Entrevista a Wolfgang Streeck

Wolfgang Streeck es sociólogo y economista político. En su vasta carrera académica, desarrollada principalmente en Alemania y Estados Unidos, ha trabajado sobre distintas temáticas todas ellas relacionadas  con la tensión entre democracia y capitalismo: corporativismo (con Philippe Schmitter), relaciones industriales y Estado de Bienestar, sistemas nacionales de producción (con Colin Crouch), variedades de capitalismo y cambio institucional. Actualmente se desempeña como director del Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. La siguiente entrevista, realizada por Stefano Palestini, se desarrolló el 28 de Marzo del 2011, en el Instituto Universitario Europeo de Florencia.

One of the characteristics of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies that is very attractive for many sociologists consists in the explicit attempt to connect Economic Sociology with Political Economy in the same research program. Even if I like the idea, it seems to me that there still are important mutual misrecognitions between both disciplines. Do you think this complementation is possible or even desirable?

I think is very desirable. First of all, if you look at the practice of economic sociology, particularly in United States, and I’m talking about economic sociology today, there is a conspicuous absence of politics in it. In the first handbook of Economic Sociology edited by Smelser and Swedberg, there was not a single mention of trade unions in the whole book, which was not precisely a small book as you know. For the second edition I was asked to write a chapter on trade unions and labour market, and I looked at the index of the first edition and there was not a single mention. Now, you have to think that it would be impossible to understand the social underpinnings of economy -of post World War economy- without allowing for the possibility of collective bargaining and collective organization intervening on markets with a politic objective. There should be present, and there was not. This all social network based paradigm has to be supplemented by a political approach…and it was out there. For example, Granovetter labour market being based on contacts between individuals: networks. Seymour Martin Lipset, when he developed his theory of labour unions, emphasized this idea of occupational communities that underlies trade unions. And he shows that trade unions can exist only where there are social bonds between individuals that have to be mobilized for collective action, you cannot use monads for. It is the very same notion of social relations that Granovetter uses to explain markets, and Lipset to explain trade unions. But the normal economic sociology was never aware of that, possibly because most of them lived in the United States. Which is another prove of the context in which a sociologist lives patterns his or her theories.

The other thing is that political economists, of course there are differences among them, but most of them tend to import a theory of the economy from standard economics, and then they assume that there is a single economy that works like a machine in which they can push buttons, and then, around this machine, stand people who have a political game going on: who is allow to get good results from the machine or who is out the machine. But, of course, economic sociology tells us that this construction of the economy as a machine is a total misunderstanding, the economy is a social system where normative agreement, non agreement, assessment, social obligations, etc. play an important role. And that cannot just be understood as a mechanical relationship of interest and need satisfactions, because even needs have to be socially defined. The economy is not given, it is a social construction. For example, take societies as Western Europe or United States that already in the early 1970 where immeasurable richer compared with any other society on the world, and after the ’70, rather than sitting back and enjoy, they work even more, they work very hard. This cannot be understood without reference to the symbolic dimension of goods, the function they have in defining social status; economists tend to assume that needs are always accessible and they are given; for the politics of modern societies is very important to understand where they come from and how they are defined and to explain why people feel that what they have is not enough, and why they might prefer to work more rather than have a good time.

One of the characteristics of the New Economic Sociology has been the development of quite sophisticated analytical devices as, for instance, network analysis. What is your opinion about these analytical instruments and their usefulness for understanding economic phenomena?

Well, I am not only interested in studies that remain at the macro level. For me the challenge always in sociology is to link micro phenomena with macro phenomena to the level of collectivities, and if you do that the study of social networks can be extremely useful. For example, one of my students did a wonderful study on social networks in industries with casual employment, in the case of Germany, architecture and movie makers. There it becomes clear how people relate themselves to the large structure of the industry by using their personal contacts and building networks in order to reach a contract in a project. Project labour is very much dependent on primary social relations that people have to carefully cultivate and maintain. And if you want to understand how this labour market functions, you need to understand the interpenetration between the formal contract relationships and the primary social relationships and how both support each other and undermine each other. Because, of course, if suddenly you find out that your friend is your friend only because he expects to get something of you, the friendship will suffer.

