Toward a Reflexive Resistance

Andrea Fraser

In this second installment of Artist Writes, we present Andrea Fraser’s essay “Toward a Reflexive Resistance.” Part of X-TRA’s Twentieth Anniversary Programming, Artist Writes is a series of commissioned essays and public programs by four contemporary artists who write: A.L. Steiner, Andrea Fraser, Martine Syms, and Pope.L. X-TRA is publishing their texts serially in Volume 20, and each author will present a corresponding public event in Los Angeles.

Artist Writes is grounded in X-TRA’s mission to provide a platform for artists to define their own terms of engagement and to make meaningful contributions to the fields of criticism and theory. Support for this series has been generously provided by the Michael Asher Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Isambard Kingdom Brunel Society of North America, and Pasadena Art Alliance.
–Shana Lutker


But to indict anti-intellectualism, which is almost always based on ressentiment, does not exempt the intellectual from this critique to which every intellectual can and must submit himself or herself or, in another language, from reflexivity, which is the absolute prerequisite to any political action by intellectuals. The intellectual world must engage in a permanent critique of all the abuse of power or authority committed in the name of intellectual authority.
—Pierre Bourdieu, “For a Scholarship with Commitment” (1999) 1

I have never missed Pierre Bourdieu more, in the fifteen years since his death, than in the months since the 2016 election. I imagine that Bourdieu would be uniquely equipped to make sense of the disastrous and seemingly incomprehensible rise of Donald Trump and the populist Right. As an activist in the struggle against neoliberalism, he would be able to reveal the link between right-wing populism and free-market fundamentalism and show the way to resistance. As a researcher and theorist of the role played by culture and education in social stratification and by symbolic struggles in social contestation, he would be able to uncover the secret of the success of the culture war the Right has waged so effectively. Above all, Bourdieu would be able to apply his “reflexive sociology” to sift through all the representations that have accompanied this global disaster, from the Right to the Left through the Center, not only to parse their relative truths and falsehoods but also to reveal the truth of the social structures and dynamics they enact, producing and reproducing the very world they ostensibly abhor. Reading analyses of the election from the Left to center-Right (I can’t bring myself to read the far-Right press), I am reminded of Bourdieu’s assessment that “neither the ‘sociology of the intellectuals,’ which is traditionally the business of ‘right-wing intellectuals,’ nor the critique of ‘right-wing thought,’ the traditional specialty of ‘left-wing intellectuals,’ is anything more than a series of symbolic struggles” that “tacitly agree in leaving hidden what is essential, namely the structure of objective positions” from which they are waged and on the basis of which they contest their respective representations of the social world.2 Moving beyond these symbolic struggles to effective resistance would require escaping the trap of “mutual lucidity and reflexive blindness” to recognize the complicity between social positions and “position-takings” on the Left as well as the Right;  between social structures and the internalized modes of perception and systems of classification through which they are understood and enacted.3

Many of the positions taken since the 2016 election seem to oppose reflexivity and resistance. I found myself unable to add my name to a statement by feminist scholars circulated shortly after the election and signed by over 1000 women, including Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and many other notable feminist academics and artists. I could agree that “our number one priority is to resist.” I could not agree that “we must also reject calls to compromise, to understand, or to collaborate.”4 I think it is essential to understand Trump and the people who voted for him. I think it is even more essential to understand ourselves, reflexively, and the hidden forms of collaboration and compromise that may contribute to the production of Trump voters, including the rhetoric and representations of anti-Trump constituencies that have been used by Trump and his supporters in the effective mobilization through which they have claimed political power.

“Who are these people who voted for Trump?”

In the opening to her powerful post-election statement, Judith Butler captured what was torturing so many of our minds on November 9. “There are two questions that voters in the US from the left of center are asking themselves: Who are these people who voted for Trump? And why did we not prepare ourselves at all for this conclusion?”5 She answers: “We did not know how widespread anger is against elites, how deep the anger of white men is against feminism and the civil rights movement, how demoralized by economic dispossession many people are, how exhilarated people are by isolationism.” But, she continues, “we are now seeing how misogyny and racism overrides judgment and a commitment to democratic and inclusive goals.” These are the “unleashed hatreds,” “sadistic, resentful, and destructive passions driving our country.”

