Category: Boltanski and Chiapello

False Consciousness

I hope to make this short.  I ended the last post with the expression of Boltanski’s commitment to an “immanent critique,” one that took its terms from the understandings and value commitments displayed by social actors in actual disputes at (within) actual social sites.

“The critical and systematic character of theories of domination, and their frequent claim to know more than actors themselves about the sources of their discontent, has in numerous cases even led their opponents to assimilate them to a kind of madness.  In particular, the analogy has been suggested in connection with a pathology whose description is virtually contemporaneous with the development of critical theories and, more generally, the social sciences: nothing other than paranoia” (Boltanski, 162, fn. 6).

To avoid the charge of madness, the theorist must assemble (call into being if not joining an existing group) a collective that makes similar judgments and indulges in all the practices by which a community constitutes a world-view (or a “reality” to stick to Boltanksi’s idiosyncratic [ha!] usage of that term).

More germane to my purposes: I am completely on board with the effort to never accuse any group of false consciousness, but the left often seems to founder on this particular rock: how to convince those it wants to enlist to its cause of “systematic” or “structural” interpretations of the injustices and exploitation that it regularly (and feelingly) experiences.  The grievances are all there, as is the sense of outrage, of moral indignation.  But the analysis is lacking—or so it would seem.

Boltanksi’s comments on this disconnect are suggestive, even though they don’t offer any good pathway forward.

“One of the characteristics of complex domination effects [such as those established by neoliberalism] is therefore that they offer less purchase to critique than a regime of repression.  Moreover, it is precisely this feature that was stressed in the critical theory and critical sociology of the 1960 and 1970s.  One of the main issues raised by critical sociology of the time was the seemingly more or less passive acceptance of asymmetries by the very people who bore the brunt of them.  It was to answer this question that critical thinking focused on a theory of ideologies and put the theme of belief and illusion at the heart of sociology.  By contrast, one of the contributions of pragmatic sociology has been to show that actors are not abused  . . . and that, as regards everything which concerns real life and the injustices they suffer in everyday life, they harbor no illusions.  But it has also shown that this lucidity does not thereby give actors a sense of having the least purchase on reality” (128-29).

As the New Yorker cartoon portrayed the situation in 2008: the Mafioso thugs sit around lamenting that “the trouble with credit default swaps is you don’t know whose legs to break.” Still, if the claim is that the sources of asymmetries are hidden, the left is still going to need the services of the critical theorist, whose analysis will have to be communicated to (and convince) those passive sufferers (the unemployed, the underemployed, the exploited).  The evidence is pretty compelling that most people do not even know the basic facts about asymmetry.  Survey after survey demonstrates that people wildly underestimate the gap between the very rich and the rest of us.  Call this a knowledge deficit as opposed to “false consciousness,” but it still amounts to lots of people failing to grasp the basic lineaments of the society in which they dwell.

Once in possession of the facts, the next issue is where to attack the structures that produce such inequalities.  Again, lots of evidence exists to show that people fall back on individualistic explanations for inequality.  In particular, they blame themselves (a self-directed instance of blaming the victim) for being unemployed, thus buying into the meritocratic premises of neoliberal apologists, as if 12% unemployment were the product of there being so many more unfit workers in 2009 than there were in 2007.

In addition, where these passive sufferers are moved to action, they tend to focus on remedies rather than on structural changes.  On the right, the remedies include deregulation and anti-immigration measures based on the premise that government interference and immigrant competitors for jobs can be blamed for lack of adequate economic opportunities.  On the left, remedies tend toward government supported jobs programs/trainings and a more progressive tax code.  I hardly mean to say that remedies should be ignored—and the left must fight vigorously for its preferred remedies.

But sticking to remedies means, once again, neglecting a structural analysis and any structural reform.  We are back, in a somewhat different register, to Boltanski’s distinction between pragmatic critique and critical theory.  We seem able to do the pragmatic thing—i.e. propose better ways of working within the current structure, ways that would lessen its inequalities and offer better protections to capitalism’s victims—but unable to get much “purchase” on the structural stuff.  That lack of purchase is not just the difficulty of figuring out how the structure works and where it should be attacked; it is also the difficulty of bringing along the numbers (the sufferers, the potential leftist collective that will save we theorists form the charge of paranoia) to make this structural approach a real presence.  The battle between left and right remedies is currently so heated, and so vital, that moving to the structural level looks like a pipe dream.  And my point is that it involves a lot of work of education, of changing people’s beliefs (or, at least, their habits of thought about the sources of inequality) before we even get to the hard political work of effecting significant structural changes.

