democratic capitalism
The IMF, Washington DC. (Credit: Kristina Blokhin/ (via:

Fifteen world-renowned scholars gathered at Berlin’s Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) to discuss problems related to what the organiser of the conference had called “The Triple Crisis of Governance” as manifest in the state, the market, and the community. In a brief background paper, Jürgen Grote (DOC Research Institute, Berlin) had tried to line out the main problematique. In his introductory statement on how to connect the crisis of capitalism to the crisis of collective action, Grote suggested analytically proceeding by embarking on six distinct steps. Ideally, each of these steps would envisage symptoms of crisis appearing in each of the three dimensions above.

  • Firstly, line out the main characteristics of the triple crisis of (disembedded) markets, of (post-democratic) states, and of (fragmented) communities;
  • Secondly, try to figure out how these phenomena are materialising in terms of precarity understood in the most general sense, i.e., in the form of labour market exclusion, of abstention from voting, and of a loss of social rights;
  • Thirdly, try to describe the malaise from the emotional and the cognitive perspective of those being most concerned, for instance, in terms of anxiety, anger, despair, anomy, and so forth;
  • Forth, turn to Hirschman’s categories of exit and loyalty – eventually adding sufferance – to describe the most conventional forms of reaction on the part of both individuals and collectivities;
  • Fifth, envisage the dimension of group-based voice – possibly distinguishing between “real-utopian” (progressive) and “retrotopian” (regressive) visions and worldviews;
  • Sixth, ask for concrete manifestations of collective voice in terms of trade union organising, of social movement mobilisation, of campaigning by political parties, and so forth.

Focusing on the first of these points and, in particular, on the dimension of the state, Jonathan Davies (De Montfort University, Leicester) opened the debate with a critical account of the paradigms of governance and of networks: “Idealized Network Theories and the End of Governance”. Original contributions to the governance debate had assumed that the skills of diplomacy, communication, and bargaining would be enough in achieving coordination. Yet, this overlooked the importance of hard power in terms of coercion and strong material incentives. Governance, hence, appears to be an ideology for “good-times”. Under austerity, “network governance” seems hardly more than: a parochial and decaying paradigm, which fails to improve the way societies and economies are governed; a vague premonition of one possible post-capitalist future mistaken for reality; a third way delusion at the height of neoliberal triumphalism; and a visionary regulative ideal in the “rollout” phase of neoliberalism.

Opening the second analytical box mentioned above, Stefan Schmals (University of Jena) turned to the “Causes, Consequences, and Contradictions of Precariousness”. Schmalz argued that, unlike atypical employment, precariousness is a relational concept and heavily draws from the French discussion. It has a traversal quality and affects various social spheres. Most importantly, one would need to distinguish between objective factors underlying precariousness on the one hand and the subjective feelings triggered by that on the other hand. According to the definition by the Jena group of researchers, precariousness has different dimensions: a reproductive-material one; a social-communicative one; a participatory one; a dimension of recognition; and a further one of work content. A kind of disciplinary regime of precariousness would have emerged in Germany. Even among the permanently employed parts of the workforce (zone of integration) would be a diffuse fear of losing their jobs while the zones of precariousness and of decoupling would equally grow in importance. Schmalz then turned to the case of Germany or, more precisely, to Germany’s Wild East. East Germany is a low wage area (about 25% lower than in the Western part) with deregulated labour relations: coverage by collective agreements at only 28 percent as compared to 47 percent in the West, and the existence of works committees at 35 percent as compared to 43 percent. Employees often tend to choose the exit option while the unions would fail in coming up with successful organising strategies thus largely embarking on forms of exclusive solidarity. As a result, social protest would largely be dominated by far-right movements while a new right-wing party is gaining unprecedented consent.

Although not in disaccord with the above arguments, Kevin Doogan (University of Bristol) questioned the general validity of the “end of work” and the “age of insecurity” hypotheses as forwarded by authors such as Castel, Giddens, Beck, and others. In his contribution on “Precarity – Structural and Political/Ideological Dimensions”, he demonstrated that many of the widely held perceptions of insecurity and impermanence are not actually confirmed by empirical evidence on the OECD countries. With respect to some key indicators, namely types of employment contract, length of employment tenure, and subjective job insecurity, no clear-cut patterns seem to emerge. Doogan rather identifies divergent trends: one pointing towards impermanent and unpredictable hours and earnings, and another one towards increasing job tenure and long service employment. However, a correct assessment of these divergences would be made impossible by the legacy of dual labour market theory. There are two points, in particular, where Doogan supported the arguments brought forward by most other participants of the conference: firstly, insecurity is a wide-spread phenomenon which, secondly, is not confined to employees on temporary contracts. Yet, if we were to accept this general statement who then is most insecure – the temporary or the permanent worker? In particular, “if precarity is seen as a decline in security, then low expectations of employment security lessens the sense of insecurity.” Overall, avoiding too alarmist narratives of crisis and decline, or what Doogan calls “manufactured uncertainty”, scholars are advised to turn to more reliable comparative data and, moreover, to disentangle the incongruent notions of precarity and atypical work.

