Wolfgang Streeck’s ‘neo-romantic’ sociology

Wolfgang Streeck is one of the most prominent and widely-published sociologists in Europe and the United States. Since the early 2000s, the writings of the former director of the Max Plank Institute have been featured in New Left Review, the London Review of Books, New Statesman and Jacobin, and his books have been published by Verso (2016a, 2014). At the same time, he has emerged as a leading proponent of Brexit and opponent of the European Union. He is currently a member of Aufstehen—the group founded by the Die Linke politician Sahra Wagenknecht in 2018. Aufstehen are notable in insisting that it is necessary to appeal to supporters of the far Right, including Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and renounce Die Linke’s commitment to open borders.

Streeck’s calls for restricting immigration (including refugees) have become more pronounced in recent years, though his nationalism should not come as a surprise to anyone. In other words, Streeck’s increasingly strident support for borders was neither unforeseeable nor is it inexplicable. It has become more explicit as he and Aufstehen have encountered criticism and opposition.

But it is was always the clear implication of adopting a Polanyian approach, according to which the problem with capitalism is invariably characterised as that of the movement of people beyond their purportedly proper and ‘traditional’ boundaries, where assertions of ‘tradition’ does the work of a mythic, idealised history in which ‘social cohesion’ existed but is now lost and should be retrieved, and Marx’s critique of political economy is twisted into an argument for that most conservative of tendencies in political economy, namely: moral economy (Mitropoulos 2012, 157–58, passim).

Still, the issue of border controls has certainly moved to the foreground of Streeck’s writings.

In 2016 Streeck co-authored a piece titled “Europa braucht die Nation” (‘Europe Needs the Nation’), in which it was suggested that only a “responsible nationalism” could counter “the looming irresponsible nationalism” (Höpner, Scharpf, and Streeck 2016). How “responsible nationalism” differs from “irresponsible nationalism” in terms of policy, politics and their implications is not entirely clear, particularly when it entails the adoption of similar migration policies and, more importantly perhaps, the assumptions that give those policies credence. Claims that it is necessary to deliver on the demands of fascists with respect to borders so as to, presumably, avert their electoral advance is however a standard trope of the centre-Right—a claim encapsulated more recently in David Frum’s article “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will” (Frum and Martin 2019).

In that same year and immediately after the referendum on European membership, Streeck not only insisted that “a major, if not the most important, reason why the British voted to leave the European Union was immigration,” but argued that they are right to be “afraid of being burdened” with the requirement of freedom of movement within the European Union “to open their borders and their labour markets … to immigrants from other, less prosperous EU member countries but also to whoever would demand entry as an asylum seeker or refugee” (2016b, 1, 5).

In 2017 Streeck gave a keynote to a graduate student conference on migration studies in which he presented himself as a bold truth-teller, promising to disregard “whatever restrictions on public speech may be demanded by concerned citizens in order not to play into the hands of ‘the Right’” (2018, 4)—and proceeded to make a series of claims that not only repeated Right-wing, neomalthusian fallacies on migration and labour markets, but put forward a mythic history in which the Left is reimagined as a “traditional” proponent of Right-wing politics and views. In that speech, the commitment of prominent parts of the Left to freedom of movement—indeed, the call for ‘workers of the world to unite’ derived from the Communist Manifesto—is converted into a dismissive footnote on “international (working class) solidarity,” appended as an afterthought in which the brief glimmer of a discordant reality is brushed aside as “rhetorical” because it does not affirm Streeck’s fantastical historiography of the Left’s “traditional” conformity to a “historical pro-regulation agenda” and the politics of law and (national) order (2018, 6, fn.9).

Moreover, Streeck’s assertion that “restricting the supply of labor” limits “competition in labor markets” is a remarkable claim for a purportedly Left-wing “sociologist working in political economy” to make (2018, 6). Not only is there no evidence that, in the absence of national “barriers,” labour markets otherwise operate through the quantitative interchangeability of abstract workers competing over a fixed and finite number of jobs—but it is notable that, from the University of Sheffield to the University of Southern Denmark, he has been afforded institutional credibility with which to make neomalthusian arguments for which he never furnishes evidence so much as validates fears and hostilities (2016b, 2018).

To linger on this point for a moment: that is not how labour markets, or capitalism, function—except perhaps in the imaginary world of the least complex, static of game-theoretic models with the least number of variables and the hypothetical caveat of ‘all other things being equal.’ Nevertheless, the fostering of antipathy to the economic independence of women and the disorganization of workplaces through the exclusion of foreigners from unions (and Streeck has illustrated both positions) have served as dutiful ‘countervailing tendencies’ to declines of profitability from time to time.

