I unwrapped How Will Capitalism End? on Xmas Day. Later on it still hadn’t ,and the continued presence of the book and capitalism, reminded me that ‘How ‘does not equal ‘When.’.
Author Wolfgang Streeck is a German economist/sociologist, who has moved leftward and to an academic career from within the German establishment. His stuff appears in New Left Review and even less popular (but august) journals, but quoted and reviewed in the Guardian and the FT.
Streeck’s essays have been loosely organised into a book – he says honestly ( more honestly than his publishers) he’s too busy to produce a coherent narrative. And he probably couldn’t write fast enough .However from the mists of 2014 his thoughts appear prophetic – as I was reading random news bulletins seemed to be constantly reinforcing his views, and the personal stories of my therapy clients are affected by the factors Streeck identifies. It’s good to feel you have a sense of what s going on – at least initally, but not feeling you are in chaos, is not ultimately a way to get you out of feeling despair.*
Streeck points out that every major theorist of capitalism expects it to end . This is only illogical from within the bubble in which we have lived most of our lives. The third law of thermodynamics might be assumed to apply to economic systems as well as physical ones.
What it means to believe this is interesting. I was walked through Das Kapital in my twenties, and it probably saved me from a couple of bouts of depression. ‘Yes, the world is crazy and in unfair, your in the wrong place/wrong time, there is a reason for all of this, and it won’t last forever’ ( I will however skate quickly past the future dictatorship fo the proletariat). And that phrase’ All that is solid melts in to air’. What a useful mantra at that time ( the 1980s), and again now.
Of course, over that period, capitalism hasn’t melted, but orthodox Marxism has. In fact triumphalist lackeys ( or capitalist running dogs , if you prefer) have announced it has brought the End of History.
However then there was the Crash. Which did look a bit like a dramatization of Das Kapital. Except for the ending, which is exactly like the beginning, again.
Streeck is careful to point out that this has happened a lot, that capitalism has normal cycles of boom and bust, and that internal opposition to capital ( ‘democracy’) has probably sustained its hegemony in a dynamic equilibrium for a long time now. But he believes those features are no longer effective.
Briefly globalisation has allowed capital to outmanoevre democracy. Cheap credit, inequality, systematic corruption, destruction of trade unions and the lack of a political consensus, have all unlocked a boom and led to an effective end to the pattern of capitalism investment. Thus we are all consuming on a credit bubble.
So how will capitalism end? According to Streeck, with a whimper, not a bang. With no major challenge to the system, the stagnant post capitalist world can be propped up by us – as consumers ‘coping, hoping, doping and shopping’. In parts of our social system these methods will cease to work and the dying state will not be able to repair them – I think about social care, or post-industrial pollution, and these areas will fall out of the loop, left to be dealt with (or not) by contingent local solutions. On an individual basis , parts of our lives will meet the same fate .
Last year I read a similar diagnosis in Post-Capitalism by journalist Paul Mason, who however, sees the potential for new social formations around open access technologies and solutions, such as Wikipedia which cant be easily capitalised.
Streeck is not offering such upbeat hopes. I imagine he may have a large locked box under his bed.
I can’t say that I totally understand economics, or that I completely believe in it in its current form. What I do get is a kind of Marxist gut instinct which tells me Streeck’s analysis is not just based on wishful thinking. It is going down , the centre can’t hold, and the dramas and crises, like the anthropocene storms we’ve created to match, will come thicker and faster.
But I don’t think we’re there quite yet – Streeck argues against the possibiity of capitalising new markets and technological innovation, but not convincingly I feel .There is a lot of third world out there to create new raw materials and markets ( bilateral trade deal, anyone?) , and the speed of technological innovation will inevitably create new opportunities for commodification ( I’ve just read about a big start up grant for development of designer probiotics).
I believe though that it will be the environmental limits which are harder to overcome. I don’t think these are inevitable, but they are without co-operation of the kind [which is one of the things that Streeck describes as the ways in which democracy has extended the life of capitalism by restraining it]. However the climate change deniers have sneaked back into power in the US, and Brexit is about to remove the UK from EU environmental legislation ( which probably wont last much longer anyway). The vogue for bilateral deals will leave this type of international constraint nowhere.
I think the possibility of ecological conditions which push society beyond normal service is the most likely end of post-capitalism . What will happen in these scenarios?– I would suggest we look at the aftermath ( immediate and long term) of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as precursors (and many others in less familiar places). And feel sorry for our children.
* most interesting review I’ve found from a non new left source is here. You’ve got to answer a silly question for the FT website to read it. And of course it has a happy ending.