Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities, Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, 2020

Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre
“Creators in the Enrichment Society” excepted from Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities by Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre. Translated by Catherine Porter. Published by Polity Press © 2020. All Rights Reserved.
First published in French as Enrichissement © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2017.
Book cover with gold frame in centre

The economic condition of culture workers

People who possess cultural capital play central roles in an enrichment economy; the increase in their numbers in Europe since the 1960s, and especially in the last two decades of the twentieth century, was unquestionably one of the factors that contributed to the growth of this type of economy. This was especially true for people who had earned degrees in literature or the arts; shut out from employment in business, many were able to find jobs in the new economic context and devoted themselves to enhancing the value of exceptional things. These actors were thus a priori beneficiaries of the enrichment economy.

Still, the way profits can be made from the possession of literary or artistic cultural capital, which may be associated with commercial competencies when this capital is engaged in an enrichment economy, deviates, to varying degrees according to individual situations, from the modalities of salaried work that have long prevailed in businesses oriented toward the production or sale of standard objects, even when these processes have been re-engineered to meet the demands of project management. The development of the enrichment economy has thus come to be an important element in what has been described as “the crisis in salary-based societies.”[i]

A first glimpse of this situation is offered by Cyprien Tasset’s synthetic picture of the positions obtained by people who have earned academic degrees in a variety of fields.[ii] Tasset based his study on a “generational” survey carried out in France in 2007 by the Center for Studies and Research on Qualifications, a survey that set forth the professional situations of persons who earned graduate degrees in 2004.[iii] For a certain number of fields of study, the synthetic picture provides data on the status of graduates in 2007: by percentage, how many were unemployed, how many worked part-time, or had jobs with open-ended contracts, or had managerial status; how many worked in “intermediate professions”[iv]; and the median salaries for each subcategory. Other information pertained to the status of the graduates’ fathers (whether or not they belonged to the managerial class as defined by the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, INSEE). The resulting picture allows comparisons between young people who had earned engineering degrees or doctorates—graduates whom one might expect to find employed in businesses oriented toward industrial production or finance, but also toward the public sector—and graduates of art schools (who had earned a baccalaureate degree followed by four years of higher education) or others who had pursued literature (at the “Masters 2 [M2] research” level); one might expect this latter group to have gravitated in larger numbers toward the enrichment economy.

Three years after they completed their studies, 87% of those with engineering degrees and 92% of those with doctorates were employed at the managerial level; they had the highest median monthly incomes (€2,150 and €2,170 respectively); very few were unemployed (4%, 6%), and the vast majority benefited from an open-ended contract. The situation of the second group, graduates of art schools or holders of M2 degrees in literature, art, or other fields in the humanities, was different. Of the art school graduates, 17% were unemployed; of those with M2 degrees, 13%. 0nly 60% of the two subgroups combined had open-ended contracts; far fewer of them had managerial status compared to those with engineering degrees or doctorates; and roughly half of them were classified as employed in the intermediate professions. The median salary for the art school graduates was €1,400; for those with M2 degrees, €1,450. Many members of each of the sets we have just described had fathers in the managerial class, but this was more frequently the case for the first set (50%) than for the second (37%). These data suggest that, alongside the classic tracks for access to higher positions in business or in the public sphere, there are other academic and social itineraries that are riskier but more open to social mobility, giving access to activities that are more often related to the enrichment economy.

These indications have been confirmed in studies carried out by the Ministry of Culture and Communication, studies designed to present “the incomes and standards of living of professionals in culture” on the basis of the INSEE Tax and Social Income Survey for 2005-2012.[v] In the absence of other statistical sources, the data collected by the Ministry of Culture and Communication constitute the only unified framework allowing us an overview of the standards of living of people who work for the enrichment economy. In fact, this Ministry, whose usefulness and thus whose very existence are sometimes called into question, is undoubtedly the agency that has the greatest interest in giving consistency to the disparate actors whose activity touches domains more or less under its oversight, and for that reason the Ministry is interested in considering them as if they constituted an identifiable social group. This mode of totalization by no means covers the entire set of actors who work for an enrichment economy; it concentrates attention on the best established among them, to the detriment of those whose activity is episodic, unstable, or precarious, or those who exercise a primary activity, such as teaching, that leads them to be classified under other administrative and statistical rubrics. The “culture professionals” (in the Ministry’s sense) are brought together in the following categories: practitioners of the visual arts and other artistic trades, performing artists, journalists, publishers, literary writers and translators, architects, archivists, documentalists, and art teachers (working outside of the national education system). Although the scope of the INSEE survey is restricted and leaves aside those persons—doubtless the most numerous—whose activity depends on the enrichment economy without being easily identifiable on the basis of a nomenclature of trades recognized by the central government (the existing nomenclature is already outdated, moreover[vi]), this study allows a first glimpse of the features that characterize the forms of employment in the area that interests us. These features can be summed up as follows.

