January 20, 2019

The Open Office and the Spirit of Capitalism

“It would be too much to say that the office is the prime locus of utopian aspirations in American life. But the claim wouldn’t be entirely misleading, either, and it might even shed some light on what the office actually is. From their earliest days as dingy counting houses in Boston and Manhattan, American offices have adapted to the flux of capitalism. Or capitalisms, really. Each new management technique or architectural fad, if not the direct result of some larger shift in modes of production, at least isomorphically reflects the evolution of capitalism’s spirit. From Taylorism to the open-plan design, the office is a stage on which we act out capitalism’s fantasies of itself. Set changes are necessary as the spirit shifts and the plot develops.

But does capitalism actually have a spirit? And what does it mean to claim that it does? Language that flirts so casually with poetic analogy demands a basis in some kind of formal definition. One can find worse sources for that clarity than Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, who in their book The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, 2018) provide brief and maximally efficient definitions of both “capitalism” and “the spirit of capitalism.”

Capitalism, they write, is “an imperative to unlimited accumulation of capital by formally peaceful means.”1 They elaborate that capitalism, as an economic and social imperative, is something more than the mere existence of a market economy: “capitalism is to be distinguished from market self-regulation based upon conventions and institutions, particularly of a legal and political character, aimed at ensuring equal terms between traders (pure, perfect competition), transparency, symmetry of information, a central bank guaranteeing a stable exchange rate for credit money, and so on.”2 The spirit of capitalism, meanwhile, is simply “the ideology that justifies engagement with capitalism.”3

Of course, the phrase “spirit of capitalism” invokes Max Weber, who, with more specificity than Boltanski and Chiapello, took it to mean the moral and ethical stories we tell ourselves in order to justify acquisition, if not outright avarice. But notice how broad the more recent definition is. It’s generous enough, in fact, to include even the current critiques of capitalism, in some ways artifacts of the system they’re responding to. And so the spirit of capitalism, in this larger sense, encompasses both the methods available for unlimited accumulation of capital and the changing ways we address the social and psychological anxieties which these methods produce. The spirit of capitalism is not false consciousness or alienation, but rather the economic and social cosmology that we inevitably inhabit.”

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