In all European countries, capitalist institutions are condemned as unjust and criticised as alienating. There are numerous investigations that testify to the unfavourable view the French hold of the economic system. In Greece, the disapproval rating in respect to banks and finance has reached heights that have no equal in Europe. Even in Germany, the country considered the principal, if not unique, beneficiary of the ECG’s monetary policy, half the population identifies capitalism as a system of the exploitation of human being by human beings. Everywhere, popular criticism of the capitalist mode of managing production and work is harsh.
Nevertheless, this criticism is not at the heart of political debate. In southern Europe as in the north, the management of production and the distribution of wealth are not experienced as objects that would be possible to reappropriate. This paradox assumes its most acute form in Germany where in opinion surveys people denounce the logic of financial accumulation and, in the same breath, have a very positive image of Angela Merkel. This tension between the criticism of the logic of capitalism and the absence of its being called into question is in part explained by the powerful recasting of popular subjectivities in their relation to the economic system. The nature of ideological domination has changed its skin. The movement towards acceptance of the values of free enterprise and liberalism, which investigations conducted in the 1980s show, has given way to a more ambiguous logic. The moulting of capitalist hegemony now implies less agreement with these values, whose total lack of ethics the 2008 crisis revealed; instead there is a resignation lacking any conviction.
In the long term, adherence to the values of free competition is receding, as is the positive image of institutions at the heart of capitalism such as the stock exchange and banks. Nevertheless, these are not really indicted by large social movements. The basis of this resignation remains largely to be analysed, but it is a burning issue for the forces of social transformation.
There seems to be a combination of several phenomena here, and two avenues have to be explored.
First of all, the growth of a sanctioning power of capitalist institutions, which seems to have been established in popular consciousness. Woe to those who think of themselves other than as costs to be reduced! In this configuration, the headlong rush towards social regression appears, for a part of the populations, as the only solution to preserve a country’s prosperity. The blackmail of wage reduction in exchange for job creation constitutes the deepest form of this fear of market penalisation. Shared by much of the budget policies and reinforced in France ever since François Hollande’s press conference announcing a ‘pact of responsibility’, this fear nourishes the continual identification of the people with costs. It makes it impossible for workers to represent themselves as the real and authentic producers in their wage demands.
To fear capitalism adds a second dimension. This system incarnates, for a large part of the population, a ‘Schumpeterian’ system of the creative destruction that is supposed to permit still more technical progress. This representation of the economy, in which the profit logic monopolises the capacity for invention and technical creativity, is today one of the biggest problems which alternative forces in Europe have to thwart. The impression that no other system would have the same power of innovation tends to occlude a clear consciousness of the relations of exploitation. If the idea has been internalised by a large part of the wage earning class that the promotion of research and education is one of the principal paths to ameliorating the condition of the world of work, it is also understood as a process at the service of the profitability of enterprises.
The capacities to monopolise the imagery of progress and to sanction are today two central obstacles blocking the progress of building alternatives. They are prolonging the self-identification of the population with the status of costs and the idea that wage earners as a class cannot be the vector of progress. In this context every partial conquest seems to clash directly with the global logic of exploitation. It then becomes necessary to invent a positive imagery of a politics that associates the conquest of new rights with the argument that this conquest is possible, because it makes explicit our removal from the law of the market.
Co-author: Jean-Vincent Koster, research fellow, IDHE
The article La nécessité d’inventer un imaginaire positif du politique et de la conquête de droits nouveaux was originally published in French by L'Humanité on 14 February 2014.
Translation into English: Eric Canepa