Wolfgang Streeck: “A second referendum could tear society apart more than the first”

The German thinker on the perils of EU membership and how capitalism will end. 

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For the British liberal left, Wolfgang Streeck feels only pity. Remainers cling to a “sacralised” European project that “hasn’t done anything” for the UK, the German theorist told an audience at the London School of Economics one recent evening. “All it does is prevent you from inventing your own political creativity.”

Streeck (pronounced Strayk) is a thinker made for the interregnum in which we find ourselves. His books, Buying Time (2014) and How Will Capitalism End (2016), have earned him renown as one of the most perceptive writers on the relationship between capitalism and democracy.

Though Streeck concedes that the two functioned “incredibly well” during the postwar Keynesian era, he now views this period as an aberration. Since the 1970s, market liberalisation, the unleashing of finance and austerity, he argues, have created the conditions for capitalism’s self-destruction.

When we meet for lunch before his lecture at the LSE, Streeck, 72, is far removed from the gloom that his work portends. Dressed in a hopsack jacket and rose-coloured jumper, with a neat moustache and sharp brown eyes, he cheerfully asks why there is not a New Statesperson. Streeck speaks with measured modesty: “I’m a realist, mixing empirical observation with personal hope.”

Born in a refugee camp in Münster, north-west Germany, a year after the Second World War ended, Streeck “grew up as an outsider”. His parents emigrated from eastern Europe and “never really made it in society”. Detachment inspired his turn to sociology (he is emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne). “Marx, Durkheim – they looked at society with an astonished eye and wondered why things were the way they are.”

He adds: “If you don’t take things for granted, you’re a natural leftist.” Is that because the left asks more questions? “A leftist is not someone who feels comfortable with the world the way it is.”

Streeck’s mother never went to university, but her son ended up in a “very good school” with a Protestant work ethic. “The teachers were Calvinist – they believed in predestination,” he says, fixing my gaze with horror. Gifted students were expected to become clergy members. But Streeck liked “adversity” – he wanted teachers to recognise his intelligence without conforming to their mould.
“If everyone is of the same view in the room, I begin to feel uncomfortable.”

Streeck’s school class once visited the Opel car factory near Frankfurt. The sight of back-breaking labour made a lasting impression on the young student. “The noise, the dirt, the heat… I think it was on that day that I decided to study sociology,” he later wrote. The car industry has remained an interest ever since – he describes how postwar Cologne was destroyed but for two things: “the cathedral, and the Ford motor factory”.

His involvement with the then illegal Communist Party drew him to the left. Streeck organised an underground reading group while still at school: “we read the classics; Marx, Trotsky, Lenin”. Ultimately, it was the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia that deterred Streeck from communist activism (he later joined Germany’s Social Democratic Party). Today he belongs
to no party.

Western societies suffer from “the absence of a vision” for life beyond capitalism, Streeck wrote in 2016. What does he make of the resurgence of the Labour left? “It’s a very good sign that the era of neoliberalism is breaking apart – but capitalism will not come to an end in a Leninist way, where a party takes power and announces we now have socialism. It’s something that must come from below,” he says.

Streeck believes in devolution and views the British state as desperately over-centralised. “In economic terms, democracy means new forms of collective property and collective provision.” Though encouraged by the revival of political parties, Streeck confesses that he “can’t really warm up to ‘identity politics’”. He has written that single-issue politics is synonymous with consumerist society – “not too different from the purchase of a specific automobile or mobile phone”.

Yet Brexit has shown that democracy takes many forms. Was the 2016 Leave vote  a democratic landmark or a mere single-issue protest? “Once you’re as old as I am, you begin to become interested in the ambivalence of things,” he says. “I think being outside the EU is better than being inside, but outside the union, there’s another risk – mad people, mainly men, start thinking about Britain as the second Singapore.” He warns, however, that “a second referendum could tear society apart more than the first”.

By now we’ve moved on to dessert. Streeck opts for a fruit salad and remarks that he draws solace from the notion that we’re returning to a world of smaller political units – “we have over 200 nation states now”. What about open borders? “I totally disagree. If you had no borders, you could have no collective property belonging to a society.” He asks: “Would you want Nelson Mandela to be a refugee in Germany? No! He’d be a mail carrier bringing Amazon parcels to your house… he was needed somewhere else.”

It’s a position that pits Streeck against liberal cosmopolitans. “As a sociologist, I believe in societies, not just individuals,” he replies. “It’s what Marx said – a human being can be an individual only in society.” 

Hettie O'Brien is a New Statesman online editor. 

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency