If there is such a thing as doing sociology 'in the wild', as there is for economics (as I discussed on the NYLON blog), then one of its manifestations may be the vast industry through which capitalism attempts to represent itself. As Nigel Thrift argues in Knowing Capitalism, academia no longer has (and in truth, never did have) a monopoly on theories of capitalism, for we now live in an economic era in which seminars, books, theorising, lectures and all the other techniques of intellectual enquiry are now part of the process of capitalism itself. Business thinkers, gurus and business schools now produce rival representations of capitalism. The system has become self-conscious.
I'm very aware of this right now thanks to some freelance work I'm just embarking on, in which I've got to assist the client develop their qualitative understanding of how the structure and mood of the economy is changing. It is certainly not economic advice that's expected of me (I can't do economics), and if there is one academic specialism that it comes closest to, it would have to be sociology. Dig beneath the commercial brief, and the question I'm being asked to answer is 'what is British capitalism like for those involved at the sharp end of it?'.
Except I'm not being asked to answer that question as such. Certainly I have to produce answers, but not the answer. What is curious is that capitalism needs and devours representations of itself, but these have to fit a certain mould, which I would define as follows:
- It cannot be reassuring: business does not like being told that everything is going to be fine. Instead, it demands a form of consultancy S&M, in which it pays to be told that the future is very uncertain, that only the most innovative companies can survive, that the future is far riskier than the past, and so on. "FTSE 100 - you have been a bad boy, and you must come here for your punishment!"
- It cannot be depressing: the story that must be fed back to business about itself must focus only on those areas where change is fastest, and excitement is highest. Anyone who were to tell a business that the future of capitalism consists of a small section of the population growing even richer, and a large low-wage underclass developing to serve them, would simply be telling the 'wrong' story. I doubt they would be viewed as politically threatening, nor even as empirically misguided; they would simply have missed the point about what is a useful story to tell. In all liklihood, they may be accused of being somewhat old-fashioned.
These two necessary characteristics make for a strange self-image. Capitalism does not want sociological news of what is really going on - it gets its truth via its accountants, lawyers, McKinseyites and experts. But nor does it want sociological optimism or quietism. It feeds off self-representations that are frightening but not demoralising.
Ultimately this is a symptom of the reflexivity that accompanies any attempt to theorise oneself. The more it becomes established that the 'future is uncertain' and that 'change' is ubiquitous, the more it becomes necessary to commission studies of the rapid changes that are affliciting our economic environment. These studies uncover very little, and so inevitably come back with the worrying response that 'the future is uncertain', but will be nothing like the past. A study that came back with the response that 'the future will contain many of the same relationships of exploitation of the past' would be simultaneously far too ambitious (for having deigned to specify what is going to happen next) and way too cautious (for having ignored the whirwhind of change that is around the corner).
But this leave one open question: can capitalism survive indefinitely without ever confronting sociological truths, and if so, why can it? If it is the case - and I'm sure it is - that changes in the structure of capitalism are recreating the geography and class structure of the UK (not with the huge speed that consultants see everywhere, but with gravitas nonetheless), one would think that a knowledge-hungry business culture would want to know about this, in addition to the more blinkered account it consumes endlessly. OK, perhaps it wouldn't want a fully Marxist version of events, given the doom that this would spell, but perhaps something akin to Saskia Sassen or Manuel Castells's explanation of how technology and capital are recreating social relations. For all I know, Sassen and Castells may be doing after dinner speeches for the CBI. But this aside, if business wants a self-representation, why not at least flirt with a truthful one, and see what happens?