Introducing social pathologies and elaborating on the notion of anomie, Noelle Burgi (Science Po, Paris) emphasised elements pertaining to the second and the forth steps (“The End of Hope: The Neoliberal Petrification of Social Life”). She opened her presentation with a question originally advanced by Charles Tilly: “If ordinary domination so consistently hurts the well-defined interests of subordinate groups, why do subordinates comply? Why don’t they rebel continuously, or at least resist all along the way?”. Taking this as a starting point, Burgi blamed four instances in particular: the sheer non-availability of alternative ideological frames; the atomisation/individualisation of society; the petrification of social life; and the end of hope. With reference to Marx and Weber, she argued that in a world of comprehensive commodification, the only value dominating society today is the one of acquisition as based on success and merit. People who do not manage to live up to standards like this, do all too easily fall into an “iron cage” of social pathologies and anomie as best described by Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton. According to Burgi, exit from anomie essentially offers two options: an individual one (violence against the self, i.e., suicide) and/or a collective one (violence against others, mobbing, and xenophobia). Overall, the combined effects of de-mystification, (mechanical) petrification, and alienation leave space for hardly more than two collective but contrary answers: a communitarian one based on a progressive “we”, or an ethno-nationalist fascist one based on a pathological “we”.

Steps two and six were the ones picked by most other speakers. Particular attention was paid to the relationship between precariousness and forms of mobilisation by different types of collective actors. In two separate contributions, the question was addressed by Richard Hyman (LSE, “Is there a Precariat?”) and Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick (Birbeck College, “European Trade Unions and Precarious Workers”). Hyman started by approaching the problem from a general perspective by asking whether we actually live in an age of precarity. His answer is intriguing: the so-called normal employment relationship has always been an exceptional, geographically bounded and historically contingent creation which was built on specific preconditions that no longer apply. Turning to the work of Guy Standing and acknowledging the power of Standing’s analysis, Hyman nevertheless criticises the fact that the precariat does nowhere show up as internally coherent or as being clearly divided from other social groups. Since interests and identities are not only objectively given but are also socially constructed, collective actors are “imagined communities” in the first place. Forecasts about the capacity and the willingness to act collectively are difficult since whether the precariat becomes part of a broader movement, develops a distinctive common project, or intensifies the “war with itself” is as much (or more) a question of practice than of theory. In a similar vein but more oriented at the reactions from the part of organised labour, Gumbrell-McCormick underlined the indecisiveness and the wait-and-see stance taken by many unions with respect to the precariously employed. Do the latter represent a threat or an opportunity for unions? Should they be included or excluded? Respective decisions, she argued, would have a strong historical dimension and would depend on ideological differences. Overall, the picture is complex, with strong variations across countries. One of the main questions to be addressed by unions is whether to embark on fights for better regulation for the entire workforce or to opt for organising strategies aimed at including more of the precariously employed.

In her contribution on “Types of Working Class Struggles in Times of Social Unrest”, Beverly Silver (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) reported on an encompassing project on “Economic and Geopolitical Crisis and Waves of Labor Unrest.” She also emphasised the importance of the relationship between precariousness and collective action. Contrary to the assumption prevailing throughout the past three decades, namely that labour movements worldwide were in a severe crisis, Silver observes a rise in labour unrest beginning at around the year 2010. Something similar would apply to the notion and the significance of class in these conflicts. Two sets of questions, therefore, are to be addressed. Firstly, what about the relevance of class in the most recent wave of protests? Secondly, what about the historical significance of these protests – do they eventually indicate a turning point in world history? While class has been declared to be largely irrelevant as an organising principle especially in much of the social movement literature, Silver insists on the continued validity of the concept and goes beyond the confining definitions of class, and of the proletariat, as suggested by authors such as Standing and Zizek. Contrary to these, in her perspective both “rustbelt-precarious” and “sunbelt-fulltime employed” workers are part of the definition. Particularly interesting is her insistence on the fact that working-class formation is a historical process or a process of “creative destruction”, and that, hence, one would need to distinguish between (a) the unmaking of an old working class and (b) the remaking of a new one. We would have to do, therefore, with the “recurrent making, unmaking and remaking of working classes on a world-scale”, as much as with the emergence of struggles both by workers experiencing the “creative” and the “destructive” sides of the process of capital accumulation. To these two types, a third one is added. It is represented by those who have been proletarianised but who have never had stable wage employment. This third type refers to struggles by that part of the working class who were never made or unmade but who have simply been bypassed by capital. Overall, Silver’s project is concerned with three central points: the weight of labour unrest worldwide over the past few years; the weight of the three types of working-class struggles within the larger protest movement; the class composition of the recent protest wave. These questions will be addressed with the help of a wide-scale empirical investigation and the setting up of an extensive new data bank on class, class composition, and conflict.

