About The New Spirit of Capitalism New edition of this major work examining the development of neoliberalism In this established classic, sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello get to the heart of contemporary capitalism. Delving deep into the latest management texts informing the thinking of employers, the authors trace the contours of a new spirit of capitalism. They argue that beginning in the mids, capitalism abandoned the hierarchical Fordist work structure and developed a new network-based form of organization founded on employee initiative and autonomy in the workplace—a putative freedom bought at the cost of material and psychological security. This was a spirit in tune with the libertarian and romantic currents of the period as epitomized by dressed-down, cool capitalists such as Bill Gates and Ben and Jerry and, as the authors argue, a more successful, pernicious, and subtle form of exploitation. In this new edition, the authors reflect on the reception of the book and the debates it has stimulated.

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As in Britain, the Right is paralysed by rancorous internal disputes, and the official political scene devoid of any effective opposition. Intellectually, however, neo-liberal hegemony is weaker than elsewhere. A generalized sense of discontent, of impatient and puzzled indignation, has found expression in a range of publications that have found a mass market.

Publishers continue to find, rather to their surprise, that books denouncing the free market, globalization, labour flexibility, poverty and inequality are best-sellers. Labarde and B. Maris, 70, This massive book is an astonishing combination—an ideological and cultural analysis, a socio-historical narrative, an essay in political economy, and a bold piece of engaged advocacy.

The work has been widely perceived as likely to become a classic. Chiapello, by contrast, is a young instructor at a business school, whose first book was on the relationship between artists and managers. An established sociologist and a youthful management theorist do not make an obvious couple for a ferocious critique of contemporary capitalism.

But this is, among other things, what Le Nouvel esprit delivers. Its starting point is a powerful statement of indignation and puzzlement. The answer to this question, Boltanski and Chiapello suggest, lies in the fate that overtook the different strands of the mass revolt against the Gaullist regime in May—June There have always been, they argue, four possible sources of indignation at the reality of capitalism: i a demand for liberation; ii a rejection of inauthenticity; iii a refusal of egoism; iv a response to suffering.

These two forms of critique, Boltanski and Chiapello argue, have accompanied the history of capitalism from the start, linked both to the system and to each other in a range of ways, along a spectrum from intertwinement to antagonism. In France, and its aftermath saw a coalescence of the two critiques, as student uprisings in Paris triggered the largest general strike in world history.

So strong was the challenge to the capitalist order, that at first it had to make substantial concessions to social demands, granting major improvements of pay and working conditions. Gradually, however, the social and the artistic rejections of capitalism started to come apart. The social critique became progressively weaker with the involution and decline of French communism, and the growing reluctance of French employers to yield any further ground without any return to order in the enterprises or any increase in dramatically falling levels of productivity.

The values of expressive creativity, fluid identity, autonomy and self-development were touted against the constraints of bureaucratic discipline, bourgeois hypocrisy and consumer conformity.

Capitalism, however, has always relied on critiques of the status quo to alert it to dangers in any untrammelled development of its current forms, and to discover the antidotes required to neutralize opposition to the system and increase the level of profitability within it.

Ready to take advantage of even the most inhospitable conditions, firms began to reorganize the production process and wage contracts. For Boltanski and Chiapello, these molecular changes were not simply reactions to a crisis of authority within the enterprise, and of profitability within the economy, although they were that too. Neither material incentives nor coercion are sufficient to activate the enormous number of people—most with very little chance of making a profit and with a very low level of responsibility—required to make the system work.

What are needed are justifications that link personal gains from involvement to some notion of the common good. Conventional political beliefs—the material progress achieved under this order, its efficiency in meeting human needs, the affinity between free markets and liberal democracy—are, according to Boltanski and Chiapello, too general and stable to motivate real adherence and engagement. What are needed instead are justifications that ring true on both the collective level—in accordance with some conception of justice or the common good—and the individual level.

To be able truly to identify with the system, as managers—the primary target of these codes—have to do, two potentially contradictory longings have to be satisfied: a desire for autonomy that is, exciting new prospects for self-realization and freedom and for security that is, durability and generational transmission of advantages gained. The first took shape in the nineteenth century.

Its key figure was the Promethean bourgeois entrepreneur, a captain of industry with every capacity for risk, speculation and innovation—offset by determination to save, personal parsimony and austere attachment to the family. By the inter-war period, however, this model came to be felt as outmoded. Between and , there emerged a new figure—the heroic director of the large, centralized, bureaucratic corporation.

The dream of young planners became to change the world through long-term planning and rational organization, linking self-realization and security, as plotted by ascent through a fixed career structure, with the common interest of satisfying consumers and overcoming scarcity.

In turn, the crisis of dealt a deathblow to this spirit of capitalism, discrediting its forms of justification as archaic and authoritarian fictions, with less and less bearing on reality degrees no longer a guarantee of a stable career or pensionable future, etc. This is the specific object of the enquiry Boltanski and Chiapello undertake, following the example of Sombart and Weber, through a comparative analysis of management texts from the s and s.

These are prescriptive texts, that aim to inspire their target audience by demonstrating that the techniques they recommend are not only exciting and innovative, but also compatible—beyond mere profits—with the greater good. The contrast between the two periods is striking. In the s, management literature was constitutively troubled by the discontents of managers and the problems of running giant corporations. It offered to solve these by decentralization, meritocracy and limited autonomy for managers, without loss of overall control.

Most feared was any survival of patriarchal or familial taints among employers favouritism, nepotism, confusion of the personal and professional , that might compromise the rationality or objectivity of the management process as a whole. By contrast, the literature of the s rejected anything that smacked of hierarchy or top-down control, as uneconomic in transaction costs and repugnant in moral overtones.

