Thursday, December 22, 2016

Capitalism's Obituary

In The Tyee, Crawford Killian reviews the writings of Wolfgang Streek, director emeritus of the Max Plank Institute, who sees a decidedly dystopian future in the wake of an impending collapse of capitalism.

“The end of capitalism,” he writes in the introduction, “can then be imagined as a death from a thousand cuts... No effective opposition being left, and no practicable successor model waiting in the wings of history, capitalism’s accumulation of defects, alongside its accumulation of capital, may be seen... as an entirely endogenous dynamic of self-destruction.”

According to Streeck, salvation doesn’t lie in going back to Marx, or social democracy, or any other system, because there is no salvation at all. “What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum — no new world system equilibrium... but a prolonged period of social entropy or disorder.”

If we need a historical parallel, the interregnum between the fall of Rome and the rise of feudalism might serve. The slave economy of Rome ended in a chaos of warlords, walled towns and fortress-estates, and enclaves ruled by migrant barbarians. That went on for centuries, with warlords calling themselves “Caesar” and pretending the Empire hadn’t fallen.

Streeck sees the interregnum emerging from five developments, each aggravating the others: “stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption, and global anarchy.”


In one essay, Streeck shows how the economic crisis of the 1970s led to the political crisis of today. Postwar Europe and America rebuilt the world by “Fordism” — mass production of durable goods at an affordable price, with few or no options. But Fordism eventually glutted the market with all-too-durable goods. In the 1960s, I wore the hand-me-down nylon socks my father had bought in the 1940s. In 1972 my wife and I bought a washer and dryer that still run reliably in 2016, without repairs.

That couldn’t last, especially as the baby boom tapered off. Capitalism’s solution was to offer customized, short-lived products that didn’t just meet your needs, but met your wants as well. That meant avocado-coloured refrigerators in the 1970s and granite kitchen countertops today, but nothing that really made life easier. It just let consumers express their changing personal tastes and status.


Marx thought communism would see the withering-away of the state. Instead, capitalism has reduced the state until its chief functions are protecting the rich and policing the poor. But in the process, capitalism has killed off its rescuers. Who’s going to save the banks in the next collapse? Who’s going to bail out the masters of the financial universe when artificial intelligence takes their jobs? And who’s going to police the poor when taxpayers can’t pay for the cops and the rich are hiring cops for their own gated communities?

Wolfgang Streeck sees neither a single cause of capitalism’s collapse nor any obvious successor regime. The European Union may break up. Climate change may drown south Florida, including Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. Refugees will keep coming north; they will eventually overwhelm the fences and guards and create new enclaves in Europe and the U.S.A. and Canada. New pandemics will sweep unchallenged around the world.

No coherent political communities will be there to respond to such disasters. Such communities may arise centuries from now, but if Streeck is right, capitalism has ensured that we and our children will never live in them.

My take? I don't think capitalism is as one-dimensional as Streeck suggests. A recent article by Sandra Waddock that I posted as "A Primer for a Prime Minister" discusses not the destruction of capitalism but the abandonment of the sort of capitalism we have endured under neoliberalism.

Waddock argues for a change in economic regimes, a "system change." She and her colleagues envision capitalism not dominating democracy but harnessed in service to democracy and the public interest. I'm convinced her proposal to rehabilitate the democratic narrative, subordinating capitalism's worst excesses, is as possible as Streeck's dismal outlook.

There are other people of other visions, such as professor Richard Wolff, who also imagine a post-neoliberal society.

And, so, there you have it. Merry Christmas.


Kirbycairo said...

Ho ho ho. . .

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, indeed, Kirby and a Merry Merry to you and yours. It's people who engage with these issues as you do who will eventually coalesce into the movement we await.

Anonymous said...

We could be entering a new era??


Kirbycairo said...

Merry Christmas to you too Mound. I'm sure we all need a break from the madness that this year has been.

I was thinking about this post I was wondering about this issue - it seems that historical processes speed up as time goes by. Where once empires lasted hundreds of years, modern empires seem to have an increasingly short life-span. It seems that major social (normative) changes once took generations, some of them seem to come upon us very quickly, etc. I have a vague memory of someone having made this case as a theory of history in my more academic days but I can't recall who it was. Anyway, I'm sure you get the idea without a long explanation. If the idea is solid, it makes me wonder if crises would also speed up. So where the so-called dark-age between the fall of Rome and the beginning of more organized feudalism took hundreds of years, would another "dark-age" take place in a sort of modern "sped-up" timeframe, or would the break down of capitalism itself nullify this effect of speed? It's just a thought experiment that I find compelling.

The Mound of Sound said...

I think an anthropologist would that history, from the Industrial Revolution and, especially, the dawn of the 20th century, has accelerated in many ways as never before experienced in the 11-12,000 year history of civilization.

It wasn't until the early 19th century that our numbers first reached a billion. A century more to double that. In my lifetime we've tripled that again.

We've entered the first geological epoch essentially steered by a species, our own, something we achieved in just two centuries - a flash in the 5 billion year timeline of our planet. We have reached staggering levels of resource consumption, in the process sowing the seeds of our own inevitable collapse and triggering anthropogenic climate change.

So, yes, I think that the conditions, restraints, that once saw empires lasting centuries have been swept aside. We applied far too much of our ingenuity, effort and capital to overcoming the restrictions that once held us in check especially in the ultimate consumer society.

It's increasingly clear that we've outstayed our welcome in this postwar paradigm, that brief interval in which we've trebled our population even while greatly expanding our per capita consumption and waste. In the process we have created the first deeply integrated global civilization. Trudeau openly proclaims this deep integration a good thing, oblivious to its pitfalls and repercussions.

Jared Diamond, in his book "Collapse," observes that civilizations collapse quite abruptly and always at their zenith. In the past, however, civilizations were national, regional at most, and when one collapsed the next in line rose to claim the mantle. The Brits were the exception but they wee wise enough to bow out gracefully (sort of).

Are we headed for another Dark Age? Judging by the indifference our governments are showing to the existential challenges facing us today (which I've organized in three categories - overpopulation, overconsumption and climate change) a dystopian future could indeed await our children and grandchildren. Some science types have come to believe we have triggered a 6th mass extinction event. These are possibilities best not to dwell on.

Donald Trump may well be the straw on the camel's back, the catalyst of an abrupt American decline perhaps bordering on collapse. It's almost painful to watch.

Anonymous said...

7:26....How does Putin fit?

Anonymous said...


Within this article there is reference to the one party state of China.
Is it so different in the West?
I think we are kidding ourselves when talking about Democracy and choice.


The Mound of Sound said...

Excellent point, TrailBlazer. This has never dawned on me yet it is brutally obvious.

Neoliberalism, as embraced across our political spectrum, creates parties that are distinguishable, in relative terms, by minutiae.

The New Dems abandoned the Left to become centrist. The Libs moved even further centre-right and the PCs went, as far as they could, full bore Republican.

In this and other ways we seem to be degrading into something increasingly akin to a one party state in which distinctions, for practical purposes, become narrower and narrower.