To circle back as I conclude:  effecting real structural changes means inventing—or very substantially transforming—institutions.  That’s what Boltanski makes abundantly clear.  Lasting change–the kind that truly alters the conditions within which people live and work, and transforms the outcomes of social interactions—requires institutions that establish “reality” (in Boltanski’s sense of that word), establish the enabling social stabilities that underwrite specific interactions.

And there is not much evidence that “the people” think in these terms or actively desire the transformation of institutions, of basic structures, of “reality.”  Since this revolutionary vision and passion are missing, and because large numbers are misinformed about the basic facts of current economic practices/outcomes/institutions, it is very difficult not to attribute a) false beliefs (“fake news”) to many social agents and b) an overly timid sense of what kinds of political and economic transformations are needed/possible.  Yes, a strong sense of injustice does exist—and is a great starting point.  But getting “purchase” requires more; it requires a strategy that derives from an analysis of how power is currently organized.  And that strategy should entail the creation of new institutions—or, at the very least, substantial transformation of existing institutions.

So now I have written myself into a corner.  Obviously, the task ahead of me is to try to specify what some of those new institutions would be, and how they would function to enable more equitable and just outcomes.  I will try to live up to that challenge in subsequent posts.


Have just finished reading Luc Boltanski’s On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (Polity, 2011), a terrific book.  Hope to post at least three or four times with comments and thoughts it inspires.

Right now, I want to work through his account of institutions, since I have been complaining for months that the allergy to institutionalization found in contemporary social movements and in Hannah Arendt (as well as in many other places) severely hampers the potential effectiveness of a would-be leftist politics.

Boltanski recognizes that there are many competing definitions of institutions out there.  Boltanski takes a roughly functionalist approach himself (although I am sure he would hate to see it characterized as such).  He accepts the William James (he doesn’t cite James, but he does call himself a pragmatist) notion of our selves embedded in a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” the “flux” or the “flow” of time and events that generates the “stream” of consciousness as one perception or thought succeeds another.  Boltanski calls this flux, this onslaught, “the world.”  We can assimilate his notion of “the world” to James’s interest in “the more.”  The world is always more than we can take in; it always exceeds our conceptual and perceptual powers; any picture or representation we might produce of the world will always fall short of fully, completely representing it (we might want to go Heideggerian here and think of the “age of the world picture” but without Heidegger’s insistence that this is a modern pathology).

To survive in the flux, any society must construct some stabilities, some things that can be taken for granted.  Boltanski calls that construction “reality.”  Crucially, reality is necessarily a collective product—and Boltanski’s reasoning for that claim (which he underwrites with an appeal to J. L. Austin’s notion of “felicity”) could be tied back to James’s radical empiricism essays (“How Two Minds Can Know One Thing,” and “Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic”) as well as to Wittgenstein’s denial of the possibility of a “private language.”  “An institution is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (Boltanski, 75)—i.e. of fixing in place a certain version of “reality” that has a stability and permanence that stands over against the “uncertainty” that characterizes individual existence in the flux.  “That is why the phenomenology of institutions attributes to them as an essential property: their capacity to establish enduring or even, in a sense, eternal entities.  Unlike the individual bodies of those who give them a voice, serve them, or simply live and die in spheres of reality they [institutions] help to cohere and to last, they seem removed from the corruption of time” (75).

The “more” however, the world, insures the ever present possibility of critique.  There is always something (shall we call it the “excluded” as Derrida or Butler would, or the “remainder” in a Bataille sense?) that the current version of reality fails to take into account—and critique will, in the most radical instances, launch itself from the effort to bring that remainder back into the picture.  Reality can be shown to be insufficient to the plenitude of the world.  Reality, a radical critique insists, must be deconstructed because of that insufficiency.

