The solutionist ethic and the spirit of digital capitalism

Oliver Nachtwey & Timo Seidl (2020)

Working paper. SocArXiv Papers

Abstract. Why do tech elites believe they are the world’s greatest do-gooders and why does it matter what they say and (claim to) think? In this paper, we use the concept of the capitalist spirit to shed light on the ways in which normative beliefs inform and justify the business models of tech companies. We first reconstruct, systematize and operationalize the concept of spirit of capitalism. We then argue that solutionist ideas have become central to the (self-)image of today’s tech companies. Solutionism refers to the idea that the use of technologies is the royal road to fixing social problems, and that one can therefore get rich while making the world a better place. We use a classification algorithm trained on hand-coded documents to empirically trace the relative importance of solutionist vis-à-vis other normative beliefs in three novel text corpora. We find that solutionist ideas are indeed central to the worldview of tech elites, and that they are also gaining ground in the broader tech milieu, although not yet in capitalist discourse at large. Finally, we theorize and illustrate the motivating, legitimizing, and orienting role of the capitalist spirit. In doing so, we contribute – conceptually, theoretically, and empirically – to the budding debates on the moral embeddedness of economic action and on the nature and trajectory of digital capitalism.

Extract. “Almost a century later, the concept of the capitalist spirit was picked up by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in their book The New Spirit of Capitalism (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007; Du Gay and Morgan 2013). Building on Weber’s idea that “people need powerful moral reasons for rallying to capitalism”, they define the spirit of capitalism as an “ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007, 8–9). While a “minimal argument in terms of compulsory submission to economic laws” might be “a motive for staying in a job” it isn’t one “for getting involved in it” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007, 8). To really mobilize people – and to defend itself against its critics – capitalism needs “to draw upon resources external to it, beliefs which, at a given moment in time, possess considerable powers of persuasion” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007, 20).

Link to SocArXiv Papers