Summary: The pace of change has accelerated since Y2k so that it’s difficult to see what’s happening. Here’s a provocative essay by sociologist Wolfgang Streeck describing an evolution almost too large for us to see as it happens — the decline of capitalism (and, though he does not discuss this, its evolution into something else).
Thou know’st ’tis common;
all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
— Queen Gertrude to Hamlet in Act I, scene 2.
Excerpt from “On the dismal future of capitalism“
By Wolfgang Streeck
Socio-Economic Review, January 2016
The writing is on the wall, and has been for some time; we must only learn to read it. The message is: capitalism is a historical social formation; it has not just a beginning but also an end. Three trends have run in parallel since the 1970s, throughout the family of rich capitalist democracies: declining growth, rising inequality of income and wealth and rising debt — public, private and total. Today the three seem to have become mutually reinforcing: low growth contributes to inequality by intensifying distributional conflict; inequality dampens growth by curbing effective demand; high levels of existing debt clog credit markets and increase the risk of financial crises; an overgrown financial sector both results from and adds to economic inequality etc.
Already the last growth cycle before 2008 was more fake than real and post-2008 recovery remains anaemic at best, also because Keynesian stimulus, monetary or fiscal, fails to work in the face of unprecedented amounts of accumulated debt.
Note that we are talking about long-term trends, not just a momentary unfortunate coincidence, and indeed about global trends, affecting the capitalist system as a whole and as such. Nothing is in sight that seems only nearly powerful enough to break the three trends, deeply engrained and densely intertwined as they have become.
… State-administered capitalism has failed — that is, was rejected by the owners of capital as too costly for them, to be replaced with free-market capitalism, which has also failed. For the time being, central banks act as regents waiting for a new ruler. But who would this be, and what would be his recipe for holding the capitalist enterprise together?