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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/“To correct the inegalitarian bias inherent in capitalism”: An interview with Wolfgang Streeck

“To correct the inegalitarian bias inherent in capitalism”: An interview with Wolfgang Streeck

Will Stratford

Platypus Review 159 | September 2023

On March 9, 2023, Platypus Affiliated Society member Will Stratford interviewed German public intellectual and labor activist Wolfgang Streeck, former professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Cologne, author of several books on the political economy of capitalism, and current emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. They discussed a variety of issues confronting the German Left, including neoliberalism, the Aufstehen (“Stand Up”) movement, the German Left’s alienation of AfD[1] voters, the war in Ukraine, and both the degeneration and prospects of Leftist politics today. An edited transcript follows.

Will Stratford: As a university student in the 1960s, you studied sociology in Frankfurt under Theodor Adorno among others. What was Adorno like as a professor?

Wolfgang Streeck: The German system is different from the American system. Adorno, as I got to know him, was someone who gave a lecture course two times a week standing at the podium and speaking in absolutely printable German, without ever hesitating at any point, about things of which I understood very little. It was at the time not part of the ethos of a German professor to worry whether his students had actually understood what he told them. That was for them to take care of.

Stratford: Would you say that Adorno or the rest of the early Frankfurt School generation had an impact on your thinking?

Streeck: Absolutely, yes. Studying there left an interest in, and respect for, classical sociological theory, generally theories of whole societies, including Marxist theory — a little in analogy to the biology of whole organisms (which went out of fashion in the 1960s, in favor of cell biology and biochemistry, just as the sociology of whole societies went out of fashion in the 1980s in favor of all sorts of microsociology). I must add, in my case, that I had a second leg that helped me save my sanity. I had been involved in social-democratic politics from my early youth on, already when I went to Gymnasium. It was part of my early rebellion that I didn’t just move in the circles of my school but also in the local SPD.[2] Later, Frankfurt was a place where the SPD was on the Left of the national party in the 1960s and 70s. It also happened to be the national headquarters of IG Metall,[3] the powerful metalworkers union, which was then the powerhouse of the radical Left wing of the German trade-union movement.

I taught courses at IG Metall education centers alongside my studies at the university, and I was one of the leaders of the SPD’s Young Socialists section in Frankfurt. This became formative for my future life. I had this talent for, or at least love of, scholarship, while at the same time I was, and occasionally returned to being, a political activist on the social-democratic Left, though with a growing sense of melancholy, due to that sort of Leftism becoming increasingly marginalized politically in the neoliberal era.

Stratford: During your student days, you were active in the high point of New Left activity around 1968, and in 1969 you co-founded the Sozialistische Büro,[4] which sought to unify the socialist forces in West Germany. How do you assess this activity looking back on it? How did the New Left fail or succeed?

Streeck: As a student at Frankfurt, you were obviously part of the New Left, but I also had my feet in the Old Left. I always felt that the Left should not lose its relationship — historical and social — to the working class, however composed, and the labor movement. In the Social Democratic Party, we supported Willy Brandt, who in 1969 became the West German chancellor. I belonged to the democratic-socialist generation of the 1970s when European social democracy was ascendant, with Brandt in West Germany, Olof Palme in Sweden, and Bruno Kreisky in Austria.

In the 1970s, having studied critical theory at Frankfurt, especially with Claus Offe, and in the background Jürgen Habermas — Adorno died in 1969 — I thought I should learn about the technical questions of governing an industrial society. In 1972 I went to the United States to study at Columbia University, especially with Amitai Etzioni in the sociology department, who had just written a book that had deeply impressed me: The Active Society (1968), which was an attempt to graft an activist, democratic-technocratic perspective onto the Parsonian system theory of the time.[5] The book was soon forgotten, although not by me. I remained interested in both fundamental social change from below in modern societies and the governability of such societies and their change, an unlikely combination.

