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WOLFGANG STREECK (alongside Anwar Shaikh, Andrew Kliman, Nancy Holmstrom, Erik Olin Wright, Paul Mattick Jr., and others) should be on every good Marxists' radar. He's an economic sociologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies; here's an essay from this year in which he spits fire: https://wolfgangstreeck.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/streeck2017_whose-side-are-we-on.pdf.

 

The children of the old working class who have made it under post-industrial capitalism, at least so far – certified owners of expensive human capital, confident self-promoters and self-commodifiers, highly adept at marketing and networking, with a deeply engrained view of the world as a meritocratic tournament designed to detect and reward the best, according to inherited talent, acquired skills, and relentless effort. They are the born, or trained, individualists par excellence, and therefore liberals at heart and to the bone. Nothing is left in them of the collectivism of the industrial workers of yesteryear. Individualism reigns supreme, and politics is there to establish the freedom of the individual from the collectivity, whatever that collectivity may be. Democracy, then, is rights without duties, or more precisely: without authoritatively imposed and enforced duties. Rights come for free, from a right to have rights – and democratic progress consists in the removal of whatever obligations may in the past have been foisted on individuals as a condition of membership, detracting from the essential liberty of everyone to live the lives they deem best suited for their “self-realization”.
In the past socialists could rely on collective action for economic self-interest as a pre-school for socialist politics, although demanding “more” was as such never socialist, even if done collectively. Now we face a situation where an entire culture, that of “the West”, has been made to believe in an open-ended happiness scale, corresponding to an open-ended needs scale motivating and necessitating the open-ended work and consumption effort required for the unending accumulation of capital under conditions of material abundance – the capitalist rationalization and monetization of the last remaining non-commercialized social relations. What we are dealing with here is a cultural problem, not one of inefficient production, and only partly one of unequal distribution. Our most formidable task may well be to talk people out of the myth that they will be happier in proportion to how much more they consume, proportionate in turn to how much more “money they make” – a myth spread and pressed into people’s minds and souls every day, every hour by the most gigantic, most sophisticated, most expensive propaganda machinery mankind has ever seen.
Edited by Lazzarone
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This card is so deceptively underlined that I would reprimand any student who cut this. Martin Wolf's sentence: "Streeck also writes devastatingly and cogently on the euro as an assault on democratic politics" is rendered as "Streeck also writes devastatingly on democratic politics." That's obscene! A paragraph later, Wolf's concession that "Streeck’s views on the folly of the euro are convincing" is omitted too.

 

Some responsibility for distortion and hyperbole extends to the card's author as well, however. To say Europe is headed for a dark age sounds "ludicrous" only if one ludicrously assumes that Streeck is referring to the Middle Ages. The plague of Nazism in the 1930s was in its own way much darker than anything bubonic, and the electoral rise of right-wing authoritarian parties should put the fear in both liberals and socialists alike.

 

Streeck, as any Marxist, finds much to regret in the labor market as such, not just women's participation in it. The reduction of exploitation and toil is a key civilizational goal for us, instead of proliferating bullshit jobs and quoting GDP as the Great and Powerful Oz.

 

Moreover, unlike neo-Keynesians such as Wolf, good Marxists, like Marx himself(!), take debt seriously. Marx lamented that the only thing we own collectively is the national debt. One shouldn't have to pledge allegiance to the Austrian School to criticize heaping unbearable burdens on future generations; here's council communist Paul Mattick Jr.:

 

While national debts have existed since the 18th century, they took a great leap forward with the expansion of government activity during World War II, and have basically been growing ever since: The U.S. had a government debt of $16 billion in 1930; today it is nearly $19 trillion. In terms of percentage of GDP, the federal debt had already reached 37.9 percent by 1970; in 2004 it was 63.9 percent. And this is to leave local—city and state—debt uncounted. While an endpoint to the creation of debt so that governments can continue to function has not been reached, this resource is not unlimited. And everything suggests that the limits, though unknown, are sharply sensed even now by those for whom the making of money is the foundation of meaningful existence—and who have to pay the interest, in the form of taxes.

 

The reason for the continual expansion of government debt is the failure of the capitalist economy to produce the quantity of profit required to expand business investment on the scale required to employ the working population in numbers and at rates of pay that would ensure the kind of life to which it became accustomed after the last world war. But it is this same failure of the business economy to expand quickly enough that makes the repayment of the debt impossible. The only alternative would be, as urban-finance guru Richard Ravitch put it in Walsh’s article, “confiscatory levels of taxation.” But this, of course, would not solve the problem of insufficient profitability. It would, in fact, mean a step towards the further takeover of business activity by the state. And who, in a world where state and business are run by the same people, with the same practical interests, wants that?

 

Who wants that? Martin Wolf, apparently - which is why he lumps right-wing and left-wing populists together and relies on the can-do-ism of centrist elites. As for Venezuela, it's not an example of a Soviet planned economy, much less genuine socialism, but rather state market socialism. I mean, there's McDonald's in Caracas: QED. For Wolf to write "in today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy" is not only an example of what economist Andrew Kliman would call 'political determinism', but it's odd for a commentator who took the financial crisis of 2008 more gravely than many of his colleagues. At the time Wolf said we weren't sure whether we'd even have investment banks any longer. It's quite possible, without robust federal government intervention, we could've repeated the Great Depression and experienced empty ATMs, empty grocery store aisles, and rioting in the streets - not in a country with massive abject poverty and high illiteracy rates which anchored its entire economy on a single commodity (oil) only to watch its price plummet, but in the richest country in the history of the world. That Venezeula can't afford to write a trillion dollar check to itself says nothing essential about the prospects of revolutionary socialism.

 

Streeck's vision sounds defeatist only to those who naively believe that, with some tweaks, global capitalism can continue on as it has indefinitely. The original defenders of capitalism, on the contrary, from David Ricardo to Maynard Keynes, all assumed it would wind down someday. It was Marx who argued that it requires a push, and that calls for both realism and activism in equal parts. 'Heart on fire, mind on ice', to quote Lenin.

Edited by Lazzarone
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In my defense, the purpose of the card is not to defend the Euro. This card definitely agrees with Streeck on that point. He then disagrees with the consequences Streeck draws from that. However, I think calling this deceptive or obscene is both inaccurate and unhelpful, irrespective of the truth of the argument.

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'Streeck writes devastatingly on democracy' and 'Streeck writes devastatingly on AN ASSAULT on democracy' are opposites. That's like rendering 'Bob hates the attack on X' as 'Bob hates X'. That's not a subtle shift of emphasis, that's an 180-degree distortion. And if the card isn't about euros and you're omitting 'euro' from sentences to prove something else, then that's deceptive too. 


 


Sorry to be such a Grinch on Christmas but who in Whoville told you that's okay?


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The content of the card is about euros. The purpose of the card is to prove that Streeck is wrong about the imminent collapse of capitalism.

 

I agree that part about euros should be underlined, I don't think "to write devastatingly" about something is the same thing as "to criticize" something. I had taken devastatingly in the context of the word cogently. As in, he writes well or clearly about it. For example, I think Giroux writes devastatingly on democracy. This card for sure agrees that Streeck is right about the euro, but disagrees about capitalism more broadly ("Streeck’s views on the folly of the euro are convincing, but the forecast that today’s Europe will end up in something like the Dark Ages seems ludicrous.")

 

You're correct that this cut is low-quality, and you seem to understand economics and history more than well enough to out-argue me there. But I do think you're being unnecessarily condescending.

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Rumors of capitalism's demise have been greatly exaggerated by intellectual doomsayers for centuries. The Streeck evidence is preposterous, defeatist & wrong.

Wolf 11/2/2016 (Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator, "Martin Wolf: the case against the collapse of capitalism", Financial Times, 11-2-2016, https://www.ft.com/content/7496e08a-9f7a-11e6-891e-abe238dee8e2, DOA: 7-28-2017).

 
Cometh the hour, cometh the cliché. In the case of Wolfgang Streeck, an influential German sociologist who is emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, that cliché is “the end of capitalism”. Countless intellectuals, including Karl Marx, have forecast the imminent or at least inevitable end of capitalism. Capitalism has always survived. This time, argues Streeck, is different. Capitalism “will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way”.

