Desperation Time

Where Peter Frase leaves his political subject conveniently undefined, Wolfgang Streeck offers one that is both impossible on his own terms and misguided, casting as distractions or dangers precisely those parts of the left-wing coalition that are becoming most essential to its fight.

Visions of the future from the left

Wolfgang Streeck
  • Peter Frase. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Verso, 2016.
    Wolfgang Streeck. How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System. Verso, 2016.

Our great cities are characterized by “horrifying inequality.” Ordinary people are “constantly at risk of being wiped out by [an] innumerable profusion of cars, which carry in total comfort men worth infinitely less than those they splash and threaten to destroy.” Thousands are “forced to breathe the poisoned air” of our neighborhoods. We avoid speaking of the “horrible disproportion of fortunes” and especially of “the secret causes that produce it.” Our morals are “harsh and arrogant behind our polite and carefree façades”: financiers, of course, are “harsh and crude at the same time,” but the other rich people who run the country “only possess one of these faults: either they’ll politely let you die of hunger, or they’ll rudely render you some aid.” Meanwhile, the “indigence of the poor” is such that it is impossible “to leave it behind while preserving your integrity.”

Such was Paris as Louis-Sébastien Mercier saw it in 1770, a place whose miseries led him to dream, for the first time in European literary history, of a utopian commonwealth set in a concrete future time: L’An 2440. His recipes for the future are in some ways dismayingly conservative: even as he imagines the demise of established Catholicism, the feats his future society cherishes above all are “giving birth to a child, sowing a field, and building a house.”  But nearly halfway between Mercier and the year of his utopia, we face many problems that are not so different from his—save that, unlike us, Mercier had every reason to be confident that the human race would make it to 2440. For us to do so, we have to confront the future of capitalism, as he did not. But just as Mercier’s moralizing analysis is hopelessly inadequate to deal with the capitalism of our day, two recent books show that our own accepted wisdom on the subject might not go as far as we think.

The competition between alternatives in which misery is ended forever, made bearable, or overwhelms us completely is the impetus behind Peter Frase’s Four Futures, an expansion of his 2011 essay in Jacobin. In this short book, Frase forgoes the ponderousness of much radical thinking about futurity in order to reclaim both utopian and dystopian thinking for useful political ends. His strategy is to take two important, widely-analyzed trends—job-destroying automation of labor and global climate change—and project them into the coming decades, distilling from them the ideal-typical societies that might result. But rather than two alternatives, Frase offers four. As he sees it, we as political subjects, proletarians or 99 percenters, make our own history, even if it’s not under conditions of our own choosing. “The question,” as he puts it, “is who wins and who loses, and not . . . who has the ‘correct’ view of the objective nature of the world.”

To frame his four destinations, Frase turns to Mercier’s distant progeny—the worlds conjured up by futuristic speculative fiction. Communism, at the intersection of full automation and successful class struggle, is seen through the work of Cory Doctorow and other writers who have written about what happens to social relations when scarcity disappears (they become governed by reputation, which is not always ideal but better than actually-existing misery). Rentism, where full automation harmonizes with unabated plutocracy, is an “anti-Star Trek,” in which our access to replicated goods is governed by participation in an increasingly meaningless make-work economy. In both cases, automation succeeds in abolishing scarcity; what differs is who benefits from the resulting gains.

The future shaped by global climate change is more sobering. Its egalitarian variant, socialism, is a communism with lower ambitions: survival, not utopia. Frase imagines Ubers and geoengineering projects of the left, enrolling technology in a project of hardscrabble solidarity. Exterminism, the darkest of the dystopias, draws on the film Elysium to conjure a future in which plutocrats use their resources to segregate themselves physically and socially from the oppressed, kept in line via climate change-induced devastation and militarized policing. (To be sure, most people are not in fact being exterminated; Frase is careful to leave each future a window to become some other.) Here, inadequately perhaps, climate change is seen chiefly as a matter of scarcity rather than apocalyptic threat. Like many of his SF inspirations, Frase thinks climate change is fundamentally manageable given sufficient investment in STEM: “The real question is not whether human civilization can survive ecological crises, but whether all of us can survive it together, in some reasonably egalitarian way.”

There is an obvious asymmetry between rentism and exterminism on the one hand and socialism and communism on the other: the former are already upon us, whereas the latter exist as a soup of unrealized fantasies, questionably viable embryonic revolutions, and historical dead ends. Frase reckons fully with the ways in which groups like the Palestinians are already marked as surplus for exterminist population management and the schemes by which electronic commons are enclosed by predatory patent monopolists. But the positive side of the equation is described in an oddly passive way: “The transition to a world of equality and abundance, then, is likely to be a tumultuous and conflict-ridden one. If the rich won’t relinquish their privileges voluntarily, they would have to be expropriated by force.” Who is doing the expropriating? Presumably it’s “us,” a first-person plural that pervades Four Futures but is never explained or defined.

