Knowing Capitalism


Nigel Thrift

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

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    Preface and Acknowledgements

    This book has gathered itself only slowly. I have tried to say something new about contemporary capitalism but this takes time, and in that time many elements of capitalism have changed: some of the key players in what I call the cultural circuit of capitalism have gone to the wall, business publishing is in crisis, the new economy has come and gone, financial boom has been followed by financial bust, and so on. This collection of writings spans nearly a decade and thus some references, some phenomena may already seem outdated: but this is also one of my main points. To analyse contemporary capitalism requires an ability to follow only a little way behind change: too far behind and what is written becomes merely academic; too close and the academic starts to take on the hyperbolic view of the future which is a part of how contemporary capitalism reproduces itself. I am sure that I have not always succeeded in this task of nearly analysis but, on the other hand, I am also sure that the task is a necessary one.

    This book is therefore, on the one hand, a history and geography of the nearly present, battered this way and that by the power of events. But it is also, on the other hand, an attempt to show how that very uncertainty is increasingly being taken up and worked with by capitalism in ways which are productive of new kinds of aggregation and ordering which have most decidedly not been present before and which need pointing to, since on them are being built new means of reproducing an order which many would argue has life-denying characteristics.

    However, I should also make clear that the criticisms that I have of capitalism are not those of many critics. I do not believe that capitalism is part of a neoliberal imperium or even a new kind of sovereignty. For all its undoubted powers, its strivings are far too tentative and incomplete for that. Neither do I believe that it is possible to have a grand programme for ridding the world of the beast. I think such programmes are born, as Hans Blumenberg (1985) would put it, out of a misguided desire to answer questions put by the great systems of Christian theology using the tools of modern reason – tools which were not made for that job and are badly bent out of shape when they are used to attempt it. In other words I accept as valid much more limited forms of critique: forms of critique which accept that the relations and practices on which capitalism rests are not all bad; forms of critique which are able to honour the ‘local’ as not just an instance of ‘global’ struggles; forms of critique that do not believe that the vanguard is always the place to be; forms of critique that understand their own situatedness and so live up to Foucault's dictum, ‘a critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest’ (1998, p. 155). That is why this book has so many references to the power of creativity and intuition. For – as I will attempt to show – while these may be watchwords of contemporary capitalism, they are also the qualities that must be fostered in order to overcome many of contemporary capitalism's depredations.

    I hope it is also clear that I do not therefore believe that it is necessary to be mealy-mouthed about some of capitalism's iniquities and cruelties, whether petty or great. But I will not, in the manner of some more declarative commentators, make too easy points which have as a consequence only the salving of the liberal conscience.

    This book is the product of joint action in the spirit of generosity that I would dearly love to amplify. Many people have made an input to it, through either co-authorship, general wise counsel, or making comments on the individual chapters. In particular, I want to mention the help of Ash Amin, Andrew Barry, Mick Billig, Steve Brown, Michel Callon, Howard Caygill, Stephen Collier, Bob Cooper, Shaun French, Steve Fuller, Michael Gardiner, Paul Glennie, James Griesemer, Paul Heelas, Kevin Hetherington, John Hughes, Patrick Keiller, Scott Lash, Bruno Latour, John Law, Andrew Leyshon, Orvar Löfgren, Celia Lury, Gregor McLennan, Doreen Massey, Danny Miller, Rolland Munro, Kris Olds, Aihwa Ong, Tom Osborne, Alan Radley, Annelise Riles, Nikolas Rose, Saskia Sassen, Gregory Seigworth, Judith Squires, David Stark, Marilyn Strathern, Lucy Suchman, John Urry, Sarah Whatmore, and Steve Woolgar.

    The author and publishers would like to thank the following for permission to use copyright material:

    Taylor & Francis Journals for paragraphs in Chapter 1 from: ‘Chasing capitalism’ by Nigel Thrift, New Political Economy, vol. 6 no. 2: 375-380 (2001).

    Routledge, Chapter 2: Thrift, N. J. (1997a) ‘The rise of soft capitalism’, Cultural Values, vol. 1 (1997): 29-57 and Thrift, N.J. (1997b) ‘The rise of soft capitalism’, in A. Herod, G. O. Tuathail, and S. Roberts (eds), Unruly World: Globalisation, Governance and Geography.

    SAGE Publications, Chapter 3: Thrift, N. (1999) ‘The place of complexity’, in Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 16, no. 3. 31-70.

    Berg Publishers, Chapter 4: Thrift, N. (1999) ‘Virtual capitalism: some proposals’, in J. Carrier and D. Miller (eds), Virtualism: The New Political Economy. pp.161-186.

    Blackwell Publishing, Chapter 5: Thrift, N.J. and Olds, K. (2004) ‘Cultures on the brink: re-engineering the soul of capitalism – on a global scale’, in Ong, A. and Collins, S. (eds), Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentalities, Ethics.

    Taylor & Francis Journals, Chapter 6: ‘It's the finance, not the romance’ by Nigel J. Thrift, Economy and Society, vol. 30: 412-432 (2001).

    Blackwell Publishing, Chapter 7: Thrift, N. (2000) ‘Performing cultures in the new economy’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 87: 674-692.

    Blackwell Publishing, Chapter 8: Thrift, N. and French, S. (2002) ‘The automatic production of space’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS27, 309-335.

    Arnold Journals, Chapter 9: Thrift, N. (2003b) ‘Closer to the machine? Intelligent environments, new forms of possession and the rise of the supertoy’, Cultural Geographies, 10 (4): 389-407.

    Taylor & Francis Journals, Chapter 10: ‘Electric animals’ by Nigel J. Thrift, Cultural Studies, vol. 18: 461-482 (2004).

    Pion Ltd, Chapter 11: ‘Remembering the technological unconscious before grounding knowledge of position’ scheduled for publication in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2004, vol. 22, issue 1: 175-190.

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