Summary: We have hundreds of ideas for small reforms of America, but few for radical reform of the capitalist system that runs it. As a demonstration of this problem, Wolfgang Streeck gives a profound critique of capitalism and Adam Tooze one of the most powerful essays I have seen in a long time. This is part two; part one discussed how we drifted into this crisis of capitalism.
By Adam Tooze,
London Review of Books, 5 January 2017.
Posted with his generous permission.
Review of Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System.
Part two of two: looking at the end of capitalism, and beyond.
The publication of How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System 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.