A Middle Ground for the European Left

A Middle Ground for the European Left

François Hollande and Angela Merkel, September 2013 (President of the European Council/Flickr)

Making Capitalism Fit for Society
by Colin Crouch
Polity Press, 2013, 216 pp.

Europe is going through its most difficult period since the Great Depression and the Second World War. Growth rates for the Eurozone overall have been flat this year and were negative for most of last year; some countries have experienced several years of decline. Unemployment is sky high across the continent, especially among youth. Poverty and inequality are also increasing. As social and welfare programs are cut, public health is beginning to suffer, with increases in everything from HIV infection rates to suicide.* The political scene in Europe is almost as bad as the economic one. Disillusionment with democracy is at record levels, leading to a rise in extra-parliamentary activity and the growth of extremism.

Many on both the right and left view the current crisis as an ineluctable result of globalized capitalism. For those on the neoliberal right, Europe’s (indeed, the entire West’s) inability or unwillingness to adjust to the demands of the new economic order by cutting social security, decreasing the role of the state, and giving freer rein to market forces is the main cause of the crisis. On parts of the left, the understanding is oddly similar, anchored in a belief that global capitalism makes generous social provision, an active state, and the curbing of market forces impossible. Of course, the two sides draw different conclusions: the neoliberal right asserts that the changes required by globalized capitalism should be embraced, while parts of the left argue that globalized capitalism is an abomination that should be transformed.

Often overshadowed by both the neoliberal right and the anti-capitalist left is a middle-ground position that rejects the primacy of economics that is at the foundation of both of these positions—the belief that capitalism necessarily dictates the form and dynamics of politics and society—and is instead built upon an appreciation of both the costs and benefits of capitalism. Colin Crouch’s new book, Making Capitalism Fit for Society, is an attempt to explain the flaws of neoliberalism and anti-capitalism and reinvigorate the middle-ground position. Crouch, an eminent social scientist who has written numerous books and articles on capitalism, democracy, and European political economy, is well positioned to make this case.

Crouch begins by pointing out that despite all the talk of ours being a “new” or “global” era, capitalism has certain persistent characteristics that should guide our thinking about it. Twenty-first-century capitalism of course differs from its predecessors in important ways, but many of the basic challenges confronting Europe and the West today—ensuring social stability, limiting the encroachment of markets, coping with economic volatility—are nothing new. Alongside recognizing capitalism’s downsides, Cr...