Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre have proposed a new way to think about capitalism.footnote1 Departing both from classical political economy’s focus on labour and from the neoclassical focus on utility, they direct attention to social practices that establish the value of objects discursively, by justifying and contesting their prices. Adopting this novel perspective, the authors proceed to identify several mutually distinct types of capitalist economy, each premised on a different pragmatics of value-setting. One such economy in particular forms the centre of their analysis: an ‘economy of enrichment’ encompassing markets in fine arts, limited-edition luxury goods, high-end collectibles and the creation and exploitation of national patrimonies, heritage sites and appellation controllée regimes. Unpacking the distinctive logic through which value is established in this economy, Boltanski and Esquerre contrast it with the value pragmatics of industrial production, on the one hand, and of finance, on the other. But their aim is not merely classificatory. On the contrary, the authors connect their account of enrichment to a historical thesis and a critical diagnosis of present-day capitalism. In their view, the progressive deindustrialization of capitalism’s historic European core created the terrain on which today’s economy of enrichment took root and flourished. For Boltanski and Esquerre, then, enrichment capitalism is the successor to industrial capitalism and constitutes a privileged object of analysis for critical theory. Only by understanding its distinctive fault-lines and potentials for political mobilization can we assess the prospects for emancipatory social transformation in the present conjuncture.
This perspective is both original and insightful. The construction of a pragmatic approach to value represents a novel perspective on capitalism, which offers a fresh way to conceptualize, and indeed to distinguish, its disparate sectors and regimes. And the identification of a distinctive ‘enrichment economy’ within present-day capitalism is a genuine disclosure, which makes visible, and intelligible, an increasingly salient but under-studied aspect of contemporary reality. On these grounds alone, Boltanski and Esquerre’s essay is a welcome contribution to the critical theory of capitalist society.
Nevertheless, I have some questions about the authors’ conceptualization and some doubts about their diagnosis of our times. In what follows, I shall attempt to clarify three matters in particular: first, what precisely Boltanski and Esquerre mean by capitalism; second, whether and in what sense they have offered a critique of it; and finally, whether and in what respects their diagnosis clarifies the current conjuncture and the prospects for emancipatory struggle.
First, however, let me summarize Boltanski and Esquerre’s argument. I begin by noting that they frame their effort by reference to the present conjuncture. Two aspects of their description of this context stand out. The authors invoke, first, some indisputable if familiar features of contemporary political economy: the relocation of manufacturing away from capitalism’s historic core, the concomitant decline in working-class power in the affected regions, the resulting increase in inequality, and the rise of a growing stratum of luxury consumers popularly referred to as ‘the one per cent’. But they also evoke a view of the current state of anti-capitalist critique, which draws on Boltanski’s previous book with Ève Chiapello. Starting from where The New Spirit of Capitalism left off, the current essay assumes that critique today is weak and disabled, its ‘artistic’ strand recuperated and its ‘social’ strand disoriented by a new type of capitalism.footnote2 It is this conjuncture, then, of rising inequality, on the one hand, and disabled critique, on the other, that forms the backdrop for Boltanski and Esquerre’s account of a growing and newly salient enrichment economy. It is in this context, too, that they aim to clarify the possibilities for the renewal of anti-capitalist critique and mobilization.
To this end, the authors develop a problematic that differs from that of The New Spirit of Capitalism. Whereas that work focused on what Max Weber famously called capitalism’s ‘spirit’, this one has to do with the other, less developed pole of his distinction, namely, capitalism’s economic form.footnote3 In choosing the term ‘form’ to name the concept through which they identify and analyze capitalism’s different ‘economies’, Boltanski and Esquerre signal that they have shifted the plane of analysis from the subjective-motivational-ethical level, which dominated the previous work, to the structural-institutional level, which assumes centre stage in this essay.
How, then, do Boltanski and Esquerre understand form? Interestingly, their conception differs importantly from that of Weber. For him, capitalism’s economic form encompassed its central constitutive institutions, especially price-setting markets, wage labour, private property, and double-entry bookkeeping, all mobilized in the service of profitmaking. In The Protestant Ethic, he quickly passed over those institutional aspects of capitalism in order to focus on its ‘spirit’, insinuating that ‘form’ could be left to the Manchester School or perhaps to the Marxists. Boltanski and Esquerre do not take Weber’s hint, however. For them, capitalism’s economic form assumes neither a Smithian nor a Marxian guise. Nor does it consist in the sorts of institutions that Weber considered the ideal-typical building blocks of a capitalist economy. On the contrary, Boltanski and Esquerre pluralize form, treating it as a feature that varies among different capitalist economies and distinguishes them from one another. More specifically, they conceive economic form as the distinctive pragmatics of value-setting that holds sway in a given economy. Thus, the enrichment economy is distinguished from other sectors of capitalism by its distinctive form of value—which is to say, by the specific pragmatic logic that establishes the value of objects exchanged within it. Let me explain.
Value is the central category in Boltanski and Esquerre’s conception of capitalism. And their understanding of it is quite specific. Repudiating the effort to seek a value inherent in things that is more essential than price, they reject the labour theory of value, favoured by classical political economy and, in another form, by Marx. Equally, however, they reject efforts to reduce value to market price, as in neoclassical theories of marginal utility. As against both those approaches, Boltanski and Esquerre conceive value pragmatically, as a discursive épreuve or test for justifying and criticizing prices. Treated by social actors as independent of price, value is what they invoke to dispute price, as, for example, when they claim of a given object that ‘it’s not worth that much’. Value, a Wittgensteinian might say, belongs to the language game of justifying and criticizing prices.