Butler expressed my own feelings of devastation and fear after the election, while articulating the widespread sense that Trump’s rise was propelled by poor, misogynist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic white men. Indeed, the virulently racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynist views of many Trump supporters have been on parade since before the start of his candidacy. However, in the post-election crunching of exit-polls and other data, the assumption that Trump’s elevation to the White House was driven by these voters quickly broke down. Comparisons between Trump voters in 2016 and Romney voters in 2012 found that Trump polled no better (and according to some, slightly worse) among white voters than Obama did in 2012. Even more surprising, Trump did better than Romney among Black, Latino, and Asian voters by 7, 8, and  points respectively. Misogyny may hold up better in explaining Trump’s Electoral College advantage, but his five-point gain over Romney among men does not appear to have been decisive.6

The biggest shifts from 2012 to 2016 were related to education and income. Among the college educated, Clinton widened Obama’s advantage from two to nine points, the widest gap going back to 1980. While Clinton still lost among college-educated whites, she did 10 points better than Obama in that group. Trump, however, did 14 points better than Romney among whites without a college education. Clinton did win the lowest income brackets, but by 16 points less than Obama in 2012, while gaining only 9 points with higher-income voters.7 Far from being economically distressed casualties of globalization and deindustrialization, the mean household income of Trump supporters was almost $82,000 a year.8

Puzzling through the data on education and income levels in key counties with populations over 50,000, the statistician Nate Silver found a particular decline of support for Clinton relative to Obama in the 50 of these counties with the lowest education levels. Silver compared predominantly white counties with high-income and medium-education levels against white counties with medium-income and high-education levels, finding that while the former shifted to Trump (Clinton’s only big win in this category was Napa, California), the latter shifted to Clinton. Further controlling for race and ethnicity, he compared low-education and high-education counties with majorities of “minorities,” finding, once again, that the former shifted to Trump while the latter shifted to Clinton. Silver concluded that “educational levels are the critical factor” predicting the shifts in vote that “won Donald Trump the presidency.”9

“The Revolt Against Elites” 10

Among Trump supporters, this data on income and education levels has been seized upon as confirming the view that Trump’s ascendance represents a popular revolt by the non-college educated against the “obnoxious arrogance” of college-educated liberals and leftists “who have patronized them for decades.” Among those opposed to Trump, this data is most often evoked to confirm the view that, as the title of one article in the journal Foreign Policy put it, “Trump Won Because Voters Are Ignorant, Literally,”11 and this “ignorance” explains why so many low-income Trump supporters “voted against their own interests and especially economic interests.”12 Further to the Left, the education data is largely ignored, while the income data is embraced to support a range of interpretations. For some, it confirms that it “wasn’t the economy, but racism and xenophobia, that explains Trump’s rise.”13 For others, it exonerates the working-class, confirming “The Notion That White Workers Elected Trump Is a Myth That Suits the Ruling Class.”14 For others still, it confirms the authoritarian character of the Trump phenomenon, locating his support in “fascism’s real base: the petite bourgeoisie.”15

The further one goes to the Left and Right, the more agreement one finds on at least one key point: elites are to blame. However, the Left and Right define these elites in antagonistic ways. On the Left, the elite is defined above all as the economic elite: the 1%, the billionaire plutocrats, the ruling class whose rule is ensured by ownership of the means of production and monopolization of wealth and resources, and sometimes also the “professional class” that manages “various segments of the financialized economy.”16 If these elites are “liberal,” they are fundamentally neoliberal, with their social and cultural liberalism of individual rights seen as limited to what furthers their new-economy economic interests. On the Right, the elite is defined almost exclusively as the cultural elite, or educated elite, or meritocratic elite, or cognitive elite,17 whose “despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits and academics”18 is enforced by the control of cultural institutions—above all universities, the “fake news” media, and the entertainment industry. (Museums are rarely mentioned.)

