Where Culture and Capitalism Coalesce

Illouz brilliantly succeeds in demonstrating the importance of cultural analysis

Yehouda Shenhav
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Yehouda Shenhav

"The Culture of Capitalism" is one of the last publications the late Tirza Yuval initiated, recorded and edited in the Broadcast University series on the radio. Yuval was unhappy with canonical academic writing that uses esoteric jargon and is entrenched in passe academic ideas. She saw the series as a life's work that aimed at creating a vibrant alternative track for presenting complex intellectual ideas in a way that is intelligent, simple and direct without detracting from the quality or complexity of the materials.

In the rich and eclectic monograph before us, Eva Illouz, a sociologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, fulfills all these criteria with a large measure of success. Illouz tries to formulate the various modes and arenas in which the dynamic connection between "culture" and "capitalism" coalesces. Prima facie, she argues, these two phenomena, which have engaged sociology as a discipline since its inception, do not have much in common.

However, the sociological analysis that Illouz applies to the wide variety of materials in her book shows that the two concepts are very closely linked and that there are fascinating relationships between "the material world" and "the consciousness" of the individual and conduct of his life and emotions. Illouz attempts to anchor the connection between the phenomena in the historical context of the rise of the bourgeoisie, the separation of the public and the private spheres, the project of European individualism and American consumer capitalism, as well as the shaping of sociological thought by the philosophy of modernism and by the growth of classical economic thought.

Trade, technology, status, family, humanism, morality, globalization, politics, democracy, identity, citizenship and solidarity are some of concepts that get refreshing sociological treatment through the use of examples from varied fields like art, literature and popular culture. Robinson Crusoe, Eloise and Abelard, Romeo and Juliet, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Marilyn Monroe, David Hume, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Clifford Geertz, Albert Hirschman, Jean Boudrillard and Benedict Anderson are just some of the characters in this fascinating monograph.

Illouz's project is based on two main theoretical moves. First of all, she tries to show that in the modern era, there is a symbiotic relationship between culture and the economy. Or as she puts it: "One of the main characteristics of consumer capitalism is that in it, the culture becomes an integral part of the economy and the economy becomes `cultural.'" Secondly, she tries to propose an alternative theoretical angle for the understanding of the internal contradictions in the capitalist system itself, or what she calls "the capitalist paradox."

Here Illouz challenges some of the basic assumptions of the classical sociologists of the pessimistic school (especially the Continental school in the Marxist and critical tradition), who did not see modern capitalism as a phenomenon that also has positive and liberating potential. She argues that parallel to the brutal exploitation, the rationalization of human relations and the cold and alienated materialism, capitalism enables new and surprising forms of social and cultural relations.

In this context, Illouz can be placed in the more optimistic tradition of relating to capitalism, which sees the duality and a relatively large amount of room for maneuver between culture and capitalism (the first theoretical move), as well as the variety of unexpected results of capitalist culture (the second theoretical move). She does this with a research stance that analytically combines three different yet related levels: 1. the commodification of beliefs and emotions; 2. the role of the consumer culture in "recasting the spell" on the world (in a reversed and interesting paraphrase of Weber, who spoke about "disenchantment of the world" because of the separation from religion, the positioning of rationalism and the bureaucracy at the heart of cultural activity and the division of the world into separate spheres); and 3. the emergence of the emotional sphere (arena).

Friendship and love

I shall offer three short examples of the more fascinating materials presented by Illouz in the later chapters of the monograph. The first example concerns friendship. Sociologist Allan Silver argues that contrary to the accepted idea that capitalism ostensibly harms feelings of human friendship, the opposite is indeed the case. In pre-capitalist society, he explains, "friendship" was not only emotional but was intertwined with instrumental interests. Friends were chosen only from within the individual's own social group (i.e., the nobility) and friendship with someone from a lower class was an affront to the dignity of someone from the upper class. However, the formation of the capitalist market economy led to a split between "emotion" and "interest" that is based on the existence of a public sphere that is distinct from the private sphere.

