David Mytton

Book Review (1/5) – How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (Wolfgang Streeck)

Published (updated: ) in Book Reviews.

Originally published on Goodreads.

I think it’s important to be exposed to and understand arguments which go against your own beliefs. This is why I thought this book would be a good way to get into some of the details of the challenges of the principles of free markets.

Whilst there are some interesting ideas worth exploring further, this book is so poorly written that I struggled to read it and ultimately gave up at chapter 6. The author is so preoccupied with his own idealogical attack on “capitalism” that he gets carried away, detracting from what might actually be quite good points.

An example of an idea I though was quite interesting was how the author describes the problems with politics where modern consumers are now used to ultimate customisation of products for their every need. It is impossible for a politician to represent the exact same view as all of their constituents, yet this is what consumers now expect. This has resulted in a lack of ability to compromise and support someone you might disagree with on a few points, but generally agree with their overall direction. It perhaps explains the lack of interest in joining political parties and goes some way to describing why there is so much dislike for politicians.

As Streeck explains:

Politics, therefore, cannot undergo the same re-engineering that capitalist firms and product ranges underwent after the Fordist era. Rather than simply serving the idiosyncratic wants of individuals, it must subject them to public examination with the objective of aggregating them into a general will, which bundles and supersedes the many individual wills. There is a strong sense in which politics will always at its core remain structurally akin to mass production, and as a consequence compare unfavourably to the ease and freedom of choice in modern consumer markets. Political product diversification and innovation will never be able to keep pace with diversification and innovation in consumer markets. As politics is centrally about the creation and regulation of social order, its results cannot be decomposed into different individual products catering to individual tastes, just as their consumption and the participation of consumers in their production cannot ultimately be voluntary.

Unfortunately, even just re-reading the quote (above) of this explains why I found this book so difficult. Lengthy sentences, unnecessarily complex words and overly verbose descriptions ruin the main points that are trying to be communicated. 

Each chapter is a separate essay on a particular topic and some are more intelligible than others, but the introduction to the book was so bad I almost gave up there. There is so much unexplained assumed knowledge and condescending leftist jargon that it basically makes the book unreadable. For example:

No effective opposition being left, and no practicable successor model waiting in the wings of history, capitalism’s accumulation of defects, alongside its accumulation of capital, may be seen, with Collins, as an entirely endogenous dynamic of self-destruction, following an evolutionary logic moulded in its expression but not suspended by contingent and coincidental events, along a historical trajectory from early liberal via state-administered to neoliberal capitalism, which culminated for the time being in the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath.

What does this mean and why is such a complex sentence needed? This way of writing is a shame because it tarnishes the rest of the book. There is the occasional concise paragraph which does make good points e.g.

politics may be gradually turning into some form of entertainment, a spectator sport whose performers are almost habitually viewed with contempt: never since the War, it appears, have political parties and politicians been so despised by citizens as today.

It’s disappointing for the main criticism to be of the indecipherable writing style rather than of the ideas themselves. I will have to look elsewhere for a more coherent discussion of the problems with the capitalism model.