In two senses, then, Boltanksi actually sees critique as dependent on institutions (the two exist in an endless pas de deux that resists any resolution in some Hegelian aufgeheben.)  First, some stability is required for there to be any common language at all, for entities like “nation” and “society” or concepts like “freedom” and “justice” to make enough sense to allow us to argue about them.  If neither social orders nor selves ever cohered enough to be identifiable (to be describable), critique could not get off the ground.  Humans would not be able to speak to one another—or to make any kind of sense of experience. Sociology, in Boltanksi’s view, must always have both a descriptive and a critical mission.  We can generalize this point to any political discourse: it must offer an analysis/account of current political reality and normative judgments about that reality.  It may, also, offer an imaginative (projective) vision of an alternative configuration—but this third leg is not strictly necessary.

Second, critique must always have a target—and that target is the currently prevailing version of reality constructed and preserved by institutions.  Without the work done by institutions, no critique.

How do institutions do that work?  Primarily, in Boltanski’s view, it is semantic work.  Institutions fix the meaning of things, most importantly “the establishment of types” (75).  He adopts the pragmatist emphasis on “situations,” that is, the notion that selves (because of the flow of time) continually find themselves in new settings, faced with different people, different environments, different needs, different demands upon them, different bodily abilities (today I am sick, yesterday I was well; today I am 60, yesterday I was 35).  Novelty and change are constant—and are the source of the “uncertainty” that institutions exist to manage (although without ever achieving complete control; the flow of time and the novelties it introduces cannot be stopped.)

Following Dewey’s account of judgment (although, once more, without any actual nod to Dewey), Boltanski offers a dualistic definition of situation: “The situation is identified, on the one hand, by reference to a certain context in which the action occurs and, on the other, by the meaning given to this context by relating it to a determinate type of action” (69).  Confronted by a novel setting, the individual processes it by judging what kind (or type) of situation this is.  Analogy and similarity—subsuming the singular into a more general set—allows us to escape complete befuddlement.  Judgment moves from the particular to the general: this object is a chair not a sofa; this painting is beautiful; that action is wrong; this context is a lecture not performance art or surgery.  And it does so by constructing (asserting) some kind of similarity between this instance of beauty and other instances of beauty—and so on for the other examples.  Wittgenstein loosened up the requirements for similarity by talking of “family resemblances” as contrasted to shared “essences” (of a Platonic or any other sort).

The work of judgement (as Aristotle and Kant both acknowledged in their own way) is notoriously imprecise.  The rules that might govern judgment are severely under-determinative, especially for aesthetic and moral judgments.  But even scientific and empirical judgments are iffy.  Think of a medical diagnosis.  We say two people have Parkinson’s disease, but the trajectory of their condition and their response (or lack of response) to attempted treatments can vary widely.  Aristotle falls back on “practical wisdom” (phronesis) as the guarantor of good judgment, while Kant (at least for aesthetic judgments) relies on “good taste.”  Such groundings don’t look much better than hand-waving.  And then along come the post-structuralists to insist that every assimilation of the singular to a generalizing category represses all that is not similar, all that is unique and (it is implied) should be cherished.

Institutions exist, then, for Boltanksi to create and maintain the “types,” the categories—a necessarily collective enterprise (both the creation and the maintenance). I can’t unilaterally declare this lecture absurdist theater and expect that judgment to stick—but if I trade on the authority vested in me by an institution (I am a New York Time reporter) or convince a significant of number of people that my naming it so is sound, then that judgment might just hold—or, at least, be taken under serious consideration.  Creativity in the arts and in politics, after all, is very often re-naming something.  You call that a labor contract, I call it exploitation—and the battle is engaged.

Most formally, institutions fix categories (types) by establishing laws—and can enforce their categories with sanctions. (Hence the law distinguishes murder from self-defense, and even distinguishes among first-degree, second-degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and the like, specifying the appropriate sanction for each gradation.  Case law then concerns itself with determining—making a judgment—about where in the available general schema does this particular instance of inflicted death belong, a point open—quite obviously in the courtroom setting—to contention.)

