Won’t get fooled again?

Issue: 118

Jim Wolfreys

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello,
The New Spirit of Capitalism
(Verso, 2007), £24.99

This is one of the most important books of the past decade, although its impact would have been greater had its 600 dense but sometimes repetitive pages been edited more rigorously. Now available in paperback, it is an impressive, panoramic overview of the changes that have reshaped French capitalism in the years following the May 1968 revolt. Its scope and ambition place it alongside other monumental but flawed studies of contemporary society such as Manuel Castells’ The Information Age and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire.

Like those books it identifies the “network” as the key element underpinning both capitalism today and the emerging movements opposed to it. Luc Boltanski, a leading French sociologist whose career began as a collaborator of Pierre Bourdieu, and Eve Chiapello, a specialist in management studies, borrow the concept of the “spirit” of capitalism from Max Weber. They argue that this differs from Marxist conceptions of ideology, since it provides those who make the system work with reasons for their engagement in the process of capitalist accumulation. It does so by requiring the system to deliver on the promises implicit in its “spirit” and by providing people with an opportunity to appeal to external measures of justice.

The authors draw on a vast literature of management manuals to describe how firms incorporated a critique of the hierarchic, monolithic institutions of the post-war period in order to recast French capitalism in a different guise:

“Lean firms working as networks with a multitude of participants, organising work in the form of teams or projects, intent on customer satisfaction, and a general mobilisation of workers thanks to their leaders’ vision…organisational principles like just-in-time, total quality, the process of continual improvement…autonomous production teams; and a series of tools to implement them, such as quality circles [and]…quality assurance of suppliers” (p73).

Such transformations are integral to the dynamic of capitalism, a feature of the system’s ability to “subvert the existing order while aiming for its reproduction” (p499). In the 1950s and 1960s “tests of status” relied on mechanisms such as trade unions, collective bargaining or traditional pathways to career advancement. These mechanisms later gave way to new ones, and new tests—”mobility, switching projects, versatility” (p345).

A bureaucratic, “Taylorist” form of production gave way to a more flexible “connexionist” system, where firms are based around networks rather than rigid hierarchies, as employers, managers, personnel directors, etc, sought to “reassert control on their own particular patch, to get their subordinates back to work, to increase their margin of manoeuvre, and to restore profits” (p501).

The book contends that capitalism was able to renew itself following the crisis of May 1968 by taking key aspects of the critique developed by the movement and reclaiming them as its own:

“Autonomy, spontaneity, rhizomorphous capacity [horizontal, non-linear interaction], multitasking (in contrast to the narrow specialisation of the old division of labour), conviviality, openness to others and novelty, sensitivity to differences, listening to lived experience and receptiveness to a whole range of experiences, being attracted to informality and the search for interpersonal contacts” (p97).

This reappropriation depended on separating two different critiques of capitalism. The first, artistic critique, arose from indignation at the inauthenticity of bourgeois society, the subjugation of individuals’ creativity and autonomy, and the loss of meaning brought about by standardisation and commodification. This critique refuses subjection and champions the freedom of the artist from constraint. The second, social critique, was developed by socialist and Marxist currents, and derived from indignation at the destructive egoism of private interest, and at poverty and inequality. These two critiques sometimes overlap, but sometimes conflict with each other.

Boltanski and Chiapello claim that from the 1970s onwards managers and entrepreneurs were able to detach elements of artistic critique from social critique and use them for their own ends. They seek to explain how and why this happened. Their focus is limited to the ideological dimension of critique rather than the conditions that determine its effectiveness.

They describe the organisation of production during the post-war boom in terms of the “Fordist compromise” combining the Taylorist division of labour with the state regulated redistribution of increases in productivity. Industry’s need for planning and administrative control was maintained and justified by drawing on the values and experiences of the “domestic sphere”. Workers were subjected to close supervision inside the workplace, and to traditional methods of social control based on the family and local community outside it.

How did this “spirit of capitalism” break up? Part of the originality of the movement that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that it put forward elements of the artistic and social forms of critique with equal intensity. It demanded both an extension of the “civic-industrial compromise” through “a reduction in exploitation and social inequalities, a consolidation of state mechanisms of security, and greater representation of wage earners in the state”, but also an end to “domestic” forms of control and judgement in the workplace and in the private sphere (p503-504).

Employers were also unhappy with aspects of the old arrangement. By the second half of the 1970s profits were threatened by rising wages, slowing productivity and the costs of disruption to production (estimated by one study at between 8.5 percent and 10.6 percent of firms’ annual turnover). Factory inspectors reported a rise in wildcat strikes and employers concluded that tough responses like lockouts were not working. “Something else was needed to reassert…control”, especially over a younger, more educated workforce no longer willing to accept “repetitive tasks, bereft of responsibility or autonomy, timesheets, and the scientific organisation of work”.

The authors quote from a 1978 report of the Trilateral Commission, representing the interests of international business elites, which called for the replacement of “authoritarian management with semi-autonomous work groups” and for the manager to become an exemplar, a “supplier of technical expertise, more of a democratic leader than a dictator” (p188). Centralised, autocratic bureaucratic structures gave way to “decentralisation, meritocracy and management by objectives” (p65). Employers were able to present this as a response to the “artistic” critique by claiming it embraced “autonomy, spontaneity, authenticity, self-fulfilment, creativity, life”.

