Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Politics of Stupidity, or: The Prescience of Pierre Bourdieu



In the last years of his life, Pierre Bourdieu turned with increasing urgency to political questions.  Seeing in globalization an ever-greater concentration of all forms of capital—financial, educational, symbolic, and so forth—he called for a true internationalism, a set of reforms at the European and, ultimately, global level to rein in the forces that would reduce everything to a commodity, and render up all commodities into the hands of the few. Speaking to an audience of students in Berlin in June of 2000, he said a few words about the nature of the emerging global elite that resonate particularly well with today’s grim political picture. Those words go a long way toward explaining the nature of the kind of resentful populism—and in some cases, fascism—that we see rising around us.

He speaks of the unequal distribution of cultural capital, including the kinds of capital (advanced educational degrees, international travel, familiarity with the keywords of prestige fields like economics or the sciences, readership of intellectually challenging books and media, etc.) amassed by the elites of the emerging global economy. To be clear: this is an elite broadly conceived—not merely the 1% we railed against at Occupy, but the professional and managerial classes.  I, and most of those reading likely to be reading this, are members of that class, whether we care to admit it or not.
The ruling class no doubt owes its extraordinary arrogance to the fact that, being endowed with very high cultural capital (most obviously of academic origin, but also nonacademic), it feels perfectly justified in existing as it currently exists… The educational diploma is not merely a mark of academic distinction: it is perceived as a warrant of natural intelligence, of giftedness.  Thus the “new economy” has all the characteristics to appear as the “brave new world.”  It is global and those who dominate it are often international, polyglot, and polycultural (by opposition to the locals, the “national” or “parochial”). It is immaterial or “weightless”: it produces and circulates weightless objects such as information and cultural products.  As a consequence, it can appear as an economy of intelligence, reserved for “intelligent” people (which earns it the sympathy of “hip” journalists and executives).  Sociodicy [the means by which a society justifies itself] here takes the form of a racism of intelligence: today’s poor are not poor, as they were thought to be in the nineteenth century, because they are improvident, spendthrift, intemperate, etc.—by opposition to the “deserving poor”—but because they are dumb, intellectually incapable, idiotic. In short, in academic terms “they got their just deserts”…
There’s a kind of smugness, Bourdieu says, to the widely-held belief among elites that we got here because we’re smart, and others ended up where they are because they’re stupid—a smugness based on an almost willful blindness to the barriers to the development of human capital faced by the majority of the population, and a on a discrediting of forms of knowledge other than those held in esteem by elites.  But so what? Well, there’s this, when Bourdieu continues:
The victims of such a powerful mode of domination… are very deeply damaged in their self-image. And it is no doubt through this mediation that a relationship—most often unnoticed or misunderstood—can be traced between neoliberal politics [the deregulated, financialized, and internationalized world of globalization] and certain fascistoid forms of revolt among those who, feeling excluded from access to intelligence and modernity, are driven to take refuge in the national and nationalism.
Tell people they're stupid—even if it's not spoken except through a thousand micro-aggressions—and they won't forget it.  “America first,” they'll say, or “France for the French,” or "Build the wall!" or “Brexit!” They'll simmer with resentment, feeling that they are looked down on by a worldly elite as nothing more than idiots, or a basket of deplorables.  And here they are, angry to the point of violence, giving us (as Michael Moore put it) "the biggest fuck you in human history." They've been had, of course—preyed on and manipulated by the cynical people who have taken power and seek only their own personal ends. We are right to oppose them, but we would be wrong to say we did not, to some degree, provoke their rage.

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