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For a Positive Narrative of the Left

Whether the dislocations and cyclical crises of capitalism since 2008 will lead to its final farewell is a question that drives parts of the middle-class and not only the left. There is wide agreement that the capitalism as we know it will not exist anymore within a few years. Two irreversible consequences of the growth-driven and goods-producing production method are manifest: the resources of the planet are plundered and capital exploitation hits its limits.

Interview with Michael Brie

[This interview from the March 4, 2017 "Capitalism on its Deathbed" conference is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, www.schattenblick.de.]

Whether the dislocations and cyclical crises of capitalism since 2008 will lead to its final farewell is a question that drives parts of the middle-class camp and not only the left. There is broad agreement that the capitalism as we know it will not exist anymore within a few years. While some already predict an expiration date, others recall many predictions of the near end of capitalism that has proven remarkably versatile. Given the multiple global crises, Rosa Luxemburg's warning seems confirmed that either socialism will be gained by struggle or barbarism will be unavoidable.

The impression that the whole world is thrown out of joint is not deceptive or misleading. Climate change is announced with droughts and floods. War darkens the world from the West African Sahara zone and millions are in flight. The misery of masses of people made superfluous engulfs the megacities of the global South. Capitalism spans the globe as a world system and drives humanity to the edge of an abyss that no one can fathom although everyone knows it is very deep. An apocalyptic mood is fed from interpretations of deeply frightening phenomena whose genesis and consequences should be analyzed.

Two irreversible consequences of the growth-driven and goods-producing production method are manifest. Firstly, the resources of the planet are plundered so the survival of a growing part of humanity cannot be guaranteed anymore. Secondly, capital exploitation hits its limits since the two sources of value creation, nature and human labor, are rapidly losing their profitability because of productivity development. The circulating money supply has long surpassed many times the worldwide economic output.


Publications on the crisis of capitalism, analyses, alternatives and subjects of transformation were discussed at the March 3-4, 2017 Berlin conference "On the Deathbed of Capitalism? - Capital, Crisis and Criticism." The institute for Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg foundation was the main sponsor.

In the first panel on the theme "How will capitalism end?," Michael Brie (RLS) and Klaus Steinitz critically assessed Wolfgang Streeck's analysis. In the 1960s, the sociologist was an SDS member but belonged to the right-wing of the SPD in the 1990s and was a member of the expert commission that prepared Agenda 2010 and the Hartz laws. A leading thinker of the neoliberal turn of social democracy, Streeck once surprised readers with his publication "How will capitalism end?" [1]

Streeck emphasized a long period of the degeneration of capitalism like Klaus Steinitz, formerly member of the state planning commission of the DDR and a PDS party leader at the beginning of the 1990s. A decline of economic growth, an increase of total indebtedness and growing inequality are connected with five structural malfunctions: stagnation, oligarchical redistribution, plundering of the public sector, corruption and a world economy thrown out of joint. The marriage of capitalism and democracy has ended.

Steinitz regards this as an important contribution to the capitalism discussion. The missing action options are one of its weaknesses. Crucial long-term trends like destruction of the environment and climate change make capitalism degenerate. Streeck regards capitalism as unrescuable and urges reflecting on alternatives. He doesn't speak of transformation steps that could bring about a transition. The Left party (die Linke) is developing drafts for a future society. Steinitz considers a synthesis of planning and the market, a democratization in all areas and a comprehensive worldwide reform process as indispensable.

In 1988, Michael Brie LECTURED ON HISTORICAL MATERIALISM AT Humboldt University and was professor of social philosophy there from 1990 to 1994. He was a member of different program commissions of the PDS and the Left Party (die Linke) and contributed to building the Rosa Luxemburg foundation. "Transforming Capitalism with Real Utopias" (2015) [2] and "Rediscovering Polanyi" (2015) [3] are two of his many publications...

In the panel, Michael Brie asked why Streeck could change his thinking about capitalism in Germany in the last years like no other author. To Streeck, essential processes cannot be understood without knowledge of Marx and says the alternative to capitalism without democracy would be a democracy without capitalism. He recently even confessed to socialism since he knows no other concept for a more communal way of life that is more respectful of others and collectively responsible.

Brie proposed honoring Streeck as a narrator. The discussion weaknesses of the left must be understood and analyzed. Streeck has long been one of the leading German social scientists but is only known in the academic community and as a political advisor. He reversed his role to a public intellectual by embedding social science competence in a new powerful narrative. One must tell a story to have an effect in the public realm. The most important intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries were all great storytellers and brilliant social science analysts. Their effectiveness comes from this symbiosis.

As the Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote in 1943, the right-wing had their own narrative about the world catastrophe while the left still had to present its narrative. In 1982, Milton Friedman argued only a real or perceived crisis produces change. When a crisis appears, the enacted measures depend on the ideas in circulation. Ideas should be ready until the politically impossible become politically unavoidable.