On the Left, the Right’s characterization of elites as cultural and educational elites is largely dismissed. In one of the early efforts to unpack this component of new-Right rhetoric, Thomas Frank describes right-wing representations of the “liberal elite” as no more than a “repackaging of class” that “falls apart under any sort of systematic scrutiny.” He argues that the “culture war” was created by the Right to replace and repress class war. The culture war is, of course, itself a class war, but one in which “material interests are suspended in favor of vague cultural grievances” and the real economic basis of social class is subject to “systematic erasure.”19

However, the success of the right-wing culture war and its identification of elite status and domination with culture and education, rather than wealth and income, may lie in the degree to which it captures the perception and experience of a great many people and is, at least partly, true. If so, it is true not only in the sense that it describes an aspect of social reality, but also because it has produced this reality—with significant assistance from the parts of the Left. Indeed, much of the US Left itself long ago ceased defining social dominance exclusively by way of economic power. Struggles against oppression based on race, gender, and sexual orientation often have focused more on the cultural than the economic aspects of identity-based domination—a tendency bemoaned by others on the Left as making “identity politics” safe for economic elites and pushing the white working-class toward right-wing populism.

From Class War to Classification War

Bourdieu may be best known for his research linking social class and status—and social domination—to cultural dispositions and practices, which he developed in his monumental study, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979). Bourdieu’s work has not been taken up widely by the American Left. As I was working on this essay, however, his work was evoked by one of the United States’ most committed culture warriors, David Brooks, whose contribution to the theorization of “the New Upper Class” includes the term “bobo” (bohemian bourgeois).20 Brooks followed up on an editorial decrying the cultural insensitivity of “the college-educated class”21 by offering a gloss of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital and distinction to support his characterizations of class hierarchies as defined by culture and education.22

In Distinction and elsewhere, however, Bourdieu argues that all formulations of class rooted in substantively defined populations and attributes fall prey to an intellectualist fallacy: the confusion of conceptual formulations with concrete phenomena. Social scientists, pollsters, pundits, and even amateurs like me can “separate out classes in the logical sense of the word”—i.e. people “placed in similar conditions and subjected to similar conditionings.” However, these “classes on paper” do not necessarily exist as subjectively experienced, much less politically constituted, groups. Rather, classes in this sense are produced through active and ongoing “acts of classification” that people perform “incessantly, at every moment of ordinary existence, in the struggles in which [they] clash over the meaning of the social world and their position within it, the meaning of their social identity.”23 In this sense, “what individuals and groups invest in the particular meaning they give to common classificatory systems…is infinitely more than their ‘interest’ in the usual sense of the term; it is their whole social being, everything which defines their own idea of themselves, the primordial, tacit contract whereby they define ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them,’ ‘other people,’ and which is the basis of the exclusions…and the inclusions they perform.”24 These classificatory systems and categories are “the stakes, par excellence, of political struggles, the inextricably theoretical and practical struggle for the power to conserve or transform the social world by conserving or transforming the categories through which it is perceived.”25

Far from affirming the representations of class offered up by right-wing culture warriors like Brooks, Bourdieu’s theory suggests that the culture war waged by the Right as an instrument of political mobilization is effective precisely because it is less a class war than a classification war: a war over the very attributes that underlie principles of social division, differentiation, and distinction, which, like everyday classificatory systems themselves, encompass much more than economic status and stratification.26 More fundamentally, Bourdieu’s theory suggests that these attributes themselves are weapons in symbolic struggles waged over the distribution of social power that they primarily perform and only secondarily describe. And these struggles themselves attest to the fact that not only economic power is at stake.

From the Ruling Class to the Field of Power

If Bourdieu’s theory of the social world is rooted in a rejection of substantive definitions of class, it is also rooted in the rejection of any particular substance as primarily defining class, whether wealth, occupation, or education. Instead, Bourdieu understands the social world as a multi-dimensional space organized through of all of the active principles of differentiation and all of the properties capable of conferring power and other benefits within it. He identifies four basic “species” of capital, including—along with economic, social, and symbolic capital—the knowledge, skills, and competencies which, to the extent that they are unequally distributed and confer social benefits, function as cultural capital.

To account for these different forms of social power and their interactions, Bourdieu replaces the concept of a singular ruling class with that of a dominant field or “field of power.” One of Bourdieu’s most concise accounts of the field of power can be found in his study of elite schools, The State Nobility (1996).

