The New Spirit of Capitalism.

AuthorDavies, Will
PositionBook review

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello

Translated by Gregory Elliott

VERSO 2006

New Labour is defined partly by its respect for the achievements of the New Right over the eighties and nineties. In various areas, such as market regulation and welfare policy, it has simply taken the policies of the Right further in their logical direction, seeking to produce and nurture markets that are as open and dynamic as possible. But in one important respect, it has pursued these policies in a fashion that owes more to traditional leftist sensibilities. For in keeping with an intellectual and political tradition that dates back to Marx, New Labour has abstained from debating the moral qualities of markets, preferring instead to focus on their empirical mechanics. The rubric of 'evidence-based policy' and the sociological frame of 'globalisation' have both been instrumental in facilitating this.

Thatcherism was certainly shaped by the neo-liberal economics that displaced Keynesianism from the seventies onwards, but economics rarely provides the emotional, psychological or moral fuel for far-reaching political change. It was the moral qualities of markets, and not simply their efficiency-maximising tendencies, that inspired the New Right. Markets were associated with individual freedom, the traditional family, protection from tyranny and hard work. With the exception of the last of these virtues, which has a place close to Gordon Brown's heart, New Labour has snubbed this normative dimension, viewing the market not so much as immoral, but amoral. This is in keeping with scientific socialism: Marx may have had a deep-lying distaste for how capitalism treated people, but it was its structural flaws that led him to predict its collapse and not its moral ones. When New Labour came to accommodate the free market into its political economy during the 1990s, it was primarily on account of a sociological narrative about its inevitability provided by the likes of Anthony Giddens, and not a sudden conversion to the moral worldview of Friedrich Hayek or Keith Joseph.

The varying moral dimensions of capitalism have therefore been a curiously absent topic from mainstream political discourse since Thatcherism imploded fifteen years ago. This is a significant gap, because as Boltanski and Chiapello's wonderful book demonstrates, the moral promises made by capitalism are a critical feature of how it defends and sustains itself. The simple reason for this is that people must be...

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