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Cool capitalism: changing the principles of protest

It's 45 years since the wave of youth-led rebellions that followed Paris's May Events in 1968, and the anniversary has reawakened "culture war" debates about the nature and legacy of that rebellion. Was it a failed socialist revolution, the collapse of Western morals or the beginning of a new age of freedom and prosperity? Or was it all, or even none of the above? It's certainly the case that, far from destroying capitalism, the attitudes of '68 actually refreshed it and inaugurated 40 years of prosperity for many people in the developed world, a boom that only came unstuck in 2008. The counterculture's rejection of older social conventions, combined with its contempt for work and pursuit of pleasure, turned out to be just what capitalism needed to move it on to its next phase, in which consumption becomes more important than production.

Where once they had colonised far-flung countries to open up fresh markets, Western capitalists turned instead to "colonising" the daily lives of their fellow citizens, by inducing personal identity to become dependent on consuming the right products in the right way. There can be no agreement about what that "right way" is of course, but so much the better because being a rebel and a nonconformist becomes the new norm: "I'm the only one who knows the score, everyone else just doesn't get it". This is the core concept of cool, that modern virtue which turns brands into badges of identity. Wear the right clothes, drink the right wine (or beer), listen to the right music, drive the right car. Where work was once a main source of personal identity – tinker, tailor, nurse, miner, editor - consumption began to usurp it, while in a parallel process the production of real goods was moved to ever-lower-wage economies in the far East.

It's a phenomenon that's been thoroughly analysed in books like Tom Frank's The Conquest of Cool, my own Cool Rules (with the late David Robins) and Jim McGuigan's Cool Capitalism but it nevertheless appears still to elude mainstream historians. French sociologist Luc Boltanski and his colleagues have recently analysed the ways in which capitalists justify the unequal distribution of power and wealth, and how such justifications change over time, in the process identifying three main epochs. The original capitalist spirit as described by Max Weber was ascetic and entrepreneurial, organised by family dynasties, politically liberal but morally strict. This form was undermined by the shocks of the early 20th century – WW1, the Great Depression and the socialist movement – and the next phase adapted to the new circumstances by co-opting certain socialistic ideas. Large corporations, strong trade unions, welfare states, the new phase justified itself by providing economic security and "a fair deal" rather than by moral probity, and it formed the comfortable environment in which post-WW2 social democracy flourished. It was this consensus that the '68 rebellions sought to overthrow, and in France they came fairly close, being foiled by an unlikely alliance of President De Gaul with the Communist Party. 

The '68ers garnered their style from past movements of romantic refusal (German romanticism, Dada, Surrealism) which had rejected bourgeois mores and invented bohemian ways of life. Sexual liberty, non-conventional personal appearance, a distaste for work and an avant-gardism that rejects conformist popular taste were vital impulses and this attitude reached its pinnacle in the Situationist International, whose members were a prime influence on the May 1968 events, with their mordant and witty slogans calling for revolution in everyday life and an end to alienated labour.

Ironically enough, these same attitudes were simultaneously revitalising the advertising industry, which soon grasped that bohemian individualism, far from being a threat to capitalism, could be broken, harnessed and saddled to become its trusty steed (as recently fictionalised in the entertaining TV series "Mad Men"). Having failed to achieve a political revolution '68 spawned a new cultural populism that ushered the third epoch of cool capitalism.

Cool capitalism originally justified itself by promising unlimited freedom to satisfy individual whim, and employing seduction rather than coercion to legitimise the continuing unequal relations of production. For which, the purpose of geographical separation of production from consumption was absolutely essential (sipping sauvignon blanc in a New York art gallery being more seductive than assembling iPhones in a factory in Guangdong). Such freedom was never more than illusory though, based on the claims of advertising fortified by copious supplies of cheap credit in the consuming countries. In the new producer countries the huge electronics factories paid wages that were initially attractive as a step up from rural poverty, but this attraction wears off in the face of dangerous working and living conditions and labour militancy (with the accompanying repression) that is now on the rise.  