Compared to other categories of employees, culture professionals are characterized by a high level of education (at least three years past the baccalaureate), by high social origins (more than half have had fathers in the managerial class [cadres]), and by residence in the Île-de-France (in proportions ranging from a third to more than half, depending on the profession). Two thirds live as part of a couple with a partner who is a cadre contributing his or her income to the household, and more than half own their own homes. For this reason, their “household income” is higher, to varying degrees depending on the situations, than individual earnings from work, as a function of the “household composition” and the presence or absence of inherited wealth. This latter, which most often involves home ownership, may also be the source of financial surpluses and income received from rent. Income generated from inherited wealth is found among culture professionals at a decidedly higher level than in the overall set of working households.

The average annual salaries of these professionals are “generally equivalent to those of the working population as a whole,”[vii] but their income from work is 26% lower than that of salaried workers with identical qualifications. This gap is partially filled, for a quarter of culture workers, by substitute income such as unemployment payments or even retirement income. Substitute income is especially important for professionals in the performing arts (it constitutes from 30% to 60% of their annual income), owing to the legal provisions established for intermittent workers, but it is also important (accounting for about 10% of annual income) for journalists, publishers, and professors of art. It follows that, in this milieu, “revenues from professional activity constitute only part, a more or less considerable part, of the means available to an individual for subsistence; household composition, inherited wealth, and income from government programs, financial investments, or real estate holdings may constitute other sources of revenue that complement the wages earned.”[viii] These complementary sources are on average 13% higher than those of the entire active population. Despite the multiple supplements, the “standard of living” of culture workers remains 12% lower than that of workers exercising a profession “at a comparable level” outside the domain of culture. In addition to this gap, the income of culture workers is characterized by the diversity of its sources. This is true not only of substitute income but also of the wages earned: the latter often comes both from a primary source of employment and from complementary jobs that may be outside the domain of culture.

The same diversity is found in the status of the positions occupied. 80% of the members of cultural professions are salaried, but the proportion of freelance workers is also considerable, especially in the visual and plastic arts and among writers and translators. As for salaries, they are distributed between two poles. At one extreme, there are workers who hold stable positions in cultural enterprises: this is the case, for example, with editors, in the publishing world, and with people working in programming or production, including sound engineers, in the performing arts. Their average salaries are the highest among culture workers, and their situation is close to that of managerial-level workers in other sectors. At the other extreme, there are workers who combine salaries from different sources, often in the form of payment per unit of work performed, as a function of the plurality of their complementary forms of employment. Finally, freelance income and salaries can be combined; this is the case for more than 10% of visual arts professionals and authors of literary works. Culture workers are thus distributed between relatively stable jobs organized around businesses in the classic sense of the term or around public agencies, at one pole, and dispersed among jobs that are often organized in the context of associations, at the other. Cultural associations, which are qualified to receive subsidies, on the one hand, and which pay partial and temporary salaries for work concentrated on specific projects, on the other hand, can play the role of relay between financing agencies (especially territorial collectivities) and a multiplicity of persons—actors or artists, for example—whose activity is dispersed according to contracts, “programs,” or temporary “residencies.”[ix]

At the outer limit, one finds very precarious situations, largely dependent on substitute income and even on minimal social subsidies (these play a central role for 7% of culture professionals). The most fragile of these are undoubtedly missed by the ministerial survey, especially because individuals in such situations, while they may well be involved with “culture,” are not technically speaking “professionals.” Cyprian Tasset’s thesis includes many interviews that make it possible to sketch a profile of such workers.[x] Shut out of urban centers by the high costs of daily life (housing in particular), and having neither inherited wealth nor family support, they are cut off from the networks of relationships that are indispensable in this milieu for keeping up with what is going on and getting involved in projects. Benefiting from minimal social subsidies without which they could not subsist, they most often find themselves dispersed among various temporary activities without being able to claim any specific trade. Nevertheless, they keep on doing things—painting, writing, performing, and so forth—in order to nourish the project, typically formed in adolescence, of living a life oriented toward culture; they keep trying to remain close to a romantic image of the artist that bears little resemblance to the experience of artists who have had to learn, in order to survive, to organize their activity in a way that allows them to tap into the funds that circulate among private enterprises, government-sponsored agencies (such as museums, cultural centers, or outlets for certain subsidized goods), territorial collectivities, and foundations.