Institutions, thus, are powerful; they are sites where power is collected, the power to create and the power to enforce.  There are other sub-legal institutions; a university, for example, cannot legally punish a student for failing to come to class (although truancy laws give elementary schools that kind of legal power) but can sanction them with a bad grade or by refusing to grant them credit.  Professional organizations wield similar kinds of power, as does any institution that controls participation (who gets to participate and who does not) and insists on allegiance to certain shared principles, aims, and definitions, while also arbitrating how particular behavior is to be categorized (as ethical or not for instance, or up to professional standards or not).

It is no wonder, then, that the left is so often allergic to institutionalization—because the left remains terrified of power and temperamentally loath to punish.  (Let me say that a deep distaste for punishment of any kind is deeply ingrained in me.  I have never understood negative reinforcement of even the mildest sorts; my response to it has always been to walk away, with an outraged sense that no one has the right to talk to me or treat me in that way.  I am equally averse to using negative reinforcement myself.  I have always, in my teaching, used praise and exhorting a student to push her talents to the utmost as my mode of feedback.)  The ruthlessness of Communism (with its purges, violent in Russia, but painful enough in the non-violent forms used in the West—read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for one vivid picture) from 1930 to 1956 only heightened the suspicion of institutions which policed membership for many on the left, seeming to reinforce the conviction that when politics strays from the path of anti-institutionalism, only disaster can result.

How do institutions function on the ground?  Boltanski imagines them as sites of justification; they not only establish reality, but also must submit that reality to “tests” that reveal its 1) strength and 2) justice.  Strength tests are about the maintenance of a particular regime of reality against competitors.  So, for example, we can say that the nation-state was the preeminent institutional form from 1660 (or so) until 1945.  But now globalized capital and the rise of international organizations/law have challenged the nation-state’s hegemonic ability to create the common sense of those who live within its territory (my use of Gramscian terms here is deliberate.)  Institutions that are not organized primarily in relation to jurisdiction over a territory have arisen to challenge the nation-state form.  The ability of the nation-state to collect corporate taxes poised against the trans-national corporation’s ability to evade those taxes would count as a test of strength.  If the state fails that test, citizens will begin to question its effectiveness and may look for more effective institutions to serve their needs.  Certainly one central test of strength in today’s world is the contest between the state and the market.

But there are also justificatory tests.  An unchallenged (or mostly unchallenged) institution will conduct what Boltanski calls “tests of truth.”  Such tests are close to tautological; they function to reinforce the already hegemonic common sense (or reality) that the institution exists to maintain.  An example of a test of truth would be the staging of elections that are then taken to demonstrate the democratic nature of the political order.  Democracy is defined in terms of elections while having an election serves to prove one lives in a democracy. Perhaps a virtuous circle, but recognizably a circle. Institutions constantly trumpet examples that demonstrate that the institution is what it says it is, that it is functioning in alignment with its stated purpose and/or ideals.

The first level of critique comes with what Boltanski calls “tests of reality.”  Here the critic criticizes how the “tests of truth” are actually being performed.  Thus, someone who says US elections are not truly democratic because of the influence of money is pointing to the flaws in the test—and calling for a reform of the test such that its enactment would actually prove what it is claimed that it proves.  Criticizing tests in this way can take a variety of forms, but the point is always to show that the existing test does not demonstrate the fact it is claimed to reveal—and to show how a different test would do the job better.  For Boltanksi, such conflicts over tests are everywhere—but they are not radical critiques because they do not question the overall goal or telos.  The ideal of democracy is not questioned, only whether our regime is truly democratic and what exact tests would accurately reveal if the regime is democratic or not.  So these tests are “pragmatic” in the sense that they focus on doing the job at hand better; they do not question whether we should even be invested in doing that job.

Finally, there are existential tests, which do raise those kinds of radical questions about both ideals (goals) and about fundamental structures.  Such critiques, as I have already indicated, rely on a claim about “the world” (existential conditions) in order to question the more limited “reality” that institutions create and maintain.

Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology calls on the sociologist to focus on “disputes,” on actual instances at existing social sites where members of a society disagree about the “tests’ being conducted or about the very ends being pursued.  This move is particularly important because it also entails identifying the norms (as well as the interests) that underlie such disputes.  Boltanski wants to avoid a) importing the norms of critique from outside the existing social sphere; he wants an immanent critique that grows out of the things that current social members evidently care about, as demonstrated by where they take their stand in current disputes and by the kinds of reasons and arguments they proffer in waging those disputes; and b) he wants to avoid any sense that social actors are deluded, are dupes, or exist in some kind of false consciousness.  In taking their stands at various sites and in various contestations, actors demonstrate where their commitments are as well as their understanding (judgments) of the situations in which they are embedded.  Any work of emancipation should begin from—and honor—those commitments and judgments.

And yet . . .

More to say on this topic—but I will leave that for the next post.


Responses to Neoliberalism

To summarize: Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C), like most analysts of neoliberalism, offer a fairly convincing portrait of the changes it has wrought.  Specifically, neoliberalism has 1) reorganized the “firm” and its productive processes, focusing in on the “core” mission or product, while relying on “supply chains” for the delivery of ancillary services (cleaning, payroll etc.) and of needed parts.  The  result is high salaries and (paradoxically) job security (with benefits) for the most mobile and skilled workers—and “contract” positions for the less skilled, whose lack of mobility is exploited.  In short, more and more work is “outsourced” to companies that must compete to get that work by driving down wages. Such “outsourcing” is both domestic and global. Jobs that can be moved to overseas locations where wages are lower are. Jobs like cleaning, health care, social services that must be done on site in the “developed” country are outsourced to service firms.

2) Even as the “firm” gets smaller in terms of its “core” workers, it goes global (or transnational) in order to gain the mobility required to successfully compete.  Globalization means a) hiring labor or contracting with service firms anywhere in the world where costs can be driven down, b) sheltering profits and assets in locales that allow for the evasion of taxes, c) creating credible threats of capital flight and enabling blackmail of governments for “concessions” and “incentives” in return for locating the firm there, and d) continues the relentless search for new markets that has been characteristic of capitalism from the start.

3) B&C note, without giving much emphasis to, the ways in which neoliberalism “commodifies” activities, services, and (can we say) “affects” that were previously deemed private.  Examples would be care of elderly family members or of children (old age homes and day care centers) and love relations (Match, Tinder, Grinder and the rest).  Anything and everything can be monetized.  This feature of neoliberalism can be seen as simply an intensification of capitalism’s in-built need to “grow”—with the invention of new markets along with the more complete exploitation of existing markets a signal “imperative” of capitalism.

4) B&C also note, but say very little about (and this is a fault), the growth of “finance capitalism” within the neoliberal framework.  For Giovanni Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century, the resort to finance capital (i.e. the move from a reliance on selling actual goods to a reliance on “financial products” as the major source of profit) is a recurrent feature of “mature” capitalist economies.  The finance phase, in his view, marks the “end” of hegemony as capitalism moves its prime site from one locale to another.  In his schema, Italy, then Holland, then Britain, and then the US served as capitalism’s center.  Our current financial era would, thus, mark the end of US dominance and be setting the stage for Chinese hegemony.  Such transitions, in Arrighi’s way of telling the tale, are inevitable because capitalism is never the fully mobile and dispersed entity that B&C appear to think it has become.  Rather, capitalism’s competitive mode means that it combines with nationalism to breed conflict oriented to fighting over which country will be the world’s dominant economic power.  The transition period from one hegemon to the next is particularly violent, so we should expect a very turbulent next 50 years if Arrighi is right.  B&C, on the other hand, appear to expect/accept a transnational financial system, with multinational banks and firms (like Goldman Sachs) presiding over it—banks and firms with no particular location and no significant national loyalties. Thus, B&C are among those who see neoliberalism as marking the decline in power and relevance of the national state.  Capital is more powerful than the state.

5) Finally, B&C argue that the “new spirit” of capitalism, the motivating story that neoliberalism tells in order to win consent and to get people moving, is the by-now familiar one about “human capital.”  It is a story that, if spun right, is about “freedom.”  You, the worker, are no longer tied to a firm or to a job.  You are free to develop your talents and interests, to move from one firm to the next, or even to strike out on your own as an entrepreneur.  You are in control of your own destiny, in a world in which creativity, innovation, daring, and energy are rewarded.  Self-fashioning is the challenge and the thrill.  Lean in.  And just so that won’t seem entirely isolating and asocial, a premium skill to be developed is the ability to work in teams since it is the “network” and “networking” that are the keys to productivity.

