Monday, August 31, 2020

Wolfgang Streeck Sees An Increasingly Chaotic and Violent System As Inevitable

Streeck is a German economic sociologist and emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.
If you can plow through some of the econo-political rhetoric in this essay to the core ideas you get the sense he may be on to something.
From Open Democracy:

The post-capitalist interregnum
We are living through the dawn of a ‘post-capitalist interregnum’ – a prolonged period of social entropy, radical uncertainty and indeterminacy, in which society is essentially ungovernable and no new world order waits in the wings. Tracing the four-stage crisis sequence of neoliberal capitalism up to today’s disintegrating state system, he finds its crux in borderless Europe – and specifically Britain’s fateful referenda.

Capitalism was always a fragile and improbable order that depended on continuous repair work for its survival. Today, however, too many of its frailties have become acute simultaneously, while too many remedies to them have been exhausted or destroyed. Rather than picking one of the various manifestations of the crisis and privileging it over others, I suggest that all – or most – of them may add up to a condition of multi-morbidity, in which different disorders coexist and, more often than not, reinforce each other. The end of capitalism may, then, occur as a death from a thousand cuts – from multiple infirmities, each of which will become all the more untreatable as each will demand treatment at the same time.

In other words, I do not believe that any of the potentially stabilising forces frequently mentioned – be it regime pluralism, regional diversity and uneven development, political reform, independent crisis cycles or whatever – will be strong enough to neutralise the syndrome of accumulated weaknesses that characterises contemporary capitalism as a social order. No effective opposition being left, and no successor waiting in the wings of history, capitalism’s accumulation of defects – paralleling its accumulation of capital – amounts to an entirely endogenous dynamic of self-destruction, one that follows an evolutionary logic moulded but not suspended by contingent circumstances and coincidental events, along a historical trajectory from early liberal capitalism, via state-administered capitalism, to neoliberal capitalism which (for the time being) culminated in the financial crisis of 2008.

Towards social entropy
This is to say that for the decline of capitalism to continue, no revolutionary alternative is required, and certainly no masterplan of a better society that will displace or replace capitalism. Contemporary capitalism as a functioning social order is vanishing on its own account, collapsing from internal contradictions – not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies, who have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to evolve into a new form. What will follow on from capitalism next will, I suggest, not be socialism or some other defined social order, but a long interregnum – no new world system equilibrium, but rather a prolonged period of social entropy; of radical uncertainty and indeterminacy. It is an interesting problem for sociological theory whether and (if so) how a society can turn for a significant length of time into less than a society – a post-social society, or a society lite – until it may or may not recover to again become a society in the full meaning of the term. I suggest that one can get a conceptual handle on this by drawing liberally on the distinction, introduced by David Lockwood back in 1964, between system integration and social integration, or integration at the macro and micro levels. An ‘interregnum’ would then be defined as a breakdown of macro-level system integration, depriving individuals at the micro-level of institutional structuring and collective support and shifting the burden of ordering social life, of providing it with a modicum of security and stability, to individual actors and such social arrangements as they can improvise on their own. A society in interregnum, in other words, would be a de-institutionalised or under-institutionalised society, one in which expectations can be stabilised only now and then by local extemporisation, and which for this very reason is essentially ungovernable.

A post-capitalist society would, then, appear to be one whose system integration is critically and irremediably weakened, so that the continuation of capital accumulation – for a final, intermediate period of uncertain duration – becomes dependent on the opportunism of collectively incapacitated individualised individuals, struggling to protect themselves from looming accidents in their social and economic lives. Undergoverned and undermanaged, the social world of the post-capitalist interregnum – in the wake of neoliberal capitalism’s neutralisation of states, governments, borders, trade unions and other moderating forces – can at any time be hit by disaster: bubbles may implode, for example, or violence penetrate from a collapsing periphery into the centre. With individuals deprived of collective defences and left to their own devices, what remains of a social order hinges on their motivation to co-operate ad hoc with other individuals, driven by elementary interests in individual survival and, often enough, fear and greed. As society loses its ability to provide its members with effective protection and proven templates of social action and social existence, individuals have only themselves to rely on while social order must depend on the weakest possible mode of social integration Zweckrationalit├Ąt (or ‘instrumental rationality’).

As explained elsewhere, I anchor this condition in a variety of interrelated developments, including the intensification of distributional conflict as a result of declining growth; the rising inequality that results from this; vanishing macroeconomic manageability, as manifested in, among other things, steadily growing indebtedness, a pumped-up money supply, and the possibility of another economic breakdown at any time; the suspension of postwar capitalism’s engine of social progress, democracy, and the associated rise of oligarchy; the dwindling capacity of governments and the systemic inability of governance to limit the commodification of labour, nature and money; the omnipresence of corruption of all sorts, in response to intensified competition in winner-take-all markets with virtually unlimited opportunities for self-enrichment; the erosion of public infrastructures and collective benefits in the course of commodification and privatisation; the failure, after 1989, of capitalism’s carrier nation, the US, to build and maintain a stable global order; and so on and so on. These and other developments, I suggest, have resulted in widespread cynicism regarding political and economic life, forever ruling out a recovery of normative legitimacy for capitalism as a just society that offers equal opportunities for individual progress – a legitimacy that capitalism needs to draw on in critical moments.

Moving disequilibrium
In recent work I have argued that OECD capitalism has been on a crisis trajectory since the 1970s, the historical turning point being the abandonment of the postwar settlement by capital in response to a global profit squeeze. Subsequently, three crises followed one another: the global inflation of the 1970s, the explosion of public debt in the 1980s, and rapidly rising private indebtedness in the subsequent decade, resulting in the collapse of financial markets in 2008. This sequence was, by and large, the same for all major capitalist countries, whose economies have never nearly been in equilibrium since the end of postwar growth. All three crises began and ended in the same way, following the same political-economic logic: inflation, public debt and the deregulation of private debt started out as politically expedient solutions to distributional conflicts between capital and labour (and, in the 1970s, between the two and the producers of raw material whose cost had long been negligible), until they became problems themselves. Inflation begot unemployment as relative prices became distorted and owners of monetary assets abstained from investment; mounting public debt made creditors nervous and produced pressures for fiscal consolidation in the 1990s; and the pyramid of private debt that had filled the gaps in aggregate demand and citizen satisfaction caused by cuts in public spending imploded when the bubbles produced by easy money burst.

Solutions turned into problems requiring new solutions which, after another decade or so, became problems themselves; these problems called for yet other solutions that soon turned out to be as short-lived and self-defeating as their predecessors. Government policies vacillated between two equilibrium points, one political, the other economic, that had become impossible to attain simultaneously. Attending to the need for democratic political legitimacy and social peace, so as to live up to citizen expectations of economic prosperity and social stability, they found themselves at risk of damaging economic performance. Conversely, efforts to restore the economy to equilibrium tended to trigger political dissatisfaction and undermine support for the government of the day, and for the liberal-capitalist market economy in general. ...