This asymmetrical distribution of employment situations goes hand in hand with a particularly broad gap in income levels (from more than €47,000 in annual revenues to less than €3,000), and especially in “standards of living,” if profits from inherited wealth are taken into account for the most well-to-do, along with income brought in by a spouse or partner for those who do not have resources of their own. These supplementary sources of income play a particularly important role when the “culture professional” does not come from a family with high social status and has no inherited wealth. The gap between the income contributed by a spouse or partner and the income earned by an individual personally “is especially large in the household of visual artists, literary writers and translators, and art professors, where the revenue of the spouse or partner is quite likely to be a support, sometimes an indispensable support, for the pursuit of the artistic activity.”[xi]

One of the interesting features of the data collected by the Ministry of Culture and Communication is that it breaks with the at once bleak and sublime depiction of the artistic life passed down from the nineteenth century, by showing that persons who engage in cultural activities are indeed, for the most part, “professionals,” as it were, on a par with other professionals. Their standard of living is a little below the one they would have if they were in a profession classified as “at the [upper or middle] managerial level,” in public service or in a business, and, for those who are of middle- or upper-class origins, having inherited wealth and/or a managerial-level spouse or partner brings resources that can make up for the relative weakness of income from cultural activity.

Two other frequently-defended theses must also be nuanced. The first, which focuses on the wide range of income levels and especially on the rare culture professionals who bring in very high incomes owing to their exceptional success, consists in the claim that all those who commit themselves to this path are ready to accept great sacrifices and to take great risks in the hope of belonging, one day, to the small number of the elite.[xii] But this emphasis leaves out the fact that, while exceptional successes are indeed exceptional, those who do not reach that level and who are, by construction, in a sense, the vast majority, manage nevertheless to attain a standard of living that is not very different from the one they would have had if they had opted for classic careers.

The second thesis associates the rise of the precariat with the rise in poverty. Financially precarious situations, in the sense in which the actors are always immersed in uncertainty about the future of their professional activities, further the poverty of those who are already poor to begin with owing to their social origins and their schooling. Still, members of this group are in the minority, at least according to surveys of cultural activities. A diversification of employment situations and a tendency to hold multiple jobs have certainly accompanied the development of cultural activities and perhaps, more generally, during the last few decades, that of an enrichment economy. It has profoundly modified the way those who participate in these sectors earn their living and thus the way in which those individuals spend what they earn, how they occupy their time, and indeed their entire life style.

Members of the latter group have to acquire competencies that combine knowledge of the government bureaucracy (to obtain funding), and business (to manage their finances), if they are to attain a standard of living they find acceptable in relation to that of their family of origin and that of their friends. These competencies are thus inseparably both relational and commercial, and they involve activities that take up a significant amount of time—time that is thus not devoted to creative activities as such. These activities are indispensable for remaining informed about new trends and new projects, negotiating contracts, mastering the intricacies of funding arrangements, making oneself known (in particular via social networks), and making oneself stand out, in a highly competitive situation, in dealings with very diverse agencies and persons. The latter may include other artists participating in commissions charged with selecting projects, business managers, administrative managers of territorial collectivities, elected officials or others with political responsibilities, directors of foundations or cultural centers, and so on—all of these being entities on which commitments and proceeds depend. The acquisition of the requisite competencies, which takes place partly in schools and partly through the trials and errors of daily life, is one of the conditions of access to the informal status of creator, someone who, in an enrichment economy, tends to occupy a place comparable to the one occupied in earlier years, when the industrial economy predominated, by someone with the formal status of executive or manager. Let us now look closely at the modalities of this process of self-valorization.


The constraint of self-exploitation

The typical creator whose portrait we have just drawn in schematic form is immersed in an environment that is at once a common world and a space of competition. In fact, the principal resources from which creators can benefit are spread throughout the space of their activities and their lives, in forms that are both material—such as cafés, theaters, galleries, shops, or museums, all of which can be spaces for exhibition and encounters—and immaterial—such as affects, trends, or ideas. But the most profitable resources of all are persons, the ones whom one must get to know because they are well known, and because it is desirable and useful to approach them personally; of these, gatekeepers are in the first rank. This is evident from the interviews carried out by Cyprien Tasset with people who identified with the expression “precarious intellectuals.” For these people, even in periods of penury, the expenditures that were hardest to give up were those concerning housing in places where creators are concentrated, restaurants, cafés, and cultural spaces that one has to frequent in order to maintain oneself in the milieu and gain access to information about potential projects.[xiii] But this common world is also a space of selection, thus of competition, to the extent that each creator’s self-valorization is oriented by what he or she knows about the others and the way those others valorize themselves, according to the mode of relations that takes hold in the “intellectual fields” explored by Pierre Bourdieu.

