Wolfgang Streeck: how will capitalism end?

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Wolfgang Streeck talks at the London School of Economics on 7 November 2016. ©

Capitalism's end might be in sight, but it might not be good news, German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck warned in a conference. Alessio Perrone reports.

We are living in a period of deep change, in which unusually grotesque things are more possible – like President Trump.

If there was any take-away from Professor Wolfgang Streeck's talk at the London School of Economics, it was this: disorder and uncertainty will belong to the world for quite some time.

Presenting his new book How will capitalism end? on Monday 7 November, Streeck said that the world's phasing-out from capitalism might have already begun, bringing about chaos and fundamental transformations.

'An old order is dying but a new one can't be born yet. And it is a time in which the most bizarre things can happen,' he said. 'If you look at the US elections campaign, I think that is pretty close to bizarre.


'Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built,' says a tweet by Florian Philippot, Vice-President of French populist right-wing party Front National after Donald Trump won the US Presidential Elections.

'But if it [capitalism] had a beginning, then it must have an end, unlike the economists want us to believe,' Streeck said.

A Professor of Sociology at the University of Cologne, Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Cologne, and author of Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, Streeck has been studying medium-term trends in society for 40 years, focusing on austerity, public debt and capitalism – which he thinks is in a critical condition.

In his speech, Streeck went over why he thinks capitalism will die: its constant conflict with democracy might have gone a bit too far.

His argument goes as follows: capitalism needs to expand constantly – initially it was land-grabs and colonialism, then it started expanding into homes, increasing the amount of internal activities families sell 'on the market': cleaning, ironing, taking care of babies and elderly.

But to expand, capitalism needs a stable centre and a degree legitimacy: it needs people with money to buy things, and talented people working to make somebody else rich. To do that, it needs a degree of democratic control and redistribution, so that the inequalities it produces are kept to a level many would tolerate.

But neo-liberalism is undermining democracy and eroding states' power, threatening the balance on which capitalism lived. Its own excesses, not kept at bay in the last few decades, would undermine the system as a whole.

'We need to make sure that the discontent of the people, of the counter capitalist movement is equally heard and visible' - Wolfgang Streeck

'The market works like the biblical quote goes, "For everyone who has will be given more, ... But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him" [Matthew 25:29].

'Redistribution isn’t working anymore, also in terms of the legitimacy of the system,' he said.

To answer the question of his book, How will capitalism end?, Streeck said that we should think of it as an end without a new beginning, but that the end should not necessarily be good news.

'It will be a slow, long-term decay,' he said. 'The society of the Roman empire slowly faded away in regression. It took 400 years for someone to turn around and say "We have a feudal society".'

He said our society might end in a slow regression too, maybe ending up with structures similar to feudalism, with corporations becoming independent structures in the style of feudal lords.

Technology and machines have accelerated the process: 'The Silicon Valley has already begun to ask: "Who will buy if no one has money?"

'They are demanding a universal basic income and redistribution because they see they will have a problem if states do not redistribute wealth,' he said. 'They need people to participate in the Facebook game of buying – or no one will pay Facebook for advertising.'

Ironically, the same people move fortunes in order not to pay for the universal income.

Streeck reiterated that he studied medium-term trends and would not predict the future – what a new economic structure will look like is difficult to say now. Meanwhile, people should make their voices heard.

'The way our politics work is that politicians hear the discontent of capital very much, and they act to fix it,' Streeck said after the talk was over. 'We need to make sure that the discontent of the people, of the counter capitalist movement is equally heard and visible.

'And by visible I mean where people can be seen. In the streets.'

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