Tag Archives: Politics

Review: The New Spirit of Capitalism

This is a classic modern work of sociology, which sets out to unpick the relationship between society, politics, and the mechanisms of the economy.

The key concept presented by the authors is that in order to survive capitalism needs to be accompanied by both a “spirit” and a “critique”.

The “spirit” is a positive expression used to inspire commitment to the continuation of capitalism. Passive non-resistance is not enough, the system needs active commitment from both workers, managers, and leaders to continuing to reproduce that system. The “spirit of capitalism” then is “the ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism” by defining “not only the advantages which participation in the capitalist processes might afford on an individual basis, but also the collective benefits, defined in terms of the common good, which it contributes to producing for everyone.” (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p.8)

In other words this spirit articulates the shared vision capable of delivering the broad support of society for the continuation of capitalism based on a collective understanding of the common good.

The authors use management literature to develop an analysis of that shared vision, on the (reasonable) basis that the guidance presented to managers is a clear indication of how the system is “supposed” to work, in a way that supports the most efficient running of that system. Using this technique they contend that for much of the twentieth century the spirit of capitalism was built on secure jobs and hierarchical progress with accepted union rights supporting the division of increasing wealth in a way perceived to be fair.

Each spirit is accompanied by “critique” with two emphases. A ‘social’ critique that addresses the impact of the system on inequality and distribution of wealth, and an ‘artistic’ critique that addresses the impact on individual human psychology. It is the interaction between the way things are supposed to work (the ‘spirit’) and critique that drives the stability of the status quo. The system responds to criticism which in turn reacts to new developments in an ongoing dialogue.

With a strong French perspective the authors outline how the critique of post-war capitalism dominated by large monolithic firms with hierarchical bureaucracies and the accompanying “second spirit” of capitalism peaked with the events of 1968. In Britain it is possible to perceive a similar situation in the various crises of the 1970’s. Under the impact of critique not only workers but also managers and owners reached the point where they were no longer able to maintain the belief that the system could continue as it then existed, or was capable of maintaining the common good. The prevailing spirit broke down, unable to respond to criticism of the stifling effect of bureaucracy, the inauthenticity of mass produced commodity consumerism, and distributional mechanisms built around (white, straight) male dominated industrial workplaces.

As a result of this breakdown, a new spirit of capitalism has begun to emerge that is able to respond to this criticism. Again, built up from the management literature – this time of the 1990s – it is one based around flexible working in networked environments which deliver more individual control over life and work, but also a more precarious life style Ahead of their time, what the authors are describing is the modern world of the ‘gig economy’, the zero-hours contract, and the ‘precariat‘. This third spirit neutralises the critique of the second spirit by allowing more focus on the individual and less on the collective, allowing the subsequent development of ‘identity politics’, accompanied by the break up of the large monolithic companies into many loosely linked component parts. The move away from inauthentic mass commodity production is exemplified by the creation of new ‘artisan’ products. This new system they term the “projective city”, because it is upon relations built around individuals collaborating in projects rather than working in command-and-control hierarchies.

The authors theorise that after a hiatus when this new third spirit was in the ascendant and the old critique of the ‘second spirit’ of capitalism was neutralised, new forms of criticism are becoming visible. They highlight the exploitation inherent in a network model of employment where the freedom and flexibility available to the few is built on the requirement for many to work cheaply and without security, to be discarded when it suits the business. Corporations similarly are broken up into flexible and loosely connected parts to avoid both tax and other social obligations. This provides the basis on which criticism might resume, although the authors are clear that modern critical thought has yet to catch up with the changes visible in what might be called the relations of production. Critique is necessary however to keep the system ‘honest’ and without it, it falls prey to its worst excesses, as can be demonstrated from the experience of the last 10 years. There is also a lesson here for Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour Party who it feels are still refighting the battles of the past, rather than trying to identify the new critique that will drive the changes of the future.

The authors disclaim any direct connection to Marxism or a Marxist analysis of capitalism, and reference a sociological historiography from Weber and Durkheim onward. However what they seem to describe are the detailed mechanics of the ‘hegemony’ articulated and theorised by Gramsci. What they describe as the “spirit” of capitalism is simply the mechanism through which the dominant class acquires the subservience of the rest of society to the continuation of the existing system.

Especially fascinating is the dialectical tension between the ‘spirit of capitalism’ and the critique directed at it. The two remain in dialogue throughout and cannot exist without each other. As the last 20 years have demonstrated, capitalism needs effective criticism to prevent it from falling into the self-destructive pattern identified by Marx.

This book is a detailed and fascinating explanation of the interaction between modern society and economy. While not directly Marxist, it is a fascinating accompaniment to Marxist thought and a spur to reflective thinking about how revolutionary change in the modern world might come about.

