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The Political Gift Economy

Economies fall into one of several categories: market, barter and gift. In market and barter economies, exchanges are made contemporaneously between the parties, in one case for money and in the other for acceptably equivalent goods or services. In gift economies transfers are made without an explicit agreement for a return, either in the present or the future. These economies rely on honor or shame or some similar non-cash basis that creates an obligation for the donee to provide something of equivalent or greater value to the donor at some other time. Bourdieu studied a gift economy in his early field research. He observed that exchanges are driven by self-interest like any other transaction. According to David Swartz in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, Bourdieu says that these practices would not occur if people saw them as motivated by personal interest.

“The operation of gift exchange,” for example, “presupposes (individual and collective) misrecognition (meconnaissance) of the reality of the objective ‘mechanism’ of the exchange.” P. 91.

Isn’t this a perfect description of our legislative economy? Politicians and their staffers do favors for rich people. That translates to giving gifts to rich people, gifts that only governemnt can give such as favorable laws and regulations, litigation positions, and choices not to prosecute. Politicians and staff do not see themselves as self-interested, and do not have enforceable expectations of a return. The rich do not see themselves as doing anything wrong. They don’t make a promise of any return of the gift, and there is nothing to force them to do so.

Then, when government officials retire, the rich give them lavish gifts , meaningless jobs, exorbitant speaking fees, positions in the non-profit sector. These gifts are justified on other grounds, such as expertise or influence. But they are still gifts.

Each side hides the reality of the situation from themselves and from their opposite numbers, and from the public. The task of hiding reality falls to third parties, mostly lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations firms, and a cadre of people labeled as scholars or experts. The lobbyists and lawyers come up with fake justifications for the favored policies. The scholars create rationales that fit some version of the conventional wisdom. The PR teams translate those into pretty words. These are fed to donors and staffers and the politicians who mouth them to the public as their positions and justifications.

The rich people get to pretend, and may even believe, they are doing the right thing, because after all their experts support them. The legislators and staffers get to pretend, and may even believe, that they are acting in the public interest. The media report these lines as if they constituted genuine public discourse. In so doing, the media helps conceal the gift economy from the public. And the courts pretend this is normal. There is no quid pro quo by definition, so therefore there is nothing illegal.

The whole thing depends on the misrecognition of what’s happening. The people who see through it, and there are plenty, are either attacked as naïve or stupid, or completely ignored.

Bourdieu says that the role of the sociologist is to detect the underlying principles of this kind of economy through statistical analysis. Maybe it’s time for someone to apply his ideas, or similar frameworks from other fields, to look at this form of corruption. Until then, we have an explanation for how people avert their eyes from Zephyr Teachout’s principle that corruption is the use of public position for private gain.

On Pierre Bourdieu Part 3: Habitus

The text for this series is David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says that Bourdieu extends concepts from economics to sociology. Bourdieu writes about various forms of capital the individual might have, and the interests that drive the individual in the pursuit of capital and its use. Capital comes in material forms, as economic resources, as well as symbolic forms, as social capital, cultural capital, religious capital. Bourdieu says that these are recognized as capital when they are “…objects of struggle as valued resources.” P. 43.

Interests are “… defined practically as whatever motivates or drives action toward consequences that matter“. P. 71. Swartz says that for Bourdieu seems the critical interests are obtaining power and wealth, which probably explains the use of economic models. Elsewhere Swartz says that Bourdieu’s framework seems less useful for analyzing the working class or the underclass. P. 82. That makes sense, because the concerns of a large part of society don’t involve gaining wealth and power; other concerns are dominant, such as maintaining their existence.

The use of economic modeling raises the specter of rational actor theory and other axioms of neoliberal theory. Bourdier explicitly disavows rational actor theory. He insists that most human action is pre-reflective, dispositional and tacit, rather than consciously planned and strategized to assure optimal outcomes. The definition of interest is similarly vague. These definitions are more like descriptions. They leave open a space at the center of the theory that serves to remind us that as individuals we are largely inscrutable to others, and perhaps even to ourselves. It also leaves a space for surprise, for the generation of new behaviors by the self. The point of sociological inquiry is to discern regularities in behavior that are invisible even to ourselves, using various forms of observations and different kinds of statistics.

