Economics Philosophy Politics

Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis (Book Review)

Colin Cremin’s book is ambitious and pertinent. Using Hans Christian Anderson’s short tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the author looks to prove that our consciousness of modernity is essentially false; where rhetoric and hegemony, “draped” like clothing over the naked body of Capital, are ersatz and misleading. Indeed, as he attests, with the financial markets stagnating and the Sovereign Debt Crisis becoming ever more precarious, almost everyone has heard the “little boy shouting, ‘Look, the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!’.” According to Cremin, the truth of Capitalism is becoming ever more difficult to cover up. No longer will the soft silks of platitudinous rhetoric or left-liberal demur hide the ugly sores of Capital’s profligacy – the embarrassment has become too inflamed.
However, despite the failings of Capitalism being widely acknowledged, Cremin argues that they are largely overshadowed by the seductive nature of the system; an “enlightened false consciousness” as the German Philospher, Peter Sloterdijk would have it. As such, he suggests that we live in a social paradox, where society continues to be productive, but at the same time utterly destructive to the social and ecological environment it inhabits.
Integrating modern notions of “Enjoyment, Ethics and Enterprise” Cremin provides a nuanced account of the contradiction between destruction and seduction. His analysis is primarily systemic and leaves little room for individual self-determination. Like his contemporary Slavoj Zizek, individual agency is not sufficient in accounting for the flaw within the system; it is the structure of the system itself which is the flaw. Cremin believes that Capitalism is by nature a greedy system, most ostensibly in its infinite capacity to internalise every human endeavour into its own logic.
Cremin makes this point strongly when he combines a Marxist perspective with Lacanian theory in his analysis of “employability”. Using Lacan’s principle of the object petit a, the unobtainable object of desire, he argues that a person can never be employable enough. Employability, in Cremin’s eyes, is a thing “always wanted and never fully attained.” This is because the employer is always encouraging the employee to be proactive in improving themselves. The employee listens because they wish to avoid unemployment and, more importantly, through the acquisition of new skills they put themselves in the best possible position to accrue more material wealth – improving their place in the material world. Of course, and as Cremin makes clear, this all driven by the chase for surplus value (profit); a possibility, which in pure free market terms, is bounded by nothing. If the drive for profit is elementally an infinite one there can be no cap on the skills needed to pursue such an objective. Employability is unobtainable because the nature of capitalism is infinite. Thus, as Cremin argues, the “system inhibits and transforms desire for its own logic” of surplus value and regeneration. It is the greed inherent within the system that forces the person to be avaricious and not the other way around – at least this is how Cremin sees it.
Although many of his points are well made, I cannot help but feel that Cremin is too busy deconstructing capitalism to appreciate the power of human agency. Indeed, it was Max Weber who argued that all collectives (by this he meant institutions) were the result of the social interactions between individuals; these social interactions alone were but modified and manipulated outcomes based on social acceptance and what was deemed suitable behaviour at the time. For Weber, society was created by individual interpretation of social structure and it is this lack of concern for the individual which, for me at least, is the main weakness in Cremin’s book.
In contrast to the author, I subscribe more to the individual as a creator of their own narrative, a decision maker, whose ultimate story might indeed be told by capital, but by the same token, might also be constructed out of a manipulation of capital – a phenomenon that I explore in my article The Past in Us. After all, each individual has a certain amount of free will, and as Cremin concludes, owns the power to overthrow, modify or sustain ideology. In this sense, Cremin underestimates the arguments of the Sociologist Anthony Giddens, who argues that the individual is an owner of a “practical consciousness”; a consciousness which can transform society by creatively manipulating the existing structures of that particular system. Therefore capitalism might be inherently greedy, but this is enhanced or diminished by the way humans decide to manipulate it. By underestimating the capabilities of the human agency I think the author paints a gloomier picture than is the reality of modern society.
But in spite of this, I find Cremin’s work to be thoroughly engaging. He is the exponent of a lively and accessible writing style, which is neither bombastic in its tone nor convoluted in its argumentation. He scales the heights of meta-theory as comfortably as he does the particularities of pop culture and Dan Brown. A man right out of the Zizekian School of cultural and sociological commentary, Colin Cremin’s book is an important read for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the complexities and social peculiarities of our modern age.

2 comments

  1. Extreme poverty, is lower than at any time in history. That came about because of capitalism.

    That reduction in poverty occurred because countless numbers of people acted in their own, self-interest.

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