In a space of this type, each actor tends toward self-promotion, since each one individually is the enterprise on which his or her survival depends. Here we find the realization of the kind of society that Foucault saw taking shape in theories of German “ordoliberalism”:


The individual’s life must be lodged, not within a framework of a big enterprise like the firm or, if it comes to it, the state, but within the framework of a multiplicity of diverse enterprises connected up to and entangled with each other, enterprises which are in some way ready to hand for the individual, sufficiently limited in their scale for the individual’s actions, decisions, and choices to have meaningful and perceptible effects, and numerous enough for him not to be dependent on one alone. And finally, the individual’s life itself—with his relationships to his private property, for example, with his family, household, insurance, and retirement—must make him into a sort of permanent and multiple enterprise.[xiv]


Nevertheless, the type of promotion proper to this world also takes a generational form, since the creators who have succeeded in making names for themselves seek to protect themselves from competition from the new arrivals, even as they put themselves in positions that allow them to make the newcomers dependent on them and to capture their contributions, that is, to benefit from the strength of their claims, even their challenges, and their work. This is why creators, if they are to achieve lasting success, must either attain positions of power in organizations, for example membership in the leadership teams of exhibition or performance spaces, either public (such as museums) or private (such as foundations), or else accumulate wealth that can be transformed into capital, that is, invested in commercial entities oriented toward the enrichment economy, for instance companies focused on fashion, agencies devoted to trend-spotting, or bureaus set up to advise collectors, galleries, or producers in the performing arts or in the audiovisual sphere. However, taking on positions of this sort tends to immobilize creators, thus producing tension with the mobility that is expected of them and that is necessary if they are to defend their positions in the world of creators.

For the most part, the organizations just mentioned, whether public or private, could not prosper, could not even continue to exist, if they did not have access to an abundant and inexpensive workforce consisting of young degree-holders who aspire to achieve the status of creators. For members of this latter group, even temporary and intermittent employment constitutes both a source of income allowing them to subsist and a means of coming into proximity with the agencies on which their selection depends: that is, a means of promoting their own names, an endeavor in which participation in sponsored projects, even in a very minor capacity, can be helpful. One of the advantages of a workforce of this type is that it limits investments in fixed capital: since the members of this workforce are not integrated into a stable staff (the latter being limited to the administrative core in organizations that employ temporary or intermittent workers), they remain outsiders, and most of the costs involved in their work—energy, working space, computers and other tools—are borne by the workers themselves. This mode of organization turns out to be preponderant in enrichment economies. Even in the case of “cultural industries,” understood in the very limited sense of the Ministry of Culture and Communication (publishing, audiovisual production and distribution; press agencies and advertising firms), individual enterprises are particularly numerous (53% of the businesses in this sphere have no salaried employees). As for the larger companies that concentrate on cultural activities (4% have more than 20 salaried employees, and these companies bring in 84% of the overall profits), they rely heavily on freelancers and subcontractors.[xv]

While degree-holding young people in this field could legitimately consider themselves exploited, they have trouble developing collective arrangements designed to limit the level of their exploitation by reinforcing their power to negotiate or apply pressure. There are several reasons for this.[xvi] The first has to do with the workers’ dispersal in space and time. Lacking the physical framework of an established business, they can of course formulate and coordinate critiques, especially via social networks on the Internet, but when they seek to act they are blocked by the need to coordinate bodies. The second reason has to do with the fact that each one sees his or her own condition as temporary, and hopes to move beyond it by acquiring the status of a recognized creator; this leads individuals to tend to see others who are oriented toward the same goals not so much as companions in misfortune but rather as competitors. Finally, beyond the easily denounced abstract entities such as “neoliberalism,” “neomanagement,” or “financial capitalism,” these actors do not have a clear sense of what agencies or persons are responsible for their exploitation; consequently, they do not know to whom to address their claims or against whom they might revolt.

In their case, a distinction that has played a historical role because it has served as support for critiques of capitalism has not made much headway: the opposition between workers, who possess only their own power to work, and owners of the means of production. This opposition was gradually imposed around the middle of the nineteenth century, when big business was winning out over the artisanal model, and when labor unions—workers’ organizations of a new type whose structure was inspired by the forms associated with the political arrangements of democracies—began to supplant the older trade organizations.[xvii] By relying on this opposition, it was possible to flesh out the idea of exploitation understood as an unequal and unjust division of the fruits of productive labor—measured in monetary terms—between the different groups that contributed to production, that is, to the industrial manufacturing of things whose commercialization nourished the profits accumulated by company owners. However, in the case of the cultural organizations that occupy the center of an enrichment economy, it is very hard to make that opposition coherent, because the “exploiters” have characteristics that often do not differ radically from those of the “exploited”—except perhaps in terms of their success and, generally, by their standard of living—and they proclaim the same “values.” In addition, while culture workers may well possess a patrimony consisting in exceptional objects or homes, in most cases they are not owners of the organizations under whose auspices they operate, not even directors or managers, since these organizations are not structured hierarchically on the model of mass-production companies. For these various reasons, the “bosses” to whom claims might be addressed are not easy to identify. Ultimately, it is in the rather rare cases in which their situation depends on a status organized by a central government that the exploited actors in an enrichment economy have the best chance of uniting to defend themselves by calling out administrative agencies on their role, especially at the governmental level, as intermittent workers in the performing arts have done.[xviii] In fact, the existence of a common status tends to furnish a hook for collective action, bringing together persons who in other respects see themselves as different in professional terms and are often objectively in competition. In addition, the existence of clearly identified political or administrative personnel with responsibility for workers holding this status gives these workers an “interlocutor,” whereas in many other cases such an interlocutor is lacking.

