By Albena Azmanova
The wake of the financial crisis has inspired hopes for dramatic change and stirred visions of capitalism’s terminal collapse. Yet capitalism is not on its deathbed, utopia is not in our future, and revolution is not in the cards. In Capitalism on Edge, Albena Azmanova demonstrates that radical progressive change is still attainable, but it must come from an unexpected direction.
Azmanova’s new critique of capitalism focuses on the competitive pursuit of profit rather than on forms of ownership and patterns of wealth distribution. She contends that neoliberal capitalism has mutated into a new form—precarity capitalism—marked by the emergence of a precarious multitude. Widespread economic insecurity ails the 99 percent across differences in income, education, and professional occupation; it is the underlying cause of such diverse hardships as work-related stress and chronic unemployment. In response, Azmanova calls for forging a broad alliance of strange bedfellows whose discontent would challenge not only capitalism’s unfair outcomes but also the drive for profit at its core. To achieve this synthesis, progressive forces need to go beyond the old ideological certitudes of, on the left, fighting inequality and, on the right, increasing competition. Azmanova details reforms that would enable a dramatic transformation of the current system without a revolutionary break.
An iconoclastic critique of left orthodoxy, Capitalism on Edge confronts the intellectual and political impasses of our time to discern a new path of emancipation.
Ali Minai on 3 Quarks Daily wrote:
Rather than focusing on the origins of neoliberalism, Albena Azmanova’s Capitalism on Edge demonstrates the ways neoliberalism in practice has led to a new precarity capitalism. Policies pushing deregulation and global free trade have had unexpected outcomes. [...] maintaining the competitiveness of national economies has become “a top policy concern.” Competitiveness has replaced competition and growth as a state goal, leading states to prioritize not a level playing field and the dismantling of monopolies but “to aid specific economic actors — those who are best positioned to perform well in the global competition for profit.” Acknowledging how the private sector has always benefited from public funds, Azmanova emphasizes the novelty of a form of capitalism where “public authority handpicks the companies on which to bestow this privilege.” States don’t intervene to break up monopolies. They engender and award them."
Luke Martell on European Journal of Social Theory wrote:
"I must admit that when I first flipped through Capitalism on Edge by Albena Azmanova, it did not look too inviting. The blurbs on the jacket did nothing to reassure me, suggesting that this was yet another post-Marxist critique of greedy capitalists and their enablers. As it turns out, it is, but in a way that is more interesting than I had assumed. As soon as I started reading the Introduction, I was gripped by the lucidity of ideas and clarity of the prose. For an academic text written from the perspective of Critical Theory, this is a wonderfully direct, incisive and insightful book. One does not need to agree with all the details of the analysis to find reading it a rewarding experience. [...] The main positive is a systematic, coherent analysis culminating in a clear – if rather quixotic – agenda. The chapters build on each other with impressive logic, and provide the reader with a great deal to think about. [...] That said, there are several glaring issues that should give us pause. First, the book consists almost entirely of argument by assertion. [...] More extensive data would have made the argument of the book much stronger. [...] For all its universal tone, this is very much a book about the West – and even there, many of its assertions are true more in Europe than the United States. One way in which this become clear is that race plays virtually no role in Azmanova’s analysis, as though the dispossessed are all miserable in the same way. [...] Ultimately, the recommendations made at the end of this book are unlikely to be taken up by those who have the most say in the system. No amount of wishing otherwise can make that happen. Great socioeconomic transitions do not happen via policy prescriptions from academics or analysts. They emerge bottom-up as the logic of the existing system collapses in the face of some crisis. Azmanova claims that we are in such a crisis now, though she – like others critics of rising inequality – seems somewhat frustrated that this is not moving people to act more energetically."
Immanuel Ness on Perspectives on Policy wrote:
"Azmanova writes from the tradition of critical theory, aiming for emancipatory change but with no end goal, such as a deliberately socialist one. She describes three types of domination in capitalism: relational (of inequality), structural (of power and control) and systemic (the logic of the system). For her, capitalism is not about private ownership or markets, structural features, but the competitive pursuit of profit, the system’s dynamic. This, she says, directs us to the precarity of capitalism more than a focus on property ownership, class or distribution does. [...] Azmanova outlines the history of liberal, welfare and neoliberal capitalisms, and sees precarity capitalism as a new mutation of the neoliberal period. [...] For Azmanova, the social justice question today is no longer inequality but the distribution of risk and opportunity in labour market entry and exit. She argues that there has been too much focus on inequality and redistributive policies rather than on poverty and security of employment. [...] For Azmanova, egalitarianism, collective ownership, socialism and leftism no longer challenge capitalism. A politics about precarity relates better to the opportunity–risk divide and is more of a challenge to the core of capitalism, the competitive pursuit of profit. [...] Her proposals are for ensuring secure access to the labour market combined with the option for working less; to overcome insecurity but allow the escape from work that precarity capitalism enables. This, she says, would inhibit the competitive pursuit of profit and so result in a gradual exiting of capitalism.[...] This is a thought-provoking, absorbing and original book, in tune with changes in precarity capitalism and its politics. [...] If the aim is to undermine the competitive production of profit, then institutions of ownership may have more of a role than Azmanova says. [...] There is deliberately no model for the alternative in Azmanova’s critical theory, but this can allow the new society to be taken in an undesirable direction by some supporters; especially where the agent of change is a multiplicity from the poor precariat to the corporate well-off. With no aim for the future the alternative cannot be tested small-scale, by mini-utopianism here and now, an alternative to large-scale utopianism of the future Azmanova is wary of. One response to the failure of so-called socialism is to avoid socialism. Another is to plan for a democratic and liberal socialism with collective ownership at the centre and to try it out in advance."
