Getting radical about inequality

I am not in the habit of recommending left-wing French intellectuals, but I'm beginning to think that Pierre Bourdieu is helpful reading in the age of Donald Trump. He was born in 1930, the son of a small-town postal worker.

By the time he died in 2002, he had become perhaps the world's most influential sociologist within the academy, and largely unknown outside of it.

His great subject was the struggle for power in society, especially cultural and social power. We all possess, he argued, certain forms of social capital.

A person might have academic capital (the right degrees from the right schools), linguistic capital (a facility with words), cultural capital (knowledge of cuisine or music or some such) or symbolic capital (awards or markers of prestige).

These are all forms of wealth you take to the social marketplace.

In addition, and more important, we all possess and live within what Bourdieu called a habitus.

A habitus is a body of conscious and tacit knowledge of how to travel through the world, which gives rise to mannerisms, tastes, opinions and conversational style. A habitus is an intuitive feel for the social game. It is the sort of thing you get inculcated with unconsciously, by growing up in a certain sort of family or by sharing a sensibility with a certain group of friends.

For example, in his surveys of French taste, Bourdieu found that manual labourers liked Johann Strauss' The Blue Danube but did not like Johann Sebastian Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier.

People who lived in academic communities, on the other hand, liked the latter but not the former.

Your habitus is what enables you to decode cultural artefacts, to feel comfortable in one setting but maybe not in another. Taste overlaps with social position; taste classifies the classifier.

Every day, Bourdieu argued, we take our stores of social capital and our habitus and we compete in the symbolic marketplace. We vie as individuals and as members of our class for prestige, distinction and, above all, the power of consecration - the power to define for society what is right, what is "natural", what is "best".

The symbolic marketplace is like the commercial marketplace. It is a billion small bids for distinction, prestige, attention and superiority.

Every minute or hour, in ways we are not even conscious of, we as individuals and members of our class are competing for dominance and respect. We seek to topple those who have higher standing than us and we seek to wall off those who are down below.

Or, we seek to take one form of capital, say linguistic ability, and convert it into another kind of capital - a good job.

Most groups conceal their naked power grabs under a veil of intellectual or aesthetic purity.

Bourdieu used the phrase "symbolic violence" to suggest how vicious this competition can get, and he did not even live long enough to get a load of Twitter and other social media.

Different groups and individuals use different social strategies, depending on their position in the field. People at the top, he observed, tend to adopt a reserved and understated personal style that shows they are far above the "assertive, attention-seeking strategies which expose the pretensions of the young pretenders".

People at the bottom of any field, on the other hand, do not have a lot of accomplishments to wave about, but they can use snark and sarcasm to demonstrate superior sensibilities.

Sometimes, the loser wins. If you are setting up a fancy clothing or food shop, you go down and adopt organic and peasant styles in order to establish the superior moral prestige that you can then use to make gobs of money.

Bourdieu helps you understand what Mr Trump is all about.

Mr Trump is not much of a policy maven, but he is a genius at the symbolic warfare Bourdieu described. He is a genius at upending the social rules and hierarchies that the establishment classes (of both right and left) have used to maintain dominance.

Bourdieu did not argue that cultural inequality creates economic inequality, but that it widens and legitimises it.

That is true, but as the information economy has become more enveloping, cultural capital and economic capital have become ever more intertwined. Individuals and classes that are good at winning the cultural competitions Bourdieu described tend to dominate the places where economic opportunity is richest. They tend to harmonise with affluent networks and do well financially.

Moreover, Bourdieu reminds us that the drive to create inequality is an endemic social sin.

Every hour, most of us, unconsciously or not, try to win subtle status points, earn cultural affirmation, develop our tastes, promote our lifestyles and advance our class. All those microbehaviours open up social distances which then open up geographic and economic gaps.

Bourdieu radicalises, widens and deepens one's view of inequality.

His work suggests that the responses to it are going to have to be more profound, both on a personal level - resisting the competitive, ego-driven aspects of social networking and display - and on a national one.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2017, with the headline 'Getting radical about inequality'. Print Edition | Subscribe