Is Anti-Capitalism Enough? The New Crisis & the Left

Howard Brick

The New Spirit of Capitalism
by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello
translated by Gregory Elliott
Verso Books 2006, paperback edition 2007, 656 pages, $39.95.

WHETHER OR NOT the current economic crisis and a historic presidential election open up hidden potentials for renewed popular protest and collective action, it is obvious that the radical Left has lost a great deal of its size, visibility, élan and influence since the 1970s.

When French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello commenced their work together in the mid-1990s, resulting in this monumental and inventive book, they saw not only that the Right had surged and the Left declined since heady days of revolt in the late 1960s.

They also believed that “social critique has not seemed so helpless for a century.” That is, the practical and theoretical opposition to the status quo was weaker than at any time since the beginnings of the modern mass labor and socialist movement.(1)

Why was the opposition so deep in the hole? After all, the signs of growing inequality were evident, and activism persisted through the 1980s and ’90s in addressing acute problems and grievances, concerning AIDS, homelessness, the plight of the undocumented, or the lack of modern medical care in the poor world at large. But almost no one talked much any longer of the systemic framework — of capitalism — that demanded a correspondingly systemic challenge, thought Boltanski and Chiapello (hereafter B&C).

In this respect, things may have been different in the United States than in France. Here, plenty of people were talking about capitalism — in an overwhelming din of celebration.

While the remarkable energy signaled by the burst of the “anti-globalization,” or global justice movement, promised to “revive critique,” as B&C put it, those campaigns suffered a sharp setback in the wake of a renewed Right turn following 9-11. Even the momentous antiwar protests of 2003 lost energy steadily as the Iraq war continued.

Now, nearly ten years after B&C first ventured their judgment that “capitalism has benefited from the enfeeblement of critique,” it remains unclear if much is different.(2) Capitalism has suddenly revealed its fragility for all to see, but it is quite another matter whether the Left now has the standing or the poise to offer the radical, democratic and transitional demands that would, one would think, have a growing audience amidst the present crisis and current calls for “change.”

It is the great ambition of The New Spirit of Capitalism to diagnose the peculiar shape that capitalism has assumed since the 1970s, to explain how and why its new forms have eluded a forceful, concentrated challenge, and to venture proposals for reinvigorating, indeed reinventing an effective anticapitalist critique.

It’s not as if everything is new: Capitalism, in B&C’s eyes, remains a system for pursuing profits and limitless accumulation, amidst the generalization of wage-labor; and anticapitalism — critiques of the domination, alienation, inequality, and antisocial egoism spawned by the system—has kept it company since its very beginning. Yet there has been plenty of room for shape-shifting along the way.

Capitalism and Critique

Boltanski and Chiapello’s basic premise is that key developments in modern society and politics rest on the dialectic between capitalism and its “critique.” Capitalism keeps going, and typically overcomes the crises it generates, by responding to “critique,” stealing the thunder of its critics by answering some of their challenges while diverting attention from other grievances that are either left unremedied or exacerbated.

Furthermore, this process has everything to do with “the spirit of capitalism,” the notion B&C borrow directly from the German sociologist Max Weber to mean that the system cannot operate without a suitable mental orientation or subjective motivation held by many if not most of the people who inhabit its world.

Ideology matters, though the authors insist that ideology is never “mere ideology.” It’s not just a mask or delusion that shields the reality of capitalist oppression, crisis, or decay from view. It’s more a way of life, carried out in beliefs and behavior that justify the normal run of things; it gets people, more or less, to play along and to judge as legitimate those standard practices and inequities that mark the capitalism of a particular epoch.

At any historical moment, then, the capitalist system is built both on the bare pursuit of profit and on the institutions constructed to facilitate people’s participation in it, by answering and overcoming their objections.

Given these premises, the book’s title suggests that a new spirit of capitalism, a new formula of “justification,” has emerged since the last height of radical anticapitalist critique — “1968” and all that year stood for. The paradox is that the new spirit took shape in order to coopt and salve the grievances of 1968 — and that the existing anticapitalist Left has had enormous difficulty in coming to terms with this capitalist jiu jitsu.  This is all part of an ongoing process, as B&C see it: the Left is typically coopted in the wake of crisis times, and then must rebuild itself as a new critique to challenge the new spirit.