While the public sphere is a designated site for carrying out cold, egoistic interests, the warmth of the domestic sphere enables the distinct existence and expression of human emotion. As opposed to Marx, who held that separation between the public and the private spheres leads to alienation, Silver (and Illouz in his wake) holds that this separation rather enables the existence of "emotional specialization." Hence capitalism is responsible for the separation of the spheres and the formation of an emotional altruistic world that is channeled to the private area of friends and family.

A second example concerns humanitarian activity. The capitalist market is linked, argues Illouz, to the expansion of "humanitarian sensitivity" - a phenomenon that began in the 19th century. Capitalism allowed for change in the accepted moral patterns. "Because capitalism necessitates a long and intricate chain of relationships, the awareness of the connections that exist between the individual and other individuals who are very distant from him geographically and culturally increases." Humanitarian sensitivity in the capitalist age is fundamentally different from Christian charity because it necessitates a kind of humanitarianism that is (and here I would add "ostensibly") linked to ethnic, religious or geographical proximity and is able to exist at a distance from the suffering "other." (Here, of course, endless examples could be offered of the evils of the capitalist system, one of the main reasons giving rise to the need for "humanitarian sensitivity.")

The third example has to do with love. Here Illouz brings findings from a study in the United States that, she says, indicate that integration in the work force advances love matches (as opposed to marriages on an instrumental basis). The study upon which Illouz relies was conducted in two stages. In the first stage (during the 1960s), the study found that men, more than women, reported that they considered romantic love a necessary condition for marriage. Since women are less integrated into the work force, they tend to rely on marriage as a means of economic survival and therefore, argue the researchers, they tend to be "less romantic." When women are more integrated into the work force (for example, in the 1980s), it was found that many more of them, as compared to women in the earlier period, want to marry on the basis of romantic love.

Thus capitalism liberates people to independence and therefore also to romantic love, or as Illouz puts it: "This study sharply demonstrates the fact that the market `liberates' the emotional sphere from the burden of economic survival." Here, of course, it is possible to argue, conversely, that this "liberation" allows for the emergence of the greatest burden on woman in the modern era. Moreover, in the pre-capitalist world, the family also constituted an economic unit, but with the transition to the capitalist era, it ceased to serve as an economic unit and its main role became the provision of love to members of the family.

Thus, argues Illouz, according to historian Elaine May, marriage in the U.S., beginning at the start of the 20th century, was no longer directed at fulfilling obligations to society (for example, preserving family wealth), but became an institution from which people were supposed to derive pleasure and interest (and here, naturally, Michel Foucault would argue: Marriage became the state's unit of supervision for its project of population management). The later combination of love and consumerism reversed the connection that had existed in Victorian culture between love and suffering because the consumer culture stresses pleasures and satisfaction from love life.

Dualistic opposition

There is no doubt that these examples are intriguing, but they also naturally invite criticism that touches upon the basic assumptions of this analysis. The first, almost obvious criticism, is of the dualistic opposition between culture and capitalism that Illouz uses as the basis of her analysis. Precisely because this opposition exists in the dominant discourse, critical analysis obliges us to suspend the use of it, if only for two major reasons.

First of all, because capitalism is by definition a cultural phenomenon, a cultural mentality and an epistemological framework. Secondly, because the distinction between economy and culture is of itself part of the process that Weber called "disenchantment of the world," and could be said to be a result of the work of disciplinary establishment, the zero-point of which was somewhere toward the end of the 18th century (in part in the Scottish moralist school of which Adam Smith is clearly an offspring).

These two phenomena - culture and capitalism in the era that is called modern - are historical phenomena that are conceived and born together, and therefore the connection between them cannot be broken. In other words, capitalism and culture do not exist in two separate spheres, but are rather two different sides of the modern coin. The dominant discourse brings together "culture" and "capitalism" in a way that subordinates one phenomenon to the other as in "the capitalism of culture" or "the culture of capitalism." These intersections in effect confirm the artificial distinction between "capitalism" and "culture" and in so doing, code relationships like capitalism/culture in a way that resembles the relationship knowledge/power as described by Foucault.

