Magazine article Soundings

Unfettered Capitalism

Magazine article Soundings

Unfettered Capitalism

Article excerpt

John Urry, Offshoring, Polity Press 2014

Analysis of the nature of late capitalism comes in many shapes and sizes, and not only from the contemporary critique of neoliberalism being advanced in Soundings. Another indispensable source of critique lies in the field of sociology, including in the writings of Zygmunt Bauman and John Urry.

Urry's new book, Offshoring, is the latest in a long series of works, whose underlying thesis was first set out in his 1987 book (jointly authored with Scott Lash) The End of Organised Capitalism. The analysis of that book paralleled that undertaken in the same period by the 'Regulation School' in France, and those influenced by it in Britain, for example contributors to the 'Post-Fordist' theses which were published in Marxism Today. Those debates, coming from a Gramscian and political economy tradition, may be better known to many readers of Soundings than arguments located in academic sociology. The End of Organised Capitalism identified the major elements of what Soundings has always recognised as the major shift in social powers and value which took place at the end of the post-war class settlement and the onset of what we first called Thatcherism and now call neoliberalism. Lash and Urry's book described the decline of largescale manufacturing and its relocation abroad, the weakening of working-class organisation, the decline of political parties organised around social class, and the emergence of an individualised, post-modern, consumerist culture. Theirs was a comparative analysis, which also identified specific features of the 'British model' that are now central topics of the current Kilburn Manifesto. The End of Organised Capitalism was a remarkably prescient book.

Since then, Urry has gone on to develop the implications of its argument for a number of social spheres, with increasing polemical force. He wrote about the cultural construction of tourism, and also of nature, as prototyically post-industrial and post-modern phenomena, in The Tourist Gaze (1990) and Consuming Places (1995), describing a movement to the consumption of experiences from that of material commodities, although of course the former have a material basis too, not least in the expanding means of travel. Thus he described the Lake District as a cultural artefact, gentrified and sanctified by literary tradition such that it almost belongs to the south east rather than to the north of England, though an impoverished zone of the industrial north is close by, unseen by tourists. Contested Natures, with Phil Macnaghten (1998), developed a rather dense analysis of the ambiguities and contradictions in the idea of nature, and people's relation to it. Urry explored concerns about the environmental damage being effected by capitalism in After the Car (with Kingsley Dennis 2009), which is concerned with the prospects and likely consequences of 'peak oil', and in Climate Change and Society (2011). He has further developed the logic of his 'disorganised capitalism' thesis in Sociology beyond Societies: mobilities for the twenty-first century (2000) and in Global Complexity (2003). The argument of these books, each significant contributions to sociological theory, is that mobilities of many kinds (of information, people, capital, images, waste products) have become so enhanced and so unfettered that it is no longer relevant to construct a sociology focused (as the discipline has previously been) on the social structures of national states, but that instead sociological analysis must be concerned with flows and movements of many different kinds. (This argument echoes the 'liquid modernity' theses of Zygmunt Bauman.) In Global Complexity (2003), Urry added a new element to his already extensive theoretical lexicon, namely the ideas of 'complexity theory', of self-organising systems, as a necessary element in sociological analysis. These ideas grasp not only the immense complexity of interactions across space and time that characterise the modern world, but also the potential for unpredictable changes and indeed catastrophes, if and when 'tipping points' of various kinds (such as in regard to the climate, or indeed a run on a bank) should occur. …

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