back to

e-flux conversations

Wolfgang Streeck on the "interregnum" of the present

In another key text published in the New Left Review—this time in the March–April 2017 issue of the magazine—Wolfgang Streeck examines the “interregnum” we now find ourselves in, “a period of uncertain duration in which an old order is dying but a new one cannot yet be born.” That “old order” is the neoliberal era of modern capitalism, which is fragmenting due to, among other things, insufficient global growth and the right-wing revival of national sovereignty. Streeck writes that the “neo-protectionist” policies of leaders like Donald Trump and Theresa May are unlikely to restore national economic profitability, even as they conjure an illusory pre-globalization era of national stability. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.

To be sure, even a post-globalist, neo-protectionist policy of the kind envisaged by Trump and May would be unable to guarantee stable growth, more and better quality employment, a deleveraging of public and private debt, or trust in the dollar and the euro. The financialized crisis capitalism of the present is no more governable nationally from below than internationally from above. It hangs by the silken thread of an ‘unconventional’ monetary policy, which is attempting to create something like growth by negative interest rates and an adventurous expansion of the money supply, engineered through ‘quantitative easing’—the purchase of bonds by the central banks. The neoliberal structural reforms considered by ‘experts’ to be the indispensable complement to this have been foiled, in the countries where they actually might be of some use, by popular resistance to the ‘globalization’ of their ways of life. At the same time, economic inequality is on the rise partly because trade unions and states have lost their power or ceded it to the global markets. The utter destruction of national institutions capable of economic redistribution, and the resultant reliance on monetary and central-bank policy as the economic policy of last resort, have made capitalism ungovernable, whether by ‘populist’ or technocratic methods.

Domestic conflicts are also foreseeable where cultural symbols are concerned. Will enhanced ‘populist’ appreciation of the natives require a devaluation of immigrants in the broadest sense? And can the left succeed in paying a credible cultural tribute to those lately woken from their apathy? Too many angry words have been exchanged, quite apart from the fact that any reconciliation might well alienate the left’s bourgeoisified supporters in the cosmopolitan new middle class. And in the event of economic setbacks, Trump, May and others could be tempted to deflect criticism by launching more or less subtle campaigns against ethnic and other minorities. Rebellions of the decent as well as the indecent would be the consequence. On the international plane, matters might be less dramatic, at least initially. Unlike Obama, Blair and Clinton, as well as Sarkozy, Hollande, Cameron and perhaps even Merkel, the ‘last defender of the liberal West’, the new national protectionists have no great human-rights ambitions, whether in China and Russia or, so far as one can tell, in Africa or the Middle East. Anyone in favour of humanitarian intervention in the broadest sense may well lament this. Russian intolerance towards performance artists such as Pussy Riot is unlikely to trigger missionary reflexes in the inward-turned governments of the period after Trump’s election victory. In the United States, Victoria Nuland (‘Fuck the EU’) was not made Secretary of State after all, and the Human Rights faction of the State Department have now returned to their university teaching posts. Plans to draw Ukraine into the EU and NATO, and thereby deprive the Russians of their Black Sea port, are now off the table, as are any ‘regime change’ projects in countries such as Syria. US attempts to enlist Russia for a new Cold War may likewise have evaporated. Of course, China could conceivably take Russia’s place, since President Trump will have to persuade it to abandon some market share in the US while continuing to buy and hold US Treasury bills.

In the under-structured context of the nascent interregnum with its dysfunctional institutions and chaotic causal chains, the ‘populists’ will be an additional source of uncertainty as they make inroads into the machinery of the state. The onset of the interregnum appears as a Bonapartist moment: everything is possible, but nothing has consequences, least of all the intended ones, because in the neoliberal revolution society has reverted to the condition of ‘a sack of potatoes’. The new protectionists will not put an end to the crisis of capitalism; but they will bring politics back into play, and remind it of the middle and lower strata of the population that have been the losers from globalization. The left too, or what has become of it, has no idea how the ungovernable capitalism of the present can make the transition to a better ordered, less endangered and less dangerous future—see Hollande, Renzi, Clinton, Gabriel. But if it has any wish again to play a part in this, it must learn the lessons of the failure of ‘global governance’ and the ersatz politics of identity. Among these lessons are: that the outcasts of the self-appointed ‘knowledge society’ must not be abandoned for aesthetic reasons to their fate and, hence, to the right; that cosmopolitanism at the expense of ‘the little people’ cannot be enforced in the long run even with neoliberal means of coercion; and that the national state can be opened up only with its citizens and not against them. Applying this to Europe, this means that whoever wants too much integration will reap only conflict and end up with less integration. The cosmopolitan identitarianism of the leaders of the neoliberal age, originating as it did in part from left-wing universalism, calls forth by way of reaction a national identitarianism, while anti-national re-education from above produces an anti-elitist nationalism from below. Whoever puts a society under economic or moral pressure to the point of dissolution reaps resistance from its traditionalists. Today this is because all those who see themselves as exposed to the uncertainties of international markets, control of which has been promised but never delivered, will prefer a bird in their hand to two in the bush: they will choose the reality of national democracy, imperfect as it may be, over the fantasy of a democratic global society.

Image of Theresa May via