How Will Capitalism End?, a collection of somewhat overlapping essays, envisages a “society devoid of reasonably coherent and minimally stable institutions capable of normalising the lives of members and protecting them from accidents and monstrosities of all sorts”. This will offer “rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords, while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age”.
 
Streeck is a mixture of the analyst, the moralist and the prophet. As an analyst, he challenges the stability of democratic capitalism. As a moralist, he dislikes a society founded on greed. As a prophet, he declares that the wages of this sin are death.
 
Streeck does not believe in the inevitable arrival of a socialist paradise. On the contrary, his is a dystopian vision in which capitalism perishes not with a bang, but a whimper. Since, he argues, capitalism can no longer turn private vice into public benefit, its “existence as a self-reproducing, sustainable, predictable and legitimate social order” has ended. Capitalism has become “more capitalist than is good for it”.
 
The postwar marriage between universal-suffrage democracy and capitalism is ending in divorce, argues Streeck. The path leading to this has gone via successive stages: the global inflation of the 1970s; the explosion of public debt of the 1980s; the rising private debt of the 1990s and early 2000s; and the subsequent financial crises whose legacy includes ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing, huge jumps in public indebtedness and disappointing growth. Accompanying capitalism on this path to ruin came “an evolving fiscal crisis of the democratic-capitalist state”. The earlier “tax state” became the “debt state” and now the “consolidation state” (or “austerity state”) dedicated to cutting deficits by slashing spending.
 
Three underlying trends have contributed: declining economic growth, growing inequality and soaring indebtedness. These, he argues, are mutually reinforcing: low growth engenders distributional struggles, the solution too often being excessive borrowing. His views on the absurdity of quantitative easing as a palliative mirror those of the Austrian economists he despises. This is not the only case in which Streeck echoes rightwing views: his discussion of increasing female participation in the labour market, for example, finds much to regret and nothing to celebrate in this trend.
 
In one of his few telling phrases, he describes the response of ordinary people to pressures on them as “coping, hoping, doping and shopping”. But, above all, Streeck stresses the dire consequences of an out-of-control financial system, a predatory tax-evading and tax-avoiding plutocracy, the transfer of substantial parts of the public realm into private hands and resulting corruption of political and economic domains.
 
Streeck also writes devastatingly and cogently on the euro as an assault on democratic politics. “Germany”, he argues, “on account of its regained economic power after 2008 and as the main beneficiary of the EMU [economic and monetary union] due to its export strength . . . de facto governs the EMU as a German economic empire.”
 
The eurozone, notes Streeck, seeks to bring together countries with irreconcilably different economic cultures. A democratically legitimate resolution of the resulting tensions is impossible. The euro will either fail or survive as an undemocratic structure subservient to the whims of the financial markets and managed by a technocratic central bank and a hegemonic Germany.
 
Streeck’s views on the folly of the euro are convincing, but the forecast that today’s Europe will end up in something like the Dark Ages seems ludicrous. Contemporary Europeans enjoy standards of living, life expectancies, personal freedoms and levels of security that people of the Dark Ages or indeed of the Roman empire could not even imagine.
 
Moreover, pace Streeck, today’s world does not consist only of failures. He notes, correctly, that the emergence of the globalised market economy has reduced the effectiveness of the mid-20th-century compromise between democracy and national capitalism. But his enthusiasm for deglobalising capitalism misses altogether the immense opportunities increased trade and foreign direct investment have brought, notably to China and India.
 
In addition, while the trends and stresses in the functioning of the contemporary market economy and its relationship with democratic politics are part of the story, they are not the whole of it. Streeck is right that no stable equilibrium exists in any society. Both the economy and the polity must adapt and change.
 
Yet the relationship between democracy and capitalism is not, as Streeck seems to believe, unnatural. On the contrary, both systems derive from a belief in the role of people as active citizens and economic agents. In the former role, they make decisions together; in the latter, they make decisions for themselves. The boundaries and modes of operation of both systems are open to constant renegotiation. But both are essential.
 
Moreover, democracy cannot function without a market economy. The alternative — a thoroughly politicised economy — cannot function properly: just look at today’s Venezuela. The market protects democracy from becoming overstretched, while democracy provides a legitimate framework for the market. Just as the market economy is the least bad way to generate prosperity, so is democracy the least bad way to manage social conflicts.
 
