Review: Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism

Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism
Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Wolfgang Streeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although written four years before Britain voted for Brexit and Donald Trump was elected President of the US, this book is a superb analysis of the political and economic situation that led us to the place we now find ourselves.

In the first section, Streeck suggests that over the last 40 years capitalism has been in the process of unpeeling the post war compromise. This compromise bought social peace at the price of sharing profits more equitably with labour. In conditions of consistent growth, this was a sustainable approach for capital. As a number of shocks threatened the ability of the economy to continue growing this was no longer a tenable position. The neo-liberal revolution is the story of successive attempts to return capitalism to an ‘acceptable’ level of return.

As the owners of capital withdraw their support for the tax and spend, attempts to maintain the post war policies sustaining social peace draw the state into increasing indebtedness. State debt accelerates rapidly which in itself becomes a problem leading to the financial crisis of 2008. Neo-liberalism then turns to austerity and the ‘consolidation’ state. None of these has proved to be a permanent solution. Each has bought perhaps 10 years of survival before problems reappear in a different guise.

This analysis is consistent with Robert Brenner’s in “The Economics of Global Turbulence” suggesting the long term decline of the profitability of capitalism, consistent with a fairly orthodox Marxist view.

Streeck then moves on to assess the political consequences of these changes, which might be summarised as the end of democracy. Neoliberalism’s belief in the freedom of the market means that states are required to prioritise the demands of the “marktvolk” ahead of the society at large. No government is allowed to survive that does not respect the requirements of the market. “All that capitalism still wants from people is that they give back to the market”. The goal is to free the market from political intervention. As Streeck says, to most people in society politics then becomes a form of “middle class entertainment” from which they can expect nothing. Four years on, it is all too easy to see how given the opportunity to seize this status quo and shake it by supporting a Brexit referendum campaign or a rogue Trump candidacy voters not benefiting from the neoliberal turn have been tempted to grasp the opportunity with both hands.

Streeck finishes by showing how the European Union has been a vehicle for driving the neoliberal revolution into the heart of Europe. It is a pessimistic view where the only solution which can be conceived (let alone implemented) in the minds of the current political class is “more of the same” with no prospect that it will create a turn for the better. Streeck encourages us to think of how we might challenge this dead consensus and deliver politics and economy for the people and not just the owners of capital. Four years on, its an analysis that seems more relevant than when it was written and a direct challenge to the modern left.

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