Politics in the interregnum: a Q&A with Wolfgang Streeck

  • December 23, 2015

Capitalism & Crisis

“As social scientists, our most important task is to speak the truth. Unfortunately this will overwhelmingly be bad news. But this is not our fault.”

Wolfgang Streeck is one of Europe’s foremost economic sociologists. His recent work on the intensifying tensions between capitalism and democracy has made a lasting impact on the public debate in Germany and beyond. His latest book, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, was published by Verso in 2014. His next book, How Will Capitalism End?, is scheduled to come out in March 2016.

Earlier this year, Professor Streeck went into conversation with the British political scientist Colin Crouch at a seminar organized by the Marxism(s) in Social Movements working group at the European University Institute. This interview was taken by email following that conversation. The accompanying Q&A with Professor Crouch can be found here.

Thanks to Eliska Drapalova and Lorenzo Cini for organizing the interview.

Professor Streeck, to begin with, could you briefly explain why you believe that capitalism and democracy are in conflict with one another? Is this tension an inherent one, or do you consider it to be a more recent phenomenon?

Democracy: one person, one vote; capitalism: one dollar, one vote. The order of equality vs. the order of egoism (John Dunn). Capitalists as a permanent minority in a majoritarian democratic polity — and democracy ending “at the factory gates”. Social justice vs. the justice of markets. It’s an old story with unending permutations, discussed again and again since the nineteenth century, by legions of scholars and political leaders.

How has the response to the global financial crisis, and to the Eurozone debt crisis in particular, affected the relation between capitalism and democracy? In what state is European democracy today?

The core of the matter is that democracy in Europe has lost (has been deprived of) its capacity to correct the outcome of markets. “Market-conforming democracy” is a contradiction in terms, as democracy must be able to correct markets if it is to be democratic. More on this in my book, Buying Time.

Germany and its allies have played a particularly central role in establishing Europe’s present policy regime. How would you assess Germany’s approach to the crisis, and to the ongoing Greek debt negotiations in particular?

The Euro was a French invention, not a German one. The Maastricht Treaty was passed against opposition in Germany, especially on the part of the Bundesbank. It was a big mistake as it squeezes very different political economies into a common monetary regime. Right now Germany is trying to force the Mediterranean countries to adapt to a hard currency whereas the Mediterranean countries, in particular Greece and Italy, but also France, are trying to force Germany to change to a soft currency regime. None of this will work.

As to debt, Greece and other countries used EMU to replace the tax revenue they couldn’t or wouldn’t collect from their citizens with cheap credit, which they can repay only with even more cheap credit. This, however, is no longer available. The conflict is about who will do the repaying on their behalf. Northern European governments know that they cannot convince their taxpayers that they should be the ones who pay the bill. Absent a miracle (high economic growth in Europe, high economic altruism in Northern Europe), this must eventually result in insolvency on the part of countries like Greece. If this was to bring about the end of EMU, it would be a good thing.

Do you see any role for social movements in resisting the present state of affairs, possibly even paving the way for a different kind of society? What can we do, if anything, to combat capital’s frontal assault on our future?

Politically we are in an interregnum. This means that many different things can and must be tried. We may be back at an early state of political democracy where people must experiment with different kinds of resistance, to cause frictions wherever they can. Those who benefit from the current condition of the world are not impressed when we offer them sophisticated plans as to how they could solve our problems, because our problems are their solutions. Also, they know much more than we do, their deepest insight being that things are out of control. Their high art is to pretend that they know how to hold things together — while they work frantically to feather their nests for the moment when the system on which the rest of us depend will finally cease to function. In other words, they are playing an endgame anyway.

Rather than devising “constructive solutions” and acting as capital’s loyal opposition where there is no loyal government, we should support trade unions, even if they are often not very farsighted; no longer vote for the public relations specialists that are now impersonating political leaders; refuse to believe their professionally crafted excuses and There Is No Alternative rhetoric. Express your disgust, and don’t be afraid of appearing emotional, since emotional protest is what technocrats are most afraid of. Contemporary policymakers worry about capital “losing confidence” in them; make them worry also about the confidence of their citizens.

The emergence of Syriza and Podemos has given some on the left hope that electoral alternatives to the uncontested reign of neoliberalism are still possible. Do you share this optimism? Can the left still wield state power effectively to combat the anti-democratic dynamics you describe above?

I reserve judgment. We’ll see. They should and they will try — and finance will strike back. There are things that I don’t quite understand — for example, why Syriza’s majority wing believes that they can have socialism under the euro, funded by Germany through “growth programs”, reparations, debt relief, etc. Germany introduced Hartz IV for its citizens — how can the Greeks expect anything better? The euro is a neoliberal straightjacket; while it is certainly difficult to get out of it, this does not mean that everyone can have a good life inside it.

Moreover, the real work will have to be done inside Greece itself: bring back the capital that has migrated to London and New York and Berlin; impose capital controls and start taxing the rich; weed out clientelism and corruption; end the feudal privileges of the orthodox church; cut down on military spending (which is simply a payoff for the army to support “democracy”). Similar things apply in Spain and Portugal. Socialist reforms, as distinguished from neoliberal ones, must not be confused with asking capitalist countries for debt relief.

You have been very critical of the euro and have forcefully argued that “the monster of monetary union must be unraveled.” What role does the euro play in consolidating capitalist power? What would Europe look like after the euro?

The euro is an attempt to return, inside Europe, to a gold standard currency regime. One need not know much about the subject to see that “you cannot run a gold standard in a democracy”. The euro is to force countries to deconstruct their capacities for market correction – this is what is called “reform”. It is a capitalist-neoliberal rationalization program, a supranational re-education effort especially for Mediterranean countries, to make traditional ideas of a good life, where they still exist, appear inefficient and outmoded and discredited, together with notions of social solidarity as embodied in trade unions and the welfare state. As Monti said: I want Italians to become like Germans — meaning like what he thinks Germans are: perfect replicas of the homo oeconomicus.

A final, provocative question, in light of your forthcoming book: Is the end of capitalism nigh? If so, what will bring it about, and what can we expect to arise from its ashes?

I am not a prophet. I believe as social scientists we have enough evidence to say that financialized capitalism as it exists today is no longer sustainable: that it cannot reproduce itself as the core of a stable social order — that it has become ungovernable, as a result of which the capitalist trick to turn private vices into public benefits no longer works. As it cannot constitute a predictable order any more around which people could build stable identities and secure lives, it must increasingly rely on individual improvisation, on “resilience” at the micro-level, as well as on illusions, imaginaries and the like.

In an interregnum you cannot make predictions, and there is no guarantee that we won’t have to spend our lives in a condition of gradual decay and under a permanent threat of a catastrophic breakdown. As social scientists it is not our job to make people feel good; there are enough others who specialize in this, and make a lot of money of it. We are not part of the entertainment industry, or should at least try our level best not to become one. In my view, in the present interregnum our most important task is to speak the truth. Unfortunately this will overwhelmingly be bad news. But this is not our fault.

Read the accompanying interview with Colin Crouch here.

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Wolfgang Streeck

Wolfgang Streeck is a German economic sociologist and Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is a postdoctoral researcher in political economy at the University of Cambridge, and the founding editor of ROAR Magazine. For more on his research and writings, visit jeromeroos.com.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/wolfgang-streeck-capitalism-democracy-interview/

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