Stratford: I want to move significantly ahead and talk about more recent political phenomena, starting with neoliberalism. In the years following the Great Recession of 2008 and the ensuing European debt crisis, you made a name for yourself as a Leftist critic of the European Union. Your work has drawn attention to the political features of neoliberalism, such as the widespread attrition of an active life in political parties among civilians, the decline in trade unions and strike activity around the world, and the retreat into identitarian culture wars. Why have these aspects generally evaded critics of neoliberalism, and how has the Left been implicated in such neoliberal politics?

Streeck: Neoliberalism, certainly its European branch, was to a significant extent an attempt by social-democratic political parties to respond to a situation where capital had become increasingly powerful as a result of the internationalization of the capitalist economy. Unlike in the 1960s and 70s, capital was now mobile, it could leave, which was an important threat for social democrats that had built their politics on a national state capacity to regulate capital so that it fit into an egalitarian social project.

Stratford: It’s interesting that you’re emphasizing the agency of social democrats in the inauguration of neoliberalism.

Streeck: Take, for example, Tony Blair and New Labour. The 1970s and 80s were a period in which capital had become more powerful in the permanent struggle over the content of what you can call the social contract between capital and society. That led to declining prices, as it were — capital had to pay for the collaboration of the working class, or of society, with profit-making, or surplus-production, as Marx calls it. In the United States beginning in the 1970s there was no increase in real wages anymore, while the inequality in the distribution of income and wealth took on oligarchic dimensions.

Stratford: You’re talking about the interdependence of capital and labor inherent to modern capitalist society. What about the Left and how it relates to this?

Streeck: Social-democratic parties facing this had to answer the question of how they might be able to govern in a world in which capital had become much more powerful. The neoliberal turn on the Left was to try to live with the new pressures for economic competitiveness of national societies, by promising their traditional constituencies public support in adjusting their lives, and society as a whole, to the increased demands of capital, at the same time urging people to assume more responsibility for their economic situation, for example by undergoing training and retraining. The social-engineering part of social democracy shifted from “how can we build an egalitarian society?” to “how can we build a competitive society and thereby defend our prosperity?” It soon turned out that capitalist competitiveness did not produce egalitarian prosperity, didn’t require it, and indeed was inimical to it.

Stratford: Was neoliberalism itself a product of the failure of the Left and its abandonment of the working class of the Old Left?

Streeck: That would ascribe too much agency to the social-democratic parties and trade unions of the time. They were observing that there was something going on in their societies, which was a building pressure emerging from the economy for social life to become more compatible with growing demands of enterprises — firms, banks, etc. — for societies to contribute more to the accumulation process and remove any remaining social obstacles to capitalist surplus-production.

Stratford: So you’re saying it’s more about objective conditions than something that the Left was responsible for?

Streeck: It was a question of how one interpreted the new situation, which was not easily deciphered. For example, what you saw in many countries was that the decline of the size of the industrial workforce was beginning to accelerate. But you could always believe, or make yourself believe, that this was just for the moment, and after a while the trend would turn out just a conjunctural blip.

You could also see that jobs of all sorts, even in services, were moving abroad. For a while people, including me, believed that more sophisticated products could only be produced in countries with a high skill level, so that social investment in workforce skills would halt or slow down outsourcing. What is important to keep in mind is that politics works on a short timescale, whereas large social change moves slowly. On the way you can always make the mistake of thinking that things weren’t really changing and what was happening was not on a linear trend but a cyclical movement that would ultimately return to the regression line, with the right kind of policies.

Stratford: A few years ago, you joined the movement Aufstehen, which was started in 2018 and led by the Die Linke[6] politician Sahra Wagenknecht. What was Aufstehen, and what happened to it?

Streeck: It is interesting to think back to it because it shows how fast things have been going. At the time, we thought that in each of these parties — the SPD, Die Linke, and the Greens[7] — there was a Left — either core or fringe — and that they could form a cross-party alliance with a joint program, which a coming center-Left government would not be able to overrule. The idea was to move a future center-Left government to the Left, by concerted action of the Leftist elements of the three parties.

