The French dissection

The New Spirit of Capitalism
November 2, 2006

In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid," wrote Joseph Heller in the opening chapter of Something Happened .

"Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it."

A few years after Heller wrote that in the early 1970s, the social anthropologist Studs Terkel remarked in Working , a more rigorous study of workplace life: "Work is by its very nature about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us."

The 1980s and 1990s followed, a period in which we were flooded with concepts such as enterprise, entrepreneurship, outsourcing, restructuring, downsizing and the long-hours culture, which in turn begat stress, burnout and downshifting. In these decades of the new multi-media global economy, we began to see an increase in the Americanisation of work in Europe and elsewhere. This book by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello traces the period from 1965 to 1995 in the context of the French economy, highlighting the crisis in capitalism from 1965 to 1975 with all the resulting industrial relations tensions, the resurrection of capitalism between 1975 and 1990, and the globalisation and Americanisation era of the 1990s to today.

The New Spirit of Capitalism is very much a historical critique of 30 years of socioeconomic developments in France, but one that will have resonance in other European countries. This extremely well-written and well-argued book explores, from a sociologist's point of view, the implications of the "new capitalism" seen in Europe and elsewhere, or what the authors describe as "the ideological changes that have accompanied recent transformations in capitalism". And although their work is idiosyncratically French, from a scholarly point of view the authors mirror much of the academic thinking that has taken place in the UK concerning the period from Thatcherism to the present day. The book does not attempt to suggest changes to the existing order, but merely highlights the progression and impact of today's capitalism, and its implications for individuals, organisations and society.

It is primarily an academically oriented volume for scholars in economic and social history, management, organisational sociology and social/political critique. It provides a slow but scholarly voyage throughout this 30-year period, building its arguments gradually with supporting facts and other macroeconomic data. This approach is likely to appeal most to academic scholars in sociology and social and economic historians. Although there are many implications for management and organisational behaviour, it will find only a limited audience for this group.

I found the book hard-going, but I am glad that I persevered. The New Spirit of Capitalism makes a major contribution to the literature in the field and to scholars beyond French borders. Where we have come from is important to help us in where we should be going. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "What we call results are beginnings."

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University Management School.

The New Spirit of Capitalism

Author - Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 601
Price - £75.00
ISBN - 1 85984 554 1

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