Discussion of the shifting dynamics of the capitalist system over the past thirty years has focused on the labour-supply shock and deteriorating conditions of employment, on debt and financialization, secular stagnation and technological advance. Relevant as these aspects may be, they do not exhaust analysis of the changes underway. We will examine two interrelated developments, one of which—de-industrialization—is well known, while the second, the main focus of our attention, does not yet have a name.footnote1 By ‘de-industrialization’, we do not mean the shift to a ‘post-industrial society’ that was frequently prophesied in the 1960s. This vision did not come about, for our societies are now using more industrially manufactured goods than ever. Moreover, due to computer technology, many sectors that had long remained on the margins of the industrial world—small traders, education, healthcare, personal services—are now adopting the management practices of global corporations, and are subject to accounting standards that come from industry.

De-industrialization here refers rather to the relocation of manufacturing, away from the advanced-capitalist heartlands that will be the focus of this essay, to states where it is possible to pay low wages, even though the peaks of the global ‘value chains’ and much of the design remain in the North. The geographical, social and political effects of these shifts are widely recognized: the closure or demolition of large numbers of industrial sites, left to waste or renovated for other uses, is only their most visible aspect. As many studies have shown, they have also contributed to the social and political fragmentation of the working class, and have put increasing pressure on the owners of small businesses. Those whose interests are still linked to the old, declining industrial economy are haunted by fears of unemployment, poverty and a drop in status, resentments that have fuelled the rise of the far right.

The second development is harder to designate by a single word or phrase that would synthesize seemingly scattered phenomena. The conceptual frameworks—semantic, juridical and statistical—that underlie contemporary descriptions of the economic and social world were devised in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before this development reached a scale large enough to attract the attention of national administrations. We lack a category system capable of generating the totalizations that would enable us to elucidate the specific dynamics involved and to track their progress. We will therefore evoke this development in the first instance by turning our attention to the world of objects, drawing upon our readers’ ordinary sense of social reality.

One immediate sign of this emerging form is the increasing visibility given to objects exchanged for very high prices, or high relative to the common run. This phenomenon is apparent not only in metropolitan centres, but also in restored and protected sites or villages, contrasting sharply with the decline of industrial zones. It plays a central role in the mainstream print media, whose readers, though they may be reasonably well off, could scarcely afford to buy the objects presented not just in advertisements but on the features pages. Newspapers with falling circulations have taken to publishing weekly or monthly supplements to bring in money from the luxury-goods sector, in an attempt to buttress themselves against the economic downturn. Examples include the glossy How to Spend It supplement of the Financial Times, Le Monde’s weekly Le Magazine, Libération’s Next, and the monthly Obsession, put out by Le Nouvel Observateur. These publications typically combine advertisements for luxury goods—watches, cars, jewellery, perfumes—with articles on cutting-edge life-style products, desirable locations and celebrity artists or designers; features and advertisements are presented seamlessly, as inextricable components of the same world.

The commodities on display here are valued not for their utility or sturdiness, as is the case for common industrial products, but rather because they are new or different—and, unavoidably, because of their price. They are often associated with national-identity markers, to guarantee their ‘authenticity’—even though, like ordinary objects, their manufacture may be discreetly outsourced to low-wage countries. Their supposed appeal stems from a kind of aura surrounding them, signifying that they are exceptional, the property of the elite: antiques or objects from luxury companies, often presented as the work of artisans—though in most cases this applies only to prototypes—as well as high-end food and wines. Or they might be works of contemporary art, presented at galleries or auctions, which attract interest for their cultural and economic dimensions.