So it went in the not-too-distant past, when a “new left” had to start up in the 1960s — because post-World War II reconstruction had salved some earlier grievances through welfare-state means and thus coopted part of the old left (social democracy) in the process. The renewed revolt led to “68,” and as capitalism rebounded after that challenge, it generated a new spirit. In turn, another renovation of critique is necessary too, once again.

Nothing in the recent years of “globalization,” “neoliberalism” and the collapse of both official Communism and social democracy has swayed B&C from their conviction that a Left must maintain its opposition to capitalism as such. The question is this: To rebuild “critique,” you’ve got to know what exactly “the new spirit” is, and that’s always a slippery matter.

Reinventing Critique

In the mid-20th century, the “welfare state” (possessing features that combined reformist and repressive impulses) bewildered many radical critics while it was under construction.

Was the new regime of regulation and public relief just the same as the old capitalism, or different? Should socialists embrace parts of this statist neocapitalism and build on them, going “beyond the welfare state,” or should they oppose it tout court? Should the point of attack shift from targeting exploitative working conditions to overcoming the common experience of alienation? Was “race” more urgent than “class”?

Likewise, B&C suggest, the Left today is more puzzled than purposeful in responding to the newest configuration of capitalism.

So what’s new, after all, in today’s spirit of capitalism? It’s not just that we have a “global capitalism” that has radically distended the relations of exchange and exploitation over space in ways we find hard to grasp — though it’s true the “very long chains” relating “the activity of a dealer in a trading room in London to the poverty of street-children in the shantytown of an African city” are not so easy to see in the same way that a nearby view of dangerous, degrading, and underpaid factory labor once made exploitation directly available to common sense.(3)

It’s not even that “neoliberalism” has reverted to bygone terms of laissez-faire market dogmatism — since Boltanski and Chiapello insist that free commercial exchange is not actually what current capitalist propaganda promotes. Just as U.S.-backed “free trade” is not really free, the old Smithian economics, Milton Friedman notwithstanding, does not apply to an economy that’s knit together on a grand scale and in which certain actors can keep themselves more or less immune from the downside of risk.(4)

Rather, B&C suggest, under the incarnation of capitalism that began emerging 30 years ago, a whole new definition of work, authority, collaboration, obligation, and the human life cycle has altered the basic ways we imagine social relations.

Rather than having a place and a function in more or less fixed structures — corporate firms, government bureaucracies, large nonprofit organizations like universities or hospitals, or even families as neatly contained entities — people are encouraged to view their position and their activities within the frame of flexible “networks,” an ever-shifting web of “connections” for those ready and able to hook up with others in particular, temporary tasks.

This is a language of social interaction that has infiltrated everyday life, the business world, even radical agitation itself. Consider, in the last respect, much talk on the Left of the obsolescence of organized parties and programs, the prevalence of “affinity groups,” operating independently amid loose-jointed and shifting “coalitions,” a pattern of occasional, uncoordinated protests that pop up here and there around the world as if from an obscure and unpredictable traveling root of “rhizomatic” plants.

More commonly, in everyday life, we are used to “social networking” software. And as people live, network-fashion, in what B&C call a “connexionist” world, their activities are defined in terms of changing “projects” rather than “jobs,” “careers,” any sort of fixed path, let alone “class” identities.(5)

The prevailing ideal of the good life and just recompense for work is a “projective” one, the notion that individuals should have both the independence and the capabilities to participate in a changeable range of multiple “projects” over the life course.

The shifting, variable, dissolving and recombining nature of these associations amount to what others have called “flexible” models of work and accumulation. These are notoriously insecure for much of the working population, but B&C argue that the “connexionist” and “projective” ideals also strike many people as modes of exciting, creative autonomy.(6)

The new regime had as one of its significant (and usually intended) effects the loosening of work rules, job categories, and all sorts of protections and compensations allied to social standards of work and justice. But it was also in part designed, they say, to overcome the widespread “sixties” notion that fixed institutions and roles stifled personality and imagination.

Left Disarmed — and Rearmed?

The new spirit, B&C say, responded to “the artistic critique” of capitalism — so called because its challenge to the constraining, dehumanizing and spiritless character of capitalism has often been associated with bohemian avant-gardes, though it has also characterized any number of campaigns by other alienated individuals and groups beset by domination.