Bourdieu says that just because a scientist can formulate a rule that describes the behavior of a group doesn’t mean that individuals are following a rule. Rather, he says that we follow a practical and informal knowledge that helps us predict which behavior might produce the desired results. Again, that leaves from for individual agency.

Bourdieu says that people form ideas of the way society works and the way they fit into society beginning at a very early age from their families, their friends and their surroundings including people and events. These experiences are internalized, and become the basis through which people understand the world and their own potential. This practical sense of position and possibility is called habitus. Habitus is “the product of class situations, not their cause.”

Habitus, then, represents a sort of deep-structuring cultural matrix that generates self-fulfilling prophecies according to different class opportunities. And Bourdieu’s “cultural” explanation of unequal educational attainment differs from the blaming-the-victim version of culture-of-poverty arguments in emphasizing individuals’ adaptation to limited opportunities rather than the cultural origins of deviant behavior. It shows how structural disadvantages can be internalized into relatively durable dispositions that can be transmitted intergenerationally through socialization and produce forms of self-defeating behavior. P. 104.

This unconscious socialization of the individual turns into an acceptance of the power structures confronted by the individual. It seems natural, so that neither the dominated nor the dominant feel cheated or privileged. It affects the sense of possibilities and establishes the limits of aspiration, and thus limits the scope of actions that seem plausible to each individual. In other words, it cements class relations.

As I was reading, I got the impression that Bourdieu used habitus to make predictions about how people would behave. I don’t think that’s right. Instead, it appears that the point of the concept is to describe how people come to accept the status quo. They learn from experience what results are likely from particular actions, and they internalize the results of those experiences as the world they live in, the world that sets the parameters for the success or failure of their actions. Kids learn beginning at birth what actions produce favorable outcomes, and which produce bad outcomes. They aren’t thinking, these are concrete experiences, not processed by a thinking mind. The learning is pre-reflective, that is, people aren’t even aware that they are learning, because they aren’t able to think about or to understand what is happening. They only see that it is happening, and they think that’s the way things are and will be.

Changing one’s habitus is difficult. Swartz says that change occurs only when the strategies are applied in new situations and they produce unexpected results. In such cases there can be a gradual adjustment to the new circumstances. Action requires some use of capital, mostly social, cultural or economic. People are reluctant to make use of their capital unless they think there is a reasonable chance of success, won’t make such use if the outcome is uncertain. That assessment arises from habitus, which limits the exposure to new situations. As an example, Swartz cites the results of changes in the French education system after WWII. Middle class people were more likely to take advantage than members of the working class who were inclined to “know their place”.

So far I haven’t seen discussion of things done strictly for pleasure. For example, in the discussions of cultural and social capital, there is no mention of the fact that both can be enjoyed purely on their own, without regard to the possible gain of wealth or power. Similarly, there is no discussion of religious behavior as personally rewarding, and there is no discussion of altruism. This is an interesting gap, in part because personal pleasure is an important concern to the Frankfurt School. I wonder whether the omission will be cured later in the book, or whether maybe this is a result of the use of the economic model of competition for scarce resources that frames Bourdieu’s thinking.

On Pierre Bourdieu Part 2: Systems of Domination

The text for this series is David Swartz’ book, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says that the central focus of Bourdieu’s work is how in a given culture the systems of domination reproduce themselves in such a way that it seems natural and obvious, so that there is no resistance and so that neither the beneficiaries nor the non-dominant people recognize the forces at work. The hope is that understanding the way these systems operate will give us a chance to affect change that benefits them even if there is a loss to the dominant elites. The need for this should be quite obvious as we watch elites in the US, the UK and other more or less democratic nations slowly drive us to collapse while authoritarian governments survive. Change is not without its own dangers, of course.

