, “If the euro fails, Europe fails” – identifying a 
two-thousand-year-old cultural and political landscape of grandiose 
jointly produced diversity with a trivial utilitarian construction that 
happens to serve above all the interests of the German export 
industries’. Around the same time, dismissing Martin Sandbu’s vigorous 
defence of the euro, he vented his criticism of Merkel’s refugee 
policy.​* It was, in his view, another vain, modernist 
social-engineering project backed by Germany’s employers and the 
opportunistic Merkel. What’s more, it was an ‘object lesson in what 
other countries can expect from Germany acting European’, which means in 
practice an attack on national autonomy, as Germany’s elite identify 
‘their control of Europe with a post-nationalism understood as 
anti-nationalism, which in turn is understood as the quintessential 
lesson of German history’. Responding to Brexit in Die Zeit, he issued a 
manifesto, co-authored with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute, 
entitled: ‘Europa braucht die Nation’ (‘Europe Needs the Nation’). In 
the European context, it argued, Larry Summers’s appeal for a 
‘responsible nationalism’ meant limiting the power of the European Court 
of Justice, more opt-outs and replacing the euro with a reheated version 
of the European Monetary System of 1979-98 vintage, enabling periodic, 
co-ordinated revaluations.

*

The publication of How Will Capitalism End? thus comes when Streeck has 
positioned himself as the leading intellectual proponent in Germany of a 
Gaullist vision of Europe from the left. Now that his cards are fully on 
the table it is a good moment to try to answer the question: how did 
Streeck turn critical theory into a vehicle for the assertion of the 
primacy of the nation?

In one respect at least the national turn has allowed Streeck to subsume 
what might once have been seen as a fatal weakness in his analysis into 
a consistent part of the argument. A truly remarkable thing about his 
work is that he discusses the future of capitalism entirely without 
reference to the place where the future of capitalism will surely be 
decided: Asia. That no doubt reflects the limitations of his 
professional specialisation – OECD industrial relations. China and India 
are beyond his ken. But given the arguments he has been making, his 
Eurocentrism takes on a new meaning. If you are going to articulate the 
basic tension of the crisis as existing between a superficial, 
utilitarian universality on the one hand, and a ‘grandiose jointly 
produced diversity’ on the other, then Europe is, indeed, the classic 
terrain on which to make your case. Not that there isn’t nationalism 
elsewhere. But nowhere else has as many different nationalisms in such a 
tiny space and nowhere else has tried to merge them the way the EU has. 
India and China never subordinated themselves entirely to the dictates 
of neoliberalism, nor arguably has the United States: compared to the 
EU, Nafta was integration-lite. So if the EU stands for a peculiarly 
pure form of neoliberal capitalism – a basic contention of the Lexit 
camp – where better to make one’s stand than Europe? In rejecting the 
false capitalist homogeneity of the EU, one is saving Europe’s essence, 
namely its diversity. What could be a better expression of that 
grandiose diversity, after all, than the battle of Brexit, another round 
in the centuries-old cross-Channel struggle?

But Streeck is a political economist, so he isn’t content with 
civilisational arguments. He wants to talk about nuts and bolts, the 
real power behind the scenes. The particular vector of globalisation 
that has seized his imagination since 2008 is finance. As a somewhat 
surprised Martin Wolf remarked in the Financial Times, Streeck worries 
so much about debt you could mistake him for an Austrian economist. 
Debt, for Streeck, is an index of the unsustainable balance between 
democracy and capitalism. It’s the way the system borrows time. At times 
he takes this metaphor quite literally, describing credit as a mechanism 
through which ‘not-yet-existing virtual resources … are pulled forward 
from the future.’ Taken at face value that would suggest a very odd view 
of economic reality indeed. Streeck is on more solid ground when he 
focuses on debt as a power relationship. All modern states have managed 
the ongoing crises of capitalism through public debt, and this 
constitutes a new type of dependency. Elected governments have to listen 
to two constituencies, their people – the Staatsvolk – and the markets. 
Streeck joins the two in a neologism, the Marktvolk.