I think these methodological tools are very useful but they need to be put in the context of broader questions that have to do with the structure of societies. I am not a social psychologist; social psychologists might be interested in how people feel having this or that kind of social relations; I am a sociologist and this means that I want to see how social structures and institutions affect individuals, and how individuals, in turn, link up to and modify the social structures of the society.

I have the impression that one of the cleavages between Economic Sociology and Political Economy consists in the interpretation of Polanyi, who is considered as one of the most relevant classics for both disciplines. For instance you have insisted that the central idea of Polanyi is the notion of countermovement, that is, the dialectical process between, on the one hand, commodification and capital accumulation and, on the other, socio-political regulation and social reproduction. Economic Sociology, in turns, has been based largely on the idea, attributed to Polanyi, that economic action and economic phenomena in general are embedded in social relations. Do you think this different interpretation is a source of misunderstanding between both disciplines?

I think the sociology that assumes that societies are self stabilized is bad sociology. So, essentially I would say that it is a functionalist misunderstanding the assumption -that only parallels the functionalism of economics- that society is divided in parcels that are self stabilized. And for my friend Fligstein [Neil Fligstein] markets expand and then, somehow, social relations build up and embed this expanded market, because society is always embedded, or economy is always embedded. Then, I say that is a misunderstanding. In Wall Street when they started to sell the toxic papers, there were not social networks in which they were embedded, it needs to be constructed and you need a very sort of vigilant political system that observes what these people do, and then embed them sometimes against their will. The assumption in this sort of voluntaristic and functionalist sociology is that people will embed themselves because they observe all norms and are delight to have friends. What you need is enough counterforces in the society that imposes obligation and risks to self-interest activities and mad activities that people sometimes engage in. So, I think Polanyi can only be read in this way. Karl Polanyi did not live in California; he lived in the first half of the twentieth century and he saw how, first of all, the progress of liberal market economies undermined social structures and how societies some successfully, some utterly unsuccessfully, tried to rebuild social structures to keep these markets productive, namely, both useful for societies and not dangerous for societies. I think the book cannot be read in other way. And people who simply take from it that economy is a social institution just as any other social institution, misread it.

There is a tendency in part of economic sociology to try to do this matters in the economies, and this cause something like this: “economists have understood the condition of successful firms, successful economics, but we can tell them that in addition to good products and good engineering and so on, you also need good social relations and if you have good social relations, your economy will be even more successful”, in other words, economic sociology becomes a sort of thing that consultant agencies could sell to capitalists. The problem is that, to some extent maybe it can be true, but only insignificantly and to a minor extent; the most important thing is that the boss of  Goldman Sachs he does the sort of things that have to be embedded and he wants not to be embedded he just wants to make profits.

Actually, taking the Polanyian idea of countermovement, the financial crisis and, more recently, the collapse of Fukushima reactor are clear examples of the risks that commodification and de-regulation imply for human society. Where do you see, or do you expect to see, signals of the countermovement of new social regulation?

