Old Ways Vs. New Spirit

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

I have just finished reading Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s magisterial work, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, 2007. It is dense, closely argued and revelatory. The thick trade paperback now bristles with yellow post-it notes marking passages I thought particularly significant, or more often, just felt that I fully understood. If it is not quite a Theory of Everything, it did offer a thrillingly explanatory ride through fifty years of my lived experience in the working world. It now prompts these thoughts:

Capitalism is a system in which money acts as the medium of transaction between subject (individuals and groups) and object (goods and services) within a theoretically unencumbered or free market. Within that system, it is also characterized (as Boltanski and Chiapello would have it) by “an imperative to unlimited capital accumulation by formally peaceful means”. In other words, it represents (now in the guise of neo-liberalism) an advance in civilization from societies driven by warfare, plunder, and territorial acquisition towards those that formally value peace where individuals have the ability to grow rich through the socially approved accumulation of wealth. Blood lust has been transmuted into entrepreneurial spirit: ‘Capitalism’ thus represents the hive mind of the bloodlessly acquisitive.

Within this system of producers and consumers there exists a world of work. There has been, at least since the industrial revolution and its mass migrations from the countryside to the city, a clear distinction between the personhood of an employee and their contributions as a worker. Previously, workers were involved in close personal bonds with their master or mistress arising out of ancient feudal fealties - evidenced by a total subordination as well as ties of loyalty and mutual aid.

The rise of Capitalism afforded the opportunity for the working man and woman to establish an independent sense of self despite the often onerous demands of factory or trade work. This working class condition, established in the eighteenth century, was characterized by a simple contractual arrangement, based on work performed, between employer and employee, endured until late in the twentieth century.

It was then that increased possibilities for the values of creativity, freedom and authenticity became available within Boltanski and Chiapello’s construct of ‘New Spirit of Capitalism’ which developed in the era of social upheaval in the 1960's and 70's, immediately after the interregnum of what the French call Les Trente glorieuses (those three decades after the end of WWII when the standard of living greatly increased for most people across Western Europe and the USA). The new spirit was shaped by a virulent critique partly in reaction to the oppressive regimentation and control imposed by large scale, bureaucratized industrial conglomerates that dominated American and Western European commerce. For a moment, it seemed as if an entire generation had decided to vacate the world of work and reinvent Life on Earth. They (we!) were eventually reined in by a revised spirit of capitalism that co-opted many of the freedoms demanded by the Hippes, Yippies, Feminists and Civil Rights workers who characterized that era.

This emancipation was achieved, over the last forty odd years, at the cost of job security, lower real wages and a crumbling social safety net. As the authors note, wage earners are now simultaneously more autonomous and more constrained as they seek a foothold in the working world absent the protections afforded by secure long term employment, vacations and benefits. Their work lives are episodic or project based, and depend for continuity on the personal and professional connections that are nurtured during brief tenures of employment (or transitory relationships). The establishment of networks is necessary to the securing one's next gig (or relationship) and both depend on social and spatial fluidity: immobility presages exclusion from the ranks of the successful. The power of place has been re-placed by the power of real and virtual rhizomorphic links and reticular adjacencies (a linguistic thicket in the spirit of B&C) spread across the world’s array of urban nodes bound within an electronic web.

The illusory freedom, individual empowerment and authenticity offered within this new Capitalist workplace are mirrored in its attendant consumerism. The mass production of identical goods has been replaced by their customization and niche marketing. American taste has been fragmented: 'Middle America' has been shattered into a hundred taste cultures by which individual consumers are offered goods that are differentiated and 'authentic' to their particular taste culture - despite the fact that these disparate goods remain within the commodity sphere and must ultimately yield to the “cycles of infatuation and disappointment” inherent in a fashion, marketing and advertising driven consumer society.

The distinction between persons and their labor power, and between disinterested relations and relations marked by self-interest traditionally establishes the division, in Capitalism, of what may be commodified and what may not. Now, in Boltanski and Chiapello’s formulation of ‘The New spirit of Capitalism’ (under the influence of which people continue to be persuaded to participate in endless orgies of production and consumption), this distinction is under challenge: individuals are mired deeper and deeper in the processes of making, marketing, personal branding (which is directly related to employability) and networking, all of which combine to submerge the authenticity of their personhood.

It is into this world that we must now consider the introduction of the ecological critique: for the hive mind of Capitalism is mutable. In a recent interview, Eve Chiapello commented, “The market economy has adopted some of the ideas of critical movements, but only those that did not call into question profit-seeking and the pursuit of its objectives”. She notes, however, that the ecological critique does precisely that and thus has the potential to fundamentally alter the central tenet of our neo-liberal political system; but as long as growth of GDP is seen as essential to societal well-being there is unlikely to be any willing accommodation of the ecological agenda (except at the greenwash margins). Chiapello suggests that ultimately, biospheric well-being almost certainly depends on the development of localized, solidarity based sustainable economies dedicated to meeting basic needs and which entirely eschew the superfluous (Hippie communes redux). Any large scale adoption of such local, down-sized centers of production serving newly temperate consumers will most likely cause the transportation, information, education, healthcare, energy and control networks of modern society to atrophy and current levels of population to decline.

Capitalism has capitulated to demands for the greater freedom, authenticity and personal empowerment of its worker bees but it has done so by demanding increased flexibility and offering less security, benefits, generally lower wages and has undermined the sanctity of its workers personhood by commodifying their personal relationships. It now exists, within the embracing raison d’etre of its new spirit, under attack from a critique that privileges biospheric health above the emancipatory values its promoters have been shilling for almost half a century and which are now thoroughly embedded in the neo-liberal project.

Should the ecological critique succeed against all odds, are we then faced with a new dark age from which will inevitably spring the warfare, plunder and territorial acquisition that history has banished?

Let’s dispense immediately with idea that economic growth is somehow a natural, historically validated phenomenon. Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times,

“It’s hard to imagine now, but humanity made do with little or no economic growth for thousands of years. In Byzantium and Egypt, income per capita at the end of the first millennium was lower than at the dawn of the Christian era. Much of Europe experienced no growth at all in the 500 years that preceded the Industrial Revolution. In India, real incomes per person shrank continuously from the early 17th through the late 19th century.”

He goes on to make the contrary argument that “Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation”. One is aghast by the inclusion of half a millennium of high culture, great learning and spiritual achievement in a list clearly intended to conjure a civilizational abyss. The last two hundred years of the West’s economic growth have been afforded by our plundering of the earth’s carbon riches which, by aggravating climate change, will potentially ravage our coast lines and foster disease and famine on a scale besides which a little old-school pillaging by Ghenghis and his cohorts seems positively benign.

Gary Snyder characterizes the “wisdom and skill of those who studied the universe firsthand, by direct knowledge and experience, for millennia, both inside and outside of themselves” as the ‘Old Ways’. Traditional cultures were of a place, in which the inhabiting of a coherent bioregion forged a profound kinship within a world that provided for their people’s survival. The sanctity of human life was contingent: it existed only as a reflection of human reverence for the web of life.

Capitalism requires a rethinking such that the natural world is revered as the one and only medium of transaction between humanity and its survival. If that world is not to be devalued or destroyed, a radical critique of our economic system (predicated, as it is, on eternal growth and the ravaging of the biosphere) must be established. The hive mind is listening.

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