Is crisis an inherent part of capitalism?
I have been reading Wolfgang Streeck’s recently translated (from German to English) book Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism in which he presents a really compelling thesis that since the 1970s capitalism has been delaying its inevitable crises by finding a series new ways of extracting value.
This is in some sense a similar point to that made by Rosa Luxemburg that capitalism is always searching for new “virgin lands” to exploit. As I see it there are, however, two key differences in these metaphors. Luxemburg’s conceptaulisation of capitalism is spatial and defined by notions of plenty and expansionism while Streeck’s is temporal and defined by scarcity. The notion of virgin lands conceives of capitalism as an expansionist, exploratory, imperialist force. Buying time suggests a wolf at the door, barely being fought off with rushed and provisional measures.
The temporal metaphor which Streeck employs is also interesting for its punning; one of the key methods of “buying time” in the increasingly financialized (over)developed economies is through “buying time” by trading in futures and indebtedness (for which there are also secondary trading markets) which is effectively the purchasing of future actions.
At the crux of the book is the idea that there is a tension between capitalism and democracy which is intimately connected with capitalism’s repeated attempts to stave off various crises. In order to do this it needs ever greater outlays of money to buy off its problems.
“While the common expression ‘buying time’ does not necessarily imply an outlay of money, it clearly does in this case – and on a large scale. Money, the most mysterious institution of capitalist modernity, served to defuse potentially destabilizing social conflicts, at first by means of inflation, then through increased government borrowing, next through the expansion of private loan markets, and finally (today) through central bank purchases of public debt and bank liabilities. As I will show, the ‘buying of time’ that postponed and extended the crisis of postwar democratic capitalism is closely related to the epochal process of capitalist development that we call ‘financialization’.” (Streeck, 2014: 13).
Mainstream politics today prioritises the servicing of debts over the social support of citizens and like an addicted gambler throws increasing amounts of money into the markets hoping that next time they will come good. While these attempts to “buy time” become ever more desperate we see that an increasing share of this money goes to the wealthiest.