The term Staatsvolk is standard in constitutional theory, but it invites 
the question of how a Volk is constituted. As German critics have 
pointed out, much of Streeck’s pessimism about the EU derives from his 
refusal to consider the possibility that a European Volk might actually 
be emerging in part as a result of the politics of the crisis. Streeck 
sees the euro as having produced only resentment and division – a 
conventional enough view. What is not conventional – what is, indeed, 
frankly alarming – is Streeck’s extension of the term Volk. His coinage, 
Marktvolk, suggests the existence, opposed to the proper people, the 
Staatsvolk, of another Volk, one defined by its mysteriousness, its 
rootlessness and faithlessness, its commercialised and contractual 
approach to the world: the ‘market people’. For a critical sociology, it 
is no doubt important to anatomise the transnational financial elite. 
They form networks. And there are ways of studying those. But one thing 
that the operators of the financial markets are not, even in the loosest 
sense of the word, is a Volk, a national ethnic people, not unless one 
wants to evoke conspiracy theories favoured by the alt-right. One 
wouldn’t wish to impute that to Streeck. But his choice of words isn’t 
merely unfortunate: it also suggests a profound analytical misconception.

The two-Volk model doesn’t just conjure up a non-existent ‘market 
people’. It renders the rooted, national Staatsvolk neutral with regard 
to capital, or even leads one to imagine the two as juxtaposed. And yet 
when money moves against a democratically elected leftist government, as 
recently in Greece or Portugal, or in the 1980s in France, it isn’t just 
the rootless or foreign money that moves. The first to mobilise are 
generally disaffected wealthy locals who think the wrong side has won, 
and must be stopped. It is a nation’s own capitalists, after all, whose 
portfolios tend to be most heavily weighted towards local assets that 
may now be vulnerable to taxation or worse. They are also more likely to 
hold strong political views and are within easy reach of their vengeful 
opponents. In 2015 it was domestic capital flight as much as 
international speculation that put pressure on Syriza. It was local 
oligarchs, not hedge funds in Connecticut, who sent death threats to 
intrusive tax inspectors. The ‘This is a Coup’ hashtag that went viral 
in the summer of 2015 was a metaphor. Actual coups, like the recent one 
in Brazil, are staged by people who are rooted, fully paid-up citizens, 
who for that very reason are ready to go to any lengths to defend their 
vested interests.

*

The weird geometry of Streeck’s Staatsvolk-Marktvolk juxtaposition 
points to an inconsistency at the heart of his agenda. When Streeck says 
he wants to put society in control he can expect general agreement. 
This, indeed, is pure Habermas, reasserting the lifeworld against the 
system. It is the boilerplate of social democracy. But the question it 
dodges is the all-important one: who or what is ‘the social’? The 
disagreement between Habermas and Streeck, put in Habermas’s terms, is 
whether to move up and forwards to a future cosmopolitan order, or down 
and backwards to the nation. But as Streeck himself asks when he has his 
critical sociology hat on, what about class divisions within the social, 
whether at the local, national or European level? In some of the best 
passages in How Will Capitalism End? Streeck explains that the 
distinction between ‘society’ and ‘economy’ that has structured the 
discipline of sociology, the dyad that made it possible to speak so 
confidently of putting ‘society’ in charge of the ‘economy’, was in fact 
an artefact of the peculiar class balance of the 1950s and 1960s. 
Streeck’s entire narrative rests on the claim that this class balance 
was ruptured in the 1970s. Thatcher let the cat out of the bag with her 
declaration that ‘there is no such thing’ as society, just ‘individual 
men and women and … families’. To which the response of critical theory 
should not be a pantomimic ‘Oh yes there is and it should be in charge,’ 
but to ask what configuration of social forces made it possible for 
Thatcher to make that claim and how might it be reversed.