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

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Recovering Modernity

“Post-modernism” is not something I’ve previously really engaged with as a concept or got to grips with what it means, other than in a superficial way. Which is why I was interested to read the refreshingly simple description of “modernity” presented by Goran Therborn in his book “From Marxism to Post-Marxism?” against which to assess “post-modernism”:

“Modernity is a culture claiming to be modern, in the sense of turning it’s back on the past… and looking into the future as a reachable, novel horizon”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

He then goes on to give a little more context to this basic statement:

“Rather than trivialising the concept of modernity by attempting to translate it into a set of concrete institutions , whether of capitalism of politics, or into a particular conception of rationality or agency so that it can more easily be philosophically targeted, it is more useful to deploy it solely as a temporal signifier, in order to allow it to retain its analytical edge.”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

“Modernity” is therefore a world view focused on progress, one in which things are getting better, which looks to the future and is actively seeking ways of moving towards it. In a brief segment at the end of her book “The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View” Ellen Meiksins Wood characterises this as developing from the Enlightenment based on increasing “rationalisation”.

“rationalisation of the state in bureaucratic organisation, the rationalisation of the economy in industrial capitalism, the rationalisation of culture in the spread of education, the decline of superstition, and the progress of science and technology.”

(Meiksins Wood 2017, p. 182)

Modernism therefore implies belief in an overarching view of the world that defines how progress happens and the mechanisms that drive change. Throughout much of the twentieth century at least two world views were available that might be thought of as upholding this view of progress, including both Soviet Communism and post war liberal democracy.

With this in mind, Postmodernism can then be defined in opposition to ‘modernity’ as:

“a questioning of, or loss of belief in, the future narratives of the modern.”

“Insofar as ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, progressive and reactionary, have lost all meaning, we have entered a post-modern world.”

(Therborn 2018, p.122)

Boltanski and Chiapello in their book “The New Spirit of Capitalism” similarly describe a postmodernist approach as viewing the state of the world as “chaos unamenable to any general interpretation”. (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p. 345).

This loss of belief in “the future” means the loss of a set of criteria against which to judge things. The old analyses are no longer valid, and therefore no longer provide a guide for future actions. Politically this shift was one of the factors underpinning the move of left wing parties from socialism to a “third way“. If capitalism is not progressing towards it’s eventual supercession then the best that can be hoped for is to reach an accommodation with it. With collapse of Soviet communism and the perceived irrelevance of Marxism, the left lacked any overarching analysis of the shape of the world, and therefore any view of what it was ‘for’. The only rational choice left to progressives in a post-modern world is working out how to make capitalism a bit nicer.

The end result has been a consensus of support across the political spectrum for a neo-liberal economics that has delivered a world which is increasingly unequal, polarised between asset holders and non-asset holders. There is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, particularly among the young who have been disproportionately impacted by the implementation of nearly unopposed capitalism.

But without a strongly organised left articulating an alternative view of what is possible, that dissatisfaction has nowhere progressive to go. That doesn’t mean it disappears. Rather it migrates to political movements which are prepared to critique the current state of affairs and offer an explanation, even if it is not a rational one. In recent years this has meant Trump and Brexit.

In other words, the progressive left needs to recover its belief in the modern and find the overarching analysis of the world to underpin a call to action, and which can then be used to create a coherent manifesto for practical policies for change. I think there are some signs of this analysis developing but there’s still a long way to go.

Therborn, Goran From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (Verso, London, 2018)

Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

Repeating the past

Received wisdom dictates that Marx’s theories have been wholly discredited by the attempt to implement them made by the Soviet Union. Capitalism won, the west declared the end of history, and the left accepted defeat and the necessity of capitalism under the “third way” of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In “In Defense of Lost Causes” from 2008 Slavoj Zizek tackles the failures of a number of radical movements, from the Terror of the French Revolution to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. One thing Zizek challenges is the characterisation of the horrific consequences of these episodes as an inevitable consequence of revolutionary outbursts, that there was only one possible path forward. Does the path taken historically represent the only possible route out of the revolutionary situation?

Discussing Heidegger, Zizek notes that he “locates the future itself into the past”

“not, of course, in the sense that we live in a closed universe in which every future possibility is already contained in the past, so that we can only repeat, realize, what already is present in the inherited texture, but in the much more radical sense of the “openness” of the past itself: the past itself is not simply “what there was,” it contains hidden, non-realized potentials”

(Zizek 2009, p.188).

In other words history is not a deterministic linear process, but nor is it entirely contingent. There are only a limited range of future possibilities and these are built into the past. In this sense therefore we should not reject Stalinism as a ‘distortion’ of Marx or a betrayal of the revolution. We should fully accept it as a natural (but disastrous) path out of the situation in Russia after the revolution, but not the only possible one.

