How will capitalism end?

Jane Shallice reviews How will capitalism end? by Wolfgang Streek. Published by Verso Books, October 2016, 272 pages


 

Which socialist could resist a book with such a title? There have of course been previous conjectures of capitalism’s ending, and capitalism has survived the most ferocious knocks, yet this is a book that became a best reviewed book when published and was on the list of “2016 must-get books”. Understandably so feted, when the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart and voices of rationality and critical thinking are desperately required.

For Wolfgang Streek the question, how will it end, has become increasingly central as economic and political crises stalk the world. He is no European Marxist, having in fact a peculiarly outdated view of what he thinks Marxists believe, stating that “it is a Marxist – or better: modernist – prejudice that capitalism as a historical epoch will end only when a new and better society is in place, and a revolutionary subject ready to implement it for the advancement of mankind”.

A sociologist who has worked within the structures and framework of the German SDP, Streek become known amongst the English speaking left over the last few years, with essays in the NLR. Whilst not covered in this book, his considered writings on the issues thrown up by the Brexit/Lexit discussions (if they could be so elevated) were refreshingly critical of the EU and he was apparently unpersuaded by the ideas that EU reform could be on the cards. One of the key underpinnings for How will Capitalism End is that socialist movements have been founded on solidarity and collective actions and posing the question that if in this period they are abandoned or defeated, what is then left?

There is a long introduction, necessary as the book is a collection of previously published essays, and therefore have some repetitious themes. Whilst describing symptoms of the crises, which are now in evidence, his focus is purely on Europe and North America. There is little to reflect the global nature of capitalism, with the huge engine of the current maintenance of the world capitalist system, China, entirely absent from his argument.

The significant features of the crisis are the three apocalyptic horsemen of contemporary capitalism: the decline in economic growth, the huge ballooning of indebtedness and the dramatic evidence of increasing inequality. For him this “multi morbidity”, a situation where different disorders coexist and reinforce each other leads to stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy. “Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies” and when asking whether there is there any way to reverse this steady trend he sees no positive response.

It is apparent to all that we are experiencing a crisis of political representation, as the politicians make no difference to peoples’ lives. In Tariq Ali’s formulation it is a crisis of the extreme centre; the political class is incapable of recognising what is happening, their attention being focused on serving the banks, the asset managers and the marketeers. Streek argues that the huge increase in public debt since the 70s has been caused by the decline in the taxation regime and the consequent redistribution from the poor to the rich. Replacing state income from tax holders to debt i.e. bond holders, inequality has increased as “the bond holders continue to own what they pay to the state and can pass it on to their children.” Increasing debts create further pressure for cuts in public expenditure and privatisation.

Supranational or market institutions replace democratic control as the beliefs in democracy erode. A fine study by Tom Crewe (LRB December 2016) called “The strange death of municipal England”, describes the hollowing out of the local state removing all areas local authorities fund or control through centralising to government, privatization or outsourcing. There is no longer any locally controlled services which can meet people’s desires and demands. With a social system in chronic disrepair, there is no alternative system, which could impose needed regulation. Instead, people are subject to policies of austerity and mounting want and inequality. Streek argues that for capitalism to develop gains for people always required constant battles with organised labour. With the demise of that opposition we are left with a fractured rampant capitalism that in his eyes would become its own worst enemy.

Polanyi, a key thinker for him, developed the concept of social limits to market expansion with the development of fictitious commodities: labour, land (nature) and money. “A fictitious commodity is defined as a resource to which the laws of supply and demand apply only partially and awkwardly, if at all. It can only be treated as a commodity in a carefully circumscribed regulated way since complete commodification will destroy it. Or make it unusable”. With the expansion of marketisation from the trading of material goods to all spheres of life, regardless of their suitability for commodification, the erosion of fictitious commodities are explored and of course we are aware of the impact of excessive commodification of money in the 2007/8 crash. Aware too of the increasing crisis of nature with capitalist infinite expansion and a finite supply of natural resources as well as the critical position reached in respect of labour.

An alternative analysis of the end, and one rooted in Marxist analysis, is David Harvey’s, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. In this Harvey analyses with great clarity the contradictions that underlie the crises, and for him there are three “Dangerous Contradictions “ which he considers will be factors that will drag capitalism down: endless compound growth, capital’s relations to Nature and the revolt of human nature/ universal alienation.

Streek has chapters on the crises of democratic capitalism, citizens as customers, the rise of the European consolidated state, why the Euro divides Europe, and the public mission of sociology, in which he argues that sociology has to reject the terms on which it has been working in the last forty years. Talcott Parsons had excluded all integration with political economy and consequently Streek believes that it has suffered by not tackling major economic phenomena. However for some sociologists this exclusion was refused many years ago.

Jane Shallice

 

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