Book review: Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? – a grim economic forecast #auspol 

Capitalism as we know it is irrevocably in its death throes, argues German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, which on its own is not a novel thesis. In our age of regular financial crashes and bursting bubbles, illiberal movements and borderless wars, even Nobel Prize winners and mainstream thinkers – I think of Joseph Stiglitz, among others – say that the post-war free market regime is broken, and that the superglue we’re using to stick it together won’t hold for much longer.

Yet Streeck’s analysis of why neo-liberalism is imploding – and this time unable to reinvent itself – is a fresh take, if not necessarily a light read for the layman. Though Marxism has for some time now been out of vogue, his post-Marxist analysis of the political economy of globalisation, one augmented by the work of many contemporaries, rings remarkably timely. Perhaps it’s time to dust off the Marx and Engels after a quarter of a century on the book shelves.
After all, contemporary social scientists failed miserably to predict such dramatic phenomena as Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election, the Euro crisis, the rise of ISIL or the viability of right-wing populists across Europe.

But if Streeck’s on the mark, that’s no grounds for celebration. Particularly unnerving about his analysis in How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, and unlike some of his ilk – such as the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein or, for that matter, even Marx himself – Streeck has little faith that, at least in the near future, anything vaguely benevolent will follow the disaster that is looming. On the contrary, capitalism’s end will be ugly, and we’re only just now getting a taste of how ugly.


As far as Streeck is concerned, capitalism is an inherently unstable, dysfunctional economic model that has survived for more than 200 years lurching from one systemic crisis to another. Yet, until now, it has always managed to regroup and repackage itself, often ingeniously, staving off demise through complex metamorphoses.
“The history of modern capitalism,” argues Streeck, “can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism has survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways.” Marx and Keynes, Weber and Luxemburg, all foretold its death with different explanations, but they underappreciated capitalism’s resourcefulness.
But this time, argues Streeck with conviction, capitalism’s at the end of its own tether – really. There’s no longer enough of its spoils or the soothing ointment of liberal democracy to go around.

The symptoms of contemporary capitalism’s dire crisis – stagnation, debt, and inequality – are not new but they’re more acute now than ever before, and mutually reinforcing as they beget one another. The persistent decline in economic growth worldwide has only accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis, the vast gap between the few haves and the many have-nots now greater than at any time in the 20th century.
Graphs and charts show us that sky-high indebtedness in leading industrial states has governments, households and financial firms trapped in a vicious cycle in which their economies, shackled by debt, cannot recover. Greece is not alone, but rather one example among many.
And, finally, there’s the vast inequality in income and wealth that has only grown wider and wider in the post-Cold War decades. It’s not one of these symptoms that will shake capitalism to its foundations, but rather a combination of them and other afflictions: “death by a thousand cuts”, writes Streeck, refusing to be pinned down on exactly how capitalism will finally meet its maker.

Press link for more: The Nation

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4 comments

  1. I’ve been watching this happen for decades, and saying so, and denounced for daring to voice my freedom of speech, which has all-but been usurped by Republicans. I’m not a pundit, but being one is no assurance of being heard. The masses don’t even know who to blame for the circumstances that they find themselves in, which makes them vulnerable to be manipulated by fear and hate to vote against their own interests–and to speed up the rate of their financial difficulties while further enriching those who caused those difficulties. The result is that everything is broken in the US, and I agree that the future will be horrifically ugly for all of us, and we did it to ourselves. We really didn’t need outside interference to get here; it just escalated the process.

    1. It’s not just the US, capitalism & is offspring neoliberalism has destroyed the environment, killed millions & left billions in poverty all over the planet.

      We are only now realising that infinite growth on a finite planet is recipe for disaster.

      We must all work to usher in a new economic reality. A reality based on justice & respect for all living beings.

      Cheers John 💞🌏💞

  2. Thanks for this John.

    When I say to people that democracy has failed, the common response is that it is the best we’ve got. As one tweeter said, “Find me a better system and it might be considered”. The problem is that few people seem to be looking at what we can do to improve democracy. Limiting campaign funds is OK but is only tinkering at the edge. Proportional representation could be reconsidered – the ‘right’ wing would detest that.

    But I see the main problem as being the lack of honour and honesty. Academics have always argued that we must interpret someone’s writings given a knowledge of where they are coming from. We must be aware of potential biases. But people are now coming out with incredibly biased statements and actions, doing it in such a way that shows such blinkered self-interest and prejudice. And they seem to feel that shouting makes them right!

    Implicit in this is also such anger and hate as if they must be really terrified that they might be trampled to death by the underprivileged. Some of these American politicians’ statements are in a totally different world, in no sense connected to reality. And the trouble is that one cannot have a discussion with them; there is no rationality. It’s far worse than the tobacco debate. Certain topics/ideas are totally taboo to them. And frightening this includes climate change and our political systems for many people.

    I fear that Trump will not allow failure and, to stop it, like Maggie Thatcher, he will go to war to stir nationalism and get the people behind him. The military presence in his cabinet is frightening. Thus the Americans may not really get a chance to vote him out. In response to social unrest, he might well declare a state of emergency.

    This is how I see our economic systems failing – far far worse inequality than we even have today, leading to massive social unrest, disorganised left-wing responses, overthrow of the government, chaos, leading back to people wanting strong leadership and direction, hence dictatorship, which returns to paliative “democracy” as people calm down. Basically the French revolution all over again. However the equivalent of the Napoleonic wards today with modern nuclear weapons may lead to far worse results. All very depressing and, given the urgency of dealing with climate change, possibly even less hopeful.

    In the meantime, we can only try.

    However I have to say that I would not be at all unhappy if someone shot Trump. I am sure many others are thinking this but people will attack me harshly for voicing it. However it might save thousands of other people’s lives. Generals at war have often had to sacrifice a few men to save many others. Few in the West would have been upset if Hitler had been shot and, of course, there was an attempt to do just that.

    What are we coming to?

    I often feel how incredibly lucky our generation has been and fear for our children’s future.

    Enough, enough, I’m ranting!!!

    1. I agree with you.

      Capitalism, slavery in another form had always led to war & destruction.

      It’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel. But we must focus on the way forward and hope that violence isn’t the only answer. 💞

Appreciate your comments John

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