Looking at “Reactions to the Crisis by the Disadvantaged”, Frédéric Royall (University of Limerick) took up these arguments but turned to those, in particular, who do not typically join a union: the marginalised and disadvantaged who all suffer various cultural, social, and political obstacles. Royall claims that mobilisation of the disadvantaged is often linked to new patterns and forms of social and political marginalisation and inequality. Analysing these newly emerging patterns, he, therefore, looked at the extent to which disadvantaged people are of political significance in many of today’s West European societies, in particular in France. The three key concepts used by him are: resource mobilisation, political opportunity structures, and frame analysis. Some of the groups are financially disadvantaged, lacking money and work; others are economically disadvantaged, with members having precarious, part-time, or short-term jobs; some are socially disadvantaged, with fragile networks of solidarity; others are culturally disadvantaged, with members continuously victimised, stigmatised and rejected; finally, some are politically disadvantaged when they have little or no access to decision-making structures. These exclusionary factors can be cumulative and give way to different outcomes. Picking France as an example, Royall asked whether crisis and economic hardship would result in greater political engagement or in withdrawal from politics in either the institutional and/or the extra-institutional realm. Looking at different periods in time, he then compared the activities of the Mouvement de 1995; of the Mouvement des chômeurs (97-98); of the Mouvement des recalculés (2004); and of the États généraux du chômage et de la précarité (2009), describing that period in terms of a shift from the local to the national to the local. Over time, there has been a noteworthy decline in both enthusiasm and organising capacity. Established trade unions insisted on retaining a monopoly of representation, support from the part of civil society and its associations diminished, and many activists moved to other causes. Paraphrasing Sidney Tarrow’s quotation of an ancient Greek proverb (“Post coitum omne animal triste est”, Royall argued that this represented the typical disillusionment often following waves of contention.

Donatella Della Porta (Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence) touched upon step two and three but essentially outlined the advancements made by “Social Movement Research and Political Economy – On the Motives Underlying Anti-Austerity Protest”. She pointed to the temporalities of capitalism (neoliberalism as a second great transformation; the strange non-disappearance of neoliberalism; diversities of capitalism embedded in global capitalism) before elaborating on the multiplicity of the current crisis (bank crisis; debt crisis; the crisis of competitiveness; the crisis of trade imbalances; social crisis). In the political sphere, this would be further aggravated by a combination of a “new” legitimacy crisis and of a crisis of joining responsiveness with responsibility – a kind of de-responsabilisation of representative institutions. Social movement research would need to take account of this and, indeed, has increasingly done so over the past few years by envisaging the emergence of: a Polanyi-like countermovement; of a world-systems anti-systemic movement; of post-identity multitudes; and of attempts to bridge artistic and social forms of critique. Overall, Della Porta observes a move from the “politics of the forum” towards the “politics of the camp”. This would appear in form of shifts from associational democracy towards communitarian or direct democracy; from councils towards assemblies; from rational/political towards prefigurative/emotional arguments, and so forth. Several questions remain for discussion and for further research: Do we witness a kind of cross-class coalition embracing the losing two thirds of society; does the bridging of social justice and democracy claims lead to the emergence of broader, but at the same time weaker identities; and is it reasonable to expect that mistrust in institutions is offset by trust in mobilised citizens?

