Society, Politics & Law

The Discovery of Capitalism

Updated Friday 3rd October 2008

Is capitalism a new word, used since the credit crunch became the financial crisis?

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 Icon salty_soul under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license
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.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Education in Northern Ireland: segregation, division and sectarianism? Creative commons image Icon lightruth under CC-BY-NC under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Education in Northern Ireland: segregation, division and sectarianism?

Is education in Northern Ireland a vehicle for social cohesion or for perpetuating community divisions?

Article
Social problems: Who makes them? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Social problems: Who makes them?

Anti-social behaviour, homelessness, drugs, mental illness: all problems in today's society. But what makes a problem social? This free course, Social problems: Who makes them?, will help you to discover how these issues are identified, defined, given meaning and acted upon. You will also look at the conflicts within social science in this area.

Free course
20 hrs
Newry: Frontier town or border city? Creative commons image Icon D Mull under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Newry: Frontier town or border city?

Newly-minted Newry's city status may be - but it still relies on the same commerce and location that has kept it thriving across the centuries as a town.

Article
Laurie Taylor interview: Why is sociology important? Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license video icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Laurie Taylor interview: Why is sociology important?

Laurie Taylor tells us why he think sociology is important in this video interview. 

Video
10 mins
Identity in question Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Identity in question

Why is identity important and how are identities formed? This free course, Identity in question, looks at the many different ways in which identity can be categorised. By examining the requirements of the state, how a child views gender, and the importance of race or place of birth, you will start to understand how each individual can have more than one identity.

Free course
12 hrs
Themes in discourse research: The case of Diana Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Themes in discourse research: The case of Diana

This free course, Themes in discourse research: The case of Diana, introduces some of the main themes and issues in discourse research using Martin Bashir's famous interview with Diana, Princess of Wales as a case study. Through this it examines the role of discourse in shaping social interaction and its psychological implications for the study of minds, selves and sense-making. The course aims to demonstrate that in studying discourse we cannot help but study social life.

Free course
4 hrs
British food: Moving beyond crisis Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license audio icon

Society, Politics & Law 

British food: Moving beyond crisis

Have supermarkets got too much power? Have we lost touch with seasonal and local food in favour of convenience choice? Our panel discuss the future of British food.

Audio
15 mins
Nuclear power: Friend or foe? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Nuclear power: Friend or foe?

Are you for or against nuclear energy? The necessity to respond to climate change has put nuclear energy back on the political agenda as an alternative energy source. This is part of approaches to 'decarbonise' energy through a shift from coal to natural gas, nuclear energy and renewables. Yet, the recourse to nuclear energy is hotly debated. Opponents are rife, as are supporters. Can you adopt each position in turn? This free course, Nuclear power: Friend or foe?, challenges you to do so.

Free course
2 hrs
The technology of crime control Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Society, Politics & Law 

The technology of crime control

How big an impact does CCTV have on your life? This free course, The technology of crime control, provides the opportunity to listen to an argument surrounding the purpose, efficacy and regulation of CCTV. Is it there for crime control or is Big Brother really watching?

Free course
1 hr