Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism

Wolfgang Streeck

May 30, 2014

MPIfG Book


New York: Verso Books, 2014
192 pages
ISBN 9781781685495 (paperback)

"In its best parts – when political passion connects with critical exposition of the facts and incisive argument – Streeck's sweeping and empirically founded inquiry reminds one of Karl Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." (Jürgen Habermas)

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Streeck, Wolfgang
Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. London: Verso, 2014.


The financial crisis keeps us on edge and creates a diffuse sense of helplessness. Well-nigh unfathomable problems lead to measures that seem like emergency operations on the open heart of the Western world, performed with no knowledge of the patient’s clinical history. The gravity of the situation is matched by the paucity of our understanding of it, and of how it came about in the first place.
In this book, compiled from his Adorno Lectures given in Frankfurt, Wolfgang Streeck lays bare the roots of the present financial, fiscal, and economic crisis, seeing it as part of the long neoliberal transformation of postwar capitalism that began in the 1970s. Linking up with the crisis theories of that decade, he analyses the subsequent tensions and conflicts involving states, governments, voters, and capitalist interests – a process in which the defining focus of the European state system has shifted from taxation through debt to budgetary “consolidation.” The book then ends by exploring the prospects for a restoration of social and economic stability. Buying Time is a model of enlightenment. It shows that something deeply disturbing underlies the current situation: a metamorphosis of the whole relationship between democracy and capitalism.


A new type of crisis
Two surprises for crisis theory
The other legitimation crisis and the end of the postwar peace
The long turn: from postwar capitalism to neoliberalism
Buying time 
Financial crisis: a failure of democracy?
Capitalism and democracy in the neoliberal revolution
Excursus: capitalism and democracy
Starving the beast!
The crisis of the tax state
From tax state to debt state
Debt state and distribution
The politics of the debt state
Debt politics as international financial diplomacy 
Integration and liberalization
The European Union as a liberalization machine
Institutional change: from Keynes to Hayek
The consolidation state as a European multilevel regime
Fiscal consolidation as a remodelling of the state
Growth: back to the future
Excursus on regional growth programmes
On the strategic capacity of the European consolidation state
Resistance within the international consolidation state
What now?
Capitalism or democracy
The euro as a frivolous experiment
Democracy in Euroland?
In praise of devaluation
For a European Bretton Woods
Gaining time


Wolfgang Streeck

Wolfgang Streeck is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne.


"In its best parts – when political passion connects with critical exposition of the facts and incisive argument – Streeck's sweeping and empirically founded inquiry reminds one of Karl Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte."
Jürgen Habermas
"Is electoral democracy compatible with the type of economic policies the EU – backed at a distance by Washington and Wall Street – wants to impose? This is the question posed by the Cologne-based sociologist Wolfgang Streeck in Buying Time, a book that is provoking debate in Germany. Streeck argues that since Western economic growth rates began falling in the 1970s, it has been increasingly hard for politicians to square the requirements of profitability and electoral success; attempts to do so ('buying time') have resulted in public spending deficits and private debt. The crisis has brought the conflict of interests between the financial markets and the popular will to a head: investors drive up bond yields at the 'risk' of an election. The outcome in Europe will be either one or the other, capitalist or democratic, Streeck argues; given the balance of forces, the former appears most likely to prevail. Citizens will have nothing at their disposal but words – and cobblestones."
Susan Watkins, London Review of Books
"Streeck has here provided an excellent and challenging account of the current state of relations between capitalism and democracy. His concept of a state whose democratic responsibilities to voters are required systematically to be shared with and often trumped by those to creditors takes us a major step forward."
Colin Crouch, author of Coping With Post-Democracy
"Buying Time is a powerfully argued book. At times, Streeck's anger at the developments he describes spills over into the careful prose, and his conclusions are bleak, suggesting that the time will soon come when capitalism and democracy part ways, and wondering aloud whether the most likely outcome will be a 'Hayekian social dictatorship.' This reviewer shares Streeck's profound pessimism about the future of democratic capitalism, but even for those who do not, but care about the trajectory of capitalist political economies, this book should be required reading. It reorients the field of political economy in ways that are impossible to ignore."
Chris Howell, in: Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal 36(1), 2014

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