Stratford: That’s describing it purely as a kind of consolidation, but I understand that it also involved a sort of focusing. It was known for its critique of political correctness, and one of its goals was to win back some of those who had voted for the AfD, which is considered a far-Right populist party. Can you say more about this strategy?

Streeck: I think it was clear to us, as it is today, that among those 10–15% of German voters who vote for the AfD — today maybe even 20% — there are those concerned with things about which voters of the Left are also concerned. But they’re not reached by the political parties as they exist now. For us it was important for democracy to not let them drift into a brown corner.[8] Among parts of the Left, the slogan was and is “Nazis out.” We wondered where “out” would be. Short of having their citizenship taken away from them, or a civil war, they would continue to be around in German politics. What would we do if they drew 30% of the vote?

There was also the problem, which exists up to the present day, that the parties of the center had tacitly arranged themselves with the AfD by instrumentalizing it to foreclose public debates. Issues that the AfD raised were immediately declared taboo simply because it was the AfD who had raised them. Questions like, “what is our immigration policy?” and “In what areas should the European Union be entitled to overrule German national policy?” could be ruled out of the question by the government and the mainstream media on these grounds.

Stratford: This sounds a lot like how the Democratic Party in the U.S. campaigns on anti-Trumpism rather than offering solutions to many of the legitimate issues that Trump has raised — dysfunctional immigration, job loss, hawkish foreign policy, the deep state, etc.

Streeck: For example, you talk to friends in the trade unions, and after a while when discussions begin to open up, they will tell you that, say, yesterday they had been attending a conference of trade-union delegates in eastern Germany, and were shocked that so many among their colleagues, comrades, brothers, and sisters would claim that the only party that actually takes them seriously is the AfD. They wondered what to do about it. Should there not be a democratic organization that could take up these interests and thereby move them out of the dirty corners of our political system? Or was this a time to repeat the civil wars of the 1920s hoping that this time, unlike then, it would be us winning?

Stratford: There are many isolated Leftists in the U.S. who understand the greatest problem today to be the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on any possible momentum of building a socialist Left. Within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), there appears to be a longstanding but growing crisis between a minority calling for a complete break with the Democrats and a majority who resist this. Do you see a similar situation in Germany? Was Aufstehen a movement to build an independent socialist party?

Streeck: First of all, the SPD had lost its monopoly on the Left, and there was now Die Linke, which for a while played the same role for the SPD that the AfD is now playing for the rest of society. If anyone in the SPD suggested that we could form a government together with Die Linke, they were dead on arrival. It was a taboo. You were not supposed to talk about it. Aufstehenwas an attempt to highlight the — we thought — really existing possibilities of overcoming this gap, and to extend from there into the Left wing of the Green Party. It was not intended to set up a new party. It was an attempt to build a core of Leftist allies from three parties.

Stratford: The DSA might say the same thing, and it is also not a party.

Streeck: If you want to revive Leftist politics, which is a very difficult project anyway, by setting up a party that claims that we are going to have socialism within the next 10 years if only you vote for us — that is a recipe for disaster. What a program for a Left party would be today is elusive. For example, what would its platform be in a social-welfare state, which Germany still is to some extent, unlike the United Kingdom? Since Die Linke refrains from asking this question in the first place — because they are afraid of their party breaking apart over it — almost all they do is demand higher social-security benefits and the like. But in that field the very able Hubertus Heil of the SPD, who is Minister of Labor in the present government, is hard to beat because, unlike Die Linke, he can pass real legislation rather than just raising demands and making promises.

Stratford: Some believe that the entire neo-social-democratic moment in the late 2010s — Sanders in the U.S., Corbyn in Britain, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise[9] in France, and Die Linkein Germany — was just nostalgia for the national welfare-statism of the Fordist era, typified by the call for a “New New Deal.” What do you think? Did the neo-social-democratic turn point backwards to pre-neoliberal capitalism or forwards toward post-neoliberalism?

