Jan 21, 2009

Under Pressure

I've been reading the book Under Pressure - Pictures, Subjects, and the New Spirit of Capitalism. Its my favorite kind of book because it is small enough to tuck in a pocket, good for reading on the subway. It has four essays, together with responses, which is not too daunting. Oh, and when I dropped it in the bathtub the other day (my secret is out!), it dried out nicely...

The longest essay is by Boltanski, who, with Eve Chiapello, wrote The New Spirit of Capitalism in 1999. I've read parts of their earlier book, so I was curious to see where Boltanski would go next. I haven't finished the essay yet. The first section is a good recap of ideas from the 1999 book.

A major part of the analysis concerns three shifts in capitalism, what Boltanski and Chiapello call the "three spirits of capitalism," which took place in the 1930's, 1960's and 1990's. Here is a paragraph by Boltanski discussing the shift in the 1960s:

The years 1965-1976 are marked by a very sharp rise in the level of critique against capitalism, culminating in 1968 and the following years. These critiques threaten capitalism with a significant crisis. They are far from being merely verbal and are accompanied by strikes and violence and result in a disorganization of production that lowers the quality of industrial produce and, according to some estimates, doubles salary costs. These critiques are targeted at almost all established tests upon which the legitimacy of the social order was based. The objects of critique are, (a) the tests upon which the relationship between salaries and profits and the distribution of added value are dependent; (b) the tests legitimating asymmetries in terms of power and hierarchical relations (at work, but also in the family); and (c) the tests upon which the social selection is based: in education, professional recruitment, career advancement, etc. The critique unveils that which, in these tests, transgresses justice. This unveiling consists particularly in revealing the hidden forces that feed off these tests and in unmasking the undeserved advantages benefited from by certain actors. This high level of critique alarms those responsible for the institutions of capitalism and, first and foremost, the bosses, acutely concerned with the "crisis of authority" and the "refusal to work in firms," in particular amongst the youth.

According to this model, in the 1960's, social injustices led to a rise in a critique against capitalism, which eventually produced a crisis, with workers and intellectuals going on strike and rioting. Eventually, capitalism responded to this critique, giving rise to a new spirit of capitalism which remedied issues or at least mollified critics.

Today we live the credit card dream. In America there have been relatively few recent riots or strikes. Yet in the absence of a strong external critique, capitalism is now undergoing a drastic shift, we are entering a new "spirit of capitalism". The change is not in response to a rise in a social or artistic critique, but rather it has come from within, from the mortgage and finance crisis. The media blames the current crisis on "toxic" debt, invoking a metaphor of capitalism as a body that has ingested a poison, and whose immune system is responding to internal attack.

If capitalism is capable of enormous change from within, what does this say about Boltanksi's suggestion that it responds to external critique? At first glance, we could argue that the new spirit in capitalism follows a different model from the 1960's. However, let's imagine for a moment that the economy continues a downwards spiral. We can expect civil unrest and strikes will follow, aimed at "unmasking the undeserved advantages benefited from by certain actors." Would these future actions be critique to which capitalism responds, or simply the side effect of ingested toxins? The problem is that neither answer reveals the full picture.

In fairness to Boltanski, he recognizes that capitalism and critique are mutually imbricated, that their relationship is complex. At the same time, I suspect that many who read Boltanski and Chiapelle will take their notions of social and artistic critique literally, as a kind of cause-and-effect explanation of the relationship between capitalism and critique. This narrative is appealing precisely because it suggests critique can have a direct effect.

For my part, I don't believe critique and outcome ever have an easy relationship. I look forward to seeing how Boltanski and Eve Chiapelle theorize the forth spirit of capitalism.


Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Is there any chance of buying this book of you or borrowing it - I looked everywhere and everywhere it is out of stock...
If you reply to this comment, then I will pass my e-mail to you, thanks,

Julia (London)

Jon said...

Hi Julia,

I'm in NY, my copy is a bit worn. Did you try contacting Sternberg Press? I will be in London Feb 23 for a few days... you can reach me at jonmeyer via gmail.