B&C are clear that neoliberalism augments suffering.  It creates many more losers than winners, it increases inequality while it shreds the safety net.  It is haunted by the fact that it celebrates the creation of the relationships that are the core of “networks”—and hence the interpersonal skills that leads one to have multiple relationships—while retaining an awareness that “cashing in” on relationships renders the whole notion of such friendships suspect.  Trade mars everything it touches, wrote Thoreau—and neoliberalism is energetically striving to mar everything, to turn everything to account.  Dissidents will lose out, but there do remain refuseniks, those who insist on holding some things aloof from the market.

So what kinds of resistance do B&C imagine?  Here we run up against the paradox that the most radical positions are so often very conservative.  Radicals are all about what has been lost.  (Or, alternatively, we can say that we are facing a crisis of the radical imagination, that the lack of any new ideas is a deep and paralyzing failure.  Radicals are, at least right now and perhaps always, fighting the last war.  B&C do talk about the ways in which the labor movement, in particular, was caught entirely off-guard by the innovations of neoliberalism and, hence, proved powerless to stop them.)  It is certainly true that loss aversion provides a powerful affective tool for radical movements.  It is easier to get people out into the streets to protest something that has been taken away from them than to get them motivated by an image of something they have never had.

So: B&C spend some time talking about “intrinsic value,” basically appealing to a sense that some things—art, love, family, friends, health—should not be commodified.  A rear-guard action if there ever was one. (I don’t mean to sneer here.  Holding some things apart from the market is central to sanity and happiness.  But the issue is how to “politicize” this desire.  Exhortation is not going to do the trick.)

B&C also rely on that old standard: the in-built “contradictions” of capitalism that render it unstable.  They make the usual apocalyptic noises about the coming crisis, that moment when people will just have suffered too much and will do something, they know not what, but something to force some changes.  We know how that story goes.  Capitalism has weathered its contradictions, and the pronouncement of such threats of its inevitable demise, with aplomb for quite some time now.

More convincing is the way in which B&C talk about the need to translate “indignation” into a program.  Here they have something fairly concrete to say.  It goes like this.  Any system has a number of “tests”—which can be best understood as sites of selection where the distribution of goods and rewards is determined.  An obvious example is admission to college or the processes that decide who gets an advertised job.  In order to be deemed just, those subjected to such tests in any given system must believe the tests are “fair.”  That is, the test must actually a) successfully search for the talents/features relevant to the reward in question (i.e. the SAT must be a reasonably accurate indicator of intelligence) and b) only make its judgment on the relevant talent/features (one’s physical appearance or race or religion are not to be considered in deciding admission to college).

Thus, “tests” are crucial sites for conflict within any social system.  They are places where injustices will be identified and where reform (the establishment of tests that are more fair) will concentrate its efforts.  Indignation can be channeled into concrete action when directed toward the critique and reform of “tests.”  Crucially, B&C recognize that tests are formalized into “institutions” and given some bite by being legally installed.  In other words, indignation gains force, an ability to have an impact, when “collectivized” through the establishment/maintenance of institutions and acquiring the power to sanction by being written into law.  “Statutes express what can be established about the position of individuals for a certain length of time and in a certain space, independently of how their interaction with others unfolds at any given moment.  They presuppose reference to something like institutions capable not only of organizing tests that last, in such a way as to stabilize expectations and define their rhythm, but also of exercising an external constraint in the form of obligations and sanctions” (469-70).

The language here is all about restraining mobility, of creating stability and rules that “last.”  Capitalism, in other words, must be held accountable to certain obligations.  It has to deliver certain goods—primarily the satisfaction of the material needs of a whole designated population—in order to be given its legitimacy within the set of laws that enable its existence.  “It remains the case,” B&C write, “that embarking on this road presupposes pretty much abandoning a quest for liberation defined as absolute autonomy, simultaneously free of any interference from others and any form of obligation laid down by an external authority” (470).

