Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reading :: Producing Culture and Capital

Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy
By Sylvia Junko Yanagisako

In this ethnography, the author investigates 38 family-owned firms in northern Italy's silk industry. "Instead of assuming that capitalists in the silk industry of Como, Italy, pursue rational strategies motivated by a universal bourgeois interest in capital accumulation, I ask what cultural sentiments, meanings, and subjectivities motivate and shape their entrepreneurial actions" (p.xi).

In Chapter 1, the author notes the difference between her approach and Marx's. Marx's "universal model of capitalism entails two assumptions":

  1. "those who own and control the means of production and purchase labor power everywhere engage in the same 'economic action' in pursuit of the same goals"
  2. "workers who sell their labor power are everywhere endowed with identical moves and subjectivities"
"In other words, a universal theory of capitalism is predicated on a universally homogeneous bourgeoisie and a universally homogeneous proletariat" (p.5). But "labor is never abstract, but is always provided by people with particular social identities and histories," and the same goes for capital. Thus "capital is accumulated, invested, dispersed, and reproduced through historically specific cultural processes" (p.5): 
I view capitalism as a complex and uneven historical process that entails heterogeneous capitalist practices shaped by diverse meanings, sentiments, and representations. I argue for a model of culture and capitalism that posits neither the existence of a single homogeneous capitalist mode of production nor culturally specific capitalist modes of production that are enacted by culturally distinct groups located in different national or regional spaces. ... the model I propose is not one of distinctive "cultures of capitalism" or "capitalist cultures" but one in which diverse capitalist practices coexist in the same geopolitical spaces and flow across their boundaries. The forms that these diverse capitalist practices take and their articulation with each other must be empirically investigated rather than assumed. (p.7)
She argues that if the bourgeoise are not homogeneous, they don't necessarily share a set of common interests (p.8). One example is family capitalism, whose study, she argues, "has been marginalized in both Marxist and Weberian theories" and which "enables us to see that its marginalization is itself part of the hegemonic process through which capitalism is made to appear as an economic system that is autonomous from family and kinship processes" (p.13). Got that?

From here, she overviews Marx's understanding of capitalism. In Capital, he argues, the bourgeoise are merely the agents of capital (p.15). Marx denies capitalists the ability to plan—the same ability that, he says, distinguishes us from animals (p.17)!

In contrast, "Weber built a historical link between capitalist subjectivity and economic action that is missing in Marx"—yet "Weber shared Marx's vision of capitalism as a self-reproducing institution that, once established, is independent of the historical forces that created it":
it quickly becomes detached from the specific religious motivations that initially produced it. What was once an entrepreneurial practice driven by a spiritual ethic becomes an "iron cage" that determines the lives of all those born into it. (p.18)
All of this determinism doesn't wash with the author: "My critique of the concept of economic 'interest' has led me to propose an alternative theory of capitalist motivation in which sentiments operate as forces of production that incite particular kinds of capitalist action" (p.32). Through her ethnography, she examines individuals' and families' decisions about entrepreneurship. She finds several things that complicate the Marxist and Weberian views. For instance, she notes, in the wealthiest family firms, "flows of capital follow consanguinity and marriage," while in "in the least-capitalized fraction labor and technical knowledge flow through these networks" (p.116). She also examines family oral histories and founder stories.

The author concludes:
These findings emphasize the need to move beyond theories of culture and capitalism that tend toward essentialist characterizations of capitalism as "Western" or "Asian," "early" or "late." Rather than seek out distinctive "cultures of capitalism" or "capitalist cultures," we need to employ approaches that enable us to understand the articulation of heterogeneous capitalist approaches that coexist in any particular location. (p.188)
I'm not steeped enough in discussions of capitalism to judge how sound the argument is. However, the ethnographic work seems solid enough to demonstrate that individual families are making entrepreneurial decisions and describing entrepreneurial histories in ways that reflect their own kinships and alliances. If you're interested in the question of entrepreneurship, take a look.

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