The field of power is a field of forces structurally determined by the state of the relations of power among forms of power, or different forms of capital. It is also, and inseparably, a field of power struggles among the holders of different forms of power…in which those agents and institutions possessing enough specific capital (economic and cultural capital in particular) to be able to occupy the dominant positions within their respective fields confront each other using strategies aimed at preserving or transforming these relations of power…(principally through the defense or criticism of representations of the different forms of capital and their legitimacy).27

The power of the “dominant class” over “dominated classes” still may be understood in terms of the concentration of capital, but all social classes are subject to internal divisions or “class fractions” according to the type of capital at their disposal, and all exist in a social continuum in which the divisions, boundaries, and hierarchies within and between them are subject to continual contestation. And Bourdieu suggests that the most contested of these boundaries is between the economic and cultural fields within the field of power.28

Bourdieu’s theory of the field of power allows us to recognize the competing representations of “elites” offered by the Left and the Right—cultural versus economic elites, “educated” versus “ruling” classes—as enactments of classificatory struggles between “dominant class fractions” over the basis of social power and their own positions within its hierarchies. (And, of course, the very definitions of “the Left” and “the Right” are subject to similarly intense contestation, rendering my use of the terms in this essay as largely conditional markers of relative positions, not conclusive characterizations of individuals, groups, or ideologies.)

Figure 3, from Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), page 124. Courtesy of Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu first developed his theory of the field of power to account for particular features of artistic and literary fields. As a primary site of concentration of cultural capital as well as tremendous financial wealth, the artistic field can be located firmly within the field of power. Nevertheless, Bourdieu noted a tendency in the artistic field to reject economic values and even invert economic principles of hierarchization. This led him to theorize that the field of power is organized as a chiasmatic structure in which hierarchies defined by economic capital and hierarchies defined by cultural capital appear inverted as they confront each other in social space.29 He also found this inversion at work more broadly in a range of occupations, between those whose position depends on economic capital, usually inherited, such as employers, and those less endowed with economic capital, whose position mainly depends on cultural capital, such as artists and teachers.30 He also found this chiasmatic structure at work in political orientation, as “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” compared to cultural capital, while “the propensity to vote on the left increases in the opposite direction.”31

Cultural Versus Economic Capital

What accounts for the correspondence between high cultural capital and a Left-leaning political orientation, even among the wealthy, who thus may appear to vote against their economic interests? In Bourdieu’s analysis, it is not due to any link between political orientation and intelligence, erudition, level of information, or even cultural awareness. Rather, it is because cultural capital exists as a dominated form of power in societies dominated by economic capital, even among elites. Thus, elites who owe their position and status to cultural capital “occupy a dominated position in the dominant class,”32 which leads them not only to contest economic power within the field of power but also “to feel solidarity with the occupants of the economically and culturally dominated positions”33 in society at large. For Bourdieu, this is what explains the sometimes “paradoxical coincidences” that occur “between the dominated fractions of the dominant class, intellectuals, artists or teachers, and the dominated classes, who each express their (objectively very different) relation to the same dominant fractions in a particular propensity to vote on the left.”34

Bourdieu’s model predicts exactly the kind of inversion of political orientation according to income versus education levels that Nate Silver uncovered in the 2016 election. A recent survey by Pew Research Center also found evidence of this inversion in a significant divide between favorable attitudes toward colleges and universities among Democrats and unfavorable views among Republicans. The divide increases from 20 points at the lowest income levels to 48 points at upper income levels, with favorable views among Republicans overall plunging by 20 points since 2015.35

Why is the inversion of economic and cultural capital intensifying, at least with respect to political orientation? Why is “overall volume of capital” and income at all levels declining as factors predicting political orientation while education level alone is increasingly predictive? It would seem to suggest both an intensification of struggles between economic and cultural elites and a shift in how those struggles are mobilized in the political field to rally and realign voters.

Bourdieu suggests that homologies of position between economically dominated cultural elites and economically dominated working classes can account for their sometimes “paradoxical” alliance in political struggles against economic elites. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, Bourdieu never developed an analysis of what would be the corresponding alliance between the economically dominant but culturally dominated in the field of power and the more or less economically but above all culturally dominated in the social field. If he had, I imagine it would account for much of the discourse, and electoral success, of right-wing populists in the United States, whose message of domination by “educated classes” and “cultural elites” clearly has resonated with some of the economically dominated who have traditionally voted on the Left.