The main problem in the Streckian narrative is its fatalist character of a ruin or degeneration without intervention possibilities. To understand how a good narrative is built, one should look at the Grimm fairytales, Brie says. Heros and rogues, helpers of heroes, helpers of the bastards, the good who are rewarded and the evil who are punished are found there. Streeck tells a story where the evil become stronger and stronger and the good weaker and weaker. There can't be any talk of good heroes because they all appear as weak cowards.

Brie uses interregnum as a second crucial keyword. For Streeck, the history of degeneration is made more precise through the interregnum, an intermediate step without legitimate rulers. Streeck speaks of a de- or sub-institutionalized society as a deviation from the normal state which lacks something. However, three objections are raised. In the Grundrisse, Marx pointed out new models, niches, symbioses or hybrids can arise that can be very functional in the crisis of a society. Gramsci speaks of interregnum as a time of great ambitions when new powers rise up. Thirdly, the Institute for Social Analysis predicted in 2011 the ruling political block would fall to pieces and the disintegration process would produce a new strong right-wing and the beginnings of a green-social capitalism. The left must react to that and independently position itself as a third pole. Streeck's narrative of decay is not the last word. Options and motivations of strategic actions could open up. The narrative of a new strong left is also possible.

At the end of the conference, Michael Brie answered several Schattenblick questions on positive narratives, the changeability of capitalism and the Rosa Luxemburg foundation.

Schattenblick (SB): The positive narrative, the positive story, was a central theme of the conference that was partly in the background and then emerged again and again in the foreground. What is a positive narrative?

Michael Brie (MB): There is an enormous problem consciousness among very many people of every shade and color. This is manifest when one speaks with people or trusts the surveys. Everyone knows there are lots of social problems and enormous insecurities. There is great fear of being poor in old age. There is anxiety that the children will not do well in school, will get stuck in education or not become established. There are tremendous future anxieties referring to one's own and the next generation. There is a robust consciousness in the ecological question. Everyone knows how dangerous it is that we destroy more than we4 presently create.

In a strange way, this reminds me of the late time of the DDR (East Germany). In that situation, people felt they were stuck in a cul-de-sac and did not know how to get out. The same type of question is always raised and is very characteristic for crisis times in the last 200 years. At the moment, we are in such a situation. People fear that a new financial- and economic crisis could drastically endanger this relative stability in Germany. This awareness may be less developed in the context of the whole crisis consciousness. Still, we notice it in the low-interest policy that has an effect on life insurances and similar supply systems of the considerable part of the population who still have some financial assets. That is our situation.

The question is: how can we get out of this? In the US, an absolute outsider became president. The ideal candidate with tremendous experience, immense money, terrific know-how and enormous support suddenly lost to someone like Trump. In Germany, Ms. Merkel seems to have always been in office. Suddenly she has a serious rival. We have a situation in France where nearly all the candidates beyond the Front National are endangered... In the US, we say an older man; ten years older than me, in a somewhat rumpled suit enthuse and engage hundreds of thousands and millions of young people with a rather simple language. This happened in the US where no one thought anyone could successfully appeal to democratic socialism. We have seen the same thing in England with Corbyn, a backbencher for thirty years who always stubbornly followed his conscience in championing peace and opposing social cuts and all the dominant parties. Suddenly he is the opposition leader.

The challengers from the right-wing and the left-wing confront each other. A polarization occurs. Those who took the middle course in the past face great difficulties because the people do not believe them anymore. Therefore they seek positive narratives. Trump's narratives are examples: we will build a wall; we will ensure workers do not move abroad anymore, we will concentrate on our own energy resources; we will rely on the military and nuclear bombs and on our own strength to "Make America Great Again!"... This is the challenge about which we must speak. Trump demonstrated how many people can be reached with a relatively simple right-wing narrative. Marine le Pen also shows this...

Recalling these effective right-wing narratives, we must work on other narratives that come from an everyday life that the people relate themselves: how must a school system be equipped so my children are not endangered and I don't have to worry day and night? What must a pension system and a health system look like?...

People with access to the Internet or television for little money (which is true today for the large majority of the world's population) do not want to put up with themselves and their children and grandchildren living in misery. We have a globalized ecological question that is also a social question because we are destroying the life possibilities of future generations and are living at the expense of future generations. The people know this.

Connecting these questions besetting people in Germany with the more comprehensive questions is important so the conviction doesn't arise that we know all this but can do nothing. Action possibilities must arise. This was discussed too little at the conference.

For me, free public transportation could be an important example, the luxury of free public mobility which then obviously would be jointly financed by us. Despite everything, the costs fall for every one of us. This would be a kind of compulsory tax to which everyone must contribute. The wealthy would contribute more than others but ultimately everyone must be included somehow. In this way, the luxury of the public for everyone could prevail against the luxury of the private. In Germany, the majority are car-drivers. However, there are groups limited in their mobility. In the global South, they are the largest part of the population. The ecological question, the social question and the question of the organization of public space as a democratic question could be positively connected. We must speak much more about such concrete projects of hope for which free public transportation, a good education, and health system and a pension system are examples so people see all this is feasible. We only need to create the power-politics preconditions or prerequisites.

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