Plastic of capitalism

Two hundred years after his birth in the West in XIXe century, capitalism has become a culture in the broad sense, a way of life and an ideology. It crosses all spheres of society, the world of work and politics. It also creeps in from childhood, into education and the family.

Since the birth of capitalism during the XIXe century, we no longer count the works which, from Capital from Karl Marx to Capital at XXIe century by Thomas Piketty, have taken it as the subject of study, reflection and debate. Published in January 2022, Denis Colombi's book is therefore part of a long line of work and does not hesitate to tackle a theme on which much, if not everything, seems to have been said. The author does not present original research with new empirical data, as many sociologists do. To deal with his subject, he chooses the essay format. From the title, he asks a somewhat provocative question which aims above all to challenge and concern his reader: why are we capitalists?a question that he then hastens to qualify with a (despite us). To answer his problem, he defines capitalism as a particular form of organization of the economic sphere (p. 15). However, he emphasizes that this should not be limited to markets, companies, private ownership of the means of production, because it also resides in a particular behavior which consists of pursuing profit for itself which is not limited to rich, to bosses or financiers. Furthermore, he draws on his detailed knowledge of sociological literature which, for decades, has attempted to describe our Western society from every angle.

Play at Monopolyeveryday capitalism

The problem at hand is not small, it is nothing more and nothing less than entering in the factoryhomo economicus. Fifteen years after Christian Laval's essay entitled The economic man. Essay on the roots of nolibralism (NRF Essays, Gallimard, 2007), the originality of Denis Colombi's book is to rely not like its predecessor on a rereading of the great thinkers of liberalism, from Mandeville Adam Smith to Jeremy Bentham, but on the work of contemporary sociologists on school, work or inequality. It also draws on the numerous achievements of economic sociology, which has been largely renewed since the 1980s, through reflections on the market, prices, the state or businesses. The essay, in both content and form, is however aimed at the general public. mile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi or Pierre Bourdieu were there, always with appropriateness, the series star trek And Black Mirrorthe film The wolf of Wall Streetor even the board game Monopoly (p. 17) which serves as a common thread throughout the work.

Given the subject at hand, the use of numerous references to Western popular culture is not incongruous, on the contrary. Why are we capitalists? Because we are immersed in it every day, both through our professional and leisure activities. To say that capitalism is a specific economic regime would indeed be reductive. After more than two hundred years of existence, it has also become a culture in the broad sense, in all its components, a way of life, an ideology (p. 86). It crosses all spheres of society, the world of work, politics, but also those of childhood, education and the family. Capitalism has become a total social fact according to the expression of Marcel Mauss, and Denis Colombi strives to demonstrate it step by step, and above all from the bottom. While many social science works attempt to describe and analyze the capitalist system and its effects on a macro scale, the author chooses to take the subject from the other end and start from our individual behaviors to explain how they are impregnated by capitalism, and this despite us.

Economic socialization, shaping ofhomo economicus

The essay is divided into five chapters. The first describes what capitalist behavior consists of: rationalizing, maximizing, seeking profit. It shows the artificiality of this behavior even though it is commonly presented as being natural to man. Lhomo economicus is a fable, an unrealistic, even immoral and repugnant being, but who today would allow himself to deny that part of his behavior is present in each of us?

The second chapter is devoted to work, and more precisely to the way in which we consider it. Denis Colombi asks why do we get up in the morning? and shows how the force of ideology enlists us and incites us, at all levels of the division of labor, to place it as an essential moral value and as a principle of justice even to justify economic inequalities.

The third chapter goes even deeper into the heart of how capitalism works. It is the socialization processes that explain the despite us. Indeed, capitalist behaviors are not natural, they are learned, which makes the author say that if we act in accordance with capitalism it is because we have been trained in it (p.150). This economic socialization produces dispositions to calculate and invites us to become very early aware of money and economic inequalities, and to view the world as entirely calculable.

