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Pierre Bourdieu and ATTAC

by Norman Madarasz


Distinguished French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, succumbed to illness on Wednesday January 23. He was 71. Bourdieu held the chair of sociology at the Coll?ge de France, the highest instance of independent French research, where he had been teaching since 1982. Author of some 25 books, he also founded the leading sociological journal, “Actes de la recherche scientifique” in 1975.

Part of the generation of thinkers called poststructuralist in Anglo-American countries, Bourdieu revolutionized sociology by creating an alternate set of categories whose task was to bring object status to symbolic systems. He sought to accomplish such a move without, for all that, reducing the contents of symbols to merely functional tags in a vastly deterministic system. In Bourdieu’s perspective, society and power are not only crossed by class struggle or through imposition of the ruling class’ hegemonic will to representation. Instead, the struggle for power in the context of social regeneration seeps into the complete symbolic systems that marshal integration into institutions, media and interpersonal relations.

Nor did his work on symbolic systems ever decline on naming names. His analyses spread over distinguished institutions of French culture such as the Ecole National de l’Administration (a rough equivalent to Harvard Business School in the US), as it does to French farming culture, as well as the media. 1995’s “On Television” represents one of the pivotal works in transforming analysis based on symbolic systems. Away from the open-ended semiotics of Roland Barthes, or the ‘terrorist’ aesthetics of the situationists, “On Television” is undaunted in its portrayal of gagged journalists, pundits and other functionaries as a trickle-down effect from the concentration of media resources in a handful of major conglomerates.

Bourdieu’s early work dealt with a type of ethnological research that explicitly restored dialogue and category sharing with French structuralist philosophy, thereby countering the work of Claude L?vi-Strauss’ scientific ethnology. Despite the category sharing, Bourdieu, a devoted rationalist, joins numerous French philosophers to reject the poststructuralist, not to mention postmodernist, appellation imposed on his work as if to shrink its timber and scope.

Above all, Bourdieu’s work has always been committed to a radical study of society-in Marx’s sense of taking it ‘by the root’. In 1993, he published “La Mis?re du Monde” (translated in 1999 as “The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Societies”), a collective work in which theoretical analysis from researchers shares time and space with their subjects’ self-analyses. Masterfully edited, the book is one of the few to have shown the particles playing off each other in the void otherwise separating academia from the poorest reaches of society. Turning sociology toward its own foundations and interests as an academic institution is the stimuli peeling it open to a scientific study of its reflexive parti pris and compromises. The theme of his last seminar was Pierre Bourdieu himself: a reflexive analysis of the institutional beams bolstering his discourse and allowing it to stand. But the ambiguity-and vulnerability-of the intellectual in France ended up passing on its flame to him in 1995. The most important general strike affecting the public sector since the seventies had ground France to a halt for a week and a half. Bourdieu took the podium at the Gare de Lyon, honoring the workers of the French national train service, the SNCF, who stood up against the plan to privatize the rails. A risky proposal for any intellectual, Bourdieu was applauded throughout by those who sparked the flame leading to the resignation of prime-minister Alain Jupp?, a leading French advocate of the neo-liberal shift that swept the wealthy G7 countries and beyond in the 1990s .

Bourdieu went on to rally a political stream he called the “gauche de la gauche”, the left of the left. This was a French precursor to the anti-globalization movement. From its inception, his idea was derided by intellectuals close to France’s RPR, the right-of-center party of Jupp? and current president Chirac. But Bourdieu’s ideas were far more threatening to France’s traditional and institutional PS, socialist party. His legacy on the political platform will, doubtless, be felt most strongly in the movement he has helped to create from among PS renegades and other radicals: ATTAC.