The specific modes of exploitation proper to this universe turn out to be closely associated with processes of selection whose effects are manifested throughout entire lifetimes. These processes culminate in one of two liminal positions which mark the failure or success of the selection. The first is the position of “loser.” Those who have not succeeding in attaching value to their names and whose earnings have remained weak or in decline are compelled, especially if they have no inherited wealth, to leave the expensive centers where new projects are taking shape. They may then be eliminated from the domain of the enrichment economy (for example, by taking positions, when they can, as mid-level managers in public service at the national or territorial level), or they may turn back to rural spaces that are not very productive but that are attractive to tourists, places whose decline has been slowed by the arrival of neo-rurals and artists driven out of metropolitan areas; the presence of these displaced creators in such places may help animate local activity and foster green tourism.[xix] The second position, by contrast, is that of the survivor,[xx] someone who has managed to valorize his or her name. Survivors are thus those who have succeeded in attaching to their names the memory of the differences they are credited with initiating, those who have managed to inscribe those differences in a coherent narrative that is conflated with their own life stories. Their success also presupposes that they have been able to withstand competition from newcomers on the scene.


The circumstances behind the crystallization of social classes

In the preceding pages, seeking to identify the changes that an enrichment economy could impose on society, we depicted several characteristic figures—that of the “loser,” the “servant,” the rentier, and the creatorIn this respect, we are following the sociologists or social philosophers who seek to sort out the clusters that constitute, as they see it, the basis for emerging groups destined to play a central role in economic and social life in a more or less near future. Over the last twenty years a number of these scholars have forged terms to designate the groups that they see as embodying the change in the economic orientation of Western societies. Richard Barbrook has produced a detailed and ironic inventory of these terms,[xxi] including for example “knowledge worker,” “cognitarian,” “swarm capitalist,” and “hacker,” terms borrowed from information technology but to which Barbrook has given an extension capable of capturing the specificity and novelty of relations of ownership in the “virtual information age.”[xxii]

Richard Florida used a similar approach when he proposed—in a work that has stirred up considerable interest, first in the United States and then in Europe, since its publication in 2002—the idea that the specificity of contemporary Western societies, considered in terms of their social structure and their spatial distribution, resides in the development of a “creative class” anchored in the heart of major cities, which are nourished by the dynamism of this class.[xxiii] In Florida’s view, all those who play a driving role in processes of “innovation” belong to the creative class, whether their specific competencies are scientific or technical (researchers, engineers, doctors, and so on) or stem rather from the world of arts and culture, broadly understood, and whether they are salaried employees of large companies focused on industrial production or rather individual workers operating as freelancers (borrowing a term from César Graña,[xxiv] Florida calls the latter “bohemians”). According to Florida, this “new class” includes roughly 30% of the U.S. workforce.

This view is based on several presuppositions that do not square with our approach.[xxv] First, it does not take into account the specificity of the objects on which the activity of these actors bears, and consequently does not make it possible to study the way industrial economies differ from what we have called enrichment economies. Second, it presumes that the “creative class” constitutes a homogeneous totality that is simply added to the accumulated divisions already present in industrial societies. Florida’s position is also debatable in that, on the one hand, “creators” are distributed among very unequal situations,[xxvi] and, on the other hand, they are by no means necessarily “innovators,” at least if this descriptor is understood in the sense it has been given by historians and sociologists of science and technology, which associate it with modernism.

Other problems have to do with the very use of the term “class,” which, as we know, can take on very different meanings depending on whether it is used in a Marxist perspective, with reference to the “class struggle,” or whether it has a chiefly descriptive orientation, as is the case with Anglo-Saxon scales constructed around the notion of hierarchies of “prestige,”[xxvii] or with INSEE’s socio-professional categories. In the latter case, a large number of trades have been grouped around focal points or common features, in relation to a system of criteria in which a hierarchical distinction presupposing a lower or higher level of autonomy and responsibility as a function of the length and type of training—the distinction between salaried employees and employers, between manual labor and intellectual work, between workers who execute and workers who direct—plays a preponderant role. Nevertheless, the specificity of these socio-professional categories and the source of their descriptive power lie in the fact that they were based on conventional forms put in place, in France, between 1936 and 1946, that is, they were based on collective conventions within sectors, and on the Parodi accords,[xxviii] for the business sector, or on the General Statute concerning government work. The statistical forms seeking to represent the world of work and the forms of political representation that had been overlaid on the articulation between union action and central governments were thus well matched, because they relied on the same operations of qualification.[xxix] Now it is precisely that order of classes, inseparable from the political order of the welfare state and from an industrial order of production, that has been partially dismantled, first by the re-engineering of businesses in the 1990s and the development of subcontracting, then by deindustrialization, and finally by increasing numbers of precarious jobs and the rise in power of the enrichment economy.