Swartz opens with this sentence:

Culture provides the very grounds for human communication and interaction; it is also a source of domination. P. 1.

As an example, Bourdieu spent a lot of energy studying the education sector. He himself was an outsider, born in 1930 to a working class family in a small town in southwestern France. He began his studies in rural schools and only at the age of 19 did he move to Paris to continue his studies, first in a prestigious Lycée and then at the top French school, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he studied with and under many of the leading French intellectuals of the day. Although some of his fellow students were from similar backgrounds, including Michel Foucault, most were upper class Parisians. This no doubt gave impetus to his study of the way French intellectuals reproduce their dominance across generations. Swartz explains:

Educational institutions secure partial autonomy from political intervention and economic constraints by establishing their own criteria for legitimation and by recruiting and training their own personnel—that is, by securing control over their own reproduction. P. 77.

This should be obvious. Academia has been reproducing itself this way since it began, and it seems logical and natural that new teachers would begin by learning from experienced and knowledgeable teachers. But it is far from universal, we in the US are in danger of treating it as a factoid, a given, and taking it in isolation. If we did that, we might add the fact that people like to hire people who are like them, so we would draw the conclusion that this is a problem because it tends to exclude people who aren’t like existing teachers in some unacceptable way, such as gender or skin color. Or we might say that it is good because it removes the government from the academy regardless of whatever flaws there might be.

Bourdieu embeds the fact in a theory. The theory is that society is organized to reproduce itself in a natural and unthreatening way, so that members of society, elites and others, don’t see the machine at work and are strongly inclined to accept things as they are. When we see it this way, we ask different questions. For example, we see clearly how legacy admissions to elite universities serve the goal of perpetuating the domination of the elites. Their children get an edge that is invisible to most people; only the smart kid from Enid OK who didn’t get into Yale sees it, and people write her off as bitter. Then legacies get an edge in taking power in government, corporations and other sectors, including education.

A 2011 survey of 30 top universities found that legacies had a 45% greater chance of admissions that non-legacies. Even when legacies are reasonably competent compared to the other applicants, this advantage is a natural way to recreate the dominance of the existing elites. I don’t doubt that Chelsea Clinton is bright, though obviously Jared Kushner is a tougher call. The point is that Clinton and Kushner are certain to reproduce the attitudes and politics of their parents. Their slots at Stanford and Harvard did not go to equally qualified people from non-elite backgrounds, and the same is true of all the slots that went to the legacies. On the other hand, I’m just sure both Clinton and Kushner see themselves as hard-working meritocrats, succeeding because they are special.

But that isn’t all we can see. The elites don’t like the idea that they don’t get to influence academia. They intend to deploy their wealth as they see fit (the link is to my post on oligarchy in democracy, and may be of interest for further links), and aren’t interested in hearing from the rest of us; they don’t want democratic control of anything. Thus we get charter schools that can easily be used to teach kids that society is organized to facilitate the capitalist mode of production and that joyful participation is the way to succeed in life. If you don’t succeed in this way, you are a loser who deserves to suffer. If this schooling is successful, the profits and losses are irrelevant to the rich.

The rich have led the way in bringing business methods into the university. Today the focus is on job-oriented education as a replacement for liberal arts, in other words on vocational training instead of learning to think clearly and objectively. Education, if that’s the word, becomes a consumer object, with the student as consumer. As in business, the goal is to drive down the costs of labor, hence the use of miserably-paid and abused adjuncts. Meanwhile endowments grow repulsively big. We can easily see Yale and Harvard as hedge funds with a few attached schoolrooms, dorms and gyms.

But Bourdieu’s question is merely the apex of a framework. There is a broader and deeper analysis of society that establishes the framework, and makes it easier to apply to a wider range of strategies and rationalities supporting the central point, that societies and especially elites are organized to reproduce themselves and their dominance as covertly as possible. The carceral state is the tool for dealing with the dissidents and the non-conformists.