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How Will Capitalism End?

Essays on a Failing System
Wolfgang Streeck
Publisher
Verso
Price
£16.99
ISBN
9781784784010


EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

From the Introduction: Capitalism: Its Death and Afterlife

Capitalism has always been an improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions. Capitalist society may be described in shorthand as a 'progressive' society in the sense of Adam Smith and the enlight­enment, a society that has coupled its 'progress' to the continuous and unlimited production and accumulation of productive capital, effected through a conver­sion, by means of the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of the state, of the private vice of material greed into a public benefit. Capitalism promises infinite growth of commodified material wealth in a finite world, by conjoining itself with modern science and technology, making capitalist society the first industrial society, and through unending expansion of free, in the sense of contestable, risky markets, on the coat-tails of a hegemonic carrier state and its market-opening policies both domestically and internationally. As a version of industrial society, capitalist society is distinguished by the fact that its collec­tive productive capital is accumulated in the hands of a minority of its members who enjoy the legal privilege, in the form of rights of private property, to dispose of such capital in any way they see fit, including letting it sit idle or transferring it abroad. One implication of this is that the vast majority of the members of a capitalist society must work under the direction, however mediated, of the private owners of the tools they need to provide for themselves, and on terms set by those owners in line with their desire to maximize the rate of increase of their capital. Motivating non-owners to do so - to work hard and diligently in the interest of the owners - requires artful devices - sticks and carrots of the most diverse sorts that are never certain to function - that have to be continu­ously reinvented as capitalist progress continuously renders them obsolescent.

The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configuration make for an ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis. Economic and social stability under modern capitalism must be secured on a background of systemic restlessness produced by competition and expansion, a difficult balancing act with a constantly uncertain outcome. Its success is contingent on, among other things, the timely appearance of a new technological paradigm or the development of social needs and values complementing changing requirements of continued economic growth. For example, for the vast majority of its members, a capitalist society must manage to convert their ever-present fear of being cut out of the productive process, because of economic or technological restructuring, into acceptance of the highly unequal distribution of wealth and power generated by the capitalist economy and a belief in the legitimacy of capitalism as a social order. For this, highly complicated and inevitably fragile institutional and ideological provisions are necessary. The same holds true for the conversion of insecure workers - kept insecure to make them obedient workers - into confident consumers happily discharging their consumerist social obligations even in the face of the fundamental uncertainty of labour markets and employment.