Streeck: We hope it would point forward, but it would require some serious thinking about what this policy would be. It would include new patterns of participation, with an emphasis on collective consumption and collective goods in education, transportation, health care, all these fields that have been suffering from neoliberal austerity. Regionalization, more power to people on the ground, an emphasis on communal well-being rather than national handouts of 200 euros for everyone, new forms of collective property and self-government, promotion of cooperatives, etc., in a way that would be a return to older ideas of what life in socialism would be like, with an emphasis on the social underpinning of individual life. At the political macro-level this would affect the fundamental question of public finance, of how you finance the collective necessities of a good life in a modern contemporary society.

Stratford: A year ago, shortly after the start of the ongoing war in Ukraine, you wrote an article in the New Left Review highlighting the unchecked escalation of the war by Western pundits.[10] How has the war in Ukraine helped secure European allegiance to NATO, and what are the dangers of this?

Streeck: Especially after the end of communism but also reaching back into the Cold War, the question always was, to what extent can European states provide for their own security without the U.S. ruling over them and telling them who their friends and foes are and what to do with and about them? Take, for example, Willy Brandt’s policy of détente, which was viewed with great suspicion by Nixon and Kissinger. Similarly, when Germany and France refused to join in the expedition to Iraq in 2003, with Schröder and Chirac declining the invitation to join the “coalition of the willing,” or Merkel and Sarkozy in 2008 vetoing the accession of Ukraine to NATO.

It didn’t lead to much because of two factors that are still very much in effect. One is that European striving for “strategic sovereignty,” as it is sometimes called, could be successful only if Germany and France found a common position. But that has been and still is difficult because the two countries have different interests: Germany as export champion and France with its nuclear force. The other is that Germany, not being a nuclear power, houses the biggest concentration of American military outside the U.S., with 38,000 American troops with 25,000 family members and a lot of military hardware, including nuclear arms, stationed all over the country.

Stratford: What about the Left in Germany? How are they responding to the war in Ukraine?

Streeck: What I observe in the generation taking the reins politically, especially its Green section, is a widespread Manichean worldview: there is good and evil, we are on the side of good, and evil has to be fought no matter what because otherwise it overtakes us. Today’s evil is found both internationally, from Russia to China to Iran, and nationally, in the form, for example, of the enemies of LGBT+ — both “fascists” in the new political worldview. Nationally and internationally this requires a permanent war on fascism. This doesn’t allow for much compromise.

Looking back at the peace efforts of the Cold War in the 1970s, there was the idea that there were different states in the world with different social orders, between which there could be a balance of power and interests, and therefore peace. There was also a Third World that would legitimately stay outside of the confrontation between liberal democracy and communism. You could have, or hope for, a system of international security governed by the United Nations. Now, in what is flagged as a global battle between democracy and authoritarianism, it comes down to the brutal idea that what counts above all is military superiority — for example,the bizarre idea of the current German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who suggested that because of the treatment of women in Iran, the agreement with Iran on nuclear non-proliferation should not be renewed, in order to punish Iran. Peace as a reward for virtue, not as protection from war.

Stratford: You recently gave a lecture in Berlin about the return to the nation-state.[11]

Streeck: What I said is, there is no question of a return because it still exists.

Stratford: Nonetheless, there seems to be a tension between necessity and possibility in your assessment of the current impasse. You seem to be saying that global finance capital’s supersession of national sovereignty in the neoliberal era was premature. One way to interpret this is through the historical struggle for socialism under Marxist leadership, which saw the need to overcome democracy and the state precisely through the battle for democracy and state power. Socialists grasped the necessity of national democracy dialectically, to be realized and thereby negated. On the other hand, one interpretation of your work is that the very possibility of moving beyond national democracy is an impossible fantasy. Is this not simply political pessimism? How do we face up to current necessities without completely giving up on future possibilities?

Streeck: Pessimism may be realism in our time. But of course, you have to offer more than realism. For me, if as a socialist I think about something like economic self-government, politics controlling markets rather than markets controlling politics, the building of societies on strong collective goods, where is the institutional framework within which you can do that? Looking around for historical examples, the Scandinavian states have for decades now been able to combine a strong sense of national sovereignty and popular democracy with attempts to build egalitarian societies. Some such combination, under changed circumstances, may be what one could aspire to.

