Notes on Boltanski and Esquerre’s Enrichment

Boltanski and Esquerre’s Enrichment is the first book that adequately describes the specific economic shifts I lived through in Northern California in the late 20C. It goes further than marking the rise of services as such, and that’s what interests me.

It’s easier to see this in their case study of the enrichment economy than in their categories: declining agricultural revenues, rise in tourism, heritage creation, high end gastronomy, new narratives about the past, and the creation of ancestral/local manufacturing.

All of these can be seen in different forms in Sonoma and Napa counties: agricultural production declines through 1970s, shifting toward wine in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s alongside the development of wine tourism and high-end restaurants (e.g., the French Laundry).

All of this gets ported through new narratives of the past. These are distinct from those in France but no less false in terms of their history. Sonoma remade itself as wine country by playing up its minor history as a wine producer and intensifying production in the present. The introduction of the language of terroir and of biodynamic techniques play into this ancient past/future narrative. Even the renovation of the built environment to elide any design elements of the recent past for those of an older history and a contemporary present nicely captures what happened to Sonoma during the 1990s.

The area also sees a strange explosion of high/low commodification of the region. On the one hand, it gets attached to commodified food. “Sonoma” and “Napa” appear on a variety of commercially available foodstuffs, usually marketed as slightly more expensive, kinda-sorta-gourmet. It is used to sell kitsch housewares and so on. On the other hand, it becomes a byword marking a more expensive tourist experience, one that runs the gamut from bus trips and wine trains to high end hotels and private wine tastings.

I have a harder time connecting the area to what B&E describe as new traditions of regional production. People don’t go to Sonoma to buy knives. But the creation of regional food cultures is without a doubt part of this movement. Even the Healdsburg Guitar Festival could be folded into this kind of development.

Does this capture everything happening economically in the north bay? No. But it does describe a concerted shift in economic development in certain regions which coincides with the so-called neoliberal era.

What’s interesting is the focus that B&E place on patrimony’s role in this turn to enrichment. This builds from Piketty’s work and Boltanski’s earlier focus on the role managerial cadres as a new waged bourgeoisie. What’s unique in the enrichment turn is the relaunching of objects accrued over time as new commodities. The valorization of the past through material objects can only be accomplished by those who have had the means to accrue those past objects. Importantly, not just any objects can work in these forms of valorization. They must be objects that properly signify past-ness, which are capable of being valorized as heritage/traditional production.

People with access to these objects are not just the wealthy. The shift here that is of great importance is the rise of an upper middle-class of patrimonial capital. Managerial wages and wealth passes across generations and allows the accumulation of the right kind of objects for enrichment valorization.

Some might see this as the increased economic power of the PMC. That’s not entirely wrong, as the people that Ehrenreich wrote about as the PMC all those years ago would be the right generation of managerial workers who could accrue wages and turn them to this use. However, it would be worthless to attach the PMC to the enrichment economy as such because it does not adequately describe managerial class formation. (I think it might serve as a useful historically located term for a particular generational cohort of workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but that’s a hunch, not a certainty.)

A better analysis would connect this to Erik Olin Wright’s analysis of class formation and organizational assets. Those workers with a high command of organizational assets receive the highest wages and are most likely to turn those wages into patrimonial capital.

What might that tell us about labor practices and enrichment economies? It suggests that we’re going to see the pervasive effect of particular managerial ideologies about work, labor, and self-realization. That we’re going to see an aversion to unionization and collective efforts. That we’re going to see an increased emphasis on project-based work. That all of this will be linked to our supposed care for 1) our work, 2) ourselves, 3) our community, and 4) our history.

It also tells us a great deal about how enrichment economies treat people who B&E describe as “losers” and “servants,” that is, people without access to valorizable objects or communities and narratives that are open to the kinds of valorization that enrichment economies privilege. It is a service economy that wishes to evacuate itself of self-knowledge. The work of service is of no interest to an enrichment economy because valorization focuses on secondary objects. Labor does not add value, or so it seems. B&E describe labor as preserving value, either by preserving the object or allowing its continued circulation.

I think their discussion vastly underplays the role of labor. If the value of an object cannot be realized without labor, then labor is intrinsic to its valorization. Their offhand suggestion that valorization is disproportionate to the amount of labor is also unpersuasive because it directly translates surplus value into profit. That’s not how it works in Marx. Profit is the irrational social division of surplus value by capitalists, not a direct correlation with the production of surplus value in the production process. My sense is that the enrichment economy allows capital to divide the social surplus in ways necessitated by the massive accumulation of capital and the continued fall in the rate of profit for standard commodities.

Nonetheless, what B&E describe is a recognizable part of the twenty-first century economy, and one that is vastly more complex in its effects and operation than I’ve found in other analyses of neoliberalism or late capitalism or whatever we are in now. They would say this is still capitalism, but it is clearly a capitalism undergoing significant changes. Bringing this analysis into contact with Wark’s discussion of the vectorialist class would suggest we’re seeing the emergence of a number of distinct modes of valorization and accumulation. Whatever we call it, we can be sure it isn’t nineteenth-century capitalism anymore.