It is in this sense that Zizek suggests we should “repeat Lenin” (or Mao, or Robespierre etc.). Not so that we can repeat the same linear path of failure, but so that at the critical points we can take a different route in pursuit of a more equal society.

Five years after the revolution, Lenin himself seemingly understood this point. He wrote (although he did not finish) an article which was published in Pravda shortly after his death. Here he uses the analogy of a climber ascending a high peak but having climbed high realising that it is too difficult to reach the summit by continuing the path he has chosen.

“He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit.”

(Lenin, 2002)

A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis“. It is important to acknowledge that the attempts to put communist theory into practice have failed, and not only failed but also resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. This is a conclusion that it should be possible even for partisans of the left to agree now that these attempts are safely in the past.

But this does not mean that we have to accept the conclusion drawn by the supporters of the “third way” with it’s acceptance that the attempt to create a more equal society is structurally doomed to failure.

All of which leads us back to Marx and one of his most famous lines, from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

(Marx 1973, p.146)

As Bertell Ollman suggests in “Dance of the Dialectic” (Ollman 2003), Marx is proposing that we “read history backwards” seeking the roots of the present in the past, and using that to develop our understanding of the future. The failure of Soviet communism does not invalidate this insight.

So progressives should continue to look for different pathways to the summit. As Zizek explains, the lesson is that of Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl (ed. David Fernbach) Surveys from Exile (Pelican, 1973)

Lenin, Vladimir Notes of a Publicist (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm, 2002, accessed May 2018)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Friends and Enemies

As I wrote in my review of it, I found Jacques Derrida’s book on the “Politics of Friendship” often jumbled and confused, full of complication that seems to be there simply for the sake of it. But buried underneath the obfuscation he does make some insightful points.

One section in particular discusses the importance of enemies in politics. This might seem counterintuitive in the context of a discussion about friendship but on reflection makes sense. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – even after a second reading I couldn’t find a suitable quote to summarise Derrida’s thought. The key chapter is five “On Absolute Hostility”.

Post war western democracy was founded on the fear that a viable alternative existed. The communism of the Soviet Union had survived the turbulence of the Great Crash in better shape than the west, and had mobilised enormous resources to defeat Nazi Germany. The west defined itself by its opposition to the eastern bloc. Nations considered friendly were those which shared the same enemy, and included some that might not otherwise have been thought friends (and whom the west later turned on once communism had disappeared, such as Saddam Hussein).

When the communist bloc collapsed in the early 1990’s there was initial euphoria among the political class in the west, followed quickly by a palpable sense of panic. Organisations such as NATO were left wondering what their role in the new world might be. Countries including Britain and the United States struggled to define an effective foreign policy based on ethical standards rather than global struggle, leading to much hand wringing and subsequently to difficult interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and elsewhere.

9/11 presented the United States with a new enemy and the “war on terror” provided a new sense of purpose. Once again the identification of an enemy has driven not just foreign interventions, but also who is thought of as a friend. And in a mirror of the ‘mccarthyite‘ period of the 1950’s and the fear of a ‘red terror’ this split between friend and enemy is both external and internal, with widespread and unjustified suspicion of local Muslim populations and concern about ‘domestic terrorism’.

In other words the sense of certainty, grounding politics with an understanding of what it is “for”, has returned bringing an almost visible sense of relief. Once again the west can define what it is against, who it’s friends are. Whether this represents anything more than a means to channel support into the incumbent regime is another question.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

Review: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

The main challenge with this book is wading through the opaque philosophical style in which it is written. Laclau & Mouffe do however make some interesting points.

At it’s core the book seems to be a rejection of a mechanical and deterministic versions of Marxism. The emphasis is on the development of the concept of ‘hegemony’, and the first part of the book traces its use through thinkers from Luxemburg to Lenin to Gramsci. Laclau and Mouffe seek to develop the concept further into something which can be used to underpin a modern approach to politics.

The key point is that society is not structured in monolithic economic classes whose existence determines how ‘superstructural’ elements are constructed. On one level this seems sensible. It is common sense that political action is built on coalitions, and that any successful revolution will be the same.

That an economic ‘base’ does not mechanically determine a social ‘superstructure’ is surely obvious and I think Laclau and Mouffe are wrong however not to see this already in Marx. There is a divide between his theoretical work, in which her operates at a high level of abstraction to make the underlying ‘laws of motion’ clear. Conversely in his political work such as “The Civil War in France” and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx uses his theory for more practical analysis. In theory, Marx presents society as containing just two classes to simplify the analysis. In practice he understands that it is more complicated than that.

In fact, developing this theory of hegemony leads the authors to remove the class based element from their analysis almost completely. And that doesn’t seem correct either. They make what seems to me to be a theoretical justification for the ‘third way’ approach and identity politics. What they propose is that people fit into society through a range of different and often conflicting identities which are not determined by economic class, and that this complexity is growing in modern capitalism. The role then of progressive politics – in the absence of an apriori class conflict which has been removed from the analysis – is to stitch together “coalitions of the willing”. In pursuit of what goal, if the liberation of the oppressed class cannot be the goal, it is not clear.

