Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion

Posts in this series; some of the terms I use are described more fully in these posts.
Trumpian Motion
Negative Responses to Trumpian Motion
Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion
Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion
Notes on Trumpian Motion Series


The driving force behind Trumpian Motion is the economically dominant class. In this post I look for an explanation, using the framework provided by Pierre Bourdieu as described in David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu studies the way social classes reproduce themselves so that the dominated class accepts domination as a fair outcome based on their lack of personal merit;, and the dominant class sees its power as natural and not the result of their birth, selection and grooming. A good example of the latter is that the academically marginal at best W. Bush got into Yale.

Bourdieu describes several kinds of capital, economic, social, cultural, religious and others. The most important is economic capital, and cultural capital is second. Cultural capital is a form of power based on “… verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, information about the school system, and educational credentials…. P. 75.

Swartz offers this summary of Bourdieu’s thinking:

Bourdieu considers conflict to be the fundamental dynamic of all social life. At the heart of all social arrangements is the struggle for power. One of Bourdieu’s key claims is that this struggle is carried out over symbolic as well as material resources. Moreover, it is Bourdieu’s fundamental claim that cultural resources, such as education credentials, have come to function as a kind of capital, and thereby have become a new and distinct source of differentiation in modern societies. P. 136.

The struggles Bourdieu discusses take place in fields. Fields are arenas governed by formal and informal rules of struggle. The field of power has fewer and less clear rules, but it is the most important. P.138. Bourdieu thinks economic capital is engaged in a struggle with cultural capital for domination in the field of power. This field operates as a source of differentiation and ranking in all fields, including political power.

Domination arises from power. The possessors of cultural power (the terms capital and power mean the same thing) have the ability to be dominant in some areas. Thus, artists, physical scientists, social scientists, museum curators, movie-makers, writers, teachers and others possess cultural power. Cultural power includes symbolic power, which controls the way people understand and respond to the social world. Symbolic power manifests itself in all areas of our social lives. I’ll use two examples: our concepts of justice and fairness; and our understanding of the physical universe.

The dominant culture in this country has changed over the last 50 years in the areas of justice and fairness. For example, when Social Security passed, it was designed to give as little as possible to African-Americans, and that was necessary to gain support from Southern Democratic party legislators . That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago (I’m less sure about today). The same thing is true of other forms of discrimination. So, that’s one expression of cultural symbolic power.

The second example of cultural power arises from the hard sciences and technology. Our understanding of the physical universe has increased dramatically, giving rise to huge fortunes and at the same time showing the dangers of the new understandings.

In the US, the cultural elites (those with a lot of cultural power) quit struggling with the economic elites (those with financial assets) and accepted the domination of capitalism. The economic elites largely quit struggling with the cultural elites over almost all matters of justice and fairness, including racism, sexism, and LGBTQ issues.

Economic elites have a mixed record with physical scientists and technology. In general they support it, but in specific instances they attack. For example, we knew from the 1920s on that leaded gasoline was dangerous. The history of getting lead out of gasoline is ugly, as the petroleum and auto industries lied and denied that danger. That opposition was controlled. Industry claimed to use science in its defense, and pretended to rely on their own fraudulent studies and false assertionas about defects in opposition studies.

As our knowledge grew and time passed, there were more and more examples of the free market poisoning the planet and building unsafe products and then lying and denying to cover it up. Just look at seat belts, the Ford Pinto, smog, water pollution, tobacco, other carcinogens, estrogen toxicity, and global warming. The scientists and technicians who study these things have been shouting into the wind about all of them, but industrial giants and their captive organizations fight back with increasing shrillness and personal attacks. With global warming, the attacks have broadened out because the science is so widespread across disciplines, and it now seems that the economic elites don’t care if they wreck the scientific community and discredit scientific methodology.

These attacks would not happen without the implicit assent of the economic elites.

Bourdieu says that economic power requires some other justification for its legitimacy. P. 91. In the Middle Ages that justification came from religion, which linked Monarchs and the aristocracy to divine will. Today it comes from cultural power, and from symbolic power. Or at least, it did before the rise of neoliberalism, a creation of the cultural elites in the field of economics. They purport to have a complete grasp of human nature. They tell the broad public that the market is wonderful and will make everything great. Meanwhile, economists whisper in the ears of the economic elite that they are the natural leaders blessed by the Market; it’s a modern version of Calvinism. Economic elites no longer need the cultural elites to provide legimation, because they are selected by the supreme computer. And so they feel free to attack the holders of cultural capital, to make them the enemy.

And what’s the goal of the rich? As we learn from James Winters and Benjamin Page, the rich have three goals in common:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

They don’t want any interference from anyone, especially the 99%. I’d like to think that there are responsible rich people, but I can’t think of a single example of any of the .01% effectively objecting to any effort of their peers to benefit themselves or the entire group of rich people.

