I am 270 pages into Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism and hopelessly behind on the list of topics raised by the book that I’d like to write blog posts about.
The book is nothing less than an attempt to update Max Weber for neoliberalism. What is the spirit of capitalism—the ethos that provides justifications and motivations—for the individuals who live and work under capitalism’s current regime? The argument, then, like Weber’s is that economic determinism is not sufficient for an explanation of why prevailing capitalist practices change. The move from Keynesian welfare-state capitalism to neo-liberalism is not solely motivated by a response to shifting “objective” conditions: i.e. the 1970s oil shock, globalization, the new digital technologies. Boltanski and Chiapello by no means ignore those factors, but insist that “spiritual” changes in mind-set and ideas of justice and of the “good life” also play a role. Concretely, they argue that “critiques” of capitalism have an impact—and that capitalism shifts its practices to respond to and disarm those critiques. Capitalism, in other words, must align itself, at least to some extent, to the desires enunciated in critique if it expects to find willing adherents, productive and engaged workers. A capitalism that simply exploited workers outright without offering any plausible justification of its practices (in terms of claims that those practices are just and redound to the common good, and in terms of personal satisfactions that it can offer individuals within a capitalist society), they claim, would be unsustainable.
I am not utterly convinced. Sheer economic need is a powerful motivator—and when combined with powerlessness can lead people to acquiesce (however reluctantly) in a social and economic system that can also recognize as oppressive. There is every evidence that slaves in the American South hated the conditions under which their lives were lived, but failed to rebel because rebellion seemed futile. They didn’t like the life they had, but recognized no realizable alternative to it. Surely many in the world today experience their lives similarly.
But—and this is the great strength of this remarkable book—any large-scale change in social (think of changing definitions of marriage), political (think of the transition from monarchies to democracies), or economic (think of the transition from Keynesian to neo-liberal regimes) practices will be accompanied by lots and lots of words. Those words are the ideological explanations/justifications of the shift: why it is necessary, desirable, deplorable, to be resisted, to be assisted. Boltanski and Chiapello (in ways I full-heartedly endorse) want to use the term “ideology” as a completely neutral designator. An ideology is simply the discursive justification of, along with an attempt to understand, a particular social formation. Whether that ideology is true or false, plausible or risible, is a separate matter. All sides to the issue will produce their ideological account of it. They want to reserve judgment to a second stage of evaluation. At the outset, all ideologies are created equal; all are aiming for the same thing: to justify and motivate.
So, for today at least, let me just focus on one concrete example of their approach at work. Trade unions. Without a doubt, there has been an aggressive assault upon unions by the forces of neoliberalism. Equally without a doubt, the decline of unions has been an almost completely unmitigated disaster for under-skilled and under-educated workers. What B and C call the “casualization” of work—and what more recent writers have begun to call the “precariat”—has been enabled by the destruction of unions able to pose a credible threat to employers’ undermining job security.
At its most moralistic and nostalgic, leftists bemoaning this shift will locate its ideological component as the shift from collectivism to individualism. (Often, of course, this is identified as a particular sin/failing of Americans. But B & C document the same shift in France.) Union workers understood that they held their fate in common. They steadfastly refused to jettison their “solidarity.” But a new selfishness has allowed a “divide and conquer” strategy on the part of the evil capitalists to win.
Such denunciatory readings of the situation fail, however, to capture the ways in which individualism is plausible and motivating. Any teacher who has asked students to do “group work” knows the problem. I also encountered it in concrete terms when I managed a staff of seven at the university. Because my staff existed within a “step system,” the best workers could not be rewarded with a pay raise, since all employees who shared a certain job designation/description received the same pay. The inevitable result was that my best workers were constantly looking for new jobs as a means to getting a higher salary, while my mediocre workers stayed put. I could not keep good staff. It made perfect sense for those who could to seek higher paying jobs.
In other words, worker solidarity only makes sense when there is a very large group of workers who are all essentially doing the same work, with the same level of skill required. Even there, annoyance (or worse) directed at the incompetent or the lazy will arise. But in any organization where there are many different skill levels needed, where a path for advancement to a higher level job is relatively open, solidarity doesn’t only lose its appeal. It doesn’t even make much sense. I am not a worker on the factory line today and expect to be one come thirty years from today. Rather, I am in a position that I assume that I will grow out of—and do not want to be tied down to someone who is content in the position I also, for this moment, occupy.
Certainly, we can bemoan the worker’s ambition, the mindset that has her focused on how she will advance over her lifetime to better jobs than her current one. But can we really say she would be better off without that mind set? Do we really want to tie her to one job for life? With all my leftist sympathies, I couldn’t possibly advise my young, ambitious staff to do anything but continue to look for paths to advancement. I had no right to stand in their way in the name of an ideal of worker solidarity.
And it is precisely that—the feeling that there is only one obvious response, only one ethical path—when faced with a situation that defines a “spirit.” Theoretically supportive of unions, I could intellectually understand the basis of the step system under which my staff operated. But practically, on the ground, as a matter of practical reason (in precisely the Aristotelian and Kantian sense), I could only recommend behavior that undermined that system. That’s what it means to say there is a “new spirit” in town.