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One of the main interventions of Boltanski and Chiapello in The New Spirit of Capitalism is the painstaking explanation of how capitalism necessitates a moral dimension, if it is to be capable of enlisting and mobilizing people in the service of capital accumulation. It is no small task to mobilize bodies at the service of drives and desires that seemingly do not originate from within the self. Part of the enduring or permanent tension that capitalism engenders is between the realization of its insatiable desire for growth and the restraints that stem from familial, cultural, political and community life. Therefore, people “require justifications for getting involved in an insatiable process” (page 486). Not even the agents of capital are ready to sacrifice it all in the service of accumulation, which is then one of the imperative difficulties of the process.
How did this come to happen and why not use brute force for enlistment and mobilization? We can think back to a ‘primitive’ period of primitive accumulation as described by Marx, where brute force was employed to displace self-sufficient peasants towards the emerging industrial cities. However, with the exponential intellectualization of work “the tasks to be performed require a higher level of skill, autonomy and positive involvement for workers” (page 486). Boltanski and Chiapello very rightly suppose on this basis that capitalism goes hand in hand with freedom and cannot be said to hold total sway over people. Referring to Marx again, I believe that the positive freedom of the employment relation has indeed increased, but at the same time as its dialectic negative corollary, the freedom from the means of production. Thinking back to my own youthful days in a small industrial Albanian town, there was an archetypical character I vividly remember: the family member in the countryside. For many people this was a way of supplanting their incomes: cheap or free fresh produce and dairy was made available to them because of familial relations. What happens however, when we see increased proletarization and urbanization? Capitalism seems to be putting increased strain on worlds outside of its immediate control in ways that might seem antithetical to its ideal functioning. With the growing number of ensuing expulsions and with the tightening of the legitimate circle of economic activity, I wonder if soon enough it will still make sense to even speak of capitalism.
Capitalism as described by Boltanski and Chiapello is far from being a totally inhumane system that robs people of their critical capacities. Quite to the contrary, its ideal operation depends on legitimating principle that derive from its humane dimensions. This claim requires a break with the postulate of the Marxist vulgate that has historically associated ideology with mystification, i.e. an illusion that is detached from the workings of the real world located in the relations of production at the heart of the economic base. Capitalism “must, to a certain extent deliver on its promises” (page 488). As agents imbued with critical capacity, people are always putting it to test according to its proposed ideal. “They are never so alienated as to be incapable of establishing a critical distance” (page 488). Critique then is never revolutionary on its own account, for it can always either be ignored or recuperated. Transposed to the right of condemnation, this critical capacity has become part and parcel of the regime of human rights that so often pays lip service to people’s political self-expression without granting them any authority for genuine political governance and self-styling. I do not believe this should make us disillusioned towards critique as a tool in our revolutionary arsenal, but rather it can allow us to sharpen in it so as to find a critical edge for critique.
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