The contribution by Lawrence Cox (National University of Ireland) was essentially concerned with “Situated Rationalities and Movements from Below in the Twilight of Neoliberalism”. Cox started by arguing that there are two dominant modes of theorising in social movement research. One tends to remain on the surface and embarks on descriptive accounts thus taking popular action for granted. Another one would dwell more into underlying structures thus emphasising that collective agents need to continuously construct themselves in a series of multiple contested processes which are non-linear, path-dependent, and often knocked back. While a bird’s eye view of popular agency is bound to fail, this latter more analytic approach would be preferable because it emphasises the changing meaning of institutional forms (nation, democracy, trade union, party, welfare, etc.) and pays closer attention to the dimensions of situation, action, meaning, and contestation. Agency is another factor to be taken account of. The current crisis, or how Cox prefers calling it, the twilight of neoliberalism, is not the offspring of some anonymous laws of motion but, rather, is anchored in deliberate choices and collective strategies by members of a particular leading formation. In other words, the crisis has been triggered by a specific accumulation strategy of a movement from above, and there are no signs that the agents of this movement would have any kind of plan B. The message is likely to be “more of the same”, irrespective of what is happening from the part of the opposite movement from below. The only perceivable option to prevent from further socio-political and economic decline would be the capacity of social movements from below to transcend their militant particularisms, to go beyond events of local uprisings towards more broad-based campaigns and then, in a last step, to turn these campaigns into more broad-based activities that would lead to a veritable organic crisis. Yet, this would require many collective learning processes, many of which strongly contested, whose success cannot be taken for granted.

All of the remaining four contributions picked aspects linked to the sixth step as a point of departure, namely politics, collective action, and populism. Both Philippe Schmitter (EUI Florence) and Claus Offe (Hertie School of Governance, Berlin) presented full-fledged papers on the fate of liberal, of post-liberal, and of illiberal democracy. Offe (“Liberal vs. Illiberal Democracy: Conceptual Explorations on the Populist Surge”) suggested that the essence of liberal democracy should best be visualised as a cube consisting of three dimensions: popular sovereignty (accountability, responsiveness, responsibility); the constitutional order (citizenship rights and rule-of-law principles); and state or government capacity (provision of security and of opportunities to citizens). Of these three, Offe considered the problem of inadequate state capacity to be the single most serious problem currently encountered by liberal democracies. The most crucial among these capacities are: military and police protection from violence; social and economic protection and opportunity; and the provision and protection of cultural goods and facilities. Today, “states are virtually being rendered incapable by social and economic forces beyond their control to effectively fulfill [these] functions.” While inadequate state capacity is the most serious problem today, its most dramatic and consequential development is populism. Populism threatens all three dimensions of the cube of liberal democracy. Overall, Offe is convinced that “we seem to have arrived in an age of non-cooperation where the world is framed as a zero-sum game immersed in moral hazard psychology.” The going-it-alone ethos of “sovereignty parochialism” would resemble an attempt of nationalising the weather. The only way forward would be to pool resources and to merge competencies and responsibilities. Sovereignty can only increase when nation states are ready to give up parts of it for the sake of cooperation and collective action.

While Offe asked for collective efforts to combat the danger of illiberalism, Schmitter’s hunch is that the times of liberal democracy, as representing the favorite destination of both politicians and citizens during most of the post-war period, are irrevocably gone (“Post-liberal Democracy: A Sketch of the Possible Future?”). Due to a vast number of secular trends, of which globalisation and privatisation are only the most conspicuous ones, Real Existing Democracies (REDs) would less and less conform to that ideal type. Their current crisis has its roots in endogenous sources (bureaucratisation, professionalisation, non-majoritarian guardian institutions, multi-level governance, etc.) and exogenous sources (individualisation, financialisation, ICT-related developments, etc.). Developments within the first of these two dimensions would trigger distrust of politicians, while those within the second would lead to anomie of citizens. Although there are signs suggesting that governing elites would opt for more of the same (MLD or More Liberal Democracy), in Schmitter’s view a much more likely outcome would be forms of PLD (Post-liberal Democracy). However, for establishing something like PLDs, a whole bunch of institutional reforms would be needed. In the second part of his presentation, Schmitter went on to outline parts of these reforms, which amounted to a menu of more than thirty necessary amendments. Since a new social contract that would change the rules of the democratic game cannot be signed by an invisible hand, such a process would take quite some time and would be incremental in character. The greatest threats to the achievement of these goals would not come from extreme positions on the right or the left but, rather, from the “normal practitioners and consumers” of REDs, i.e., politicians and voters.

