Symbolic Violence In Neoliberalism

Edited to provide an index to posts in this series.
On Pierre Bourdieu Part 1: Vocabulary
On Pierre Courdieu Part 2: Systems of Domination
On Pierre Bourdieu Part 3: Habitus
The Political Gift Economy
On Pierre Bourdieu Part 4: Symbolic Capital
Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism
Symbolic Violence In Politics

This post describes the term symbolic violence as used by Pierre Bourdieu as “… the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms.“ This means that some people have the ability to impose their own preferred ideology on the rest of us. We can think of ideology as a discourse or as a structure like myth or religion. This all seems abstract, so I’ll try to put it in terms of our own society by looking at the rise to dominance of neoliberalism.

By the 1960s working people as a group had achieved a measure of power in the economy. Most white men could find decent jobs with benefits and live a decent middle class life, and some women and people of color could too. And the arc of justice seemed to be bending towards the latter two groups.

But it all ebbed away, as neoliberalism rose to dominance. In Bourdieu’s terms, neoliberalism is a symbolic structure. Like myth or religion, it offers a way to comprehend society, the way the way the economy works, and one’s place in society. It is a denied structure, in that most of the people who are guided by it do not even admit it exists, or that there is any other way to understand society. Because it is a denied structure, both the dominant and the dominated accept its premises and its results without question.

Symbolic systems do not spring into existence. They are the result of a great deal of work by people Bourdieu calls cultural producers. This group includes artists, writers, teachers, and journalists, according to David Swartz in in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, p. 94. It also includes experts in various fields, such as economists and lawyers. The first neoliberal producers organized the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, led by Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist whose terror of socialism and Keynesianism was the driving force. Over the next years, money flowed to the Society and more importantly to its members to fund research and publicity for “free-market” ideas and to the institutions at which they worked. Members used their fund-raising prowess to expand the groups of scholars working out the implications of their free-market ideas and making them more palatable.

In Bouridieu’s terms, these efforts constitute symbolic work, work done to elaborate a symbolic structure. These specialists accumulate economic capital in the form of wages and salaries, and income from books and speeches and otherwise. In Bourdieu’s terms that constitutes an interest. But it is not the only interest driving them.

Bourdieu says besides economic capital people struggle for social and cultural capital in their fields of work. For the economists, that comes in the form of recognition in the field, maybe the John Bates Clark medal, or a good slot at a meeting of the American Economic Association, or publication in a respected journal, or an interesting short-term position at the Fed. This conflict takes place in the field of economics, which has its own informal rules about how the work is to be done and the definition of acceptable areas of discussion and research.

In order to engage in that struggle, young economists must learn the rules of struggle, and learn the specific practices and skills considered necessary to participate. That includes college-level math and statistics, techniques of data-gathering and analysis, and a good understanding of the personalities in their training environment. Over time, aspiring economists develop a personal habitus that helps them succeed. This habitus interacts with the various obstacles and structures in the economic field, and that produces the actions they take, such as the specific research projects and the papers they write and the donors they suck up to. In this way, young economists accumulate the cultural and social capital they need to thrive in their field. Then they can use that capital to accumulate economic capital.

As economics became math-oriented and more controlled by theories of human nature as pleasure-optmizing and pain-avoiding calculating machines, more young economists became inculcated with its practices, and their evolving habitus enabled them to win struggles for cultural and social capital in the economic field. They took over as the initial generation died out. Neoliberal economists became the dominant group. Most politicians followed their lead. Hard-core neoliberal economists sound like Paul Ryan; while many others followed softer lines like “market-based solutions”. The relatively few economists who totally rejected neoliberalism were ignored in the profession and among politicians. And this is central to symbolic violence: the ability to control the bounds of acceptable discussion. Swartz, p. 89.

Rich people, then, did not create the neoliberal structure, a form of symbolic capital. That was the work done by a group Bourdieu calls cultural producers, which includes the economists, other teachers, journalists and PR people, writers, politicians, and journalists. The rich supported those people and encouraged the institutions in which they work through donations, their institutional positions, and in other ways. The rich benefit from their support because the neoliberal symbolic structure rewards them directly and indirectly.