Stratford: The core readership of the Platypus Review is made up of university students and young intellectuals inspired by the grandeur of the historical Left, from the bourgeois revolutionaries to the organized Marxists, which tasked itself with driving history forward by reaching ever new levels of human freedom and civilization. To many of these readers, today’s Scandinavian welfare states fall far below the promises of the 19th-century Left. What would you say to them? Is it in vain for them to find hope from a historical tradition no longer clearly active today?

Streeck: Utopias are always in motion. It cannot be the same utopia in the mid-19th century as at the beginning of the 21st century. For example, in the last 200 years, modern societies have developed in a direction of individualism and demands for individual autonomy that requires new modes of social integration and solidarity that we still have to find if we don’t want to end up in an Ayn Rand-like society of ruthless libertarianism. The collectivism that the early socialist tradition was looking for seems neither possible nor, perhaps, desirable today. What still holds is Marx’s dictum in the Grundrisse (1858): man is a political animal in that he can be an individual (sich vereinzeln) only in a society. Neoliberal capitalism is not a society that can integrate human diversity in social solidarity.

Stratford: Are you calling for a retreat from the historical Left’s internationalism into national democratic politics?

Streeck: No, I don’t call it a retreat. I call it the construction of governable entities in a global order that can be democratic, rather than technocratic or market-ocratic. Democracy I consider to be above all an institutionalized opportunity for a political society to correct the inegalitarian bias inherent in capitalism. Technocracy, bureaucracy, and market-ocracy cannot achieve this correction; without it, however, societies become hunting grounds for the strong, with the weak as prey.

Stratford: Do you see democracy in the nation-state as a short-term necessity until more radical possibilities open up in the future?

Streeck: I cannot imagine a world government, or world state, that would be democratic or could hang together without having to rely on military force. As to the short versus the long term, and “radical possibilities in the future,” classical socialism seemed to believe that, once capitalism had been abolished, the capitalist-bourgeois state and politics in general could also be abolished, to be replaced by “rational administration,” what today would be called technocracy. Without class conflict, why do you need states as sites of political rule, meaning political oppression? One may or may not agree with this. What seems clear in this light is that neoliberal globalization, or globalism, is an attempt to abolish the state before the abolishment of capitalism, replacing the democratic state by “global governance.” To me this would amount to the ultimate victory of capitalism over democracy.

Stratford: In other words, the original Marxist goal of overcoming the state is no longer on the table?

Streeck: I’m not a waiter at the restaurant of history, nor am I a customer who can place orders. History is not a restaurant anyway; in fact, it is a battlefield. In a modest sense, I posit that citizenship is a central civilizational achievement of the modern era that is inseparably linked to something like state authority: the capacity to govern a distinguishable social community on a territorial basis. There is no citizenship or rights of citizenship outside of states. Stateless societies in the modern world are societies with failed states; they are governed by local and global warlordism, like countries in Central America, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, you name them. Life under failed states is “nasty, brutish, and short,” except for those with the guns and the Wall Street bank accounts to pay for the gunmen. Not all states are democratic; far from it. But the only social entity that is capable of being democratized by and for the benefit of its members empowered as citizens is the nation-state. |P

[1] Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany).

[2] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany).

[3] Industriegewerkschaft Metall (Industrial Union of Metalworkers).

[4] Socialist Bureau.

[5] Named after American sociologist Talcott Parsons.

[6] The Left (Party).

[7] Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen.

[8] The Sturmabteilung (Storm Division), or SA, of the Nazi Party wore brown shirts.

[9] France Unbowed.

[10] Wolfgang Streek, “Fog of War,” New Left Review: Sidecar (March 1, 2022), available online at <>.

[11] Wolfgang Streeck, “Zurück zum Nationalstaat? (Back to the Nation State?)” at Helle Panke e.V., Berlin (March 2, 2023), available online in German and English at <>.