or, how we are continually persuaded to participate in the ridiculous
It is an analysis of the relationship of capitalism with the critique of it, and a narrative of the survival and adaptation of the capitalist system in the context of society’s changing collective identities, based on experience with and of the development of anti-capitalist critique, and empirical study of particularly management literature, in France between 1970 and 1995. I confess to having so far just read the introduction (due to the volume of content I thought worth writing down, and the fact that it is stuck in a library), so this is very much an overview of an overview.
In brief, the story goes:
1. Capitalism has very little (if any) innate motivation for most of its key workers to cooperate with the system
“In many respects, capitalism is an absurd system: in it, wage earners have lost ownership of the fruits of her labour and the possibility of a pursuing a working life free from subordination. As for capitalists, they find themselves yoked to an interminable, insatiable process, which is utterly abstract and disassociated from the satisfaction of consumption needs, even of a luxury kind. For two such protagonists, integration into the capitalist process is singularly lacking in justifications.”
(At this point, I start to be wary of how much I identify with this particular attitude)
2. As such, it needs to find justifications/narratives in tune with the demands, ethics, and current wants of its key workers
It needs to formulate
“descriptions that are sufficiently substantial and detailed, and contain adequate purchase, to ‘sensitize’ those to whom they are addressed. In other words, they must both coincide with people’s moral experience of daily life and suggest models of action that they can grasp.”
In particular to answer the following
- How is committed engagement in the process of accumulation a source of enthusiasm, even for those who will not necessarily be the main beneficiaries of the products that are made?
- To what extent can those in the capitalist universe be assured of a minimum of security for themselves and their children?
- How can participation in capitalist firms be justified in terms of the common good, and how, confronted with accusations of injustice, can the way that it is conducted and managed be defended?
These justificatory answers emerge as a ‘spirit’ of capitalism, on a different level to its basic economic functioning yet interacting with it and shaping it.
3. Critique formulates discontent into theory and voice, with which to challenge the confidence of this spirit and justifying logic.
Critique on capitalism operates by means of the effect it has on the central tests of capitalism ( a ‘test’ briefly being a social mechanism by which individuals rise in status in various dimensions – earning more money, knowing more, being more ethical. Social structures rely on these tests and their criteria being accepted as valid – who gets jobs, how much jobs earn, who is ‘respected’ and defered to, etc)
4. Capitalism adapts in response by concession or evasion
If these critiques are powerful enough to affect the key workers of capitalism (e.g. critique of lack of autonomy, creativity in large industry and business in 1970s), capitalism adapts by reformulating its ‘spirit’ to incorporate or neutralise these challenges. Thus in the 80s and 90s capitalism adopts networks, autonomy, flexibility to defuse the automony critique and defuses union and worker challenges over equality by its changing organisational form giving unions less relevance and purchase (I’m less clear as yet about the mechanics of this process)
The next transformative critique is forming around social justice…
The mechanism of how critique impacts on capitalism
Does critique threaten enough to force a reaction? And what does it gain from being developed, articulate critique, over being an observation of blatant injustice? The majority of workers are in all likelihood content to enter life as they find it, simultaneously both adjusting to their environments and also changing them, entering the places in life which afford them opportunities to prosper without expending undue effort (getting a job somewhere, working for someone). For example, at first glance the chance in business practice is as much a result of the development of technology to enable new patterns, and a generation adapting these workplaces to suit their more developed desire for autonomy/flexibility etc. By and large, we adapt and self-manipulate into finding reasons to tolerate their lives.
But either way, the functioning of critique is the same: to shape the desires and ethics of individuals, challenge their acceptance of what is, so that the dominant economic system (capitalism) is forced to adapt and be shaped also.
The dominance of capitalism
There are related themes and challenges to this conception out other reading, containing a more power-technology-economics analysis of the development of and challenges to capitalism – explicitly shaped by a combinantion of the pattern of technology development and the capture of power by the interests of a capitalist-industrial class able to shape what is and what isn’t profitable economic activity, and questioning the extent to which big-business capitalism is secure as our dominant economic system – and the question of whether and how people can stomach it may become less relevant. But more of that shortly.
Automony vs security
I have had in my mind for a while the tension between increased workplace autonomy (more flexible working to suit people’s lives, diverse, satisfying, etc) and ‘safe’ social structures that provide security and stability necessary to build lives, plan futures, retire well. Placing the shift in capitalist organisation as being a concessional shift in the first direction and simultaneously making it harder to formulate and argue for adequate provision for the latter (note private-sector worker jealousy of public-sector worker security + pensions, and ‘value to the customer’ current spirit that justifies anti-unionism and near-poverty wages), gives me a first purchase. For a nice summary/articulation of some characteristics of advanced network-prompted worker autonomy (in a developed capitalist context), see http://www.thesocialorganization.com/2011/05/a-vision-of-the-social-organization.html
The relationship of this shift in working arrangements to networks, community and the big society is becoming sharper for me, so more on that later too.
No comprehensive critique
The authors provide a set of fundamental dimensions on which capitalism is vulnerable to critique. These are:
- Disenchantment and inauthenticity
- Oppression – as opposed to freedom, autonomy and creativity
- Poverty and inequality
- Opportunism and Egoism – destructive of solidarity
Which nicely summarises the issues I personally have with being a willing participant. They contend that there is no critique that addresses all these dimensions, and its role is to correct excesses, to continual balance, notice the dimensions that are prominantly bad, and provide a powerful cultural challenge coalescing around one or more of these axes that forces capitalism to find a new point of negotation between these dimensions. It is a balancing act, the irony being that if critique did not form to address its ills, it would fall off down at least one scale, and become socially intolerable.
I am as yet still of the idea that there is sufficient purchase in diverse alternatives to build up functioning sub-economies that instead of needing to constantly limit these structural negative consequences, build in their inverse as structural objectives – encouraging authenticity, preventing oppression, dynamically creating equality and dependent on collaboration and solidarity. But we shall see.
I have yet to read the rest of the book, and already it is rich and full of new ways of thinking about the shift and development of capitalism and the impact of critique. It will appear again. Recommended.