Thursday February 09, 2017
Surviving Post-Capitalism: Coping, hoping, doping & shopping
The signs are troubling: the ever-widening chasm between the ultra-rich and everyone else. Mass protests. Political upheaval and social division. It looks as though the rocky marriage between capitalism and democracy is doomed, at least according to Wolfgang Streeck, who directs the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany, where he is also a professor of sociology. In conversation with Paul Kennedy about his book How Will Capitalism End?, he makes the unnerving case that capitalism is now at a point where it cannot survive itself.
According to Streeck, capitalist societies are entering an interregnum -- a pause or suspension of normal governance -- as the system of capitalism collapses in on itself. In the absence of countervailing forces to keep it afloat, capitalism has essentially devoured itself. One consequence is a loss of state solidarity citizens in western countries have become used to. Streeck points to Italy, Greece and Spain, countries where young people can't get find jobs; where fewer people can live on their own; and where marriage and birth rates are declining. People everywhere are now trying to protect what little they have left.
Wolfgang Streeck sees day-to-day life in the interregnum in stark terms: coping, hoping, doping, and shopping. He says that when it comes to the harsh realities of the interregnum, those who cope well will wear their stress as a kind of badge of honour. Those who cope poorly will mask their inability with drugs and mindless consumerism.
Democracy vs. Capitalism
"Democracy was always a problem in a capitalist society. There's an enormous inherent tension between the two. Democracy is inherently egalitarian because every citizen has one vote. And the rich also have one vote but the rich are only five percent. Whereas in the market, every dollar has a vote. And the capitalist economy in particular functions according to -- I think it's [the Gospel of] Matthew -- where it says he who has will be given [more]. And he who has [little] will have even what he has taken away...
And where you have capitalism and democracy at the same time, you have a contest between these two principles of distribution: egalitarian versus inegalitarian. This is why democratic politics have always tried to intervene in the markets and tried to contain the "Matthew effect". You can also call it cumulative advantage if you want a more elevated term. So, where you have democracy in the form of trade unions, centre left political parties, sometimes centre right political parties, Catholic parties, and so on -- they look at the market and what comes out of the market and then they become concerned both about their capacity to get re-elected and about principles of justice which, in a democracy, are principles of social justice, not market justice."
Coping to Death
"Coping is an attitude or an activity whereby people who lack traditional support -- either from families or from social services -- work very hard to cope with increasing pressures on their everyday life.
And you can observe this in lots of studies on family life in the United States and Europe, where two people work full-time, they try to raise two children, they live a very sort of regulated, exhausting life in order to meet all the contingencies that hang together with competing in the labour market -- caring for others, caring maybe also for their parents, in a world in which external help is increasingly less available.
Now what I observe in ethnographic studies is that people actually can become proud of their ability to exhaust themselves in this struggle. So that they say we are coping, we're good, and others are less good or bad at coping. So it becomes a matter of pride to subject yourself to this rigid discipline imposed on you by the market."
"[In] The New Yorker, there was an article on survivalism among the American very, very rich. In my book, I envisage a situation in which inequality becomes so big that something happens that has never happened in society before in the history of human societies. That is, that the elites of society lose interest in the society as a whole because they can survive on their own.
Someone, for example, buys the silo of an intercontinental missile which is hardened against nuclear attack, and deep in the ground builds apartments that he sells within a matter of a few weeks to New York financial billionaires, tech billionaires from California, who all buy one of these apartments because they are afraid of the breakdown of social order, and of people taking guns and trying to go after them.
I think these people are not so unrealistic. I don't think they are obsessed. They see better than most others the decaying body of a system that can no longer keep itself together. I take this as a very interesting example of what I thought when I looked at the increase in inequality in our societies that we could be facing the moment when those who absorb and extract all the resources from these societies begin to think that they can dissociate themselves from it and live their own lives."
**The New Yorker article: "Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich"
The Coming Age of Uncertainty
"As a sociologist, I think we have to think very seriously about transitions in the structure of our societies. I happen to have come to the conclusion that we are facing a fundamental transition in modern societies, modern capitalist societies. And I feel that these societies have exhausted the capacity to build a framework, a social framework, around the hot core of capitalist profit-making -- so that we will see signs of social disintegration all over the place in unexpected, surprising ways, in a period in which we lose control and governance and orientation, and we'll live in an era of great uncertainty."
- How Will Capitalism End? by Wolfgang Streeck, published by Verso Books, 2016.
- PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future by Paul Mason, published by Allen Lane, 2015.
- The End of Alchemy: Banking, the Global Economy and the Future of Money by Mervyn King, published by W.W. Norton, 2016.
**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.