Skip to content
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

Discuss: Housing for the working class Creative commons image Icon Betty Longbottom [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license activity icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Discuss: Housing for the working class

Housing has always been a problem for the working class. Fill in our short survey and share your thoughts and memories.

Activity
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
Why did millions march against Trump? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Liz Lemon article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Why did millions march against Trump?

We know who they were marching against - probably; but what persuaded millions to take to the streets on a January weekend? A team of sociologists is investigating.

Article
Methods in Motion: Finding a voice after Brexit Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Bankenverband article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Methods in Motion: Finding a voice after Brexit

In a world that appears increasingly hostile to expertise, Janet Newman suggests ways forward – and some new alliances.

Article
From a distance Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Andreas Engman article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

From a distance

From a Distance: A conversation on the ethics of representing the refugee crisis between Umut Erel and Behjat Omer Abdulla

Article
Is cleaning a route to a better life for migrants? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Unsplash article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Is cleaning a route to a better life for migrants?

New research in Finland suggests that the time demands, insecurity and relative isolation of cleaning work may make the dream of integration harder for new arrivals to achieve.

Article
Totnes: a town constantly in transition? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: By James.Stringer via Flickr under Creative Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Totnes: a town constantly in transition?

Although still reeling from the closure of a large dairy, the economy of Totnes is being reinvented for a new age

Article
Has the UK fallen out of love with the supermarket? Creative commons image Icon under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Has the UK fallen out of love with the supermarket?

As people rediscover a love for market shopping, Joanna Blythman asks if the once unstoppable rise of supermarkets has come to an end.

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