Were I to take this to extremes, I could say that the collapse of capitalism is the collapse of all of Western culture. Paradoxically, Illouz replicates the distinction between "economy" and "culture" during the course of the book by looking for the connection between them while subordinating culture to capitalism without citing the social and cultural work that has gone into making the distinction in the first place. It is not that I am proposing that the talk of "economy" and "culture" as two separate concepts is not legitimate in sociology as an analytical tool. I would, however, like to propose that this analysis (which is interesting and legitimate in and of itself) can be taken one reflexive step further to show that this distinction is itself artificial, the product of social and cultural work. The ability to do this is weakened by yet another problematic point: the absence of a distinction between capitalism as a circumstantial historical event and capitalism as an analytical phenomenon. Here Illouz loses a bit of the characteristic sensitivity of her analytical tools because she is trying to include in a single breath the industrial capitalism in 18th-century England, the consumer capitalism in 19th-century America, the labor market in the mid-20th century and the "hyper-realist" consumer capitalism of the late 20th century. All of them are included in the monograph within a single analytical framework. Thus, she does not examine the difference among the various periods and, as the distinction between economy and culture is perceived as fixed, the author is vulnerable to anachronism and missing the theoretical potential inherent in the monograph to deal more reflexively and circumstantially with the two concepts. For the sake of fairness, it must be said that the current extent of this monograph makes it difficult to delve deeply into this issue.

Bedrooms and kitchens

The third point of criticism concerns the sociological cross-section that is proposed in Illouz's project. She does not discuss this explicitly, but we get hints about it from various directions. First of all, the sociological scrutiny is directed at the societies that are called "Western" and the middle class in them. Thus, for example, she cites Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim, who say that while the major conflicts of the 19th century were conflicts between classes or national conflicts, the main conflicts of Western societies during the second half of the 20th century take place in bedrooms and kitchens. Secondly, all the theoreticians mentioned are Europeans and Americans.

Thirdly, in her own name and in the names of other researchers, Illouz offers conclusions that stress the positive outcomes of capitalism in a way that could be interpreted as support for the neo-liberal assumptions at it base. Most of the researchers from whom the examples of the other sides of capitalism are taken (for the sake of fairness, it must be said that she also deals extensively with the criticism of capitalism and the culture industry) accept the basic assumptions of the capitalist system and hardly deal at all with "power." Fourthly, apart from a small number of incidental mentions, minorities, the poor and children are ignored. Especially obvious in this context is the fact that colonialism (and the implications of postcolonial politics) is ignored as a key concept in the understanding of the way Western culture is organized.

This is especially blatant in the analysis of the classical work "Robinson Crusoe." Illouz is correct in saying that the novel represents the individual, Protestant, common-sense project and the entire iconographic system involved in it. However, it must be recalled that it also marks the European cultural mission. Friday is not only cheap labor, he is above all a native whom the work deprives of his language. This is the place to speak, for example, about the role of colonialism in creating the fuel (and not only the economic-mercantile fuel) for the growth of modern capitalism and the framing of the key question of who is the common-sensical, enlightened and free man (for example, in talk of "the universality of common sense").

Finally, the analysis almost entirely ignores the role played by the modern nation-state in shaping and mediating the complex relations between the economy and culture. When the state does exist, it is present at the organizational level but not at the deeper level. It is impossible to exaggerate the power of the state a cultural/economic agent. The state has the power to sort, to classify, to give names, to bring about conjunctions of cultural categories with money and wealth, to exchange culture for wealth and vice versa, and to define the legitimate realms of culture itself.

And here I return to the point of criticism with which I began: If we look at the social arena through an analysis of the state, we learn that the distinction between culture and identity, on the one hand, and inequality and the economy, on the other, is itself an anachronistic distinction.

There is nothing in the mention of these points of disagreement (which comes mostly from differences in theoretical and paradigmatic approaches) to detract from the fact that Eva Illouz is a brilliant sociologist who has offered us fascinating and well-written materials (and the excellent editorial work by Ron Carmeli should be noted here). After many decades during which the study of culture in sociology was considered marginal at best, Illouz succeeds in demonstrating to those of us who need a reminder the importance of cultural analysis. In her unique and elegant way, she reminds us of what the fathers of sociology taught us long ago: The study of culture is at the forefront of sociological research.

Yehouda Shenhav is a professor at Tel Aviv University and the editor of Theory & Criticism, an Israeli journal in the area of critical theory and cultural studies.



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