In relation to the object of our study, it is thus only in a very vague sense that we can call on the idiom of social class. Partial communities of interests and equally partial affinities of life styles no doubt exist within the various clusters we have sought to identify starting from stereotypical examples of “losers,” “servants,” rentiers, and creators. But since these clusters are not objectified either in law or by administrative and statistical conventions, they retain a virtual character. To see them realized, that is, to see them take the form of social classes, one would have to be able to observe them immersed in events, and more precisely in conflicts during which the persons involved would have to be determined in relation to the stakes with which they are confronted.[xxx] Events of this type in fact constitute historical tests that oblige persons to come together to increase their power within the existing power relations, that is, to fall back on their dominant loyalties.


Troubled critiques

As we see it, the study of the development of the enrichment economy and the analysis of the forms of valuation on which that economy relies make it easier to understand some of the difficulties that have confronted critiques of capitalism in the early twenty-first century, especially in Western European countries. These critiques, intense between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, found themselves virtually reduced to silence in 1985-1995, owing to two historical movements of very broad scope that, although relatively independent of one another, were nevertheless concurrent. On the one hand, there was the implosion of a certain number of countries said to be governed by “real socialism”; as a result, the communist-inspired parties and unions whose critical role had been central during the post-war decades lost credibility in Western countries, while the remaining socialist countries, with China in the lead, proceeded to undergo a more or less controlled evolution toward capitalism. And, on the other hand, capitalism demonstrated its capacity to overcome the crisis it had undergone in the 1970s, by relying most notably, first, on the reorganization of businesses and on the outsourcing of a large portion of industrial production to countries with cheap labor, often to the very countries that had moved from collective ownership to private property, a development that unsettled and splintered the working class; and, second, by relying on deregulation of financial activities, which favored their expansion on a world-wide scale.

After a period of consternation, critiques of capitalism blossomed anew, at the outset of the twenty-first century, chiefly in the form of a critique of neoliberalism. This critique emphasized, first, the effects imputed to the power of the financial markets[xxxi]; second, the difficulties of nation-states confronting debt and the power of international agencies to regulate markets[xxxii]; third, modes of domination through labor, taking advantage of the shock effects of mass unemployment[xxxiii]; fourth, the exploitation of so-called “natural” resources to the detriment of “autochthonous” peoples in particular[xxxiv]; and, finally, the generalization of an “individualist” morality oriented toward personal well-being and attention to feelings.[xxxv] The decline of solidarities and even the dissolution of collectivities have been attributed to this fifth factor, because the individualist morality was accused of promoting individual responsibility and generalized competition at all levels, of granting pre-eminence to accounting instruments in the evaluation of things and persons, and of ignoring the leading ideals held in common, whether these ideals were focused on the future or anchored in the past. These prophecies, moreover, were being refuted starting in the 2000s, on the one hand by the rise in power of nationalism along with mobilizations and conflicts carried out in the name of a religion, and on the other hand by the prominence of ecological concerns.

While, in this picture, the decline of industrial power has been widely discussed and considered as a process which both the people in charge and their opponents have never ceased to view as reversible, the development of an enrichment economy has not been fully taken into account. It has either been ignored or dismissed disdainfully, as though it touched only futile sidelines of social life and did not constitute a movement of great importance destined to increase in intensity and thus to produce profound economic and social changes that would have political repercussions. And yet the blossoming of the enrichment economy, without ever being recognized as such, has sown confusion among critics of capitalism.

