For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Practices, Firms and Varieties of Capitalism"

by Keat, R (2008)


Against MacIntyre’s view that capitalism is incompatible with the conduct of economic production as a genuine practice, this paper claims that capitalist economies take a number of institutionally distinct forms, and that these differ significantly in the extent to which, and the reasons for which, they are antithetical to production as a practice. Drawing on the extensive literature in comparative political economy on varieties of capitalism, it argues that while ‘Liberal’ Market Economies such as the USA and UK conform quite closely to MacIntyre’s understanding of capitalism, ‘Coordinated’ Market Economies such as Germany and Japan do not. In particular, the industry-based associations of the German model are argued to be highly conducive to the internal goods and standards of excellence central to MacIntyrean practices.

Key Passage

So what is institutionally favoured in LMEs is for individuals to conceive of their career as something very much ‘their own’, in that it has no essential reference to any specific kind of practice or any particular organisational location, and depends on skills that can be transported and adapted to many different contexts. The career trajectory is highly mobile and fluid, and what counts as success will have to be defined independently of any practice-specific criteria, and hence perhaps primarily in terms of MacIntyre’s external goods of money, status and power. This does not  imply the absence of intrinsic work-satisfactions, since success will require the development and imaginative application of generic, and often complex, skills to many new and demanding situations. But what may be lacking is a sense of belonging and contributing to some relatively enduring and shared activity that exists independently of one’s own concerns, and hence also any recognition for such contributions from others. Of course, given the heavy reliance of LMEs on unskilled labour, and the lack of job security, there will be many for whom anything resembling a career is unavailable, and for whom mobility has a quite different and negative meaning. As we have seen, this is much less so in HCMEs, where the concept of a career is therefore more widely applicable. But we can also expect it to display a different character. Mobility is still significant, but primarily between different organisational locations in which the same practice is pursued. Success will by no means exclude the achievement of external goods, but it will also be defined in terms of one’s contribution to a specific practice, and evaluated by reference to its particular standards. And one may expect that attachment to that practice, an interest in its history and a concern for its future development, will itself contribute to how individuals conceive of the purpose of their work. But this will not be the case in VCMEs such as Japan, since it will be difficult in this institutional environment for individuals to conceive of their work as contributing to a shared activity that exists beyond the boundaries of the particular company (or group) by which they are employed. An individual’s career and its success will instead be defined by reference to that of the company concerned; as in Germany, and unlike LMEs, there is no lack of something ‘beyond’ the individual that serves to locate their work in a wider frame of reference, but what provides that wider frame is itself a discrete organizational entity. One may even expect this to shape individual identities in a particular way: ‘I’m a Honda worker’. By contrast, in HCMEs the corresponding form of identity might be: ‘I’m an engineer’. And in LMEs? Perhaps simply: ‘I’m me’. (p.86)


Macintyre, Capitalism, Firms, Economics, Liberalism, Market Economy


On MacIntyre, Capitalism

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