The truce is dead. The economic elites are attacking the cultural elites. The cultural elites ignored the rise of the rich too long, and now lack the capacity to fight back effectively. And that’s why we are suffering from Trumpian Motion. It hides the gluttonous rich behind a wall of noise and fear.

Symbolic Violence In Neoliberalism

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.

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.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Economics in Critical Theory

In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay says that economics was not a central part of Critical Theory, but that several scholars of the Frankfurt School worked in the area. One of the leading economists was Friedrich Pollock, especially after the Institute moved to New York. Like the other scholars of the Institute for Social Research, Pollock was trained in Marxist economics. This school mosttly followed Marx in thinking that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. One of those contradictions was that the aggressive accumulation of capital would impoverish the working class, which would then rise up and lead the revolution.

By the early 1900s, it was obvious that the problem of pauperization of the proletariat was at least partially solved, and capitalism didn’t collapse. The leading Marxist explanation was the rise of what Marxists call “monopoly capitalism”, as taught by the Austrian economist Rudolf Hilferding, discussed here. Classical economics treated the economy as made up of many firms (or, as Marx called them, capitals) each too small to affect prices, and all responding to the demands of buyers.

Unlike the classical economists, however, Marx recognized that such an economy was inherently unstable and impermanent. The way to succeed in a competitive market is to cut costs and expand production, a process which requires incessant accumulation of capital in ever new technological and organizational forms. In Marx’s words: “The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, ceteris paribus, on the productiveness of labor, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller.” Further, the credit system which “begins as a modest helper of accumulation” soon “becomes a new and formidable weapon in the competition in the competitive struggle, and finally it transforms itself into an immense social mechanism for the centralization of capitals” (Marx, 1894, ch. 27).

In this setting, labor itself is a commodity, so that one of the goals of the firm is to drive down wages as low as possible. That was the basis for the assumption that the proletariat would be impoverished: the firm would drive the price of labor to barely enough to support life. The process of capital accumulation in “ever new technological and organizational forms” did occur, as we know from the Gilded Age in the US when trusts and cartels dominated industrial production. That process was eventually slowed down by anti-trust laws and other laws. By the 1970s, antitrust enforcement came under assault, and today we see the results in our own oligopoly.

Monopoly capitalism has its own contradictions. In theory, there is no limit to cartelization, but in practice, there are limits. Technological change is a major force, and occasionally democratic processes interfere with the actions of capital. Another major force is the general distrust of large firms that was common in the early 20th Century, but that seems less of a factor today.

Based on the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Russia Pollock thought that monopoly capitalism had reached its limits. Pollock saw Soviet Communism and German fascism as a new form of capitalism, State Capitalism. In both countries, the new regime preserved the forms of private property, but in effect all production was organized to carry out the aims of the central government. The profit motive was subordinated; instead the productive processes was organized to achieve dominance over the population. The state was controlled by a mixture of party members and bureaucrats in Russia, and by the party and a group corporate executives and rich people in Germany. Pollock argued that this was the future of capitalism.

In the US, he might have seen some elements of state capitalism in the following: a) the use of central planning, as in the National Recovery Act: b) the encouragement of technological innovation; c) the use of central banks both to stabilize and direct capital deployment; d) a form of job guarantee, as in the Civilian Conservation Corps; and e) a large and growing military sector. These trends in the US were baby steps compared with Russia and the Axis Powers, but they were real changes.

The Frankfurt School was right about the movement towards monopoly and oligopoly, and it was right about the increasing involvement of the State in this process. They were wrong to think that capitalism would turn into State Capitalism at least in the US and Europe, but in other parts of the world there are forms of the new regime. It’s important to note that not only were they right, but right for the right reasons. Here’s a discussion of the contradictions of capitalism from the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics that shows the way this happens.

Critical Theory rejected the idea of economic determinism which was characteristic of orthodox Marxists. The Frankfurt School saw economics relations as one aspect of human behavior along with all the different interests and concerns people might have. They rejected the idea that economic relations were determinative of human behavior and therefore of the future, according to Martin Jay.

Pollack wrote that the profit motive “… had always been a variant of the power motive.” P. 155. The power motive drove towards dominance over nature, and because humans are part of nature, it included the drive to dominate other humans. The theory that the fundamental problem with capitalism is that the profit motive becomes entwined with the drive to dominate became a central focus of Critical Theory. They saw its effect in culture and academia. All knowledge becomes instrumental, only useful or even pursued if it can be used in capital accumulation. They argued that nature becomes invisible. The natural world is only useful for its resources, not because humans are part of nature, or because its beauty and terror contribute to our lives. Other human beings become objects, not agents in their pursuit of their own interests. The Frankfurt School was right about dominance, too.