Furthermore, in today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat. Correspondingly, authoritarianism seems a far greater peril than the anarchy of a dark age.
 
The challenges we confront in bringing finance under control, rebalancing corporate governance, remedying inequality, sustaining demand and, above all, managing the tensions between the democratic nation state and the global market economy are genuine. The answers should include a modicum of deglobalisation, notably of finance, and greater co-operation among democratic governments, notably on taxation and the provision of global public goods. Will this be difficult? Yes. Will the answers work forever? No.
 
Is the task possible? Absolutely, yes. Streeck condemns this “technocratic-voluntaristic doability worldview” as hopelessly naive. Such defeatism before supposedly unmanageable social forces is characteristic of a certain sort of intellectual. But the “doability worldview” saved civilisation in the middle of the 20th century. It can (and must) do so again, even if its old institutional bases, particularly trade unions and political parties, have weakened.
 

How Will Capitalism End? provides not so much a convincing forecast as a warning. Its analysis is exaggerated and simplistic. Streeck correctly identifies some disturbing trends. Nevertheless, the history of the 20th century shows we do not have to be victims of forces beyond our control. We can choose the worse, or the better. We should choose the better.

Edited by Lazzarone
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Sorry for the condescension: I'm mostly peeved at Wolf, who is a journalist I typically have a lot of respect for. Streeck is not suggesting that standards of living will drop to 12th century levels and it's way off-base for Wolf to attribute that to Streeck in print. The very existence of so much expensive trash to rummage through and technologies we can't put back in the genie bottle precludes that (not even Rey's planet of Jakku is comparable to the Middle Ages). Rather Streeck is saying that after the lengthy fall of the Roman Empire, arbitrary powers ruled: you weren't sure who to appeal to when you got wronged, life was horrifically precarious, and even much of the developed world may regress to that kind of uneven neo-feudalism if democratic capitalism wanes. Think 'Children Of Men' or 'Blade Runner 2049'. Anarchy and authoritarianism are not at all mutually exclusive; it's the first that results in the latter as societal disequilibrium produces regional tyranny. Wolf concedes this is as a possibility, and worries about post-democratic capitalism without considering that this may be the only way to make capitalism work today (e.g., China, Singapore). Although Wolf says what we should do, he refuses to forecast that we actually will. Because it's not like Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo were assured defeat, had they gotten on the same page. Stalingrad, Dunkirk and Normandy go the other way and we could well be living in a very different world. That's not defeatist, that's honest. And I also find Streeck much more convincing on the subject of debt; we might simply not be able to afford the neo-Keynesian reforms Wolf says are essential. Even the wealthiest country on Earth might not be able to pay for Sanders' platform and I rallied for the man! If someone who doesn't tweet his foot in his mouth every morning appealed to Trump's base, and that base grew to 1930s proportions... well, such a prospect is not remotely "ludicrous". That's how far we've fallen, and what's certain is nobody knows how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Edited by Lazzarone

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So Streeck is arguing for revolutionary democratic socialism because democratic capitalism will produce populist tyranny? And Wolf is saying that democratic capitalism is viable?

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This is where Streeck's Marxism abruptly ends, since we're generally pretty optimistic about the future - at least in the long run. Streeck is painting a bleak picture. He'd agree that liberals and leftists alike should still organize to try and make sure austerity measures aren't taken out of the hide of the poor and the working class. But he's not going to give us some comforting pep-talk like Martin Wolf is content to do.

 

A left agenda worth its name must be a socialist agenda, conceived to heal society from the disease of plus-making: more money, more work for money, more consumption with money, more transformation of nature into garbage. But while there can be no new socialist Left without a politicized culture of de-commodification, no such culture is anywhere in sight. Perhaps the historical moment for it has passed, at the latest when Socialist Man was allowed, or had to be allowed, or allowed himself, to be as greedy as Capitalist Man? How will another attempt at socialism assemble a constituency willing and able to fight for it? Others writing [today] seem to be more confident than I am that such a constituency, one for a Left that is more than just liberal while also in important respects less, will somehow be cobbled together as the need for it becomes even more obvious than it is already now. I am not so sure that the human species will in the near future rediscover society and in the process rid itself of its late-capitalist addiction to privatized, competitive, socially and physically destructive consumerism.

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