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What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Conclusion

Posts in this series

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes In The Conditions of Production

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: The Capitalist Celebration

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: I Just Work Here

Related Post

Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism This post describes symbolic structures and cultural producers, sometimes called symbolic workers.


In this series I tried to figure out why the cultural elites didn’t react more strongly to the rise of neoliberalism. When I asked that question in this post I assumed that the cultural elites would see neoliberalism as a threat to their power, especially their ability to reproduce their class without interference because that is the source of their dominance. I got this idea from David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Writing this series has made me question the assumption, and now I think something else happened.

Early in the book, Swartz shows a graph combining economic and cultural capital. The graph indicates that some people hove lots of both, some have lots of one and little of the other, and others have varying amounts of both. The cultural elites might be taken to be the people with the most cultural capital and among them the people with the most economic capital. The justification for this is that as Bourdieu sees it, cultural capital can be exchanged for economic capital, and the people at the top of many cultural fields have done so and become wealthy. The entertainment industry is a good example. University top executives are another good example. It’s less true in some academic fields, but certainly there are many economists who have done so, and people from other fields have too.

In this description, cultural producers are the rest of the people who make a living by employing their cultural capital to create the symbolic structures that people internalize as part of their understanding of society. They are the lower-status academics, lower-ranking employees of the companies that make movies and TV shows, the content producers for newspapers and websites, copy editors and junior ad agency employees, comedy writers for late-night TV shows and sit-coms, most scientists, K-12 teachers and most musicians.

The cultural elites include the top TV and film company executives, top advertising executives, university executives and top editors and publishers of newspapers, and those of similar status in the businesses that produce cultural products. They also include the top individuals who work outside corporations, like top writers, directors, cinematographers, some artists, novelists, scientists and others at the top of their fields. Among this group are the top economists, people like Larry Summers and Gregory Mankiw.

From this perspective, we get to a good explanation for the failure of the cultural elites to oppose neoliberalism. They wound up being winners under the new discourse. They identified their interests with those of the economic elites, not those of the fields that provided them with cultural capital. They used their cultural power to select from the young people in their fields those who supported their views most slavishly, which had the extra benefit of securing and even increasing their wealth. Bluntly, they don’t oppose neoliberalism because they benefit from it.

If cultural producers know what’s good for them, they’ll do the same thing: support the neoliberal project in an attempt to convert their cultural capital into economic capital. That’s particularly true of the younger cultural producers, for the reasons laid out earlier in this series.

There are some groups of cultural producers who can and do safely resist neoliberalism. One group is the people in fields with little potential to convert cultural capital into economic capital, philosophers, musicians and writers, sociologists, anthropologists, and so on. Oh, and content producers who aren’t trying to get rich writing on these subjects.

Another group is those actively trying to replace the current group of cultural elites from the outside, by generating new ideas and theories. One example of this group is the MMT theorists; another is the Open Markets Institute. There are a few film makers, a few TV shows, and even an occasional cable news person who does a bit of resistance.

Finally, there are the young. They are in a good position to see the results of neoliberalism, and may provide the energy needed to move away from the dominant neoliberal discourse. There are new voices in the movies, such as Ava Duvernay, Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), among others, who work with good screenwriters and other film artists. There are others in areas of culture I don’t follow. There are even some new aspiring politicians, many inspired by Bernie Sanders. I guess we can hope.


That concludes my reading of David Swartz’ book. I’m still reading Bourdieu’s Distinctions, but it’s tough going and maybe not of general interest. I’m also reading How Will Capitalism End? By Wolfgang Streeck, a German Economic Sociologist. I’m thinking about making that the next book, but it’s so depressing I could barely find a bit of hope for the last paragraph of this series. We’ll see.

7 replies
    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for the Tooze article.  It’s more a description of Streec’s position on the left of German and Europen politics than a review of the book or a reply to its themes. Most of the crisis of democracy books offer solutions,  which as Jedediah Purdy shows in this essay are weak. It doesn’t look like Streeck offers solutions in this book, but Tooze explains Streeck’s  current thoughts on that issue and dismisses them.

      One advantage of reading European thinkers [Tooze himself is British] is that they aren’t nearly as chauvinistic as US writers, The US writers Purdy describes arare apparently totally focused on the US. Streeck and Tooze look at a much bigger world.

      • Alan says:

        Yes, I think one of the advantages of Tooze, whether one entirely agrees or not with his arguements, is that he attempts to put the big historical events in global economic context e.g. The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. One of the great tragedies he recounts in the latter book is American chauvinism, particularly under Wilson, and the failure to engaged properly with the emerging world order from 1916 onwards. 

        I am curious to see how he puts the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath in global and historical context, when his new book comes out in August.


  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Thanks, Ed. Essential reading. Also enjoy your comments at Naked Capitalism.

  2. matt says:

    Thanks for the series and your insights, Ed.

    Our modern economic system has created wealth beyond what Kings of a century ago could even imagine, yet somehow the economic elites of today feel “entitled” and “deserving” of lions shares of wealth- believing both the myth that “they earned it” and that limitless wealth is available to all people with motivation, a sharp mind, and a decent work ethic.

    I would say that the intellectualism of cultural elites was of a much higher standard 70 years ago, not just because of the neoliberal hijacking of educational institutions since that time, but also because the information/advertising age has diluted the quality and massively increased the quantity of media.  The cultural elites have failed us, because they are no longer reading Bourdieu or your blog posts.

    In every category necessary for sustainability of economies, the environment, and human social structures the dominant leaders of the developed world are failing.  What I hope is that there is a large enough “jolt” to the neoliberal/financial capital/fossil fuel system to allow a pivot or reset into combined systems of capitalism/socialism… but no so large a “jolt” as to cause a catastrophic destruction of human civilization.


  3. lefty665 says:

    Where do professionals, like doctors and lawyers fall in this scenario?  They look like cultural producers, except they arguably have cultural capital that resembles cultural elites. They have certainly been able to exchange their cultural capital for economic capital (although many doctors seem to have precious little sense about money). They are in large firmly entrenched defenders of neoliberalism and have prospered profoundly from it. Same question generally about all those who have prospered through professional skills – the 2-10%. Where do they fit?  They do not seem to neatly qualify as cultural elites, but they are surely much more than mere producers. They have enough altitude and independence to have a good view, but many seem willfully blind to the consequences of their actions.


    • Ed Walker says:

      Interesting question. Lawyers probably divide neatly in accordance with the basic outline: the rich benefit from neoliberalism so they don’t oppose it, and the rest either accept it as the base line and try to protect their clients inside its boundaries, or actively oppose it almost always on a case-by-case basis.

      Few doctors have much cultural capital, and to the extent they do, they are like scientists. Some benefit. The rest either play the game because they do not have the power to change things, or try to oppose it by supporting reform. The latter group have little power. In the doctor business, remember that the real power lies in large corporations, hospitals, pharma, health insurance companies and so on. The average doc has little power.

      In general, doctors and lawyers are not the most important of the cultural elites.

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