Meanwhile, the new spirit of capitalism since the 1970s set aside, and tried to obscure, the issues bound up with what they call on the other hand the “social critique,” which targets most directly social inequality, poverty, exploitation, and egoistic disregard of the common good. In B&C’s terms, the construction of capitalism’s new spirit effectively “disarmed” a Left (of the ’60s) that tended to emphasize the artistic critique.

This diagnosis of a shifting balance in capitalism’s address to “artistic” and “social” critiques may help make some sense of conflicting trends, namely, the growing latitude of action permitted since the 1960s to individuals of formerly subjugated groups, such as women and people of color — while the polarization of wealth only grows.

To be sure, this is no diatribe assailing “identity politics” in favor of a return to “classic” concerns with “economic” inequality.(7) The two “critiques,” B&C argue, are not wholly congruent with each other, but they do overlap and intertwine. Neither has ever been wholly absent from the constitution of the modern anticapitalist Left. The question is how to sustain both.

Yet in many respects, the most pressing matter of the moment is a “revival of the social critique,” in the face of a capitalist spirit that has eroded people’s ability to conceive and recognize once-familiar notions of “class” and both the inequity and potential solidarity associated with them.

Boltanski and Chiapello are not the sort of postindustrial prophets who declare that “class is dead” or that “information technology” has dissolved the power of private capital. While the ability of people to recognize themselves as a class is not a given across time, these writers have little doubt that people who scrape together a living through labor suffer exploitation. An especially harsh, but new, division has been created between those who get by, more or less well, and those who are “the excluded” — stigmatized, uncredentialed, unprotected, redundant — in a word, unconnected, and profoundly insecure.(8)

B&C demonstrate this new trend in two ways. They document the deep erosion of job security and social standards of labor protection over recent decades, aiming at wholesale “deunionization.” They also examine the extensive literature in business management, in order to find out how capitalism’s theorists and apologists paint a presumably desirable work life, mainly for the officers and technicians that are known in France as cadres (in the United States more often something like the “professional-managerial class”) but, ideally, on offer for all.

Those business manuals describe an ideal of work life that’s all about whittling away at hierarchy, permitting people “autonomy,” encouraging “skill enhancement,” recognizing variety and flexibility and even discontinuity in work life as people finish a “project” and move off to join another “team” — or perhaps take a respite from “work” for “personal” aims.

Of course, the business manuals’ ideal of the good life under capitalism is largely an illusion. Quality circles in auto manufacturing never altered who was in command, and a vision of “flex time” that might help people really meet personal and familial needs outside of working for a living is nowhere near viable for anyone but the rich and most affluent middle-class professionals (or those very few who choose voluntary poverty).

Still, the new spirit has both held out an ideal that is in some respects appealing, and is practically (not merely “ideologically”) associated with such business practices as reducing bureaucracy, vesting more discretion in some jobs (while also adding more burdens), and calling on experts and service-providers (otherwise called “outsourced”) who are not expected to “give their life to the corporation.”

At the same time, B&C have no doubt that the shift in managerial strategies begun in the mid-late 1970s — often having borrowed the terms of liberal and even radical critics of work alienation — in fact served “to reverse a balance of power which was relatively unfavourable to the employers at the start of the period [in workers’ combativity of the early 1970s], and to increase control over work without a commensurate increase in supervision costs.”(9)

Looking Beyond Capitalism

Despite the exploitative side of all these changes, B&C claim there’s no way simply to return to older models of security and regulation. In fact, what benefits of security and safety capitalism actually offered under the “second spirit” of the large, “integrated” corporation and the welfare state were indeed tied to rigid, fixed, regimented forms that aroused anticapitalist indignation themselves.

Moreover, the concrete social forms — the customary places, venues, organizational structures — of collective protest in concentrated factory life or the industrial city have largely dwindled away.

This is a bracing analysis and critique (both of contemporary capitalism and of its current Left opposition), and its intentions are clearly radical. B&C argue for the integration of reform and revolution as two wings of left-wing strategy.

On the one hand, a critical movement seeks changes that promote justice in the terms people recognize as real, immediate and achievable — terms that, to some extent inevitably, mirror the current mode of “justification” offered by the capitalist spirit itself.

Consequently, B&C suggest a program of initiatives that could make “projective autonomy” real for people currently denied its advantages. At a minimum, this would mean, for instance, limiting the rights of business to lay off and “exclude” people whose skills appear “obsolete.”