Instead of saying that national societies should be put back in charge 
of their economies, shouldn’t Streeck be saying – to put words in his 
mouth – that the aim of the game is to shift the balance of class 
forces, in such a way that one might once again meaningfully and 
optimistically talk about ‘society’ taking control? His wager seems to 
be that the struggle would best be conducted on a smaller scale and, 
given the legacies of history, that must mean the nation. He doesn’t 
argue the case for more local action in any depth. But he leaves us in 
no doubt that in his view the European Parliament is a sham and 
Eurocrats are corrupt, self-serving flunkies. His position is 
unambitious and nostalgic, in Habermas’s eyes. But the more serious 
concern is that it poses the question Streeck himself puts so 
aggressively to the cosmopolitans: your vision may be attractive, but 
how are we to get from a to b and who is going to get us there? What is 
it about the current configuration of social forces that leads Streeck 
to believe a move back to the national level would enable democratic 
control of a renationalised economy and not result, say, in the kind of 
dirty backroom dealing that Downing Street appears to have done with 
Nissan to retain manufacturing jobs in a post-Brexit Britain? Streeck 
criticises the cosmopolitans for their elective affinity with Davos man, 
but the worry about deglobalisation is that its primary movers would be 
even less attractive and might, despite their populist slogans, be just 
as closely associated with big business. The experience of the 20th 
century suggests that when trying to channel nationalists’ energies into 
progressive politics, it is crucial to be clear-headed about one’s 
objectives. When you say you want to put the nation in charge and to 
throw off the yoke imposed by the invisible power of the cosmopolitan 
‘market people’, who do you expect to rally to your banner? Streeck may 
protest to sympathetic interviewers that when he advocates immigration 
restrictions that doesn’t make him a closet AfD supporter or a 
proto-fascist. But given Streeck’s slide from a conflictual notion of 
class to the idea of an integrated society and from there to an 
enthusiastic embrace of the nation, and all this against the backdrop of 
bona fide nationalist mobilisation, what does he expect?

The weaknesses of Streeck’s Staatsvolk v. Marktvolk scheme don’t end 
there. It isn’t just that the two are entangled. It is also simplistic 
to imagine that the confrontation ever takes place in dyadic isolation. 
States aren’t simply bounced between citizens and markets. They have to 
deal with other states, which are themselves juggling their relations 
with citizens and markets. And the state, the Staat that constitutes the 
Staatsvolk, has an identity, logic and interests of its own and is 
itself tangled in a complex web. In the face of Habermas’s normative 
cosmopolitanism and Streeck’s reductive economism, it is worth 
emphasising that the EU was conceived first and foremost as neither a 
moral nor simply an economic project, but as a power political vehicle 
to constrain West Germany while also enabling it to contribute to Cold 
War rearmament and reconstruction. In the 1990s the move to realise 
European Monetary Union was in part a neoliberal stratagem to install a 
permanent disinflationary regime. In part it was an effort to create a 
European society by stealth. But what moved it from the drawing board 
into reality was Helmut Kohl’s effort to reconcile France and the rest 
of the EU to German reunification and to bind a united Germany 
indissolubly to Europe. Twenty-five years later the balance within 
Europe is continually shifting and so too, crucially, is the position of 
the US in relation to Europe. These complex forcefields won’t simply 
disappear in the face of deglobalisation. If you break up the Eurozone, 
you don’t exit the power-field and thus gain sovereign autonomy. You do 
change your position within it and your way of relating to it – and not 
necessarily to your advantage. If we were to step back from the Eurozone 
to a reborn European Monetary System, as Streeck advocates, that 
wouldn’t set France or Italy free, but would place them back in the 
unequal power relationship with Germany that they sought to escape in 
the 1980s. And to advocate doing this at precisely the moment when the 
gamble the non-Germans made on the ECB has paid off, when an 
American-trained Italian macroeconomist is floating the entire European 
bond market to the horror of German conservatives, is either naive with 
regard to the way European monetary politics work, or disingenuous.