This operation was facilitated by substituting the notion of exclusion for the Marxist analysis of exploitation. Exclusion “ignores exploitation”—it does not profit anybody, so “no one can be deemed responsible for it unless out of negligence or error” (p354).

The artistic critique’s radical opposition to traditional institutions like the state and the family “served as a lever for uncoupling capitalism from the state” (p504). The authors see this as chiming with neoliberal opposition to state intervention in the market and merging with what they call “ultra-left” targeting of the state as the “central apparatus of oppression and exploitation” (p505). This rendered critique powerless to analyse the transformations under way, with some of its leading exponents actively promoting them. The new world “became firmly established without a fuss”, despite denunciations of exclusion (p156).

Why was this so? Part of the reason lies in the decline of the left and of trade unions. The authors offer an analysis of this and a useful section on how sociologists contributed to changing perceptions of class by denying its existence. But their main concern is with ideology. Here Boltanski and Chiapello hold those who were at the forefront of critical thought in 1968, like Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, partly responsible for emasculating critique.

The stress on simulated identities, on codes and spectacles that needed to be identified and deciphered or deconstructed in order to expose the inauthenticity of the world, deprived critique of the capacity to put forward an alternative worldview. “If everything without exception is now nothing but code, spectacle or simulacrum, from what external position can critique denounce an illusion that is one with the totality of what exists?” the authors ask (p455).

Boltanski and Chiapello want to strengthen “resistance to fatalism” and contribute to the revival of critique. Some of their methods, such as their attempt to challenge analyses of exclusion with a notion of “exploitation” of the “immobile” by the “mobile” in a “connexionist” world, are unconvincing. There is also a problem with the conclusions the authors draw. Remarking on capitalism’s capacity to overcome opposition, they draw consolation from Karl Polanyi’s stress on critique’s ability to slow down the rate of change.

The gulf between the vast explanatory reach deployed by the authors and the limited potential they assign to critique is disconcerting. This is not simply a question of political timidity, but the consequence of conceptual flaws that undermine their analysis.

The tension between the drive to accumulate and the capacity for regulating this process cannot be reduced to the dynamic of critique and re-appropriation. As the authors point out, capitalists only adopted such peaceful means after more conflictual and violent solutions proved ineffective. The authors maintain, after Weber, that capitalist accumulation is a formally peaceful process. But the 20th century offered plenty of examples where this was not the case, resulting in dictatorships that preserved capitalist social relations by the violent repression of opposition and the suspension of parliamentary democracy.

Boltanski and Chiapello acknowledge that their focus on the “ideological neutralisation” of critique leaves them open to objections that they have concentrated on “discourse” at the expense of other elements which shape the balance of forces in society (p41). Yet their decision to ignore the role of “physical neutralisation” in disarming critique means that the relationship of the economy to the “spirit” of capitalism is not convincingly conveyed, nor is the impact of economic and social conflicts even where reference is made to them.

The picture of neoliberalism that emerges in The New Spirit of Capitalism is therefore somewhat distorted. Parallel to the beatific vision of a globalising economy exemplified by the facile cosmopolitanism of the “united colours” of Benetton, more aggressive and divisive means were also used to undermine the ideas of 1968 in the decades that followed—racism, homophobia, the scapegoating of single mothers and the unemployed, along with more direct attempts to break up trade union organisation in the workplace.

In the context of rising unemployment, the decline of traditional industrial sectors and defeat for the labour movement, the revival of the 19th century notion of the “deserving poor” did not aim to turn “immobile” workers against the mobile, but against themselves. Alongside the fluid play of markets and their networks are much more centralised forms of power, which find expression in violence, repression and the kind of military force imposed on “rogue states” and their populations.

What, then, is the legacy of 1968? That Richard Branson and Bill Gates run multinational companies in open-necked shirts? Or proof that the world, even in advanced industrialised countries, can be turned upside down? The ferment unleashed on the streets of France in May 1968, that sent General de Gaulle scurrying to consult with the army, may have derived in part from a fusion of artistic and social critique, facilitating the spread of revolt throughout society, but it was the power to act exercised by ten million workers that made those ideas tangible. The radical critique developed by the 1968 movements was not simply reappropriated by those in power—the events of that year shook their worldview to the core and imposed its revision, a point not fully brought out by Boltanski and Chiapello.

Moreover, the activists who led the revolt on the ground, rather than in the media, were not disarmed by those who identified the way the state’s role in reproducing inequalities was masked. They were subjected to an uncompromising offensive that left them demoralised, victimised or redundant. The institutions of social democracy, in the French case the Socialist and Communist parties, were unable to offer an adequate defence against these attacks. This failure bears out some of the authors’ analysis of critique’s inability to respond to changing circumstances. Yet they tend to present this as a structural feature of the process of re-appropriation, which disarms critique by absorbing and outpacing it, rather than a consequence of other factors like the conservativism and economism of the labour movement’s bureaucratic leadership and the weight of defeat in sapping the capacity of struggle to sustain itself.

The emergence of significant resistance to neoliberalism worldwide since the mid-1990s has placed an obligation on all those who oppose the absurdity of the market to draw lessons from defeat and find the ideas and organisational forms that can forge a new movement of revolt. The New Spirit of Capitalism is a valuable product of that resistance. To succeed, however, resistance must have ambitions that go beyond merely placing limits on competitive accumulation or informing capitalism “about the dangers threatening it” (p514). The paradox of the analysis outlined by Boltanski and Chiapello is that it is by nature self-limiting and offers no way out of the cycle of critique and reappropriation they describe so effectively.