Getting Radical About Inequality

I’m 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 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.

.. A habitus is an intuitive feel for the social game. It’s 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.

.. Every minute or hour, in ways we’re 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 we have 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 didn’t 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, don’t have a lot of accomplishment to wave about, but they can use snark and sarcasm to demonstrate the superior sensibilities.

.. Sometimes, the loser wins: If you’re 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 Donald Trump is all about. Trump is not much of a policy maven, but he’s a genius at the symbolic warfare Bourdieu described. He’s a genius at upending the social rules and hierarchies that the establishment classes (of both right and left) have used to maintain dominance.

Bourdieu didn’t argue that cultural inequality creates economic inequality, but that it widens and it legitimizes it.

.. 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

.. 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.

.. 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