New Spirit of Capitalism

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* Book: The New Spirit of Capitalism. by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello. Verso, 2007

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"A major new work examining network-based organizations and post-Fordist work structures. Why is the critique of capitalism so ineffective today? In this major work, the sociologists Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski suggest that we should be addressing the crisis of anticapitalist critique by exploring its very roots.

Via an unprecedented analysis of management texts which influenced the thinking of employers and contributed to reorganization of companies over the last decades, the authors trace the contours of a new spirit of capitalism. From the middle of the 1970s onwards, capitalism abandoned the hierarchical Fordist work structure and developed a new network-based form of organization which was founded on employee initiative and relative work autonomy, but at the cost of material and psychological security.

This new spirit of capitalism triumphed thanks to a remarkable recuperation of the “artistic critique”—that which, after May 1968, attacked the alienation of everyday life by capitalism and bureaucracy. At the same time, the “social critique” was disarmed by the appearance of neocapitalism and remained fixated on the old schemas of hierarchical production.

This book, remarkable for its scope and ambition, seeks to lay the basis for a revival of these two complementary critiques." (


Mark Corbin:

"It is an analysis of the relationship of capitalism with the critique of it, and a narrative of the survival and adaptation of the capitalist system in the context of society’s changing collective identities, based on experience with and of the development of anti-capitalist critique, and empirical study of particularly management literature, in France between 1970 and 1995. I confess to having so far just read the introduction (due to the volume of content I thought worth writing down, and the fact that it is stuck in a library), so this is very much an overview of an overview.

In brief, the story goes:

1. Capitalism has very little (if any) innate motivation for most of its key workers to cooperate with the system

“In many respects, capitalism is an absurd system: in it, wage earners have lost ownership of the fruits of her labour and the possibility of a pursuing a working life free from subordination. As for capitalists, they find themselves yoked to an interminable, insatiable process, which is utterly abstract and disassociated from the satisfaction of consumption needs, even of a luxury kind. For two such protagonists, integration into the capitalist process is singularly lacking in justifications.”

2. As such, it needs to find justifications/narratives in tune with the demands, ethics, and current wants of its key workers

It needs to formulate

“descriptions that are sufficiently substantial and detailed, and contain adequate purchase, to ‘sensitize’ those to whom they are addressed. In other words, they must both coincide with people’s moral experience of daily life and suggest models of action that they can grasp.”

In particular to answer the following

  • How is committed engagement in the process of accumulation a source of enthusiasm, even for those who will not necessarily be the main beneficiaries of the products that are made?
  • To what extent can those in the capitalist universe be assured of a minimum of security for themselves and their children?
  • How can participation in capitalist firms be justified in terms of the common good, and how, confronted with accusations of injustice, can the way that it is conducted and managed be defended?

These justificatory answers emerge as a ‘spirit’ of capitalism, on a different level to its basic economic functioning yet interacting with it and shaping it.

3. Critique formulates discontent into theory and voice, with which to challenge the confidence of this spirit and justifying logic.

Critique on capitalism operates by means of the effect it has on the central tests of capitalism ( a ‘test’ briefly being a social mechanism by which individuals rise in status in various dimensions – earning more money, knowing more, being more ethical. Social structures rely on these tests and their criteria being accepted as valid – who gets jobs, how much jobs earn, who is ‘respected’ and defered to, etc)

4. Capitalism adapts in response by concession or evasion

If these critiques are powerful enough to affect the key workers of capitalism (e.g. critique of lack of autonomy, creativity in large industry and business in 1970s), capitalism adapts by reformulating its ‘spirit’ to incorporate or neutralise these challenges. Thus in the 80s and 90s capitalism adopts networks, autonomy, flexibility to defuse the automony critique and defuses union and worker challenges over equality by its changing organisational form giving unions less relevance and purchase." (


Reading: Multitudes 4 on the New Spirit of Capitalism:

  • Article: Nouvel Ere du Capitalism. By Boltanski and Chiapello. Special Issue of Multitudes #4.


The authors wrote a book together, Le Nouvel Esprit du Capitalisme, the 'New Spirit of Capitalism'.

Michel Bauwens, 2004:

The authors identify a new 'spirit' of capitalism, centered around the 3 axes of enthusiasm, security, and justice, which has incorporated the 'artist criticism' of capitalism, which was expressed in the 1960s, but not the 'social criticism' of capitalism, which it had disabled in the 1990s. This critique is now resurging because the new model only answered the autonomy/creative requirements of the new cognitive classes, but not the demands for security and justice. And capitalism cannot exist without justifications. The lack of such justification shows the transitoryness of the current model.

A note on the events of 1968: 1968 was an exceptional event because it combined both the social and artistic movements and their separate critiques of capitalism. But today, after a 'system without alternatives' was dominant in the 1990s, the social critique has been re-invigorated, with an adaptation to the network. For example, the concept of 'exclusion' is a typical network concept. But where is the exploitation that causes the new social misery ? The differentiation is now between the succesful and the excluded, and is derived from the concept of mobility or adaptability, including at the psychic level.