We are returned here to the political, to the need for the state.  Capitalism is not going to restrain itself—and it will sing its siren song of liberation, of self-fashioning, of untrammeled freedom, all the while.  For B&C, unions were crucial because they provided a way to focalize indignation—and to use its energy in opposition to the firm.  “The union also has the advantage of providing points of support outside the firm—places for meeting, pooling information and reflecting, for the development of beliefs different from those put forward by employers, work methods, a socialization of means of resistance, training in negotiating—to which an isolated union representative does not have access” (274-5).

Again, we are on familiar ground.  In the absence of unions, the two candidates to take their place are the political party (Lenin continues to stalk the room) and social movements (whether “new” or not).  Neither seems particularly well suited to address workplace tyranny and its many abuses.  Neither is “in” the firm the way a union was.  Still, it would be ahistorical as well as naïve to forget that only the state’s establishment of various labor laws (length of the working day, safety regulations, minimum wage laws, child labor laws etc.) cemented the gains unions fought for.  The union must negotiate with capital—but it also must have the state, with its legal powers, come into the fray at some point.  Law is not utterly fixed, of course, since it is constantly moving in relation to case law.  But law is relatively fixed in relation to capitalism’s endless dynamism—and must be mobilized to constrain capitalism’s restless pursuit of profit.

Finally, all of this resistance to neoliberalism (as to any form of capitalism) must be based, B&C argue, on a theory, an account, of exploitation.  Critique, they insist, does change things.  Capitalism must respond to critique—either by undertaking actual reforms or by “displacement” (which means the establishment of new practices that sidestep the abuses that critique has identified.)  The “social critique” (contrasted to the “artistic critique” in their schema) focuses on issues of justice—and, hence, will tell a story of exploitation.  Basically, that story will indicate those whose efforts, whose contributions, are not adequately rewarded.

What B&C fail to notice is that the justice critique can come in two forms.  The leftist version highlights inequality—and pushes toward the notion that all should be rewarded equally.  In many versions, this becomes the notion that all have a “right” to the basic necessities to lead a flourishing life.  This logic leads current leftists to the idea of a “universal basic income.”  But the rightist version of this critique often takes the form that the “wrong people” are being rewarded.  There is no argument against inequality here.  It is just that I am not being rewarded, while some undeserving other is being rewarded.  Inequality is great; it is just that whites should be the ones on top, not those Jews, immigrants, or blacks who are parasites and squirreling away what is rightfully mine.

Mobility (continued) and Neoliberalism

There is something more than a little fraudulent about the celebration of—and high valuation placed on—mobility, akin to all the nonsense about risk and taking chances that accompany the current vogue of the entrepreneur.  Innovation, like mobility, is almost most fully and effectively activated when underwritten by security.  The dirty secret of the mobile agent’s manipulation of her mobility to command additional income or resources is that she is not paralyzed—or even much threatened by—the threat of becoming redundant in her current place.  Of course, not all mobile actors in the neoliberalism have tenure, but they do have relevant guarantors of income and employment.  Again, this suggests a “real” basis for their mobility, a set of skills, experiences, and achievements on which they can bank.

Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C) tell us (pp. 16-17) and elsewhere the demands that a successful “spirit of capitalism” must meet if it is to satisfy people in the way of giving them motivations to participate.  There are four major “demands” for “justification” (and, in their schema, “tests” must be devised to show that the demands are being met.) 1. Demand for justice (a): capitalism must be underwritten by a plausible claim that its processes advance the common good, not just the needs/desires of a particular group (i.e. the capitalists). 2. Demand for justice (b): there must be a plausible account of the inequities capitalism produces, so that those inequities are not seen as the direct (and sole) result of exploitation.  There has to be a story (usually based on merit—which includes talent, effort, educational credentials etc.) about why some people get more than others.  3. Autonomy: there has to be an account of how capitalism is connected to, even productive of, freedom.  That is, how it liberates people from dependencies characteristic of feudalism, paternalism, or traditional societies, and how it opens up pathways to self-fulfillment (choosing one’s own career, developing one’s own talents, pursuing one’s own interests.) 4. Capitalism must explain how it provides basic security, the means toward life for oneself and one’s children.

