Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Dick Pountain/11 May 2010 12:37/Political Quarterly/Cool Capitalism Review

TITLE: Cool Capitalism
AUTHOR: Jim McGuigan
PUBLISHER: Pluto Press
PUBLISHED:  April 2009, pp256, £15.99


The raving right wing of US Republicanism stridently maintains that the decade of the 1960s with its radical "counterculture" permanently undermined America's moral fibre, and they are absolutely correct in this analysis so far as it goes. What they fail to understand however is that far from destroying capitalism, this subversion not merely refreshed it but launched an unprecedented period of prosperity that has only recently begun to unravel. The counterculture's ethic of rebellion against all social convention combined with the pursuit of pleasure turns out to be just what capitalism needed to move on to its next phase, in which consumption becomes more important than production. Where previously they had to colonise far-off countries to provide new markets for their products, the advanced capitalist economies of the West instead "colonise" the daily lives of their own citizens by causing personal identity to depend upon consuming the right products in the right way. 

No matter that different people hold wildly differing opinions about what that "right way" is, because being a rebel and a nonconformist becomes the norm: I'm the only one who knows the score, everyone else just doesn't get it. This in a nutshell is the core concept of "cool", which turns brands into badges of identity. People express their individuality by wearing the right clothes, listening to the right music, driving the right car, eating the right food. The personal identity once provided through work (I'm a tinker/tailor/miner/doctor) is now provided through consumption. In a parallel process, the actual production of goods is outsourced to lower wage economies in the far East.

Jim McGuigan's book is not the first to explore this development, being preceded by Thomas Frank's 1998 The Conquest of Cool and this reviewer's 2000 book Cool Rules (with the late David Robins). However McGuigan, Professor of Cultural Analysis at Loughborough, moves the field forward by situating cool capitalism firmly in the context of classical and Marxist political economy, and by judicious application of some relevant sociology like Boltanski and Chiapello's ideas on justification, Arlie Hochschild's "emotional labour" and Ulrich Beck's 15-step typology of individualisation. He largely steers clear of indigestible post-modern jargon, though given this source material he can't escape entirely from what Ferdinand Mount has cruelly called "polytechnic prose". He begins by discussing the way capitalism justifies itself, showing that this changes over time and has passed through at least three epochs.

The original spirit of capitalism as described by Max Weber was ascetic, entrepreneurial, politically liberal and organised by family dynasties, until this model fell into crisis during the first half of the 20th century under pressure from world war, economic crisis and socialism. It gradually gave way to what Boltanski and Chiapello call "organised capitalism" based on large corporations, strong trade unions and welfare benefits, a complex easily confused with social democracy (and still branded as such in neoliberal rhetoric). Its justificatory theme became security rather than moral probity, and it was this reformed capitalism that the '60s revolt undermined, the earlier laisser faire form surviving more in conservative fantasies than the real economy. 

McGuigan then sketches the history of “The Great Refusal”, those oppositional art movements that rejected bourgeois mores, from the German Romantics through the French Realists, up to 20th-century Modernism, Dada and Surrealism. He traces the rise of the bohemian way of life, clearly distinguishing its romantic alienation from the social alienation described by Marx. Romantic refusal manifested itself in sexual liberty, unconventional personal appearance and a distaste for work, while on the aesthetic plane it created an ever-widening gulf between alienated elite taste and conformist popular taste. The 1960s witnessed the pinnacle of this romantic refusal with the French Marxists Henri Lefebvre and the Situationist International (major influences on the student revolt of May 1968) who called for revolution in everyday life and an end to alienated labour. But the 1960s also witnessed a revitalised advertising industry grasping that such extreme individualism, far from threatening capitalism, could be broken, harnessed and saddled to become its trusty steed – as analysed by Thomas Frank and dramatised in the excellent TV series "Mad Men". In place of political revolution arose a new cultural populism that ushered in the third epoch of "cool capitalism".

Po-faced Modernism and critical theory were every bit as unappealing to countercultural kids as traditional conservatory culture, so cool capitalism set about revolutionising their everyday lives in pastiche, by de-skilling artistic revolt. Starting from Andy Warhol's rejection of painterly skill, it conquered music via the synthesizer with rapping in place of singing; in film The Method substituted attitude for traditional acting skill. Stardom could now be acquired, if not painlessly, then democratically without the lifetime study it once demanded. And thus cool capitalism redistributes self-esteem rather than capital (though the latter is still accumulated by the few in ever-greater quantities).

In his chapter on Consumer Culture McGuigan reaches the crux of his argument, the way that seduction replaces coercion as the process legitimizing capitalist production, referring to interesting work by Jaqueline Botterill, Zygmunt Bauman and others. It needs the geographical separation of production from consumption to render such seduction effective, because swigging Sauvignon Blanc in a New York loft is far more seductive than assembling iPhones in a factory in Guangdong. Affluent populations become integrated into a capitalist way of life to an unprecedented degree, whereby every attempt at revolt gets deftly turned around into a new style of consent.  

It's in the realm of economics that I find McGuigan least convincing because, despite brief excursions into Veblen and Bourdieu, his underlying assumptions remain wedded to an orthodox Marxist labour theory of value. But Robert Frank and Philip Cook, in their seminal 1995 work The Winner-Take-All Society explained how innovations in production and communication technologies now skew reward mechanisms drastically in favour of top performers, of whom everyone is aware thanks to the mass media. It costs no more to press a Madonna CD than your niece's CD, but the former will sell a million times more copies and she receives a large portion of the difference. This effect results in "fat cat" salaries, plus a starvation of talent and shrinking remuneration for lower echelons, and it's the characteristic pricing mechanism of cool capitalism. Irrational brand identification encourages steep price premiums, especially for luxury goods (so-called "Veblen Goods") like cars, fashion garments or wine. Neoliberal rhetoric about free markets is just that, rhetoric, its function to borrow moral probity from an earlier form of capitalism.

McGuigan ends with an account of anti-capitalist movements and the environmental crisis, which is as thorough and convincing as his earlier chapters, but closer attention to winner-take-all economics might have modified his conclusions. When everyone feels they deserve the same goods as celebs, cheap credit becomes a vital necessity, and we've seen where that leads over the last two years. If easy credit never returns, capitalism may turn distinctly uncool. This cavil apart though I heartily recommend McGuigan's book as an important contribution and valuable reference to a phenomenon which the conventional Left still shows little sign of understanding.

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