This confusion is manifest if we look at the way workers in the enrichment universe have been viewed. On the one hand, they have been seen as personifying the misdeeds of neoliberalism, to the extent that they have been subjected to working and living conditions marked by precarity. On the other hand, they have been seen, by other authors and sometimes by the same authors in different contexts, as representing a sort of embodiment of decadent modernity, because of everything that, in their ways of living and being, evokes the reviled free-market liberalism, given the arrangements imposed by necessity with which they have had to comply in order to live or survive, the spread-out, often international spatial context with respect to which they conceive their activities, and their orientation in favor of increased social freedom. Characterized as bobos (middle class, fashionable, left-leaning) or “hipsters,” they could then represent the antithesis of the industrial proletariat, which had been granted the status of “real people”—this perspective could help orient critical stances toward a demand for re-industrialization in the national context; in certain versions, this stance was close to nationalism. From the standpoint of political decision-makers, culture generally continued to be treated as a princely distraction, far from the “serious” matters of standardized industrial production and finance, all the more so if the two are associated in war. Moreover, it was this same schema that critics could take up again when they constituted artistic creativity as the “outside” of capitalism, from which resistance could be mounted against the unlimited alienation produced by capital. Such a schema, developed in particular between 1930 and 1950, is in tension today with the impossibility of closing one’s eyes to the role played by artistic and cultural activities, especially in the domains of luxury and tourism, whose contribution to the prosperity of capitalism is hardly negligible.

While rightly stressing the role played in the growth of inequalities by the rise in power of financial capitalism, these critical analyses have neglected the ties maintained by finance with the development of an enrichment economy. In reality, this economy reserves ownership and enjoyment of exceptional goods to the wealthiest, permitting them to live in virtual isolation chambers, apart from the “common people” about whom they have little reason to be concerned, since the degradation of the living conditions of the vast majority affects the wealthy only in very indirect ways. In addition, this economy continues to enrich the wealthiest, or at least allows them to maintain the level of their fortune. It is on the one hand by benefiting from the profits provided by the luxury economy in which they invest, and on the other by storing up inherited or acquired wealth—by placing their funds in real estate or in collectors’ items managed as if they were assets—that the most fortunate preserve a wealth that would always be at risk of evaporating if it were not placed in material goods whose prices and liquidity are staked on resources that do not depend on the holders’ own activity but that stem from collective work and are thus, on this basis, are common property. For the high metaprices of which these goods can boast depend to a large extent on the narratives attached to them, narratives whose validity is always established through reference to a regime of verification that is aligned with culture and history. These stories, whose efficiency derives from their power to invoke the past, are forged by a multitude of actors, headed by historians who have developed the thematics of “sites of memory”; these historians, underwritten by institutions that belong by definition to the collective realm, benefit very little from the profits procured by their commercialization. And yet the past, whose valorization supports the enrichment economy, constitutes a common good par excellence. The past belongs to everyone.