A good list, even a convincing one, even if (as I have mused before) the ruthless capitalism of 2018 seems hardly bothered to try to justify itself.  Except for the meritocratic arguments for inequality and some half-hearted hand-waving about how the “job creators” enable the common good of a flourishing economy, not much in the way of capitalist apologetics gets much air-time these days.  The threat of unemployment or underemployment does all the heavy lifting these days.  Get with the program—or join the ranks of the “excluded,” whose lives we will make as miserable as possible.

But even someone more sympathetic to the justifications of neoliberalism (justifications that I not only find hard to credit, but which I believe most people take with a full helping of salt), there are very few who would claim that neoliberalism offers security.  Just the opposite.  Our fullest-throated advocates of neoliberalism scorn security as a danger; it produces complacency and nothing is more fatal to economic success than resting on your laurels in an endlessly dynamic process that is only getting faster all the time.  The number of cautionary tales—as Kodak, Blackberry, record companies, and taxis—about businesses that become obsolete are mobilized to dismantle all forms of security, any commitments—to people, places, processes, products—that extend beyond the short term.

One point: it is a lie to say that mobility is won by foregoing security.  Instead, in the tales I win, heads you lose logic of neoliberalism, mobility is rewarded even though it is only the secure who can afford (in every sense of the word) to be mobile.  The ones penalized for not being mobile are also the ones from whom security (in what Hacker and Pierson call “the great risk shift”) has been taken away.

In their emphasis on mobility, B&C stand at a tangent from other accounts of neoliberalism.  The dominant accounts usually emphasize two things:

  1. The increasing colonization of various spheres of activity/life by economic rationales (meant both as the vocabulary used to describe the interactions within those spheres and the rational reorganization of those spheres in the name of efficiency and of “monetizing” them). B&C do devote considerable attention to this feature of neoliberalism.  “Capitalism has thus wrested a freedom of maneuver and commodification it has never previously achieved since, in a world where all differences are admissible, but they are all equivalent precisely as equivalents, nothing is worth protecting from commodification by mere virtue of its existence and everything, accordingly, will be the object of commerce” (466).


  1. The second feature usually identified as crucial to neoliberalism is privatization, its robbery of the common, now put to the service of private profit. Just as the private equity raiders strip the assets of the company’s they purchase, so neoliberalism also plunders public goods, making a profit out of services previously rendered by the state (prisons, sanitation, education, transportation, utilities) while also encroaching on public lands and off-loading to the state the costs of pollution and unemployment.


How are these two features of neoliberalism related, if at all, to the extreme valuation of mobility that B&C place at the center of their analysis?  Surprisingly, they don’t ask this question themselves.  In the first case (of the hegemony of economic logics/discourse over all other modes of organizing activities or articulating values), a tentative connection might be made if the economics stresses the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter famously attributed to capitalism.  In that scenario, to stand still is to court disaster.  You always need to be one step ahead of the pack, dismantling your own operations before a hostile competitor does it for you.  Back to our motto: be mobile or perish.

I think the connection is harder to make in the second instance (privatization).  In fact, privatization is, it seems to me, directly connected to the stationary, the persistent.  Prisons, sanitation, transportation etc. are constants, needs that are always going to be there and which are never exhausted by being satisfied today.  They are needs that must be met again tomorrow.  It is precisely this repetitive and necessary character that made them seem like appropriate services for the state to provide.  And it is their fixed character—both fixed in place (the garbage needs to be picked up here, not somewhere overseas) and in need (the garbage needs picking up this week and next and the week after that)—that make them a safe and attractive target for capitalism (which always claims to love risk and, in fact, hates to put down its chips in any place where the odds aren’t in its favor).

In short, I think B&C are a bit credulous.  They don’t pay enough heed to capitalism’s hypocrisies.  Don’t just look at what capitalism says (in the management manuals that serve as their archive), but also at what it does.

My next post will look at B&C’s proposed responses to the wholesale suffering that capitalism, in its current form, doles out so nonchalantly.