That is an important question that your generation must study, I’m really serious, if social science will be good in this reconstructive effort to find ways of governing this gigantic new society, which is our global society. How do govern it? I’m pessimistic in the following sense. What I think we have seen in the last thirty years was the dissolution of an order that had basically worked relatively well. This order dissolved, it crumbled away. Another important observation by history is that these processes of dissolution take time and you can go all the way along the process denying that there is a tendency toward disorganization, and that crises are an exception; now I’m convinced that what we see is a slow dissolution of mechanisms of control that were urgently needed at the time, that they cannot be restore because history is irreversible, and that posits a very important question: What are the mechanisms of governance that are going to take their place? The place of nation states, corporatism, traditionalist self restrain, all these things that kept, somehow, human life saved.  Nuclear reactor is a very good example; I compare the market to the inboard of a nuclear reactor, which needs to be cool all the time. You need a cooling system; if the cooling system disintegrates, it disintegrates the whole country. Who does cool the world society? We need a bit of more time to think about it, but not too much. For the critical sociologist, if I look at the things, I can express considerable doubt that many of the mechanisms that are today being offered as solutions are solutions. I think there are good reasons to doubt, for example, that something like Corporate Social Responsibility can be useful in govern global world by markets. They can probably protect the 10 year-old in Haiti from having to produce baseballs, and then 14 year-old does it. It’s progress: four years more life for the kid, but the nuclear reactor Fukushima is not been controlled by Corporate Social Responsibility. And then, of course, after 30 years of gradual liberalization we live in a world in which people think that the world can be organized on voluntaristic bases, everybody should have good spirits and people will voluntarily control themselves and, of course, I’m very suspicious that it would be possible. You need a kind of governance, so the question is where this governance will come from? People begin talking about global governance, governance across borders, and if you look closely you will notice that is very little governance, a lot of talks but very little governance.

That’s a long term project for social sciences to design the institutions that fit this world that has not been built as a global market.

An the old Habermasianan question, is this process a technical or a political one?

It is absolutely political, and you can also translate it in methodological words. If it is a technical process, you can predict it, so to speak. You cannot predict it, it’s risky. What I say is that after 60 years of peace in most part of the world, people in the rich part of the world at least, have left to think on the possibilities of disasters. If you grew up in Chile, you know that disasters can happen. If you grow up in Europe, then you have to tell them. I was born in 1946, just one year after 6 years during which mankind was reduced by 50 million people in a war, and all of Europe was in rubble. I was in the round then, but when I was a kid I lived in cities that were totally destroyed; I have memories of these totally destroyed places. People that are 15 years younger than I, they just cannot imagine that things can go wrong. And this is where this sociological functionalism comes from: if there is a problem, it will resolve itself, somehow! But the past century teach us that it is not the case. And I wish that social scientists would only have half of the sense of alarm that someone like Karl Polanyi had, who knew that human society is precarious and that it can breakdown.

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  • Juan Felipe Espinosa  On April 14, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Many thanks for this insightful interview!

  • alvaropinastranger  On April 14, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Politización de la sociología económica, excelente!
    Gracias por el trabajo!

  • alvaropinastranger  On April 14, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Con respecto al ultimo párrafo, es triste, porque el funcionalismo de la autorregulacion afirma, muchas veces sin sonrojarse, que lo que enfría los Fukushima financieros es la inflación o la guerra.

  • joseossandon  On April 18, 2011 at 4:28 am

    Buen punto Stefano, eso de notar la diferencia entre embeddedness como una constante en la NSE y la visión Polanyi de la relación entre mercantilización y regulaciones sociales del mercado. En una entrevista más antigua J. Alexander señalaba en la misma dirección que la sociología de US a diferencia de la de Europa no se puede preguntar por el capitalismo, o las etapas de éste http://est.sagepub.com/content/11/4/523.short. Y por cierto es central estudiar las diferentes formas de gobierno de la economía. Sin embargo, creo que la idea casi-dialéctica de Polanyi también corre el riesgo de contraponer una imagen “idealizada” de la economía de mercado como pura mercantilización frente a otra imagen idealizada de los “mecanismos” sociales, lo que es demasiado simple al momento de hacer un análisis empírico. Quizás en esta dirección hay que aprender de la forma como la antropología económica terminó por reaccionar al contraste casi esencial entre mercancía y dones. slds!

  • Oleg Komlik  On April 20, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for an excellent interview! If it possible, please extend your posts in english- because you are doing a great job for economic sociology (-:


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