The ECB, in Streeck’s eyes, is no more than a tool of the banks. When he 
mentions Draghi at all it is to describe him as a ‘financial 
functionary’ or to associate him with Goldman Sachs. This allows for no 
autonomy of the apparatus of government or the technicians who run it. 
It’s true that the record of the ECB, particularly in the crucial period 
between 2008 and the autumn of 2011, gives little reason to think that 
central banks might play any constructive role in mediating between 
capital markets and democratically elected governments. Caught between 
Berlin, Paris, the Bundesbank in Frankfurt, the IMF and the US Treasury, 
clinging to its own deeply conservative vision of economic governance, 
refusing to face the entanglement of Europe’s banks both with US 
subprime assets and European sovereign debt, the ECB’s leaders delivered 
one of the most destructive and, in the end, self-subverting 
performances in the history of economic mismanagement. Streeck never 
identifies whose interests he imagines might have been served by this 
fiasco; he does no more than to gesture to ‘bankers’ and ‘German export 
interests’. But insofar as the markets have spoken, their judgment has 
been devastating. It was precisely the realisation of how deep the loss 
of confidence had become that prompted Draghi’s unscripted remarks – 
‘Whatever it takes’ – in July 2012. Of course central banks have major 
legitimacy issues. Their autonomy cannot be taken for granted; they are 
held in place by a complex geometry of forces. But saying that is quite 
different from generalising a moment of unprecedented panic and 
mismanagement into an insuperable dilemma for capitalist democracy. 
Thanks in large part to bond-buying by the Fed, the Bank of England and 
the Bank of Japan, the bond vigilantes have remained confined to the 
Eurozone.

But, as has become clear since 2012, the careful calculation of options 
and precise analysis of the mechanics of crisis is not Streeck’s 
project. With a passion bordering on that of a convert, Streeck feels he 
has identified a general logic of crisis. The market and its 
functionaries have brought about an existential crisis of social and 
political life: they must be resisted by any means necessary. What’s 
more, the gravity and urgency of the situation make detailed tactical 
argument unnecessary. Indeed, it may even be unwise to be reasonable. As 
financial markets have shown again and again, panic is what gets you 
attention. As Streeck remarked in Buying Time:

Greater agitation and unpredictability among the people – a spreading 
sense of the profound absurdity of the market and money culture and its 
grotesque claims on the human lifeworld – would at least be a social 
fact; it could come to be seen as the ‘psychology’ of citizens, 
alongside the psychology of markets and demanding as much attention … 
even though they have no banknotes as arguments but only words and (who 
knows?) paving stones.

To the Guardian he commented simply: ‘I think more such scariness must 
happen.’ The authorities should be ‘scared shitless’.

*

One can see his point, of course. And there are those who regard the 
‘scariness’ of Brexit and Trump with a certain relish. But even if we 
were willing to treat this as a merely tactical question, if the left 
were to dispense with reason, it would need to be sure of the balance of 
power, sure that its words wouldn’t simply be laughed off and that the 
‘paving stones’ wouldn’t be met with overwhelming counter-force. It is a 
gamble, to say the least. Yet Streeck isn’t content to stop there. In 
the gloomiest pages of How Will Capitalism End?, as he takes an X-ray of 
the consumer culture that continues in his view to prolong capitalism’s 
survival, it isn’t just pragmatism and coping that come under suspicion, 
but hope too. For Streeck, coping and hoping aren’t simply habits 
characteristic of the modern subject: they have, under the sign of 
market society, taken on a specific ideological valence. For Streeck, 
‘coping, hoping, doping and shopping’ form a behavioural structure that 
is fundamental to sustaining profit and accumulation:

Life under social entropy elevates being optimistic to the status of a 
public virtue and civic responsibility. In fact, one can say that even 
more than capitalism in its heyday, the entropic society of 
disintegrated, de-structured and under-governed post-capitalism depends 
on its ability to hitch itself onto the natural desire of people not to 
feel desperate, while defining pessimism as a socially harmful personal 
deficiency.

