We don’t need anyone these days to tell us that we’re in a mess. Nor to explain why. The libraries are groaning with books on globalization…… deregulation…..privatization…. debt….neo-liberalism…. greed……inequality…. corruption….. pollution…… austerity……… migration.
I’ve just finished a book by Jerry Mander - The Capitalism Papers – Fatal Flaws of an Obsolete System (2012) (the link gives the entire text) which is as good a moral critique of the system which few dare to name as you’re likely to read – “Jerry!”, one of his friends, says – “I hope you’re not going to use the “C” word”!!
I wondered about this reluctance to talk about capitalism – and duly googled the word, unearthing quite a few treasures I have so far missed, two of them produced in 1999 and clearly major works. The New Spirit of Capitalism is a French contribution by L Boltanski and E Chiapello whose main focus is -
management literature, and the ways in which it shifted between the 1960s and the 1990s in tone, content, and the general set of assumptions about capitalism and the role of management. Boltanski and Chiappello, as their title suggests, draw directly on Weber’s classic analysis of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Put simply, Weber’s account maintains that the emergence of a full-scale capitalist economy depended in part on a change in the habits of commercially-successful merchants, master craftsmen and entrepreneurial farmers, whose forebears might have spent their profits on luxurious lifestyles and, if sufficient, on the land, titles and symbolic goods necessary to gain admittance to the aristocracy.
The pursuit of such worldly glories might always have diverted resources away from investment in further productive capital if the ideology of Puritanism had not motivated the proto-capitalist actively to avoid them in favour of dedication to the singular vocation of his ‘calling’.
Boltanski and Chiapello derive from this account the axiom that capitalism requires from its key agents a degree of dedication, hard work and self-sacrifice which does not come naturally or easily. As such, capitalism must always be animated by a ‘spirit’, an ideology which inspires and motivates not the entire population, but the key sections who must be committed quite explicitly to the project of capital accumulation if it is to carry on successfully.
Boltanski and Chiapello identify three such ‘spirits’, the first being Weber’s; the second being the bureaucratic ‘spirit’ of the era of high Fordist industrialism (the ideology of the ‘company man’), and the third being the ‘new spirit’ of the highly flexible, network-intensive knowledge economy
The Cultural Studies journal gives a well-referenced review of the book which was only translated into English in 2006 and was in 2013 paid the tribute of a book-length analysis - New Spirits of capitalism? Crises, justifications and dynamics (2013) by Paul du Gay, Glenn Morgan. The language of both books is, however, a bit off-putting and presumably explains their lack of impact on the general public. Another review of the original 1999 book is here.....
1999 also apparently saw the first appearance of what looks to be a blockbuster of a book - The cancer stages of capitalism by John Mc Murtry reviewed here whose author gave us, more recently, both a second edition and a summary of his argument. Again, however, I have a reservation about the writing style - I really do believe that poor writing reflect poor thinking.......
But my failure to register his book makes one wonder about the motives behind the high profile of writers such as Naomi Klein…..is it just her beauty that impacts I have to wonder………
Richard Sennett is a better known writer – although hardly a rabble-rouser…..I was disappointed by his book about cooperation but his The Culture of the new capitalism (2006) looks much more interesting and seems to link up with The New Spirit of Capitalism – see this review
The Great Recession is a Marxist treatment of profits and this particular post from the blog behind it gives the sort of longitudinal treatment of the subject which is so often missing from discussions
Those preferring more journalistic approaches could do a lot worse than read this Spiegel article about the world view of the new billionaires.
I’m reminded of a wave of books in the 1970s which were early harbingers of this sense of crisis - James Robertson’s The Sane Alternative (1978) and Ronald Higgins’ “The Seventh Enemy” (1978) were typical examples. The second described the 7 main threats to human survival as the population explosion, food shortage, scarcity of natural resources, pollution, nuclear energy, uncontrolled technology - and ……human nature. The author’s experience of government and international institutions convinces him that the most dangerous was the moral blindness of people and the inertia of political institutions.
A lot has happened in the subsequent 47 years – new pressing issues have been identified – but who would gainsay Higgins’ identification of the “seventh” enemy? These days, there would probably be a majority in favour of stringing up a few bankers, politicians and economists – “pour encourager le autres” – were it not illegal…
Over the years, I’ve read and collected books and articles to help me identify the sort of agenda and actions which might unite a fair-minded majority.
Like many people, I’ve clicked, skimmed and saved – but rarely gone back to read thoroughly - for example this post of last September which listed books about "the crisis" which were waiting for me in a special pile few of which I have yet got round to...............
The folders in which they have collected have had various names – such as “urgent reading” or “what is to be done” – but rarely accessed.
Occasionally I remember one and blog about it.
I need to be more disciplined………………