Indeed, so rhizomatic has management literature become that Boltanski and Chiapello almost suggest, in mischievous mood, that Deleuze and his followers could be taken for management gurus rather than anti-establishment philosophers. The flexible network is presented as a distinct form between market and hierarchy, whose happy outcomes include leanness of the enterprises, team-work and customer satisfaction, and the vision of leaders or coordinators no longer managers who inspire and mobilize their operatives rather than workers.

The ideal capitalist unit is portrayed as a self-organized team that has externalized its costs onto sub-contractors and deals more in knowledge and information than in manpower or technical experience. Taylorist separation of design and execution is overcome by integrated tasks of quality control and equipment maintenance, enhancing personal experience and autonomy.

The downside of this utopian vision is partially conceded by neo-management writers, who note that the freedoms of this new organization of labour come at the expense of the sense of security offered by the more fixed career paths of the second spirit of capitalism. The brittleness of the new spirit of capitalism shows through here, as it does too in the inordinate importance accorded by this literature to questions of reputation—integrity, sincerity, loyalty and so on: gestures towards personalization that only too clearly hint at the risk of their abuse through deception and opportunism.

By now it should be fairly clear how Boltanski and Chiapello connect the new spirit of capitalism with the libertarian and romantic currents of the late s. In however perverted a fashion, the challenge these threw down to bourgeois society, as traditionally conceived, have been rendered compatible with a new form of capitalism. In the process, the metaphor of the network, originally associated with crime and subversion, has been transformed into an icon of progress, upgraded by favourable discourses in philosophy and the social sciences Kuhn, Deleuze, Braudel, Habermas, Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology, among others as well as in new material technologies of communication and transport.

In chapters devoted to the balance of forces in the enterprise, that have seen a steep decline in an already far from strong French trade unionism, Boltanski and Chiapello insist on the central importance of a reality that mainstream sociology, not to speak of political science, now effaces: social classes. But in accounting for the changes in these years, the weight of their explanation rests neither on conscious collective strategy nor impersonal structural pressures—although they do give consideration to both—but rather on the cumulative effects of many molecular actions leading to unintended or perverse consequences.

In the late s, while the nouveaux philosophes were tirading against the evils of Communism, a silent counter-revolution was at work, slowly reversing the balance of power on the shopfloor. This was the decisive phase for morphological changes in the enterprise. This ideology, however ascendant, could not occupy the whole space of representations in such a polarized society. As classes diappeared from any respectable discourse, the theme of social exclusion emerged as a relatively innocuous substitute.

All these, they argue, are faithful reflections of their time. What, then, are the political conclusions of the book? What is needed instead is a new conception of exploitation, adequate to the connexionist world, that links the mobility of one actor to the immobility of another, as a new form of the extortion of surplus value. Nor should the artistic critique be surrendered to its latter-day complicity with the established order.

The notion of authenticity, too often decried as a value by thinkers like Bourdieu, Derrida or Deleuze , can and should be rescued from its commodification by the market, without reverting to conservatism.

The new spirit of capitalism demands a new critical combination against it, capable of uniting demands for solidarity and justice with those for liberty and authenticity. What criticisms are to be made of a work ending on this note? The sample of management texts used is relatively small, and does not distinguish between local and translated works, or discuss relative sales or penetration. More importantly, no strong evidence is advanced for the general influence of this literature in French society at large.

It is also true that Le Nouvel esprit lacks any comparative dimension. Deregulation of finance, flexibilization of production, globalization of trade and investment are, after all, not confined to France. Boltanski and Chiapello pay virtually no attention to Anglophone debates on these matters.

Since major structural changes in contemporary capitalism have been international in range, one must wonder whether they do not overestimate the weight of May and its aftermath in their causal account. The arrival of neo-liberalism in France was clearly over-determined in important ways by features of the local situation. But Boltanski and Chiapello can still be suspected of underplaying systemic pressures in favour of national and conjunctural variables.

Le Nouvel esprit is clearly a more radical work than De la justification. But much of its theoretical apparatus remains continuous with the earlier book, without there ever being a satisfactory articulation between the two.

What is common to them, however, is a conception of the state as a site of compromise—between different logics and norms—and thus of social constraint and regulation.

It is this that allows Boltanski and Chiapello to focus so intensively on micro-displacements at the level of the enterprise, going behind the back of traditional corporatist arrangements or welfare institutions, and so to envisage a package of juridical reforms as the antidote to an unfettered development of network capitalism. The agents of such a programme, they suggest, might include high-level bureaucrats, executives and even enlightened capitalists.

Here, clearly, is the limit of any such pragmatism, the point at which it deserts any sense of realism.

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A New 'Spirit of Capitalism'

Start your review of The New Spirit of Capitalism Write a review Shelves: sociology , marxism-and-the-left , work-and-labour Every so often I find myself reading something that I regret having put off for so long, and this is one of those cases. Boltanski and Chiapello have not set out to explore the material characteristics of contemporary capitalism the organisation and concentration of increasingly Every so often I find myself reading something that I regret having put off for so long, and this is one of those cases. Boltanski and Chiapello have not set out to explore the material characteristics of contemporary capitalism — the organisation and concentration of increasingly globalised business, profit margins and corporate organisation, labour force dynamics, concentration and mobility and so forth — although these things are key to their analysis. This means that they have analysed the ways that the corporate world talks about itself, the language it uses in management education, and therefore the ways that business conceives of its own ways of making sense of its world — that is, of business cultures and practices. It also means that they are interested in change, in how these discourses of culture have varied and as a result what is new or different about the current situation. Both of these things — the question and the methods — in and of themselves make this an extremely important contribution to social, cultural, economic and political understandings of the contemporary world.


The New Spirit of Capitalism






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