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In the wake of the economic crisis there was a much hailed return of Marx (see here, here, here and here). Some people claimed that the reason we didn’t see the crisis coming is because we forgot about Marx and his warnings about the crises inherent in capitalism.

Now a few years after the crisis people are asking why there has not been significant change? How come the social order has reasserted itself? Rather than being a problem for the ideology of capitalism, the super rich have done very well out of the crisis and some of the biggest companies have seen their profits soar (Apple recently posted the biggest quarterly profits in history). Similarly, Thomas Piketty has shown that capital has come to increasingly dominate over labour since the crisis as the return on inherited wealth outstrips wages.  While there were some uprisings in Greece and the Occupy critiques of the division between the 99% and the 1% generated a lot of heat capitalism still seems pretty solidly enshrined.

Why has capitalism persisted? Perhaps because we forgot about Max Weber.

While economic inequalities might be strong drivers of action in some  circumstances. The power of spirit of capitalism should not be underestimated. What Weber reminds us is that capitalism has an ethos, an ethic which is hard to shake. He demonstrated how early capitalists and those at his own time saw the pursuit of profit as a calling, a vocation, not just a way to get rich.

In a book, The New Spirit of Capitalism,  published a few years before the crash Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello showed how adaptable the spirit of capitalism is. For them the true driver of change in capitalism is the critiques which it incorporates. They tracked how capitalism responded to its critique which came to a head in 1968. At that time, particularly young, people were disillusioned with a system which they claimed had increased inequality while decreasing social solidarity and authenticity as well as constraining freedom through the predominance of large, bureaucratic organizations.

Boltanski and Chiapello characterised the critiques into two kinds a social critique (demanding greater solidarity) and an artistic critique (demanding more autonomy and creative self-fulfilment). In order to keep people invested in the process of capital accumulation (to keep labouring) work came to be invested with the demands of the artistic critique. The meaning of work was reformulated from something which could offer security to something which provided opportunities for self-development and creative fulfilment (at least in its ideal form).

When capitalism as an economic system seemed to fail people wondered over why people did not question it more. But if we take the arguments offered above it is hardly surprising that more people did not want to reject capitalism wholesale. For most people capitalism is not just an economic system but what they have been taught to believe is the route to their development and fulfilment.