Cool capitalism also aspired to revolutionise everyday lives, but in pastiche only, by de-skilling the arts so that everyone can participate and become a "creative". Warhol's dismissal of painterly skill – the synthesizer/sequencer – rapping to replace singing – acting by attitude rather than technique – all of these permit stardom to be acquired democratically without the lifetime study formerly required. Cool capitalism prefers where possible to distribute self-esteem rather than capital (though plenty of that continues to be accumulated, by ever fewer) and this kind of democratic/populist/"anti-elitist" rhetoric is sufficiently powerful to feed people's aspirations toward wealth, despite all visible evidence of dwindling real living standards.    

At first these developments posed a problem for the political Right. Religious conservatives hated (still do) the sexual permissiveness that came with the new freedoms, while US strategic thinkers like Daniel Bell and Samuel Huntington fretted that the rise of a class of over-educated and under-employed "free-riders" was eroding the work ethic and threatening social stability. Eventually though important fractions of the Right realised this new hedonism was in fact a boon to their cause. Cool consumers actually thrived on competition (the founders of all the Internet giants were of this generation), they found trade unionism boring and restrictive and were ambivalent toward the value of education. These new cool classes were actually better integrated into the fabric of capitalism than ever before, and pretty well oblivious to the neo-liberal assault on wages and working conditions that began to bite from the late 1970s onwards. The overall effect is what economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook have called The Winner-Take-All Society, whereby innovations in production and communication technologies skew reward mechanisms drastically in favour of top performers – "Fat cat" salaries at the top and shrinking remuneration for the lower orders. Conspicuous consumption of the sort Thorstein Veblen skewered with such sarcasm back in 1899 reappears, but this time ubiquitous media coverage encourages almost everyone to indulge – and they could too, thanks to unlimited credit...

I trust that I won't need to add much to the already copious commentary on how that worked out. When the smoke cleared after the busts of 2007-8 several unpleasant facts became apparent, all of which are working to the advantage of the Right: sovereign governments have been impoverished by the colossal bail-outs paid to "too-big-to-fail" banks, rendering Keynesian reflation of the sort that ended the Great Depression – public works and the deficit spending of WW2 – no longer affordable; free education can now be depicted as unaffordable too, so students become debt slaves rather than free-riders; and as the middle and employed working classes feel the pinch they increasingly turn on the receivers of benefits rather than on their employers.

The individualist and libertarian aspects of cool capitalist justification explain the otherwise paradoxical political complexion of our 20-somethings in the UK, who combine socially liberal attitudes (anti-racist, pro-gay marriage, soft on drugs) with stark fiscal conservatism (anti-tax, anti-benefits). This was revealed by an Ipsos MORI poll in June, to much consternation in the Guardian. One might have expected the bleak employment climate to nudge young people toward the Left, but instead it's inducing a shocking collapse of solidarity between generations, with increasingly strident accusations that the post-war "baby boomer" generation has consumed free-everything and squandered their birthright. Reconnecting the Labour Party to this generation will prove vastly harder than Blair's task in 1994, as merely reforming relations with the trade unions is nowhere near enough: unions would need to reinvent themselves to defend not only the employed, but the barely-employed and unemployed as well (don't hold your breath waiting).

There's a growing public disenchantment with parliamentary democracy itself in many of the countries that have it, but few practical ideas for reforming it: rather states are shoring themselves up against civil unrest by deploying the latest scientific means of surveillance, pacification and repression, in what Will Davies has recently called the revenge of the "social" in these pages. Extra-parliamentary oppositions like the briefly-successful Occupy movement convincingly show that egalitarian and communitarian aspirations can still be mobilised among young people, but persisting in an anarchistic refusal to engage with the state dooms them to perpetual nuisance rather than major change. (These technological surveillance states may though prove surprisingly fragile in the face of truly major economic, financial or climatic shock). So the answer to "could May '68 happen again?" is that it is doing and will do, repeatedly all over the world, but only a fool would attempt to predict what form, if any, its success could take. All I'm prepared to risk is that as capitalism grows cooler, politics look set to get a lot warmer.          

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