Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Acceptance of Class Inequality: Part 2

1.2 Bourdieu and Political Affiliation

“Television has probably contributed as much as bribery to the degradation of civic virtue. It has invited and projected onto the political and intellectual stage a set of self-promoting personalities concerned above all to get themselves noticed and admired, in total contradiction with the values of unspectacular devotion to the collective interests which once characterised the civil servant or the activist” (1998: 4).

Bourdieu on occasion expresses distaste for the politician, the minister, the civil servant, denouncing their motivations as self-promoting or attention seeking. For ministers a demanding issue of the time is validated only when it has been made public – the media being a central protagonist in this process – and is reconciled and achieved through the want of the people. Additionally when a member of a political party elite is embodied within a scandal or form of large scale corruption, “it reveals the gap between professed values and real behaviour [which] is simply the extreme case of all the ordinary little 'weaknesses', the flaunting of luxury and the avid acceptance of material and symbolic privileges” (1998: 4). Within the political theatre all the actors are interchangeable in the sense that they can either be 'hero's' or 'villain’s', indeed one's political narrative may see them rise and fall from grace within numerous periods of their political time-line. If we are to consider politics as a game whereby representatives are elected to serve constituents, competing with one another (more so with those in opposition) then the players become so self-conceited to the extent that the competitive nature of politics is what drives their political careers, then the wider public or 'the people' are in a sense forgotten and ejected from the state. This can lead to the rejection of the state and an undermining of the public’s ability to make intellectual semi-political decisions, the people are asked of “no more than obligatory material contributions, and certainly no commitment, no enthusiasm” (1998: 4-5). The citizen is therefore alienated from the political arena; their ability to vote is used as a means to serve their own interests. This form of alienation not only removes the relationship between the state and the citizen but also forces divisions between individuals of different political standpoint (i.e. between left and right). Indeed this is where the issue of class arises in that the distribution of political point of view and associations lend to the identity of class positions; in the most general sense the poor lean left requiring improvements in social policy and financial aid, and the more affluent to the right calling for tax breaks/cuts and government involvement in and promotion of business and enterprise. Bourdieu asserts that the 'left handed' within society (1998:2) – those in professions such as teaching, social work and nursing – have been abandoned by the state and in fact the state has little concern over what the left hand does as long as it makes contributions, for example, in terms of tax’s.

The contracting of government services to private companies has been a recurring feature of governments since the 1980’s; the same excuse offered that the state can no longer afford to maintain high quality standard of public services. Bourdieu explains, “What is considered as a crisis of politics, [referring to the abandonment of the left-handed] antiparliamentarianism is in reality despair at the failure of the state as the guardian of public interests” (1998: 2). If then the concept of class inequalities is introduced to this perspective – although left and right handedness isn’t as absolute as belonging to a particular class i.e. working or middle –what one finds is a disparity between a class of rulers and a class of nurturers. The inequality between these two groups arises not only in economics and power relations but in the conditions of contrasting ideology and ultimately the moral obligations and objectives put in to practice by each. For example the right-handed’s obsession with the privatisation of public services shifts the emphasis of unconditional care for citizens to an unconditional emphasis on price. In addition, as power can be gained through the control of territory – the conquest of space – and through the increased use of money-capital (2008: 175-6), the state and the private sector can cooperate, instilling ‘mercantilism’ within society. For Weber, in mercantilism, “the state is handled as if it consisted exclusively of capitalistic entrepreneurs” (1981: 347) where profit is a means to an end. On the other hand, the states mercantilist policies can conflict with the interests of private for-profit organisations; this is where the relationship becomes strained. Furthermore, “as long as the world is pacified to the degree necessary for pursuing profits, capitalists place self-interest before statecraft and nationalism” (2008: 176). The irony of this situation being that transnational corporations tend to base primary operations within states with low taxation, yet at the same time still require the state have sufficient resources to maintain social order, a strong economic infrastructure and a high level of human capital. Through the taxation of working people the corporations are protected by the state funded services, as Ingham sates, “in return for their investment in state debt, the capitalist received protection for their ventures and interest payment on their loans… [this] produced capitalist society’s typical social structure of two relatively autonomous but interdependent spheres – state and economy” (2008: 177).

Bourdieu has argued that politics – those actively involved within the political sphere – has achieved recognition of its own class, a result of the set conditions available to those who wish to make a career in party politics (1998: 5). Instead of activism within the ranks of political parties, the aspiration for change has been traded for a sense of economic rationality. The right-handed in society obsess over delivering ‘financial equilibrium’ (ibid) while misunderstanding class inequalities and neglecting the costs of restricted public spending. In this sense class is accepted by both the bottom and the top of the social scale as those at the bottom feel abandoned and without, leading to an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ mentality. There may also be a rejection of the ‘other’s’ culture, the left versus the right, each developing their own unique versions of fairness applicable to all forms of social life. This has a substantial effect on the voting habits of left and right-handed individuals, Bourdieu outlines this behaviour well:

“the distribution of political opinions between right and left should correspond fairly closely to the distribution of classes and class fractions the… propensity to vote on the right increases with the overall volume of the capital possessed and also with the relative weight of economic capital in the capital composition, and the propensity to vote on the left increases in the opposite direction in both cases” (1984, 438).

Bourdieu has authenticated where the fundamental opposition lies between the dominant and the dominated and the importance of the volume of capital each has at its disposal. Also a paradoxical condition where a member of either side may ‘break rank’, and vote with an opposing handedness. For example, artists, intellectuals or teachers socialised within the middle and upper-classes align themselves with those with a low volume of capital and vote leftwards, and lower/working-class individuals who feel betrayed by progressive social programs such as the benefit system and vote on the right; the interpretation of fairness is critical to how individuals identify themselves politically and socially, indeed fairness may even surpass class egotism.

A poignant point made by Bourdieu is what has been called the ‘return to individualism’ which he explains as:

“a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility… The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to ‘blame the victim’, who is entirely responsible for his own misfortune, and to preach the gospel for self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies” (1998: 7).

The right-handed mentality is exclusionary in nature and although politicians on both sides of the political stage will argue for better living conditions for the poor, the actualisation of this ideal seems lost to the confines of a social subconscious. The individual is objectified and remains the product of their own motivation and merit; the conditions that restrain the progress of individuals of lower class positioning are not proportionally represented in political debate, this will remain as long as a merit-market mentality eats away at liberal principles.

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