Book Review – Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism [Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus], by Wolfgang Streeck, Berlin: Suhrkamp, extend-ed edition, 2015

– Sabine Dörry –

The conceptualisation of the phenomenon of financialisation has been firmly rooted in geographical research for years. In “Buying Time” Wolfgang Streeck presents an amazingly coherent foundation for the empirical findings of our time in which the process of finan-cialisation is a core component. His sharp, critical social analysis, primarily of the last 40 years, essentially concerns “buying time”. Time has been bought repeatedly for decades, with which we are presently subsidising a gigantic restructuring of society, away from the social market economy of the post-war era and towards the Hayekian neoliberalism of the (financial) markets, which is in momentous conflict with our democratic social order. However, in contrast to the traditional Marxist explanatory approaches, it was not the proletarian “masses”, but rather “capital in the form of its organisations, organisers and owners” (p. 83) that was responsible for renouncing allegiance to post-war capitalism. In its transformed role – as a “player” rather than “plaything” (p. 86) – financial capital now functions as the main driving force behind the present profound restructuring of society.

With sharp wit and a sharp tongue, Streeck describes this as an epochal, systematic de-velopment from the Keynesian tax state of the post-war period, which guaranteed growth, employment and social equalisation through public business cycle politics and corresponding tax revenue, to the present debt state, in which, until the 2008 crisis, the private finance industry provided credit financing for states’ exploding debt, but which is now overwhelmed and has passed the task of sovereign debt financing on to the central banks. If we remain on this path of development – which Streeck assumes for the time being –, we will foreseeably enter the age of the consolidation state, in the formation and formulation of which the “markets” and “financial technicians” of international financial diplomacy, i.e., the central banks, will have overpowered the democratic structure of our social coexistence. The inevitable consequences of this development are the radical in-crease in severe economic crises, a further deepening of social inequality and increasing political tensions in a Europe compelled by a common currency into a “forced union”. Streeck describes the “institutionalised permanent crisis” in Europe’s currency union as a distributional conflict which, in simplified terms, manifests between the hard currency countries of Northern Europe, above all Germany, and the soft currency countries in Southern Europe and thus will revolve more and more “around the axis of money versus control” (p. 325). This permanent crisis is the temporary high point of the historical crisis sequence of capitalism addressed above, which, in essence, introduced by the inflation of the 1970s, is equivalent to a constant deferment of debt without resolution. For now, the ultimate lenders of last resort are the central banks, and – above all – the ECB. What may come next remains open, but “doubts, justified by experience, about the viability and sustainability of free capitalist markets” (p. 16) are more apparent than ever.

The insights, which Wolfgang Streeck – director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne for many years – first presented in 2012 as part of his Frankfurt Adorno Lectures, are of great interest for geographical research for at least three reasons and represent an invitation to a critical intellectual debate. First, Streeck’s argument of advancing economic and social imbalances due to sovereign debt and consolidation is genuinely linked to spatial implications. One example (among many more) of a regional manifestation of the global crisis of financialised capitalism, is the increasing disparity of regional incomes at the same time as stagnant economic growth, since inflated financial growth is no longer true growth, after all, as the example of the US has shown for at least a decade (p. 272). The deepening division in living conditions is just one effect of the shift in control from public government towards predominantly private governance arrange-ments, which must ultimately reduce the existing political primacy of equal living condi-tions in the EU, supported by contributions in the billions, to absurdity.

Secondly, the interrelationships between (monetary) power and space impressively illus-trate through the example of the financial management of the EU how the power of money increasingly even dictates part of the EU’s geopolitics. Against the framework con-ditions sketched by Streeck, the flourishing of more and more highly dynamic financial centres and the power of their finance industries is just one consequence, but its ad-vancement is consistently in the interests of the nation states that have been trans-formed into debt states. Examinations of urban development through strategies of the finance industry, for example, require much greater attention than they currently receive. Apart from mainstream (economic) geography research, such strategies have also gained enormous importance to date, as the examples of the financial centres of London, Lux-embourg and Singapore impressively demonstrate. The examples of these financial cen-tres also demonstrate a transfer of power from political to financial elites occurring in parallel.

Thirdly, this book seems to me a credible and plausible call to conduct social and societal research farther away from mathematical model precision and as a counterweight to a “science of economics undergoing increasing neoclassical sanitisation” (p. 301). Streeck himself adduces an impressive example for his argument: “How such patterns of progres-sions arise, how much or little intentionality they require, and how structure, agency and contingency interact are questions that social scientists today frequently address under the rubric of investigating institutional change, using concepts like path dependency, criti-cal juncture and the like, but they have not got very far” (p. 21).

The book is at once a tour de force and an essential snapshot of our society at the turning point at which it finds itself. According to Streeck, with universal hubris, i.e. an integrated single market that no longer leaves room for regional pluralism that has developed histor-ically, the political integration project of Europe will founder on the ad hoc economic con-struct of the European currency union. Although Streeck remains oddly imprecise about a proposal for action, even in the revised edition of his book, and resorts more to theoreti-cal discussion threads, “Buying Time” deserves the broadest readership and represents an invitation to greater participation by geographers in the intellectual debate about a fu-ture monetary and economic order that traces back to Smith/Hayek on the one hand and Keynes/Polanyi/Weber on the other. It sets a challenging research goal. Streeck’s mono-graph suggests that nothing less is at stake than the future existence and functioning of the peace and democracy project of Europe, and thus the arrangement of a social order that serves more than just the individual, regional and national winners.

*This is a translated and slightly shorter version of Dörry, S. (2016) Review of: W Streeck (2015): Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus. Berlin: Suhrkamp. Die Erde, 147(1): 68-69.

Please find the original version of this book review in German here ( All the cited phrases and terms are translations from the original German version and from my review in German.

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