The question of who, exactly, the concrete subject of 21st-century class struggle might be is an embarrassing one, and it’s not surprising that Frase chooses to let his readers fill in the blanks with whatever aspirational political form suits their fancy. This, however, means leaving essential questions unasked. Both actually existing rentism and exterminism, after all, are fundamentally about agency, just like socialism and communism. Capitalists can dominate the atomized consumer market of rentism because only they can effectively organize to wield social power (for instance, by ensuring a favorable legal regime for intellectual property) and keep others from doing so. Under exterminism, elites—whites in the United States or countries in the Global North—wall themselves off because they imagine themselves to be an endangered community, like protagonists in a zombie movie.

Why is it that the rich have organized and everyone else seems incapable of it? In much left-wing discussion this is treated as a narrow question of tactics, the eventual emergence of an anti-capitalist multitude being mostly taken for granted. But it is worth taking seriously the possibility that this will not happen at all. The willingness to accept this and trace the consequences is one of the surprising virtues of Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? Not one to embrace the “voluntaristic illusions” of “‘we the people,’” Streeck sees such fantasies as part of a deeper structural crisis.

It turns out that the book’s titular query and the Godot-like absence of the revolutionary subject are perfectly compatible. Neoliberalism, in fragmenting workers and consumers into desperately precarious personal brands, has made mass organization effectively impossible, while traditional political channels have been systematically choked off. Capitalism, therefore, won’t be overthrown. It will kill itself through its own power to overcome the restraints that bind it. Instead of being superseded by a more just and equal society, it will be replaced by a patchwork of large or small communities held together by the need to survive the interregnum. Undermined by the inability to “create a new order . . . disorganized capitalism is disorganizing not just itself but its opposition as well, depriving it of the capacity either to defeat capitalism or to rescue it.”

Streeck is not the accelerationist provocateur this bleak picture might suggest. He derives his analysis from five concrete trends: stagnating economic growth throughout the Western world; inexorably rising inequality; the looting and constriction of the public sector through privatization and austerity; increasingly pervasive corruption and moral disenchantment; and finally the decline of the United States as the guarantor and pivot of the postwar world. We might quibble with his assessments: perhaps corruption has just taken a different form, maybe China will slide smoothly in to replace the United States. But no one can really deny that they’re happening. (All five seem to have coalesced like a mirror-universe Captain Planet into the figure of President Donald J. Trump.)

Sure, the skeptic might object, things are bad—but can these trends really constitute the end of capitalism? This objection relies on the vagueness of capitalism as a concept as we often employ it in conversation. For most people, capitalism isn’t a specific economic system that emerged out of the collapse of feudalism, predicated on wage labor and the reinvestment of profits to generate further profits; it’s a way of referring to business, or finance, or the act of making money at someone’s expense. At the limit, it refers to everything that makes daily life deadly, painful, and frustrating today. None of this will go away as capitalism dies—if anything, it will become even worse.

For Streeck, however, capitalism is a very concrete economic system indeed, and one that for the last century or so has depended intimately on the state and the political process. Marxists are often mocked for saying that capitalism will be overcome by its own contradictions, then coming up with new adaptations that explain its survival after every crisis. Streeck is more of a Polanyian than a Marxist, in that he sees these adaptations as being a fundamental part of the history of capitalism. But if he is a Polanyian, he is a pessimistic one. Until now, liberal democracy has provided release valves for capitalist excess, stepping in like a codependent spouse every time capitalism overcame another set of restraints. But in the moment we have now reached this is no longer possible, because the political mechanism that once aligned the interests of the two systems has shattered.

To understand why that might be the case, we need to see what distinguishes capitalism in its current form from its antecedents. As it emerged from the crisis of the 1930s, capitalism was defended everywhere by welfare states. Economic planning incorporated labor unions and industrialists into state-managed apparatuses, while massive engines of social redistribution helped to counterbalance the unemployment and general suffering that capitalism generated. In Europe as well as the United States, pressure by unions continually raised expectations for how widely the social wealth would be shared, and continuous growth made it possible to meet those demands at least partway. 

In the 1970s, the onset of stagnation and the defeat of organized labor made possible a shift to a different strategy. With taxation permanently reduced, the state no longer had the resources to fund a continual expansion of social programs, and there was no one to pressure capitalists into sharing out the benefits of rising productivity through wages. So instead (and this is Streeck’s special emphasis) governments turned to debt, both household—which became both easier to acquire and more indispensable—and public. The vast flows of credit coursing through the economy made the economy more dependent on the financial industry than ever before, while globalization proportionately reduced the domestic power of other industries and the workers within them. (In a previous book, Streeck called this tactic “buying time.”)

