Since the credit crunch turned into the financial crisis two or three weeks ago the media and mainstream politicians have made an important discovery: the existence of capitalism.

Starbuck window smashed during protests at the Toronto G20 meeting, 2010 Creative commons image Credit: salty_soul under CC-BY licence
A Starbucks window smashed during anti-Capitalist protests during the Toronto G20 meeting, 2010

Previously we had something called ‘the economy’. This was often problematic and an object of debate. Nevertheless the economy was akin to nature in status. In other words it was an inevitable fact of life which might be measured and analysed by economists and business journalists, but whose essential character remained unchangeable. Neo-liberalism, heralded at the turn of the 1970s as a radical shift in economic thinking and practice hardly challenged this idea. What neo-liberal discourse did do, however, was push the term ‘market’ rather than ‘economy’. It turned out that economies were reducible to markets, whose natural qualities of choice and the maximisation of utility were plain for all to see.

The astonishing thing is how fast all this has changed. Suddenly everyone is using the word capitalism: Gordon Brown, BBC journalists, neo-liberal economists, Republican senators in the US … the list goes on. What’s more there’s a new lexicon to describe the capitalists. For instance, this morning’s Daily Express trumpets, ‘Now city spivs try to wreck HBOS deal’ [the giant HBOS bank is the subject of a takeover bid by its former competitor Lloyds]. In effect the British tabloid press is using the kind of language previously reserved for socialists. I’ve been shouting ‘Make the fat-cats pay’ on our city centre stall for months. It’s uncanny now to hear these slogans echoed in mass circulation newspapers.

Of course that doesn’t mean politicians and the media have suddenly become advocates of radical change. Far from it. The remedies being suggested all focus on small-scale correction or adjustment. Still, the shift in language is hugely significant because it involves a profound distancing effect. Where the market was natural, inevitable and we all had a stake in it, capitalism indicates something historical and thus changeable. More, it suggests a system which is remote from us, even alien.

Perhaps the most important thing about this Discovery of Capitalism is that it shows up how thin and flimsy the ideology of neo-liberalism has been all along. The mantra ‘there is no alternative’ adopted by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s had become a banal statement of common sense by the time of Tony Blair’s arrival as British Prime Minister in 1997. Privatisation and marketisation were now obvious goods. Crucially, all such common sense has been thrown into doubt over the last few weeks. The market system, built on private greed and engendering conflict and inequality, now begins to appear much more as itself.

We might say (please indulge me with this metaphor) that split from breast plate to cod piece the ideological character armour is falling from the shoulders of capitalism. I think that the extent to which media and mainstream politicians can do a repair job and strap it back together depends in part at least on the response of social scientists, both students and academics. Now’s the time to use our skills of critical analysis and investigation to show social reality in all its contradictions and help pave the way for real social change.