The conference was closed with two contributions on a topic not sufficiently addressed by any of the preceding papers, namely the case of Central and Eastern European countries. Martin Potucek (Charles University of Prague) underlined aspects of the political and societal specificity of that region and asked for more “Respect for Historical Legacies and Social Welfare in Central and Eastern Europe: The Missing Link in Current EU Policies”. Marianna Zielonska (University of Warsaw) turned to a similar question and asked in how far “Weak Social Safety Nets are to Blame for the Rise of the Radical Right in Poland”. Potucek opened his presentation with the statement that, contrary to many assumptions, the process of transition to democracy in CEE can as yet not be regarded as completed. It remains a gigantic societal experiment for which there is no adequate theoretical explanation at hand. It remains difficult to analytically grasp, better understand, and correctly interpret the various phenomena of transition and consolidation with respect to their mutual interdependencies. The combined effects of external (hegemony of neoliberal ideology; rigidity of accession criteria, etc.) and of internal challenges (blind trust in market mechanisms, combined with lacking experience with the practice of democracy, and with lacking skills in aligning political and economic demands) have led to a dramatic decrease in rates of trust in government and, in particular, in political parties (between 10 and 20 percent on average in all Visegrad countries). This has subsequently become extended to include EU institutions and the entire process of integration. The EU has simply neglected the crucial role played by historically specific attitudes and pathways to democracy and has not been able to come up with a convincing fusion of its Janus-faced rhetoric on the European social model and the further liberalisation and flexibilisation of labour markets. Potucek concluded with a reference to Gösta Esping-Andersen: “East and Central Europe is clearly the most under-defined region, a virtual laboratory of experimentation.”

Zielonska basically agreed with the previous speaker and also turned to the relationship between material needs and welfare cuts, as partly induced by EU policies, and to the rise of the political right in a country that had once been seen as a blueprint of successful transition. What happened to the Polish success story, why have people drifted to the right of the political spectrum and, finally, does this have anything to do with the emergence of marginalised groups? Zielonska brought forward two answers to these questions, one empirical and another more theoretically oriented. First, over the years, the country has witnessed the emergence of a rigidly divided dual labour market whose boundaries have become close to impermeable. Social policies and workers right have substantially improved for those in stable employment relationships but have cut off from this all other employees in temporary, atypical, or otherwise precarious employment. Moreover, the share of this latter fraction has constantly increased over time. Secondly, although class divisions have become strengthened after the 1989 transformation, this has not been perceived in terms of a conflict of interests but, rather, of a conflict of identities. Hence, it has not been those forces gathering and organising workers along the lines of interests but those referring to identity, namely backward looking nationalist and reactionary parties and movements. Since even the post-communists and social democrats essentially supported the process of market liberalisation, there has never actually been a more far-reaching dispute about the future of the economic model.

In retrospect, looking at all contributions to this conference, it turns out that there continues to be a vast lacuna of topics which would need to be filled by both empirical and theoretical work. This refers particularly to the third, the forth, and the fifth of the analytical steps mentioned in the beginning, as much as to the linkages connecting these steps: passions, interests, and concerns; exit, loyalty, and sufferance; and, finally, collective voice in form of either progressive or regressive strategies to overcome the malaise. In any case, participants in principle declared their interest to review their contributions and to come up with full-blown papers to be published in an edited volume on “The Capitalist Crisis and Collective Action” later in 2019.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.
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Jürgen Grote

Senior Researcher and Topic Leader (Policies, Institutions, and Strategies in Global Inclusive Development), DOC Research Institute, DE

Jürgen Grote is a senior researcher and topic leader (Inclusive Global Development: Strategies, Institutions and Progress) at the DOC Research Institute in Berlin.He has previously been a senior research fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and coordinator of an international network on labour relations in context. He has held the Marie Curie Chair of Excellence in Public Policy at Charles University in Prague and has worked as an associate professor, lecturer, and research fellow at the MZES-Mannheim, the EUI-Florence, and at the Universities of Konstanz, Darmstadt, Potsdam, Jena, and Osnabrück. He has been a visiting scholar and visiting lecturer at the Universities of Montpellier, Lyon, Roskilde and at Bocconi University, Milan.In between, he has been engaged in policy consultancy on behalf of several regional governments, business interest associations, and labour unions in Italy. His main research interests include topics such as forms of organised collective action by both capital and labour, civil society and social movements, European integration, regional and structural policies, critical governance, and relational analysis.On these and on related topics, he has published and co-edited many articles and several books (Sage, Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan) the most recent one being: Social Movements and Organized Labour: Passions and Interests (co-edited with C. Wagemann) 2018; London: Routledge.