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.
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