The central line of Bourdieu’s political and economic analyses treats the revolts of the late 1960s as demands being waged by the middle-class toward increased democratic power. Spearheaded by the student movement, it was most often driven into violence by the State-a situation not unlike what has befallen the anti-globalization movement since Seattle. Still, in Bourdieu’s view the pressure on the 1960s social structure, matched with the unseen prosperity in France of the “Glorious thirty years”, aimed at extending middle-class values less into commercial dominance than into political change. Bourdieu’s numerous analyses of the deciding bodies of the G7 economies trace a deliberately applied policy of conservative social and economic channeling at the highest level. These policies were to become the much-vaunted ‘pragmatic’ turn of reaganomics. The illusory growth from the over-inflating stock market, and chanting the triumph of growth in corporate productivity, largely at the expense of massive downsizing, were to have a calculated effect in the shorter than long run. They aimed at spreading fear and insecurity among the over-confident middle-class over wage and labor loss in an economy perceived as chaotic-pitting employee against employee. The trade-off was to be the media promoted illusion of the power of the middle-class buck, reason enough for intellectuals to tow the line by declaring that class struggle was dead, gone-or unfashionable.

This background also provides the underpinnings to Bourdieu’s rejection of the postmodernist label. His attachment to a representation of society as a struggle of symbolic forces largely relies on the conviction that truth is a factor of interpretation and structural recasting. The upshot can be that truth lies at the mercy of the key facts withheld from circulation, undermining the theoretical consistency of analysis that seeks to base truth as the outcome of rightfully connecting the facts like so many dots. Sociological inquiry in the Bourdieu vein, though, rarely shows facts as being withheld per se. They circulate in symbolic networks of partnership and corporations in which the individual wills to speak them are shaped through the collective values they are compelled to repeat.

Bourdieu’s commitment struck a common cord among many intellectuals active in economic and political research, those who have gone on to join ATTAC. Propelled by the independent radical and very serious monthly, ‘Le Monde diplomatique’, ATTAC is represented by the journal’s editors, Ignacio Ramonet and Bernard Cassin, as well as by distinguished author and activist, Susan George. In preparation for the second meeting of the anti-globalization movement in the southern Brazilian town of Porto Allegre, a democratic and peaceful haven in Brazil’s young democracy still battling with oligarchic concentration of power and wealth, ATTAC held a general assembly in Paris on January 19. To its organizers’ surprise, attendance toped 6 000 at a venue otherwise used for pop music concerts.

As the French presidential campaign swings into full steam, ATTAC confronts a situation similar to other critical economic movements. Their lobbying power seems to be greater to what they can achieve as part of a left-alliance. Yet the lobby group configuration does not disappear under headings of a Civil Society Organization. ATTAC, like its counterparts, the Congress of Canadians and Ralph Nader’s Greens, must work to grow before seeking accreditation as a party, at the risk of never hoping to overcome destiny as an alliance member. The ineffective performance of the French environmentalist party, Les Verts, in alliance with the Socialists and Communists, not to mention the drastic deception of Germany’s Green party faced with Chancellor Schroeder’s full-hearted acceptance of the American invasion of Afghanistan, proves the vulnerability of small radical parties to the election route. The prestige of holding office is never reason enough for ideals to be forsaken to the so-called realities of the harsh world.

In the meantime ATTAC continues issuing its low-priced publications at “Mille et une nuits”. In support of a Tobin Tax, it is also lobbying hard to break the client secrecy that has made Lichtenstein, among other countries, a haven for shell-companies, secret bank accounts and money fleeing from public taxation. It is has long been clear that tax haven accounts holding wealth from legal sources have grown indistinct from those holding funds from criminal activities. Contrary to what the media sheepishly like to report, President W. Bush has shown that governments are more than able to influence the operations of tax havens-when there’s a will. This should stand as no surprise: its executive members are most likely their most cherished clients. Which is one of the prime lessons of Pierre Bourdieu’s legacy. In the power struggle waged within symbolic structures, through which the middle-class’s aspiration for increased power has seen itself crushed under the menace of massive poverty, theory has to aim for nourishing the will on its hard path to diminishing and neutralizing interest and gain.

Norman Madarasz is a philosopher based in Montreal and Rio de Janeiro. He has edited and translated Alain Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy, published at State University of New York Press in 1999.

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