The fourth chapter is devoted to the way in which we are immersed in capitalism, through the presence of its central institution, the market, which disciplines our behavior. Because we can't escape the market (p. 221) whose state establishes the rules of the game. In fact, it is one of the great results of economic sociology to have abolished the separation between the public and the private, between the state and the market, particularly in the period of the years 1980 where neoliberalism became the ideology of the upper classes and technocracy. The market therefore appears for what it is: an economic organization historically situated and conducive to the development of capitalism. What the neoliberal doctrine produces is the extension of markets. But historical works also show that there is not one but several capitalisms, the most recent being characterized by the financialization of the economy, through the power of shareholders over companies, but also by that of society, through the financialization of daily life by the generalization of access to banking, credit or financial markets.

Towards a mutation of capitalism, plastic reality?

The fifth chapter can only draw a fatalistic observation: faced with the mechanisms that produce our economic behavior, we are condemned to be capitalists (p. 286). However, Denis Colombi still tries to reflect the next step. Several scenarios can then be thought of, several evidence as pragmatic sociology would say, can affect capitalism. First, the scenario of the status quo and the continuation of the system as it is. This trajectory appears quite improbable due to the ecological crisis and the finite nature of our plant, which contradicts the infinite search for profit. The second scenario is that of the overcoming of capitalism and its disappearance. But two obstacles also make this path uncertain: on the one hand, history has shown that revolutions are long-term processes and that we do not desocialize-resocialize individuals in one day.; on the other hand, there is (still) a missing realistic utopia which is sufficiently powerful and shared to propose a replacement system (even if the lifetime salary can be seen as an attempt). Finally, the third scenario, undoubtedly the most likely, is that of a new mutation of capitalism, as has been the case several times in its history.

Capitalism is a plastic reality (p. 295), and therefore our economic behavior is too. However, expecting individuals to change their behavior and stop behaving like capitalists is a dead end. As all the reasoning shows from the bottom by Denis Colombi, individuals are acted more than they act. They can obviously become aware of what they are doing and transform themselves (which is what this essay is about). But, as long as social and economic institutions continue, notably through the state, to organize themselves in the form of a market implying that individuals make choices in their own interest, thehomo economicus will continue to have good days ahead of him. SO what to do with capitalism (p. 303) and what place to give to markets?

Confining capitalism, (re)making society

Current financial capitalism and the economic behaviors it promotes (speculation, the search for profit for profit's sake) can be considered, sociologically speaking, in terms of deviation (p. 311). In fact, they disrupt the daily lives of millions of individuals and the planetary ecosystem. Is it not then possible, if we decide to let them do so, to ensure that they disrupt the lives of others as little as possible?? The question then is to ask what place should be given to capitalist behavior. Because the author never ceases to qualify his remarks. If our behavior is capitalist, it is never entirely capitalist, but only to a certain degree. Individuals are thus subject to a plural socialization which leads them to integrate values ​​other than those of calculation and maximization, whether we think of the logic of gift-for-gift, mutual aid, friendship or more general solidarity, which are no less important for (re)making society.

Finally, Denis Colombi's essay covers its subject well. Faced with the ongoing process of transformation of capitalism, it manages to open our eyes to our daily behaviors, while making us think about what is to come. The text is easy to understand and educationally written. It is never theoretical, and limits itself to defining in a few clear lines the concepts it uses. Above all, he favors demonstration by example. For the specialist in economic sociology literature, this reading does not provide any special added value. The author does not provide new research results. On the other hand, for the reader who wishes to become familiar with this current of thought that is economic sociology, and its seminal authors, such as Mark Granovetter, Neil Fligstein, Jens Beckert, Lucien Karpik or Michel Callon, the book offers a true synthesis that is both detailed and alive with work that takes an original look at the economy. And he also produces an interesting perspective on all this literature to show its interest and scope for understanding the contemporary economy and its power, but also our capitalist economic behavior in all its excesses and absurdities (despite us).