Edward Carter: “How Will Capitalism End?” by Wolfgang Streeck

 

This book is a collection of previously published articles and one unpublished conference paper, with a new 46 page long introduction. It is therefore not a book that develops an argument skillfully and steadily, rather it hammers away at certain themes, sometimes repetitively. Streeck acknowledges this in his Note on the Text, where he admits to an ‘occasional overlap between chapters’ (p. ix). Having read through them all I did feel that at times this repetitiveness was unfortunate, although there is undoubted value in having the various articles gathered in one place.

The organizing theme taken by Streeck is that capitalism is collapsing because of certain internal contradictions. What is more, the author believes that we are living in a period of ‘deep indeterminacy’ (p. 12) in which it is difficult to predict what will happen, and that there is nothing obvious to replace our contemporary capitalist system. Other than at two brief moments, the prophetic message given is one of doom and gloom throughout the entire book, with no real sense of hopeful possibilities. In an emotional sense, and perhaps also because of its repetitive nature, I therefore found that reading this book left me dispirited, but also with a sense that the analysis might be incomplete or flawed.

One of the recurring strands running through the book is that of the relationship between economics and sociology. This is addressed through the lenses of economic history, the nature of money and debt, the difficult relationship between capitalism and democracy, commodification and inequality, and a consideration of the class structures within society (Marx certainly gets several mentions). This is summarized admirably concisely and clearly in the final paragraph of Chapter One, which bears the same title as the book itself, and which started life as a lecture given at the British Academy on 23rd January 2014.

At heart, although he never exactly states it in this way, Streeck presents a vision of capitalism as an epoch within history, whose time was always going to be limited, rather than accepting a view of history that must fit within a capitalistic meta-narrative. In order to sustain this argument, the author needs to describe capitalism in a certain, rather dysfunctional, way. So for example, Streeck sees innovation as something that ‘attacks and destroys in particular firms and markets that operate to everybody’s satisfaction.’ (p. 39) I was not convinced by this. It seemed to me that the author’s structuralist view of society had left little space for human creativity, and left him unable to see individuality as anything except a problem. However, prompted by Streeck’s analysis I did find myself asking about the nature of a wholesome vision of collective life within which individuals can flourish, and what kind of ‘progress’ this would mean.

The two moments, hinted at above, when Streeck himself ventures into the territory of suggestions or answers to these questions come at the end of Chapters Eight and Nine. Chapter Eight considers the troubled relationship between democracy and capitalism, taking the work of Wolfgang Merkel as a foil, but I was heartened to discover the suggestion of ‘de-globalizing capitalism’ (p. 198) and the idea that ‘restoring embedded democracy means re-embedding capitalism’ (p. 199) (italics in the original). For me, this idea offers the genesis of a new piece of work, different in tone to the current collection, and I would encourage Streeck to reflect on how this could be developed. Rather different, but equally important, is the moment at the end of Chapter Nine when Streeck feels for ‘…a non-capitalist politics capable of defining and enforcing general interests in the sustainability of human society’ (p. 225). I took this to be a call for the complex relationship between politics and economics to be re-imagined.

This brings me to another problem that I had with this book; it has in a sense been overtaken by the events of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. The relationship between politics and economics is being re-drawn before our eyes, the old assumptions are unraveling, and faltering attempts at what could be called a ‘non-capitalist politics’ are emerging. I feel sure Streeck must now be writing something new, and I would encourage him to do so. From a Christian perspective, deep questions of identity connected to the individual and to society are very resonant with theological reflections on the nature of life itself, and the way in which societies and economies are arranged. I was therefore pleased to have been stimulated in my own thinking as I read this book. I look forward to a more cohesive, less repetitive, and post-Brexit sequel.

The book is nicely presented with a good index. The author is the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Cologne and Professor of Sociology at the University of Cologne.

 

How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System – by Wolfgang Streeck, 2016, ISBN 13: 978-1-78478-401-0


Edward Carter has been a Canon Theolgian at Chelmsford Cathedral since 2012, having previously been a parish priest in Oxfordshire, a Minor Canon at St George’s Windsor and a curate in Norwich. Prior to ordination he worked for small companies and ran his own business.

Since 2010 he has been a Trustee of the Church of England’s CBF Funds, which has around £2bn of church money under investment. He also serves on the Ethical Investment Advisory Group of the Church of England. His research interests include a theology of enterprise, and his hobbies include board-games, volleyball and film-making. He is married to Sarah and they have two adult sons.