To continue—nor is the problem simply that Streeck contradicts the assumption of smooth interchangeability by suggesting that migrants are destined for low-paid service work or a “burden”—both in this paper, and in his more recent assertions of a teleological global order of ethnonations contained in the claim that were Nelson Mandela to have been a refugee in Germany, he would have been “a mail carrier bringing Amazon parcels to your house” and not fulfilled his destiny (in O’Brien 2019).

The additional point is that the obsession with “replacement” on the far Right (see, for instance, Renaud Camus’ The Great Replacement Theory) and the Malthusian concept of natural scarcity are the two, pivotal elements of contemporary far Right and white supremacist discourse on labour markets and populations—key, that is, to converting class antagonisms into both nationalist political identification and the sentimental incitement of cheerful productivism in the name of economic nationalism.

It is also, to put it bluntly, a junk science provocation to violence against other workers, whether that is the legalised violence of the state at the border or the extra-legal violence that accompanies its growing, intensive rationalisations—put forward, in this instance, by an eminent sociologist. That Streeck spends so much of this paper denouncing ‘charity’ and Christian morality is boldly insincere for one who leans so heavily on Polanyi’s Catholic moral economy. But the intended effect of such speech is unmistakable: to steel one’s self against the feelings of and for ‘foreigners.’

There have been critical responses to Streeck’s arguments and those of Aufstehen. The sociologist Colin Crouch warned that Aufstehen was becoming “a left-wing appendage of the Right” in its failure to distinguish between affirming the rights of migrants and endorsing neoliberalism (2018). In a lengthy, critical review of Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?, the economic historian Adam Tooze has argued that Streeck turned “critical theory into a vehicle for the assertion of the primacy of the nation,” imagined “the end of capitalism” by erasing China and India, and evades the question of what it means for ‘the social’ to tame ‘the economy’ (2017). Joshua Clover suggests that Aufstehen and Streeck are piecing together “a version of what was once known as a ‘red-brown coalition'” from the wreckage of “of a liberal, technocratic center” (2018).

Streeck’s views on borders are pivotal. But his views on the borders that regulate migration are not isolated from a broader concept of the limits of ‘the social’ and its purportedly proper reproduction. The dark scenario in How Will Capitalism End? is both a theory of crisis in the idiom of economic nationalism and a cautionary tale of what Streeck insists happens when ‘proper’ boundaries of all kinds are transgressed, including by the movement of women into paid work.

In 2012, asked (by what is now a pro-Brexit website) about anti-austerity movements and protests such as Occupy Wall Street, Streeck admitted that he knew “too little about such movements,” but would nevertheless take the opportunity to compare it to a wave of protests some fifty years prior. “What one might hope for,” Streeck continued, “is a sort of cultural change,” one that recaptured “local autonomy” by embracing “a measure of neo-romanticism or even insurrectionism,” and that, “unlike 1968 and its aftermath, would not lend itself to being transformed into a ‘new spirit of capitalism,’ as described by Chiapello and Boltanski” (Streeck 2012).

What would this “measure of neo-romanticism or even insurrection” be directed against? As with Streeck, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello drew heavily on Polanyi for their book The New Spirit of Capitalism, in which they argued that an “artistic critique” of capitalism had triumphed in the wake of 1968 to become “the new spirit of capitalism.” By “artistic critique,” Boltanski and Chiapello meant “demands for liberation” that “berated the state, political parties and … trade unions” to take up issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace. The most distinctive villain of their book, however—the purveyor of this “new spirit of capitalism”—is the unproductive “dandy” uninterested in the ownership of land and women (2007, 291, 268, 38).

A decade on, Streeck repeated the line of this argument in criticising “Obama’s push for transgendered restrooms,” “‘marriage for all’ or ever new individualistic expressions of ‘gender’ or other ‘lifestyles’,” that, as he put it, are not only amenable to capitalism but had “the strong material support of the so-called ‘financial community'” (Streeck 2017). For Polanyians, ‘traditionalism’ is rendered as the only proper anti-capitalist strategy because Polanyians systematically redescribe ‘capitalism’ as the erosion of ‘tradition’ (that is, ‘traditional’ concepts of property law and right). By that view, those who do not serve the restoration of ‘tradition’—or the reproduction of ‘the social’ in the face of uncertainty—are implicitly cast as traitors to the cause.

Streeck found an audience on what passes for the (Marxist) Left for, I think, three broad reasons. First, there was an ‘intuitively’ nationalist responses to the financial crisis of 2007-08 which (unlike Marx but in line with Polanyi) juxtaposed nation-states and global financial markets, and invested an idealised view of nation-states with the sentimental, violent means of ‘protection’ against ‘global finance.’ This paradigm has been a matter of debate and position-taking for decades—which is to say, everyone knew what its implications were and euphemisms meant.

Secondly, Streeck’s growing prominence relied on a political milieu or readership furnished with a superficial grasp of Marx’s writings and, understandably, reliant on institutional authority, academics who are paid to know better, and publications for proof of a self-described Marxism.

