The Culture of Capitalism

By Rutherford, Jonathan | Soundings, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Culture of Capitalism


Rutherford, Jonathan, Soundings


Jonathan Rutherford looks at contemporary changes in the practices and cultures of capitalism.

We are living through an age of transition. The new co-exists with the old. We can identify political, economic and cultural elements of this change, but we do not yet have a way of describing the kind of society we are living in. The great explanatory frameworks of political economy and sociology inherited from the industrial modernity of the nineteenth century leave too much unsaid. Theories of the moment tend to skip from one modern phenomenon to another. They are like stones skimming across the surface of water. We lack a story of these times.

In the last three decades Britain, the US and other anglo-saxon economies have been experiencing a new type of capitalism. Class and the social relations of production are being re-organised by new regimes of capital accumulation. These changes raise a number of questions. How are new technologies and the new modes of production and consumption transforming the cultures and social relations of class? In what ways are individuals as social beings changing in these new conditions? How is capitalism utilising labour as a force of production? Contradictions abound across the old and the new, the national and the global. We need an analysis of contemporary capitalism, its culture of unrest and its forms of capital accumulation. There are no clear signposts to follow. But, as Rebecca Solnit says, getting lost is like the beginning of finding your way.

Britain's old model of mass industrial production and capital accumulation began to fail in the 1970s. Growing pressure from labour for increased wages was undermining business profitability. Trade and overseas markets were limited by international competition and the decolonisation process across the third world. The growth of industrial capital relied upon a high ratio of profits to wages.1 The outcome was a collapse in the rate of profit and a systemic crisis. Inflation rose to double figures. Economic growth slowed and the balance of payments deficit increased.

Out of this crisis arose a new and invigorated global capitalism which originated in Britain and the US. Three factors underpinned its extraordinary revival. The first was the development of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), which began to transform traditional manufacturing and distribution systems. The utilisation of knowledge and culture as economic resources created new types of 'post-fordist' firms, products and markets. The second was the influence on economic policy of neo-liberal ideals, which claimed to maximise individual freedom through the deregulation of markets. Only competitive capitalism, free from the interference of the state, could guarantee the separation of economic power from political power and so ensure liberty. Third, there was the emergence during the 1960s of new values in the counter-cultures of the young middle classes. Under conditions of growing and sustained affluence in the West, the imperatives of economic security gave way to post-materialist values associated with identity, ethics and belonging. These created a powerful trend toward a 'liberation ethic' of individual self-expression, anti-establishment sentiment, emotional attunement to the world, and the personal pursuit of pleasure. These cultures, the ideological weapon of neo-liberalism, and the new technologies of information and communication (including the media), were key resources for creating the new regimes of capital accumulation.

The political response to the crisis of capitalism came with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Conservative government began with no coherent ideology, but neo-liberal ideas soon began to set the agenda for change. A hegemonic project - Thatcherism - took shape. Milton Friedman's 'shock therapy' was applied to the British economy and working class. The welfare state began to be dismantled. Low profit, traditional, manufacturing industry was shut down and de-industrialisation was allowed to accelerate. …

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