[i] See Robert Castel, Les métamorphoses de la question sociale (Paris: Fayard, 1994).
[ii] Cyprien Tasset, “Les intellectuels précaires: Genèses et réalités d’une figure critique,” doctoral thesis, EHESS, Paris, 2015, especially pp. 116-120.
[iii] Tasset chose to work on the 2007 “generation” survey because it entailed a more detailed presentation of the results than later surveys did.
[iv] According to the classifications established by INSEE, the intermediate professions include elementary school teachers and related professions, mid-level health care workers and social workers, clergy and other religious workers, mid-level administrators in the public sector and in business, technicians, supervisors and foremen, and so on.
[v] Marie Gouyon, “Revenus d’activité et niveaux de vie des professionnels de la culture,” Culture Chiffres, no. 1 (2015): 1-28.
[vi] To the “professionals,” in the restrictive sense of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, one would need to add, among culture workers, the category of “intermediaries” (as it is analyzed in particular in a collective work by Laurent Jeanpierre and Olivier Roueff, eds., La culture et ses intermédiaires: Dans les arts, le numérique et les industries créatives (Paris: Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2014), but the category would have to be oriented toward the enrichment economy.
[vii] Gouyon, “Revenus,” p. 1.
[viii] Ibid., p. 2.
[ix] Among the cultural professions, freelance work and temporary contracts account for 62% of workers’ annual income on average, as opposed to 24% for the working population as a whole. The proportion of freelance workers is highest among visual and plastic artists (around 50%), and the proportion of temporary contracts is highest in the performing arts (72%). These figures are from the 2008-2012 jobs survey, presented in DEPS, Chiffres clefs 2014 (Paris: Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, 2014), pp. 26-27 (cited in Tasset, “Intellectuels précaires,” pp. 106-107).
[x] Tasset, “Intellectuels précaires.”
[xi] Gouyon, “Revenus,” p. 11.
[xii] This theme, which has given rise to a considerable number of glosses on the part of economists and sociologists specializing in the arts and in culture, has been stimulated by media disclosures of the high income levels attained by stars in sports, the film industry, and the arts, and also by the success of the widely-read work by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us (New York: Free Press, 1995).
[xiii] Tasset, “Intellectuels précaires.”
[xiv] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2010 [2004]), p. 241.
[xv] See Valérie Derin, “Statistiques d’entreprises des industries culturelles,” Culture Chiffres, no. 4 (2008): 1-8.
[xvi] See Irène Pereira, Les travailleurs de la culture en lutte: Le syndicalisme d’action directe face aux transformations du capitalisme et l’État dans le secteur de la culture (Paris: D’ores et déjà, 2010).
[xvii] See William Sewell, Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
[xviii] The social conflicts in which intermittent workers in the performing arts won a good deal of attention from sociologists, who often considered them as “innovators.” See especially Pierre-Michel Menger, Les intermittents du spectacle: Sociologie du travail flexible (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 2011); Grégoire Mathieu, Les intermittents du spectacle: Enjeux d’un siècle de luttes (Paris: La Dispute, 2013); Antonella Corsani and Maurizio Lazzarato, Intermitttents et précaires (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2008).
[xix] On cases of what is now called rural gentrification or greenification, processes through which new milieus are constituted (processes that are often united by ecological, political, and/or creative preoccupations and that are concerned with life styles along with agricultural as well as intellectual or artistic activities), see the testimony gathered by the Mauvaise Troupe collective, Constellations: Trajectoires révolutionnaires du jeune XXIe siècle (Paris: L’Eclat, 2014), and, more particularly on the Limousin region, “Vivre en collectif sur le plateau de Millevaches,” pp. 338-350. For an economic and statistical account of the effects of the implantation of newcomers in the Limousin mountains, see Frédéric Richard, Julien Dellier, and Greta Tommasi, “Migration, Environment and Rural Gentrification in the Limousin Mountains,” Journal of Alpine Research 102, no. 3 (2014), https://journals.openedition.org/rga/2561; and Frédéric Richard, Marius Chevalier, Julien Dellier, and Vincent Lagarde, “Circuits courts agroalimentaires de proximité en Limousin: Performance économique et processus de gentrification rurale,” Norois, no. 230 (2014): 21-39.
[xx] For a phenomenological analysis of the “survivor,” see Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York: Viking, 1962 [1960]), epilogue, pp. 465-470.
[xxi] Richard Barbrook, The Class of the New (London: Mute Publishing, 2007).
[xxii] On hackers, see Nicolas Auray’s work, especially “Le prophétisme hacker et son contenu politique,” Alice, no. 1 (October 1998): 65-79, and Nicolas Auray and Danielle Kaminsky, “Les trajectoires de professionnalisation des hackers: la double vie des professionnels de la sécurité,” Annales des télécommunications 62, nos. 11-12 (2007): 1313-1327.
[xxiii] Richard Florida, Cities and the Creative Class (New York: Routledge, 2005), and The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
[xxiv] César Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1964).
[xxv] For a pertinent critique of the theory of the creative class, see especially Stefan Krätke, The Creative Capital of Cities: Interactive Knowledge, Creation and the Urbanization Economies of Innovation (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
[xxvi] See Cyprien Tasset, “Les ‘intellos précaires’ et la classe créative: Le recours à la quantification dans deux projets concurrents de regroupement social,” in Isabelle Bruno, Emmanuel Didier, and Julien Prévieux, Stat-Activisme: Comment lutter avec des nombres (Paris: La Découverte, coll. Zones, 2004), pp. 117-132.
[xxvii] See Dominique Merllié, Les enquêtes de mobilité sociale (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994).
[xxviii] Alexandre Parodi, the French Minister of Labor, issued decrees in 1945 establishing a classification grid for workers’ salaries, which were set by the central government at the time. Workers were ranked as manual laborers (unskilled), specialized workers (those who had undergone a brief apprenticeship), and qualified workers (those who had earned a certificate of professional aptitude). This ranking system came to be known as the Parodi accords.
[xxix] See Alain Desrosières, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning, trans. Camille Naish (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998 [1993]).
[xxx] This is precisely the approach Marx adopted in the two studies in which he pushed his analyses of social classes the farthest: The Class Struggles in France (1848-1850) (Moscow: Co-operative Pub. Soc. of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R., 1934 [1850]), and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. D.D.L., (New York: Mondial, 2005 [1852]).
[xxxi] For example, see Nancy Fraser, “A New Form of Capitalism? Response to Boltanski and Esquerre,” New Left Review 106 (July-August 2017), https://newleftreview-org.proxy.library.cornell.edu/II/106/nancy-fraser-a-new-form-of-capitalism.
[xxxii] For example, see Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Capitalism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 2014 [2013]).
[xxxiii] For example, see David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
[xxxiv] For example, Sian Sullivan, “Banking Nature? The Spectacular Financialisation of Environmental Conservation,” Antipode 45, no. 1 (January 2013): 198-217. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2012.00989.x
[xxxv] See for example Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).


Luc Boltanski is Professor of Sociology at the EHESS, Paris, and the author of many books including The New Spirit of Capitalism (with Ève Chiapello).
Arnaud Esquerre is a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique (CNRS) and Director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Issues in Paris.