Thirdly, Streeck’s prominence speaks to growing conflicts over the distribution and displacement of uncertainty (or ‘precariousness’), often articulated within the Left as hostility toward ‘identity politics,’ and coupled with Fordist nostalgia and anxiety over ‘a declining middle class.’

Streeck’s militant neo-romanticism illustrates the recurrent impasse of social democracy when confronted with class conflicts that cannot be tempered through elections, which register on the books as ‘financial crises,’ and fall outside the frame of cultural-nationalist definitions of class.

As to how Streeck brought ‘critical theory’ to this point: the harnessing of Marx-esque phraseology to a politics at odds with Marxism has been a hallmark of both Polanyian conservatism and Sorelian fascism for well over a century. Streeck is simply one of the most recent practitioners of the craft, adept at using fragments whose meaning is the inverse of that which he ascribes to them.

This is not to deny that Streeck’s organisational affiliations have shifted—from an early Weberian repudiation of Frankfurt School Marxism, to his time as an advisor to Gerhard Schröder’s government and involvement in Third Way corporatism, to his more recent involvement with Aufstehen. It is to suggest that such shifts do not represent the jettisoning of a romanticist reading of Weberian sociology in defining ‘the problem’—the very impetus to sociological speech—as the loss of a ‘social cohesion’ that had never existed, and thereby a discourse perpetually caught up in mourning the absence/decomposition of sociology’s ideal epistemic object or proposing to restore its ideal law and order.

Politically, Streeck lost his faith in social democratic centrism, corporatism, and the capacity of the vote to deliver on that ‘social cohesion’ (a class compromise)—and began appealing to ‘insurrectionary neo-romanticism’ to yield a ‘return’ to a more robust version of ‘social cohesion,’ that is: national identity. As to the implications of these narrower shifts for understandings of the border: all debates over migration are debates about the means and scope of violence required to stop people moving across borders, whether that is the legitimated violence of the state at the border or the extra-legal violence in the perceived absence of declared policy and laws—the ostensible ‘shift’ from political centrism to calls for a measure of ‘insurrectionary neo-romanticism’ is, in material terms, the difference between legal and extra-legal violence.


Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. 2007. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliot. 2nd ed. London: Verso.

Clover, Joshua. 2018. “Against Fortress Leftism.” Popula, August 1, 2018. https://popula.com/2018/08/01/against-fortress-leftism/.

Crouch, Colin. 2018. “Sahra Wagenknecht: Brauchen wir eine Sammlungsbewegung?” Die Zeit, August 17, 2018, sec. politics. https://www.zeit.de/2018/34/sahra-wagenknecht-die-linke-sammlungsbewegung-aufstehen.

Frum, David, and Rachel Martin. 2019. “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.” National Public Radio. March 22, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/03/22/705729699/the-atlantic-if-liberals-wont-enforce-borders-fascists-will.

Höpner, Martin, Fritz Scharpf, and Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. “EU: Europa braucht die Nation.” Die Zeit, October 2, 2016, sec. Wirtschaft. https://www.zeit.de/2016/39/eu-gipfel-eugh-euro-krisenbewaeltigung.

Mitropoulos, Angela. 2012. Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.

O’Brien, Hettie. 2019. “Wolfgang Streeck: ‘A Second Referendum Could Tear Society Apart More than the First.’” New Statesman, March 20, 2019. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/observations/2019/03/wolfgang-streeck-second-referendum-could-tear-society-apart-more-first.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2012. Interview with Wolfgang Streeck. Interview by Current Moment. https://thecurrentmoment.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/interview-with-wolfgang-streeck/.
———. 2014. Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. London: Verso Books.
———. 2016a. How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System. London: Verso Books.
———. 2016b. “Exploding Europe: Germany, the Refugees and the British Vote to Leave.” 31. Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, University of Sheffield.
———. 2017. Farewell, Neoliberalism. Interview by Johannes Lenhard and Rebecca Liu. http://kingsreview.co.uk/articles/farewell-neoliberalism-interview-wolfgang-streeck/.
———. 2018. “Between Charity and Justice: Remarks on the Social Construction of Immigration Policy in Rich Democracies.” Culture, Practice & Europeanization 3 (2): 3–22.

Tooze, Adam. 2017. “A General Logic of Crisis.” London Review of Books, January 5, 2017.

[For a pdf version: https://osf.io/ycpkx ]

5 thoughts on “Wolfgang Streeck’s ‘neo-romantic’ sociology”

  1. Looking forward to reading this, as his continued relevance on the left, as he openly and belligerently embraces racism and nationalism, is astounding to even me.

  2. Streeck was also a proponent of the anti-social Agenda2010 and HartzIV-reforms of chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which split rich and Poor in Germany ultimately.


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