Jonathan Klein on Journal of Classical Sociology wrote:
" Azmanova intentionally rejects critiques foregrounding the danger of populism, stating, “I have proposed that we abstain from using the term ‘populism’ altogether” (p. 9). However, the rise of populism evokes the threat of fascism, defeated 75 years ago, and replaced by nominally communist systems. By deflecting an analytic understanding of populism and, by extension, fascism, Azmanova loses sight of a familiar history. The communist and Eastern Bloc governments that Azmanova vilifies with rhetorical flourish throughout the book were established by partisan socialists who defeated fascists in Europe. The rise in populism and appeals to nationalism today are deliberately left unexamined. As such, Capitalism on Edge does not consider the rise or resurgence of racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia. Although Azmanova correctly identifies the proliferation of protest politics, in the absence of an elaboration of potential institutional solutions, she leaves the potential dangers of populism unexplored. Finally, Capitalism on Edge unfortunately adopts and applies a Eurocentric perspective that ignores the world outside the West. Azmanova disregards the fact that overcoming precarious capitalism may simultaneously require even further subjugation and exploitation of the Global South, where the majority of people live in even greater precarity and instability. Overcoming capitalism through reform may require further pillage of the 85% of the world beyond the United States and Europe. That would be a tragedy."
James Chamberlain on Philosophy & Social Criticism wrote:
"Azmanova presents an elaborate model for critical theorising, which combines socio-economic analysis with a multifaceted understanding of politicisation and legitimisation, weaving together a range of key insights from the likes of Max Weber, Karl Polanyi, Eric Hobsbawm, Nancy Fraser, Claus Offe and Wolfgang Streeck into a heterodox ‘Marxian’ analysis (p. 9). She also utilises this model for a critical and challenging diagnosis of the contemporary state of ‘Western’ capitalist societies, developed in the context of their historical and more recent ‘great transformations’. The result is a bold and ambitious analysis whose intended addressees are not just sociologists and political theorists, but activists and politicians. At the same time, in terms of the concepts deployed, the book is a model of clarity. [...] It is a major merit of Azmanova’s work that she has once again made the systemic dimension the core moment of a fresh and radical analysis. This marks an important contribution to understanding what is often a neglected part of Critical Theory. Yet, in order to avoid replacing a one-sided perspective with another, it might be worth stress-ing the interplay between the different dimensions of domination even more so than Azmanova herself does here."
"there are many moving parts to Azmanova’s argument, and both the conceptual innovations and the facility with which the author weaves them together clearly show that this book is the culmination of a great deal of careful observation and thought. The result is an intervention that is lucid and hopeful while also being firmly planted in contemporary social reality. [...] Rather than the critical questions that I have raised in this essay signalling weaknesses of Capitalism on Edge, I find them to demonstrate its strengths and the promise that the book holds for shaping not only our understanding of contemporary democratic capitalism but also how to transform it. Indeed, a significant strength of the book is that, while conceptually highly sophisticated, Azmanova suggests that the reader can skip over the theoretical chapter and refer to the useful glossary of terms as the need arises. This will undoubtedly help broaden the accessibility of this intervention and ensure that the book influences public as well as scholarly debates."
Discussions with Azmanova about the book
- Critical Theory podcast
- Social Europe podcast
- William R. Rhodes Center podcast (international economics & finance)
Table of Contents of Capitalism on Edge
- The Crisis of Capitalism, Almost
- Capitalism under Scrutiny: From Concept to Critique
- Ideology for the New Century
- The Life and Times of Democratic Capitalism
- Precarity Capitalism
- What Is Ailing the 99%?
- Getting Unstuck: Overcoming Without Crisis, Revolution or Utopia
- Conclusion: The Radical Pragmatism of Bidding Capitalism Farewell
About Albena Azmanova
Albena Azmanova teaches political and social theory at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. She is author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment (Columbia, 2012) and coeditor of Reclaiming Democracy: Judgment, Responsibility, and the Right to Politics (2015).
Azmanova's writing is informed by her experience as a 'double dissident' -- she was involved in the movements that brought down the dictatorship in her native Bulgaria in 1989-1990, and became subsequently a critique of the flawed democracy that came to replace it. Schooled in New York, Strasbourg and Sofia and having lived under two contrasting socio-political systems, she brings an unorthodox critique of contemporary capitalism.
She has been a policy advisor to a number of international organisations among which the Council of Europe, the European Commission and Parliament, and the United Nations on issues of democratic transition, minority rights, and rule of law. She is a member of the Independent Commission for Sustainable Equality -- a consultative body to the European Parliament advising on social justice and Green transition.