But the debt state contained contradictions of its own. As the financial industry grew in power, its influence over governments mounted proportionally, both structurally and through the wealthy individuals who were the ultimate beneficiaries of financialization. It became clear to every European government, usually after a fiscal crisis, that the global financial industry had far more ability to shape its economic destiny than its own electorate. A reduction in credit rating or a sudden sell-off of bonds could take down any government, cripple any economic agenda, more reliably than a political revolt. Governments prioritized accordingly. After a crushing financial crisis in the 1990s, Sweden, which in American political discourse is a stand-in in for the whole concept of social democracy, subjected itself to a budget constraint that not only prevented it from running a deficit but also kept it from raising taxes—something that Republicans in the US have been fighting to achieve for decades. Despite lacking any such constraints on its ability to borrow money, however, the United States pursued both tax cuts and deficit reduction as aggressively as more vulnerable European countries.

Paradoxically, the 2008 financial crisis failed to reverse the trend. In fact, it exacerbated it, because overstretched states were increasingly desperate to be seen as good borrowers. Although the creditworthiness of the Eurozone survived the subsequent shocks, if only barely, the zone has become a suicide pact committed to debt reduction through punitive austerity. The Obama Administration failed to find a way around the Republican blockade on spending; through disastrous concessions like the sequester, Obama helped the process along. What has come into shape over the course of the last two decades, then, has been what Streeck calls the “consolidation state,” in which unaccountable financiers control the power of the purse in countries that had long ago fought to retain it for parliamentary institutions.

The hallmark of the consolidation state is the ever-shrinking role it preserves for the political, especially as far as redistribution is concerned. Nowhere in the West did center-left parties, after returning to power in the wake of the Reagan and Thatcher era, recapture the redistributionist élan of the postwar years. Formerly social democratic parties everywhere, from the United States to Greece, embraced a Third Way and rubber-stamped the neoliberal reforms of the 1970s and ’80s (in the French case the so-called Socialists led the way). This severely myopic vision is why local explanations grounded in the failings of individual politicians fail to explain much of what is happening in the world. Nowhere today does a new program with any of the ambition of the healthcare and education reforms once churned out by the dozen in the postwar years seem likely to come to pass. As a result, no force exists to keep capitalism from immiserating its own workers and consumers on a permanent basis.

With the shrinking of the political comes rule by experts. These are not just bankers, IMF researchers, or credit agencies, although these form a powerful ruling clique. Other institutions, too, have steadily drained away popular sovereignty. None, in Streeck’s view, has been as powerful in this regard as the European Union. He traces its antecedents to the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt, who in the Weimar years dreamed of a shrunken night-watchman state without messy democratic interference. Deliberately created to redirect and uselessly compartmentalize all the forms of popular sovereignty, the Eurozone today is a stark reminder that political problems in Europe are no longer soluble within the framework of a single national state.

Yet these experts have failed. The increasing inability of the state to do anything meaningful to help people has led political legitimacy into a crisis, one symptom of which are monkey-wrench protest votes that are bringing fascists into government and their ideas into the center-right mainstream all over the West. Even progress on climate change, an issue that could hardly be better-suited for the transnational administrative state of the overqualified and well-meaning, has receded after an initial burst of global-elite enthusiasm. Streeck, writing before the triumph of right-populism in the Anglophone world, blames consumerism’s obsession with differentiating products for the fact that traditional centrist parties have been unable to mount an organized mobilization against the consolidation state. This seems badly wrong. Centrist parties have been coopted and have lost their ability to resist financialization, but that is in large part because their leaderships wanted to be coopted.

It is in moments like this, when he indulges his contempt for the young and their reluctance “to identify with an entire political program,” that Streeck reveals the dangers of his own position. Such moments occur too frequently in How Will Capitalism End? to be swept aside lightly. It is hard to see, for instance, how even a society with a robustly anticapitalist political system might not have cause to discuss gay marriage, childcare norms, or “if there are enough women cabinet members, and in sufficiently powerful positions.”

His discussion of the entry of women into the workforce deserves especially close attention. “As female participation increased,” he writes, “trade union density declined, unemployment became endemic, strikes ‘withered away,’ and wage pressure on profits were [sic] relieved. More often than not employers managed to enlist women as allies in a fight for deregulation of employment, as both had reasons to push for ‘flexible’ labor markets allowing ‘outsiders,’ typically female, to compete with typically male ‘insiders.’” The essence of Streeck’s argument here is there is a powerful economic motivation behind culturally privileging wage labor as opposed to unpaid domestic and affective labor.