But the best part is that both the cultural producers and the beneficiaries have deniability. Neither group has to take any responsibility for their actions; neither can be held accountable for the damage done by their theories. For example, the economists say they are just following the logic of their field and pursuing knowledge. Journalists say they are repeating what everybody knows. The rich say they are just following the course laid out by the intellectuals and geniuses at great universities and think tanks.

This article in Jacobin is a field study of neoliberal teaching. The anonymous writer joined a job club in Austin for unemployed middle-aged tech workers.

Each week, guest speakers shower the jobless not just with interview advice, but with a fully formed ideology that radically individualizes and normalizes their experience. Every Friday, speakers help douse what could be a tinderbox of collective resistance with a rhetorical fire extinguisher.

But what good is individual resistance? These people need decent jobs, and they can’t find them. Hostility and resentment aren’t going to help them. They are stuck in the neoliberal structure and have no way out, at least in the short term. The system demands acceptance as the price of a life.

Bourdieu uses the term “symbolic violence”, but this is actual psychic violence. It calls for a radical change in the nature of the person, changes that make one less of an agent in one’s life and more of a tool for others. Only the dominant have true agency in the neoliberal structure.

5 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Excellent summary and thoughtful discussion.

    An example of the limits of economic thought comes from Bill Black, who earned his PhD in economics at Michigan; he later earned his law degree in mid-career. He relates being cautioned more than once that too progressive a topic for his dissertation, no matter how well researched and written, might be rejected as out of the mainstream and unworthy of the Michigan imprimatur. I guess that would have put Ha-Joon Chang right out.

    Inculcating the culture is job one for education. Most of us are taught to be good followers and good soldiers. A few, like Bob Bauer (Phillips Exeter, Harvard, UVa Law) are taught to be leaders of men. The caveats, sometimes direct and drilled as catechism, are often unspoken. But in the end, leadership is to be in the interests of white male establishment figures, secret society fellows, those who sit on the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Business Roundtable (like certain country clubs, limited to CEOs).

    Bauer is left of center in that group, but not too left; he was one of Barack Obama’s White House Counsels. But he illustrates the track, as did John J. McCloy and Lewis F. Powell, Jr, in an earlier generation.

    The selection and filtering process, which Barack Obama, for example, survived, if not always obvious, is relentless and lifelong. Bill Black just survived it for a time, as did David Graeber. The latter was controversially denied tenure at Yale, presumably because his teachings were unworthy in the eyes of the donors involved in the selection committee. They didn’t want another Bill Coffin (or C. Wright Mills). Howard Zinn made tenure at BU, but John Silber spent his decades as president trying to drive him out. The Washington revolving door culture, is another example, and depends on such constant filtering.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Thanks, again, Ed.  Good article by Skidelsky.

    The profession, its patrons and policymakers were able to survive the Great Crash in 2007-2009 by pretending they did nothing wrong, that prediction was not an object of their profession.  They and especially the financial “titans” who nearly wrecked the world economy, took the Condi Rice blue pill: “Who could have known?”  In Skidelsky’s more polite language, regarding the Friedmanites and their establishment opponents:

    “So neither school – sect might be the better word – was challenged to re-think first principles.”

    Despite the crash being the hardest economic hit the country had taken since the Great Depression, the economics profession changed not a bit.  It did succeed in what appears to be its first priority: protecting its patrons, who came out on top.  It protected itself and its policymakers, who relied and continue to rely on their “advice”.  It’s as if reality didn’t count at all.  The rest of us?  We’re stuck with the red pill.


  3. matt says:

    Great post, Ed. Monetary power in any interest group will influence the “cultural producers.” That is why medical schools promote drugs and not lifestyle changes… professors’ research that supports use/benefit of drug therapy will receive the grants and be suggested for department chairs. Also, reminds me of the climate change debate, where after Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, any hack scientist could get a huge grant and media appearances just for offering up confounding/misleading data.

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