At its more ambitious, such a program might aspire to disengage work and pay, so a guaranteed income and available social services permit real release time from “projects” and even help create a terrain of social life open to “decommodified” activities and goods.

Beyond such reform, on the other hand, B&C uphold the necessity for a critique of capitalism as such, an opposition that targets all the grievances that system spawns. That is to say, the faults are endemic, built in — and so to target them, an opposition must challenge the system as a whole.

Yet the tenor of Boltanski and Chiapello’s argument raises doubts about how well they sustain a dialectic of reform and revolution. Their vision of social action is so tightly bound up with the serial exchange between “spirit” and “critique” that it is unclear how the latter could ever ultimately break out of the capitalist mold. At any historical moment, the oppositional challenge speaks in the terms given by the prevailing spirit of capitalism, and in time a new spirit emerges to outfox the old challenge. 

Is there ever a prospect of breaking the chain, of escaping that regular alternation between a critique that tries to hold the system to its word, and a system that cleverly changes the subject and recuperates its reputation?

In our time, how much can be achieved by humanizing, or making more just, a “projective” model of social life, when it may be most urgent to imagine and fashion reconstituted forms of solidarity and struggle on behalf of a radically democratic and egalitarian common life?

Indeed, when push comes to shove, B&C — while brilliantly illuminating the vocabulary of critique and resistance that will always dog capitalism — refrain from suggesting the possibility of an imaginable future beyond capitalist spirits entirely.

Perhaps, writing under the dark cloud of the long and enduring right turn, they chose to maintain a “realistic” view, or perhaps simply a modest “social-scientific” disinclination to predict the future. Thus they won’t venture beyond modest proposals of the next step — not because such a future is unimaginable but merely because, right now, it seems too far off to speak of sensibly.  

Or is their reticence possibly more deeply rooted? Perhaps they leave unsaid a premise about radical alternatives: that while the idea of overcoming capitalism — by putting to rest the sources of grievance stirred by inequality, exploitation, domination, antisocial egoism, as well as constraining, uncreative and dispiriting social roles — has long been identified with the aim of creating socialism, the actual content of a viable socialism is simply too unclear to warrant much confidence?

In a sense, the content of socialism has always been unclear — beyond the basic idea of enabling self-determining government by and for “the people” in a modern sense, i.e. by and for working people as a popular majority sharing an interest in some kind of collectivized economy.  Yet at times in the past that vision seemed, to a substantial constituency, worth striving for.

If then, the spirit of capitalism constantly mutates, it’s necessary too to devote endless effort and constant renovation to fashioning in response a new “spirit of socialism.” Because anticapitalism is not enough.


  1. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2005), xxxv (emphasis added). The first French edition appeared in 1999.
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  2. New Spirit, xvi, 324.
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  3. New Spirit, 373.
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  4. Of the many demonstrations that “free trade” is not in fact the trade policy of the United States, a useful account can be found in Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2003). David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) provides a useful “ideological” account, though Boltanski and Chiapello argue that the chief ideology of the day is not “neoliberal” market absolutism (New Spirit, 132, 137, 201-2). For their treatment of financial networks exploited by big players striving to shield themselves from market volatility, see 365-66.
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  5. Boltanski and Chiapello are quite right about the ubiquity of such notions. “Network analysis” is one of the hottest “theory” fields in contemporary sociology: see Duncan Watts’s work, Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks Between Order and Randomness (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1999) and Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (New York: Norton, 2003). Its penetration into the language of leftwing opposition is evident in work such as Tony Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2000) and Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk, eds., From ACT-UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (London: Verso, 2002).
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  6. While the term is widespread in recent economic sociology, the best known critique of “flexible accumulation” is David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).
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  7. That social-democratic reaction against what Boltanski and Chiapello call the “artistic critique” is evident, most notably, in Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998). Another version, mocking “countercultural” ideas of freedom and autonomy while calling for a direct assault of economic inequality, appears in Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997) and Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, eds., Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler (New York: Norton, 1997).
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  8. Their claims in this regard seem warranted by the analysis of the U.S. economy and social relations of race, in Michael B. Katz and Mark J. Stern, , One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming (New York: Russell Sage, 2006).
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  9. New Spirit, 195.
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ATC 138, January-February 2009.