While this analysis is in many ways compatible with arguments long made by socialist feminists—including in these pages—it makes no effort to cast women as anything other than the dupes of anti-labor capitalist logic. Streeck even singles out state-supported childcare as yet another ploy to push women into the workforce. Though he’s not so uncouth as to claim that women should prefer domestic work, only wage labor and its value for self-realization are treated here as the product of capitalist ideology and propaganda. Domestic labor and the patriarchal ideology that justifies it are left unexamined, except insofar as they constitute a default that made the Trente Glorieuses possible.

If female labor and workplace feminism have provided ways for capitalists to outflank the traditional working class, so have immigrants and the anti-borders rhetoric that supports them. Immigration not only “provides employers in the receiving countries with an unlimited labor supply,” it also “makes collective organization difficult” and reinforces support for the Right through nativist reaction. Such effects vitiate left-wing “pipe dreams of a future global . . . democracy.” Though this book otherwise does not much discuss immigration, in Germany the author’s name has been associated with a relatively hardline defense of immigration restrictions, on the grounds that immigrants weaken the bargaining position of native-born workers. As Adam Tooze pointed out in the London Review of Books, Streeck seems blithely indifferent to the way in which this nominally leftist position plays into the fascist mobilization of Alternative für Deutschland, a rising far-right German political party. Streeck himself would argue that fascism has stepped in where social democracy has abdicated its role. Charged by Tooze with elevating the nation as the central site of political action, he replied that the nation-state is not going anywhere.

Although Streeck himself does not put forth a coherent political program in this book, he has given us more than enough material to assemble one for him without an imputation of fascism. It is the creation of a defensive social-democracy-in-one-country that calls upon the native-born male working classes of Europe to take back their individual nations from global capital. To the extent that women, immigrants, or, say, gay people are invited to participate, it is as auxiliaries of this central struggle. (Streeck dismisses culture war arguments as providing “opportunities for pseudo-participation in pseudo-debates.”) This is a nostalgia for past forms of political and economic organization that have failed before and will continue to fail in the future. Summoning one zombie to fight another might make for good drama, but as a political strategy it is disastrous. As Streeck’s own logic implies, the globalized plutocratic elites of the contemporary world are qualitatively different from the “what’s good for GM is good for the country” capitalists of the 1950s. They are able to bring all the resources of global finance to bear against challenges in a single nation-state, and they lack a powerful external enemy that might motivate them to take better care of their proletariat. In fact, many of them no longer feel any affinity with or responsibility toward any kind of political community except that of other rich people. Their growing willingness to invest in second passports means they are never without an escape route if someone threatens to expropriate them. Elysium, or Galt’s Gulch, is already under construction.1

Where Frase leaves his political subject conveniently undefined, Streeck offers one that is both impossible on his own terms and misguided, casting as distractions or dangers precisely those parts of the left-wing coalition that are becoming most essential to its fight. His program would be less troubling if there weren’t a strong streak of Streeckism in the democratic socialism now beginning to revive in the West. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I believe in the importance of this movement as a harbinger of things to come. But in the heat of a bitter struggle against both liberalism and fascism we are liable to miss some profound dangers. What if we win, but what we create is a socialism of wealthy countries, barricaded off from an immiserating world of climate change refugees and other surplus populations? Even support for immigration and internationalism is not, by itself, sufficient to address the neocolonial relations of inequality that continue to structure the global North’s relationship to the global South—if nothing else, because not everyone wants to move to someone else’s socialist future. We face the troubling possibility that the emotional vision at the core of much emerging left-wing politics, that of the Fordist national welfare state that takes care of its own citizens, may be both dangerous and obsolete.

We need a socialism that is as global in its structure and its ambitions as capitalism has become. But how do we get one? I am left to take uneasy solace in the fact that first-world socialism is a long way from winning. The foreboding future that awaits us will confront all of humanity as its object even if we do not rise to meet it as subjects. In Mercier’s 2440, there is a diptych of honored statues: one features the nations of Europe pleading forgiveness for the atrocities they have committed, and the other is a black ex-slave, the future “Avenger of the New World,” who “broke the fetters of his compatriots” and “delivered them from the most atrocious of all tyrannies” by slaughtering their slavemasters. It is a memorial we should take to heart, for if there is nothing like it in 323 years, there may not be much left worth saving.

  1. Tooze’s objection that this characterization echoes traditional anti-Semitic tropes is well-taken but somewhat beside the point. The global plutocratic elite today contains as many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox Christians, and nominal Maoists as it does Jews. 

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