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Pleading Clemency for Pierre Bourdieu's Impending Capital Punishment

Pleading Clemency for Pierre Bourdieu's Impending Capital Punishment

Okay, Bourdieu may misuse the word "capital," but his work remains invaluable for better understanding class stratification and its influence on culture

Earlier this year Malcolm Harris, the self-identifying Marxist author of Palo Alto and Kids These Days, announced on Twitter: “I am going to murder Pierre Bourdieu.” This imminent threat didn't seem to faze Bourdieu, who has the advantage of being extremely dead since 2002. Also, Harris is not actually homicide-curious but simply frustrated with a specific aspect of the French sociologist's work: “Letting Bourdieu get away with turning ‘capital’ into a synonym for ‘status’ or ‘clout’ was one of the wildest things sociologists ever did.”

A bit of background is required to explain this beef. Bourdieu coined two widely used terms: (1) social capital: one’s connections to high-status people, (2) cultural capital: one’s subconscious familiarity with or conscious knowledge of the cultural conventions within high-status communities. Bourdieu means "capital" here as "properties capable of conferring strength, power and consequently profit on their holder." His point is that being situated in the upper class is not just about having more money but provides a wide range of social advantages, from a powerful network of rich peers to knowing how to interact with them in a natural way. The confluence of all these "capitals" is what crystallizes class stratification.

But Harris rejects Bourdieu's use of the word "capital," because it doesn't conform to how Karl Marx used it. As sociologist Mathieu Hikaru Desan explains in his paper “Bourdieu, Marx, and Capital: A Critique of the Extension Model,” Karl Marx means "capital" not as "machines and money and stuff" but the control of social relations allowing for the extraction of surplus profit from labor. At a textile mill, capitalists aren’t capitalists just because they own the looms and pay rent for the building and hire the workers, but because they can capture the excess profit from the labor’s toil.

I am sympathetic to this critique on the grounds that social scientists often do an annoying thing where they use different words for the same concept or the same word for different concepts. And on this particular point, Harris is correct: Bourdieu's social capital and cultural capital have nothing to do with Marxian capital. I'll also add an additional critique: by calling certain social advantages "capital," Bourdieu gives the impression that having an Ivy League degree is just as valuable as owning a copper ore mine in Chile. While Bourdieu sometime claimed that "symbolic profits" from cultural capital can be "convertible" into economic profit, actual capital (in a Marxian sense) is ultimately what determines an individual’s position within the dominant class. Social connections and cultural competence are often correlated with economic assets, but they are subsidiaries — not substitutes. Admittedly, I used Bourdieu’s terms in Status and Culture when describing the specific criteria that afford us higher status, but in hindsight, I’d be more comfortable calling these particular assets social connections and cultural competence. They are real advantages but they are not Marxian capital.

All of this said, this debate about Bourdieu's dubious use of "capital" misdirects us from the actual value of his work. Karl Marx got us thinking about the world through the lens of class struggle, but he left us with an overly simple binary between capital and labor that has become more complicated as the economy moves away from raw industrial commodity production. Marx's work is especially inert for contemporary social analysis around cultural practices, where we need better insight into full spectrum of social stratification.

Bourdieu's social capital and cultural capital may not be Marxian capital, but they can easily explain the schisms within the dominant class: namely, between New Money (who have access to capital, but no knowledge of how to behave in affluent communities) and Old Money (who have access to capital, deep social connections, and ingrained cultural competence.) Lumping them together as "capitalists" is unhelpful in cultural analysis, because both produce their own distinct aesthetic universes: i.e. New Money flash, Old Money subtlety. Karl Marx also died before the rise of knowledge workers and the white collar managerial class, and there has been a long debate about where they fit in the binary of capitalists and labor. Bourdieu's idea of educational credentials and cultural competence are useful for understanding this group's rise in post-industrial capitalism — and their overall effect on our culture.

Moreover, Bourdieu's interests are ultimately at home in cultural studies not in political economy. His most famous book, Distinction, is a critique of Immanuel Kant’s ideas around “disinterested” aesthetic judgements. Bourdieu shows that arbitrary cultural practices become "correct" within social structures. This book alone provided the core theoretical underpinnings that have helped us achieve liberation from the high-low culture binary that once dominated artistic appreciation.

But any non-Marxian analysis of class seems to annoy Malcolm Harris: “Fucking Bourdieu, man. Brought class analysis to people with zero interest in capitalism as a historical mode of production.” I guess he would double-murder Max Weber, but Harris here is pointing to a worrying trends where conservatives use Bourdieusian ideas to prove that liberal aesthetics caused the rise of lower middle class white nihilistic fascism. The most famous example is the 2017 David Brooks column “How We Are Ruining America” (“we”!) relaying the time he took a high-school educated “friend” to a fancy sandwich shop and she got so flustered by the words “soppressata, capicollo, and a striata baguette” that they had to flee the restaurant. The general idea here, I suppose, is that Trumpists were open-minded, peace-loving Americans until being so humiliated by knowledge worker “cultural codes” that they had no choice but to roll coal, stockpile AR-15s, and campaign for anti-transgender laws. The issue with this conservative idea, however, is not with Bourdieu but with the chain of causality. The American white lower middle classes have long been grounded in a culture with an anti-elitist, anti-egghead bent. (Just read the Jason Compson IV chapter of The Sound and the Fury, which reads identical to contemporary Trumpist grievance). The difference now is that post-industrial capitalism has boosted knowledge workers' dominance over mainstream culture, which intensified the pre-existing anti-knowledge worker pushback. This, of course, is much easier to understand if you read Bourdieu.

There are a lot of reasons to be annoyed with Pierre Bourdieu. His translated prose is extremely long-winded and knotty, and he's often misused in troublesome ways. But if you are interested in the total effects of capitalism on our lived experiences, you should read Bourdieu. And if you want to understand how the dominant class maintains its "cultural hegemony" without simply extrapolating from Marxist dogma, Bourdieu will take you there. But here's the most important thing: You can't murder Bourdieu. Just like Karl Marx, his core concepts already inform how we all look at the world. We can critique his theories and criticize his abusers, but we can't avoid his works' central truths.