Thrift, Nigel. Knowing Capitalism
John K. Cox
Thrift, Nigel. Knowing Capitalism. London: Sage, 2005. viii + 256 pages. Cloth, $99.95; paper, $29.95.
In the late 1990s, municipal authorities in London installed “smart” closed-circuit television systems (CCTV) capable of recognizing suspects’ faces. These systems were designed to prevent crime, among other purposes. This CCTV capability garnered worldwide attention, of course, in the wake of the two rounds of terrorist bombings in London in July 2005. In the book at hand, however, this “infusion of software into the urban infrastructure” (p.159) serves quite another function. It is an example of how information technology is becoming ever more embedded in everyday life as a result of the lush and uncontrolled growth of the power of capitalism both in production and in modes of thought.
Nigel Thrift, an Oxford geographer, has put together this collection of essays for the purpose of understanding contemporary “capitalism as a vital intensity” (p. 16), not merely a system of production or oppression. His subject is, in layperson’s terms, the new manifestations of consumer life and business practices around us and what they mean in philosophical, economic, geographic, and, to a considerably lesser degree, political terms. Although Thrift warns against some developments in technology that might be troubling in terms of human rights or civil society, such as tracking devices in consumer products known as radiofrequency identifiers (RFIDs), his main focus is neither criticizing the system nor mobilizing for its modification. Rather he seeks to lay bare its “crazy vitality.” This system, he asserts, is “not just hard graft. It is fun” (p. 1).
Thrift occasionally refers back to this post-profit, gut-level appeal of capitalism as creative and fulfilling for individuals. But his true thesis lies in the elucidation of another process. In essence, Thrift is tracing the hybridization of capitalist production with two other aspects of modern life: first, with ideas and practices from the academic world, and, second, with computers and information technology. He builds his highly theoretical–and, at times, rather clogged–arguments on the foundation of ideas by Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, and many other critical thinkers; the vital examples, though usually illustrative, are often not much more than anecdotal. The result is this closely argued but intriguing and innovative volume suitable for research libraries and graduate work.
The two cross-fertilizations that constitute the centerpiece of this work produce different results. The first, the melding of market-and-profit economics with aspects of academic research and procedures, produce what Thrift calls the “cultural circuit of capitalism” (p. 20). Its results include new schools of thought inside companies and also in M.B.A. programs. These new mindsets and processes are the locus of capitalism’s increasing ability to adapt. The system has become “knowledgeable” (in one of the senses of the pun of this book’s title) through its decades-long embrace of management consultants; efficiency gurus with their bestsellers and seminars; and, serious perspectives borrowed from systems theory, complexity theory, and other domains of psychology, mathematics, and sociology. But the result is more than just a vertiginous succession of management fads: What follows are many correctives to capitalist practice and new communities, some of them digital, of participants and potential consumers. There is also considerable discussion of a new culture of business in which managers must learn how to deal permanently with increased tempo and uncertainty while also balancing the vehement and “remorseless pressure” (p. 133) expressed by shareholders and consumers, respectively, for an immediately successful bottom line and for creativity.
The second fusion, that of capitalism with the various worlds of computer technology, affects primarily the realm of retail, producing new products and new practices of marketing, distribution, and sales. Concrete manifestations of this fusion include changing commodities, such as “smart textiles,” many kinds of software and video games, the “local intelligence” in mobile phones and toys, and the “time-limited rights to streams of content” (p. 7) known from the world of electronic subscriptions and computer downloads. Thrift also examines the origin and development of product bar-coding, which permits scanned recognition of a category of item, and its logical successor, the RFID, which allows specific items to be tracked permanently. Even as I was reading Thrift’s book, the national media brought verification of the relevance of his ideas with major stories on the massive growth of “tech-com” (i.e., internet telephone services) and on the appearance of a major new interactive toy, Amazing Amanda.
Thrift prefaced his arguments in this work by asserting that the oft-repeated observations about finance and globalization do not capture the essence of today’s political economy. His bold approach will make this work interesting to scholars of economics and popular culture who are looking for thoughtful new perspectives. Readers interested in a more critical, activist approach may wish to compare Thrift’s work with that of the Marxist intellectual Alex Callinicos; a less demanding but equally bracing analysis of late capitalism can be found in an increasing number of works of great fiction writers such as Jose Saramago (The Cave, 2002), Juan Goytisolo (Makbara, 1980, trans. 1981), and William Gaddis (JR, 1975). Meanwhile, for a historian such as this reviewer, the book is primarily valuable as a snapshot and exploration of the ability of capitalism to reproduce and perpetuate itself by new means. That these revolutionized modalities of capitalism seem to reside in the cross-fertilization of accelerating technology and permutations of consumerism seems clear; whether they will essentially alter the nature of the enterprise will be an essential debate for future generations.
John K. Cox, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
Wheeling Jesuit University
Wheeling, West Virginia
COPYRIGHT 2006 Pi Gamma Mu
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning