The Moving Metaphors of Folk Capitalism
In the last three decades, social thought has been suffering the slow exhaustion of some of its most iconic metaphors. Terms such as class, struggle or collective action, once alive in both the academic milieu and the social stage, have suffered a progressive shrinking of their semantic power and their popular significance. Three trends seem to be responsible for the waning of the social influence of critical concepts: the dogmatic use of central notions in critical thought; the cultural dilution of the classical roles and occupational positions in the current stage of capitalism; and, lastly, the scarcity of moving metaphors that could lay the ground for a lively debate on social problems.
The current crisis has exposed language to a nakedness that was covered for the last three decades. It seems like a movement of semantic contraction has happened and the direct experience of scarcity has prevented the discursive machinery from re-imagining the capitalist landscape. But at the very center of the economic trauma stands a horror for the void. As a result, new metaphors have started to proliferate. Capitalism is now described as the parallel reality to the ever-expanding universe, something natural and unavoidable. This capitalist universe is cooling down, since the struggle for existence has, allegedly, lost its dialectical condition. This is an economic universe with no discernible center, where the focal points of power remain hidden, as a sort of dark matter, exerting its influence without ever being seized. The main point of this article is to show that there is an entanglement between the economic and the cultural processes. Since the cultural process is mobilized by means of metaphors, it is our responsibility as citizens to be aware of them.
Following the ideas of sociologist Norbert Elias, Zygmunt Bauman in his book Liquid Modernity explained the evolution of the so-called “society of individuals.” The overriding reflection was concerned with the transformation of the notion of a working class, as a category comprehensive of people fighting the same struggles in life and a likely common origin. According to Bauman, the notion of “we” implicit in conversations about class struggles was becoming more inconsistent. This lack of consistency was a trait of the liquid society formed by an increasing number of individuals with particular interests, different from the interests of others in similar occupational positions. Actually, by the mid-eighties, talking about class was difficult and problematic, even for leftist thinkers and political organizations.
The notion of “we,” implicitly present in the language of social struggles was diluting in the changing environments of advanced technocracies. In the 1980’s and the 1990’s a series of new economic and cultural metaphors flourished that, allegedly, were the direct reflection of the continuous blurring of the boundaries between the manual worker, the professional and the owner-entrepreneur. A market of intellectual technologies developed, mainly books and workshops, designed for the society of new “advanced” individuals: the leaders, the reflective practitioners and the one-man business entrepreneurs. According to this trend, not only working for a salary was presented as more exciting than ever before but the new professionals were invited to fully adopt the fashions and manners of capitalist actors.
The expansionist monetary policies that led to the 2008 crisis brought about the next stage of this cultural process. The cheap money led to an expansion of family and personal debt throughout society. Up until then, there was some kind of consensus in the orthodox economic schools that no matter the nature of upcoming tensions on a macroeconomic scale, they could be dealt with ease or at least, by applying the correct economic policies. The Austrian Economists were indeed able to explain the bubble in economic terms but it was Hyman Minsky who outlined a theory of risk that emphasized the link between individual beliefs (hence the cultural dimension of the problem) and the general macroeconomic policies. From a cultural standpoint, the merit of Minsky comes from being able to predict and explain that there was a category of risk takers that could be identified as a collective. Although the new habits of the emergent professionals had the traits of a case of co-opting rather than a full membership in the capitalist club, it was necessary to adopt the high-risk prone mentality to operate the last transformation on their way to being full-fledged capitalists.
Of course, this capitalist identity had loose connections with the actors of dynamic super-powers that put the world on fire, such as the arms-merchants, the war-promoters or the oligarchs of primal sources. That is why I prefer to make a linguistic distinction and talk about “folk capitalism” to refer to this structurally thin capitalist agency. The capitalism that creates wars, trades with arms and basic resources and is an active trans-national power is rather a “titanic capitalism.” The titans were in classical mythology extraordinary forces beyond the limits of the human who ruled the world in advance of the more anthropomorphic classical gods. A lack of measurement is usually predicated of the titans and it applies well to this modality of capitalism. If there is one trait that all varieties of capitalist experience share in common is their willingness to being close to the new demiurgic “One,” the formless and all-unifying financial capital. It is a renewed kind of theurgy, a kind of closeness with the unifying financial absolute. The financial capital is the ultimate and consummate realization of the capitalist dream. The classical concept of capital was supremely represented by fixed assets as they were the realization of the accumulation of private property. The financial culture developed in the last three decades has transformed this vision.
Once the crisis of 2008 was a visible reality, it was only a matter of time before the ruling actors in the world technocracies coined the new metaphors of “you”: “you,” the risk takers, “you,” the speculators of everyday life, “you,” the small capitalists of personal and family debt, “you” all are to be blamed. What the emergent folk capitalists had lost in the previous process, namely a shared sense of “we” (now they were sophisticated “individuals”), they have forcefully recovered in the aftermath of the financial crisis. This new “we,” at least at the beginning, came by way of attribution, called out by the economic powers, rather than by way of collective action, in the historical sense of it. This explains, at least in part, why the political counter-action in the last ten years has been so extensively qualified as populist, since it has been an amalgam of differing ambitions. The cultural entanglement of the problem demands a cultural awareness of the metaphors and a stance of doubt.
The Socratic attitude at the beginning of western philosophy had to do with dissolving what was considered to be sacred in society. That was the public accusation against Socrates and he was condemned to die for it. The sacred is what we consider untouchable, the most revered goods in our lives. Today the sacred is represented by the financial “One” and we have to asks ourselves whether we want to become one with the expanding wave or remain stranded, like rocks in the flow of life.