Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

June 20, 2008

The New Spirit of Capitalism

By Luc Boltanski& Eve Chiapello

Verso, 2007

656 pages, $79.95

Published first in French in 1999, in English in 2005 and now in paperback, The New Spirit of Capitalism has taken on some of the dimensions of a classic. In terms of sheer audacity and ambition it certainly deserves its reputation.

It is, all at once, an examination of key ideological and cultural texts that have shaped our lives, an account of recent French history combined with elements of political economy and committed social protest.

Boltanski and Chiapello have trawled through 1000 pages of management books from the 1960s and another 1000 from the '90s to distill the similarities and differences in an attempt to update Max Weber's foundational sociological text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

They deserve an award for having the intestinal fortitude to work through the books designed to help bosses exploit their workers. What they have come up with makes for fascinating reading.

Their central thesis is that the French revolt of May-June 1968 produced a contradictory result. It shook capitalism to its core, but threw up criticisms of capitalism that bourgeois culture absorbed and turned back on the rebellious movement in order to tame it.

Demands for liberation and personal authenticity have been incorporated, according to Boltanski and Chiapello, into the new "network" world of capitalism at the expense of collectivist and egalitarian critiques of capitalism.

The "new spirit" of capitalism referred to in the title, drawn from the analysed texts and detailed at length, consists of "lean" enterprises with out-sourced operations, self-organised team-work among independent, "self-actualised project operatives• (not workers) focusing upon customer satisfaction, ennobled by the "vision of leaders" (not bosses) who inspire people as equals.

In this world personal freedom is all. Old-fashioned alienation has disappeared along with hierarchical organisations with their petty tyrant managers — as long as we allow the "leaders' vision" to colonise our minds and "the customer" to be supreme and beat the clock with "just in time" production!

Boltanski and Chiapello are at their strongest when they construct a description of the "great man" of the current capitalist world by quoting directly from 1990s management texts. This capitalist super hero embodies charisma, vision, the gift of the gab, intuition and mobility.

He is all things to all people, comfortable at all social levels, is infinitely adaptable and only ever commits to a "project", not a vocation. Not for him the trappings of bourgeois solidity; he rents and keeps on the move.

I don't know if the term "great man" is a strictly French expression in translation, but having worked for too many such people I feel that it applies. Boltanski and chiapello don't mention where "great women" fit in this pared-down, ultra-mobile, network world where personal relationship is central.

How did the bourgeoisie slip through this new age of exploitation without provoking a massive revolt? In their weakest passages, Boltanski and Chiapello focus exclusively on French developments, dissecting union debates and the actions of '68 radicals who became "consultants".

While they identify globalisation as the underlying economic reality they seem glued to the French experience at precisely the moment that they should be linking it with the global crisis of capitalism and variations between national experiences. After all, globalisation means that we live in period of gigantic combined and uneven development.

A crisis of over-production swept world capitalism in the early '70s, which responded, after a period of indecision, with an expanded capitalist "financialisation" (the casino-world of succeeding share market bubbles — dot coms, sub-prime mortgages, today food, tomorrow carbon trading). Dealing in financial derivatives is everything, real production is secondary.

This financialised capitalism, based on shonky deals, requires short-term commitment from its "great men" (read: conmen) and offers no security to workers. Its imposition in the US and Britain was associated with Reagan and Thatcher.

But in Australia it was the Labor Party that implemented neoliberal reforms, as did the French "Socialist" Party. In the process they recruited (corrupted) ex-radicals who squandered their political capital upon the altar of profit.

The reality of a bureaucratic layer of misleaders consciously serving the interests of capital appears invisible to Boltanski and Chiapello, even though Lenin diagnosed it nearly a century ago.

But Boltanski and Chiapello remain committed to anti-capitalist politics, though not Marxism. They paint a picture of "financial markets versus countries; financial markets versus firms; multinationals versus countries; large order-givers versus small sub-contractors; world experts versus enterprises; enterprises versus temporary employees; consumers versus enterprises".

They hope that from within this patchwork of conflicts a new anti-capitalist critique can be constructed. Unfortunately, to my eye it reads like a rehash of '60s Maoist theory of revolutionary unity of the working class with the national bourgeoisie, peasants and the petty bourgeoisie. Unity with the "national" bosses: there's an idea who's time has come — and gone.

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