I say ‘seems to’ though because the mode or expression is very challenging indeed. I’m sure this seems reasonable to the authors but it does not help with deciphering what it is the they are trying to say.

In short, this is a book with a lot of value in thinking about what sort of progressive alliances are likely to be necessary if the left is to be successful under modern capitalist conditions. But hamstrung by removing the theoretical underpinning provided by Marx and the analysis of how the ‘laws of motion’ of the economy interact with society to constrain what it is possible to achieve. In the absence of this underpinning it becomes unclear what the goal of progressive politics is, and ends up being a justification for the ‘third way’ approach of Clinton and Blair.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Review: Capitalizing on Crisis

This is a technically complex work of sociology unpicking and analysing trends in US society, economy, and politics over the course of forty years from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Krippner’s basic thesis is that successive policy decisions over the course of this period, each in response to immediate challenges, have ‘financialised’ the US economy. In other words, have shifted the focus of profit making from investment in productive activity to the ownership and exchange of financial instruments. Even major industrial companies come to make significant portions of their profit from activity in the financial market. This shift has significant implications for how the economy is managed, and the location of future crises.

Krippner demonstrates this through a detailed analysis of economic data and a systematic review of policy shifts during this period. Although this is somewhat dry in places the case is convincing. She defines three separate phases. First the deregulation of the domestic financial market as an attempt to get to grips with the social crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, offering policymakers a ‘reprieve from difficult political choices’. Second the response to the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s with growing government deficits which altered the relationship between the domestic and global markets driving a ‘dramatic expansion of credit in the US economy’. Finally on the realisation relying on market mechanisms offered in fact very little restraint on consumers, corporations, or governments how approaches to monetary policy developed incrementally in the period up to 2001 to control the demand for credit through interest rates (as opposed to regulation of the supply).

Although the book was first published in 2011, Krippner stops short of the 2007-9 financial crisis, indicating in the introduction that she considers this to represent a separate stage of development that requires a separated analysis. That said it is clear that the ‘depoliticisation’ of economic decision making that Krippner outlines is a significant factor underpinning the later crisis. As Krippner explains, in making this change the expectation had been that the market would impose a discipline on economic behaviour that political actors were unwilling to do. In fact this has turned out not to be the case at all. The market has promoted and validated a lack of restraint particularly in relation to credit which has left us more exposed than ever to the risk of financial crisis.

Although this is not Krippner’s intention, her analysis is a neat fit for the Marxist view of the long term tendency of the rate of profit to decline (see writers such as Robert Brenner and Michael Roberts). The declining profit possible in productive industry leads to speculation in what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’. This growing financialisation becoming increasing unstable and leading inexorably to crisis. The picture here is one that provides a deep-seated explanation for the financial crisis of 2007-9.

So this is a fascinating book with many implications for further analysis. If a touch dry in places, it is detailed, well researched, and a thought provoking discussion of what underpins the modern economy.

Krippner, Greta Capitalizing on Crisis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2012)

Review: How Will Capitalism End?

Wolfgang Streeck may not in fact answer the question that he poses in the title of this book, but it is still a superb read.

How Will Capitalism End” consists of a set of essays and speeches from the German sociologist published previously in New Left Review (and elsewhere) and organised around the theme of the challenges to capitalism. Each is a thoughtful and valuable contribution to the analysis of modern capitalist, it’s impact on society, politics, and environment, and what our options for the future might be.

The opening essay sets the tone. It poses the suggestion that capitalism has so successfully eliminated all opposition to it’s conquest of politics and society that it’s destructive nature now has free rein without constraint from organised labour or political control. The end result will be the long slow death of capitalism’s ability to deliver for the majority of its inhabitants, without the prospect of its replacement by a different system which can pick up the baton as Marx originally envisaged.

The remaining essays work around similar themes. The emphasis is on the impact of the neoliberal project to disconnect the management of the economy from political and social control. This can be seen in Streeck’s characterisation of the changing nature of the state leading towards the current “consolidation” state where having passed successively through private debt then public debt stages now exists to ensure that we reliably meet our obligations to asset holders.

Another theme of Streeck is the divide between social rights and free markets. Where the democratic state prioritises providing public services for its citizens identified through elections. By contrast the “consolidation” state prioritises the contractual claims of creditors and the servicing of debt. The tension between these two has been a major driver for social and political change since the second world war.

This is a thought provoking and very readable set of essays which should be of interest to anyone who doesn’t accept the orthodox economist world view.

Streeck, Wolfgang How Will Capitalism End? (Verso, London, 2016)