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Clouds in the Silver Lining

Wolfgang Streeck – Buying Time (Verso)

When reading Streeck the more lively commentary must play out as in-head subtitling.

John Grahl, reviewing Anwar Shaikh’s thousand-page Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (Oxford UP) explains that since 2008, ‘mainstream economics’ has ‘become an open scandal.’

I well remember my own suggestions, before 2007, that capitalism was empty and could fall through at any moment, being rebuffed by most people around me.

Streeck gives us the detail of that collapse as a series of macro-explanations of shifts in the fabric of state-capitalism. But you are going to have to supply the commentary that ‘they fucked it up and got away with it, again, the bastards’, yourself.

Tim Holst Celik reviewed the first edition of Streeck’s book for Thesis Eleven in 2016. He explained Streeck’s main thesis well, that ‘the state has changed since the 1970s’, that ‘the tax state (Steuerstaat) gradually transformed into a debt state (Schuldenstaat), in which “a large, possibly rising, part of its expenditure” is raised “through borrowing rather than taxation”‘. Streeck ‘sees “neoliberal reform” as absolutely integral to the transformation from the tax state to the debt state.’

And so 2008, possibly the last chance we had to force this mad zero-sum game to end. 2008, the chance we all missed, every last one of us. If you can face rewinding to what was possibly the end of the world, Streeck’s book is just one of a handful that really do macro-analytical justice to the present economic moment for us deux-mille huitards.

Anwar Shaikh’s book Capitalism is one of the others. It makes a great counterpart to Streeck’s work. Grahl explains that ‘Shaikh advances corrected or contrasting views, supported by statistical evidence, of each central problem with which he deals, to construct an alternative account of the workings of capitalism and recent economic developments, particularly in the United States.’

Here is a critique of political economy albeit ‘without the revolutionary social and historical perspective of Capital…’ Grahl claims that the ‘scope and scale’ of Shaikh’s work is ‘such as to invite comparison with Marx’s Capital itself, and it is a measure of Shaikh’s accomplishment that it appears by no means absurd to apply that standard.’

Streeck also attempts nothing short of a classical, popular critique of political economy. Celik, in reviewing it, wishes to unpack and deepen ‘the book’s relatively undertheorized conception of the state and political legitimation.’ He says that Streeck needs more of ‘the general pessimism’ of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. A second edition has since arrived with a new set of introductions, although Streeck really just holds to his original line more firmly.

I am not concerned that Streeck is undertheorized at all. His theorizing is supple and rigorously underpinned. Streeck’s book is utterly necessary for anyone serious on the left. What concerns me is the poverty of theory generally in the face of our current historical ruptures: That all the OECD data in the world surely cannot provide a picture of the historical ‘free radicals’ currently ricocheting around the world.

Streeck and Habermas – neo-Kantian heir and heretic of the Frankfurt School – circled each other like stags in mating season over some of the issues contained in this book, without actually headbutting.

We could try, dialectically, to see the clouds in the silver lining, as Celik wishes, but the most depressing dimension of all of this is that none of them, or their critics, Streeck, Shaikh, have a clue what is going to happen next, and the rifles are coming out of their lockers all over. It isn’t just time that capitalism buys, it is gated compounds, mercenaries and arms.

It is no coincidence that Adorno & Horkheimer switched from economics to culture as the Weimar Republic collapsed. Here and now, sadly, identity, belonging and citizenship are the places where we might find the real ‘data’ we need to scry the future.

But Streeck ends with a classic bit of leftwing naive hope, arguing for a new Bretton Woods agreement for contemporary Europe. But Bretton Woods gave us the IMF as well as the funds to reconstruct and a Keynesian geist.

Those people had been through two world wars. Our ‘leaders’ are simply no longer there, and the disgusting failure to keep any of them in check across and after 2008 is part of the reason why they continue to pull all of us into a new and deadly vortex.

Notes

Grahl, John (2017) ‘A New Economics’ in New Left Review 104.

Holst Celik, Tim (2016) Review Essay in Thesis Eleven, Vol. 137 No.1, 106–120

From London to the Sea

Estuary – Rachel Lichtenstein (Hamish Hamilton)

Part travelogue and part-homecoming, Rachel Lichtenstein’s Estuary is a journey out from London along the Thames to the sea. Estuary traces the great river through the capital’s marshy hinterlands and out through the counties of Kent and Essex, from metropolis to open sea via fishing village and seaside resort.

This journey is both metaphorical and literal. Lichtenstein is returning to her roots, in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where her family home is visible from the river. She takes to the water, on trips that are sometimes fraught with danger, portraying the river as a space of loss and unpredictability as well as a resource, drawn upon and put to use by those living alongside it.

However Lichtenstein’s own biography is only hinted at: instead, she focuses on the lives of those who use the water for living, working and recreation, from fishermen and fishwives’ choirs to boat racers and artists responding creatively to the river, as well as community groups campaigning for the ecological and environmental significance of sites alongside the Themes.

The book aims to create a ‘collective memory map’ of experiences, lives and perspectives, showing the importance of the Thames to work, livelihoods, trade, industry, culture and community. Interviews and shared encounters are interwoven with histories of the river and their physical and cultural traces, from shipwrecks to sunken wartime bombs to the cruise terminals where passengers from the Empire Windrush first encountered their new country, to the brief intervention into the airwaves of pirate radio, to Canvey Island band Dr Feelgood, whose ‘Thames Delta’ sound was inextricably linked to the estuarine vistas of their immediate environment.

A highlight of the book is the time she spends visiting the Maunsell Sea Forts, huge concrete towers originally built for defence, which stand tall above the estuary on stilts. Acknowledging a tradition of Great British eccentricity and obstinacy, she pays a visit to the kingdom of Sealand, a remote outpost constituting one family’s private and vigorously defended castle. Lichtenstein looks to the future of the river, too, considering the ways in which the Thames might be transformed once again by the creation of the Thames super port.

It’s difficult to write about the Thames without discussing landscape and the river’s relation to sea, sky and earth, and the way in which it has shaped and been shaped by the places and activities around it. Joseph Conrad is quoted liberally throughout, yet the book itself is written in a brisk, business-like, workmanlike style, sometimes reading like a factual report on the findings of a research project.

That the river is a working thoroughfare is well-conveyed, but the book leaves little room for passion, poetry or politics, preferring instead to take a matter-of-fact, documentary approach. However, what does come across strongly in Estuary is a sense of change, a notion that this book presents only a snapshot of the river at one moment in time, that it is a place to be appreciated, respected and revisited

– Natalie Bradbury