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  Participant: Bureau d'études (FR)

Bureau d'études

Mapping Contemporary Capitalism: Assumptions, Methods, Open Questions


Since the 1980s, and with increasing speed since 1989, the world's largest firms have taken advantage of technological and organizational innovations to pursue expansionist strategies whose operational framework is that of a "borderless," i.e. tarif-free world. This mutation in capitalism is often interpreted as corporate globalisation, where competition between industrial and commercial groups for world market-share and the race to achieve economies of scale leads both to mega-mergers and to extensive foreign direct investment, itself driven by financial speculation. Under this interpretation, industrial lobby groups become key actors in a process of "deregulation" designed for the sole benefit of the largest firms, and applauded by institutional investors. The advantage of this reading is to underscore the considerable power of specific corporate entities, irrespective of their country of origin. A second reading of the mutation highlights the role of interstate agreements and transnational institutions, such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, as well as the emergence of new levels of regional governance, such as NAFTA and the EU. In this reading, the "captive state" abandons concerns of human welfare and development to participate in the construction of a transnational state capitalism, driven by the mutually reinforcing concerns of regional security and economic growth, and oriented at the largest scale by the pre-eminent economic, technological and military position of the United States. This institutional analysis has the advantage of focusing on supposedly public bodies, whose legitimacy can be challenged within the framework of democratic ideals and principles. It also accounts best for the persuasive power of an ideology that can be promulgated at all levels of society, from schools and legislative bodies to professional organizations and international media conglomerates.

However, the prominence of these two interpretations of contemporary capitalist development has had the disadvantage of turning attention away from the purely private and tendentiously secretive strategies of individuals, or even of lineages, managing accumulated capital over the generations. This is a sensitive issue, as certain mistakes may have been made in an earlier map (Refuse the Biopolice). Nonetheless, it is hardly a conspiracy theory to try to identify the power of people like Edward C. and Abigail P. Johnson, who together control 36.5% of the voting stock in the FMR corp., the holding company behind Fidelity Resource Management Corporation ($883 billion in managed assets, 2001). The role of individual capitalists, whether maverick entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates or Silvio Berlusconi, or long-established families and lineages like the Rothschilds or the Al Sauds, need to be analysed alongside the faceless corporations and bureaucratic institutions. These individual or family actors coordinate their strategies through marriage ties, elite educational institutions, private clubs and influence networks, whose operations may also be conditioned by the kinds of social and cultural capital that sociologists such as Bourdieu have described.

In our view, all three readings of contemporary capitalist power are pertinent. The difficulty is to assess the real weight of specific actors in real configurations, and to make their influence visible in a timely way. Informed critique and wider collaboration would be of great help in making these maps more accurate and more useful.

Research Methods

Principle sources of statistical data include: the website database of; the print publications of Eurostat and of the French counselling firm DAFSA; the yearly reports published by corporations on their own sites; articles from the financial press; etc. In the case of financial or industrial firms, relevant information includes: yearly turnover, yearly profit, market capitalisation; ownership stakes in other companies; members of the board. Interlocking board memberships and common ownership stakes in third-party companies are taken as indicators of affiliation. The participation of board members in civil society groups, influence networks, or secret societies suggests other kinds of possible affiliation. Contractual relations between firms, or between firms and state agencies (defence contractors, financial partners, etc.) are also considered significant. So far, detailed notes about each actor have not been kept; however, sources are generally given whenever descriptive texts appear. Critiques of the accuracy of specific date, suggestions as to more extensive or reliable sources, and references to theoretical overviews would all be very constructive.

Pictographs and Relations

In the maps, schematic icons completed with proper names have been used to establish categories of actors, and to distinguish within those categories. The establishment of these categories is one of the strong points of the entire mapping endeavour, as it points to the major functional categories of global economics and governance, and allows the reader to begin isolating specific actors and situating their relations. Examples of categories include: money manager, public pension fund, bank, industrial firm, media firm, satellite fleet, professional lobby, influence network, brand-image management company, think tank, state, international public organization, secret service, individual or family. These categories have not been firmly established and are sometimes subdivided for greater precision. In maps dealing with a particular area of activity (e.g. media firms, the prison-industrial complex) they are accompanied by pictographs indicating specific technologies or products. In the "European Norms" map an attempt was made to identify the codifiers of norms and standards, with an analytic division into productive (i.e. technical) standards, norms of territorial cohesion, ideological norms and epistemological norms (or truth criteria).

The most obvious relations between the entities represented by the pictographs are relations of ownership, indicated by lines with arrows from owner to owned, as well as percentages of ownership share. However, ownership share does not necessarily correspond to voting power, which is often greater than the size of the share would suggest. Relations of "affiliation," "cooperation" or "strong affiliation" are indicated by lines of varying format or thickness. Zones are delineated through the use of colour, either to isolate a group of more influential actors, or to indicate state programs or specific areas of productive activity. Perhaps most effectively, short texts, culled either from the promotional materials of the actors themselves or from critical studies on them, are used to describe the specific type of activity being carried out. Critiques of the categories employed, suggestions for new categories and for more detailed ways of expressing relations would be welcome.

Visual Style and Legibility

The maps are admittedly overcharged with information and the texts are hard to read. For these reasons many people have suggested that a computer database with a well-designed interface would be more useful, and would allow people to visualize particular actors and relations in specific areas of interest. The existence of an online database would also facilitate collaboration and contribute to the verifiability of the research work. This is a very interesting prospect, which could only be realised with specialised collaboration. However, there are at least two positive things about distributing paper maps to people in the streets. The first is that the overabundance of information creates a kind of shock that can easily become an active curiosity, a desire to compare the names and relations figured on the printed page with knowledge garnered from other sources or indeed from daily life. Second, the maps clearly display the ambition to achieve a synoptic vision of contemporary capitalism from below: and this ambition directly counters the ideological message that comprehension and critique are impossible for the average citizen, "there is no alternative," etc. At the same time, the graphic forms convey emotional attitudes and dispositions, for instance, by opposing the rigid, hierarchical structures of capitalism to the much looser, more organic-looking patterns of resistance movements. The artistic challenge of rendering the virtualities of these movements, their potential connections and collaborations, is one of the most important.

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