Farewell, neoliberalism: An interview with Wolfgang Streeck


Over at King's Review:

In your piece in Inference, you trace the recent ‘death of the centre left’, a political movement across the West in the 1990s that was marked by its faith in liberalised international markets. How has neoliberalism contributed to the collapse of the ‘centre-left’ in Europe (see your piece in Inference)? Is internationalisation – not only of markets but of governance – in for instance the form of the EU part of this demise?

At some point in the 1990s both the center-right and the center-left in Europe had concluded that future prosperity would depend on opening national economies to the world market, combined with “structural reforms” of national institutions to make them more “competitive”, i.e., attractive to free-wheeling international capital, especially finance capital. Internationalism and neoliberalism thus came hand in hand. In Europe there was agreement among governments that the EU should and could be converted from what had in the 1970s become a supranational welfare state-in-waiting, into an engine of coordinated liberalization. Using the EU for this had the advantage that it allowed national governments, left or right, to evade responsibility for the market pressures and institutional revisions they had unleashed on their peoples, by claiming that these had been imposed on them from above and that they were part and parcel of an internationalist “European idea” anyway. Very importantly, European Monetary Union, created in the 1990s under global pressures for fiscal consolidation – to reassure the “financial markets” of the solvency of increasingly indebted states – served as a vehicle for the constitutionalization of balanced budgets in national states, something that would have been much more difficult if not impossible if it would have had to be sold by democratically elected governments to their voters. In that sense, the demise of the center-left parties was self-inflicted: they had underestimated the capacity and resolve of their peoples ultimately to defend themselves, if need be by turning to new “populist” parties and movements.

On the other end of the political spectrum, you define the problem of the right as crucial. Not only are new radical rightwing parties formed, such as the AfD, they also manage to profit from the death of the left. You describe how members of the former communist party (SED) are now likely to vote radically right. Does ideology really not matter anymore? Are then perhaps the terms left and right not the right references to describe Western political landscapes?

SED membership did not mean much ideologically; we are talking about a communist state party. But it is true, not just in Germany but also elsewhere, especially in France, that a relevant share of left voters have turned to the right. The most important reason, I think, is that they no longer felt represented by their former center-left parties, who had joined the center-right by telling voters that they couldn’t help them anymore because of “globalization”, and they now had to fend for themselves: become “flexible”, get “retrained” etc.

More here.