With that in mind, the extraordinarily bleak vista of a new ‘dark age’ 
with which Streeck begins the book reveals itself not just as a 
prediction, but as a critique of ideology. If we are to see clearly at 
all, we must get over our desire not to feel desperate. What Streeck is 
in search of are not intimations of the ‘presumably possible’ 
(Habermas), but a ‘new framework, away from wishful demonstrations of 
the possible to a realistic accounting of the real, to get ahead with 
the most urgent task for the left, which is sobering up.’

But if hope and wishful thinking are an opium of the masses, then the 
promise of a disillusioned realism, a realistic accounting of the real 
no less, isn’t without its ideological temptations either. Most 
obviously it can feed fatalism. But it can also do the opposite: 
sweeping historic gloom goes hand in hand with rebirth, a promise 
commonly vested in the nation. Such affinities are never necessary. 
There are pessimistic non-nationalist visions just as there are sunny 
versions of nationalism. But in the current moment Trump’s campaign 
rhetoric was striking precisely in its juxtaposition of an apocalyptic 
vision with the promise of national rebirth. Streeck would no doubt be 
more comfortable being compared with Max Weber, the most respectable of 
all German sociologists, but also a nationalist and a prophet of the fin 
de siècle in whose rhetoric pretensions to steely realism, dark imagery 
and assertions of voluntarist will came together in an intoxicating mix. 
When Imperial Germany fell to disaster in 1918, Weber greeted the advent 
of the Weimar Republic as ‘a polar night of icy darkness and hardness’, 
and summoned his students to heroic acts of violent resistance against 
the Polish occupiers of Danzig.

But we are not in the early Weimar Republic, nor are we living through 
the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. We have our own problems and 
they are bad enough. The shocks of the financial crisis, the Eurozone 
crisis, Ukraine and the refugee crisis go deep. The Trump presidency may 
unleash even worse: the Iran nuclear deal was one of the rare 
achievements of EU foreign policy. The rallying of nationalism across 
Europe is undeniable and dangerous. The prospect of a Le Pen victory in 
France is one of real menace. Is Streeck’s Gaullist manifesto for a 
Europe of the nations seriously intended to take the wind out of Le 
Pen’s sails? His polemics suggest as much, but there is nothing in his 
theoretical armoury that would allow him to elaborate the point. In 
Germany, the solidity of the checks and balances in its constitution and 
the sophistication of its democratic culture mean there is no real risk 
of a Trump, Le Pen, Brexit-style swerve to the right. How then could 
Streeck’s interventions make any difference? Ahead of the German 
election in 2017 there are only two real options for the country: 
another coalition centred on Merkel, offering more of the same, or a 
novel ‘Red-Red-Green’ coalition of the SPD-Die Linke and the Greens. 
This has been a possibility since the 1990s and is the bugbear of all 
those determined to uphold the status quo inherited from West Germany. 
But if there is a political move that might break the roadblock in 
Germany and thus in Europe, ‘R2G’ is it. The history of the Cold War 
stands in its way, as do painful memories of Lafontaine’s split from the 
SPD and a fear on the part of the SPD and the Greens of losing bourgeois 
voters. If Die Linke, driven by its Lexit wing and concerned with the 
threat to its voter base in the East from the AfD, were to swerve onto 
the protectionist, anti-EU line that Streeck and others have been 
advancing since 2013, it would be hugely counterproductive. It is here, 
operating within the delicate politics of a Red-Red-Green coalition, 
that Streeck’s intellectual authority and relentless advocacy of the 
Lexit position could do real damage. The result to be feared is not a 
new dark age, or the imminent collapse of capitalist democracy, the 
Eurozone or the EU, but merely the depressing continuation of both 
Europe and Germany’s failure to live up to their potential, the 
continued foreclosure of the ‘presumably possible’.


-- 
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