Cultural Domination

Pursuing this hypothesis requires taking cultural domination seriously as a form of social domination—not only in specific, racist, misogynist, homophobic, colonialist, or even classist representations or institutions, such as those identified by emancipatory movements, but also, more broadly, in distributions of cultural resources, cultural competence, and access to cultural institutions, and the dispositions and systems of classification that manifest, perform, and legitimize those distributions. Above all, it requires vigilance in recognizing the correspondences between cultural and economic power that are denied in both left-wing representations of elites as purely economic elites and right-wing representations of cultural elites, especially in populist politics that aim to mobilize dominated populations with attacks on (other) “elites” and by disowning and demonizing all the attributes by which those elites are defined.

I need not look further than my own fields of art and higher education for overwhelming evidence of the concentration of cultural resources and their correspondence to financial wealth. If Bourdieu developed his theory of the field of power to account for the paradoxical inversion of “the dominant principles of domination”—especially of economic power—in artistic and literary fields, the contemporary art world seems to have resolved much of that paradox by dissociating social domination from economic power. Arguably, museums have been at the forefront of struggles over the politics (or at least the politics of the representation) of gender, sexual orientation, and race, as the most visible and prestigious institutions to recognize in theory, if not in practice, the values of diversity, inclusivity and tolerance. The fact that they have done so while remaining the repositories of immense wealth and social power has served these struggles by lending them legitimacy and even prestige. But this identification of progressive culture and cultural politics with wealth and power in museums has made them a primary site of the division between economic and other forms of social and cultural domination, effectively splitting off the forms of cultural domination associated with economic status from the forms of cultural domination associated with other aspects of social identity—even while they enact that domination in continuing patterns of economic exclusion that are evident in their audiences, programs, and personnel. As museums are more widely identified with the progressive cultural politics of their programs, these politics may be more widely identified with the extreme wealth of museum patrons.

The social impact of museums is minor compared to institutions of higher education. A significant portion of Bourdieu’s research was devoted to understanding how education can reproduce the very social hierarchies it is supposed to open up, if not overturn, revealing how educational systems often only consecrate advantages derived from “the original milieu” of family and community. The putative oppositions of merit versus birthright and earned versus inherited advantages are at the basis of the American ideology of equality of opportunity and social mobility, which serves to legitimize social hierarchies rooted in enormous inequalities of condition. However, the research of Bourdieu and many other sociologists suggests that educational and cultural capital may be inherited to as great a degree as, if frequently in tandem with, economic capital. In his massive study of Ivy-League admissions policies, Jerome Karabel found that, despite their role as guardians of the ideal of success based on merit rather than family background, the very definitions of merit applied by elite colleges are rooted in “attributes most abundantly possessed by dominant social groups,” making these colleges a realistic possibility only for those “whose families endow them with the type of cultural capital implicitly required for admission.”36 While higher education may still offer a path to social mobility, with students from lower- and upper-income backgrounds who attend the same college ending up with similar income levels, less than one-half of 1% of children from families in the bottom 20% by income level attend the elite colleges associated with the highest economic benefits.37

Interactive graph from “Some Colleges Have More Students from the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours,” The Upshot, The New York Times, January 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/ interactive/2017/01/18/upshot/some-colleges-have-more-students-from-the-top-1-percent-than-thebottom- 60.html?mcubz=1. Courtesy of PARS International.

Despite the substantial evidence of educational advantages—and disadvantages—derived from social background, the feature of cultural capital that may contribute most to the success of right-wing populism is not the degree to which it is inherited through the family but rather the degree to which it appears as innate and inborn. While both economic and cultural capital can be objectified in things or institutionalized in social structures and organizations (markets, banks, universities, museums), cultural capital exists, above all, internalized, incorporated, and embodied in people, in the competencies, dispositions, modes of practice, systems of classification, and schemes of perception that Bourdieu calls habitus. Economic capital in its objectified (if not institutionalized) forms may seem at least potentially free for redistribution at any time, being alienable as property. But cultural capital appears instead as innate qualities that are inseparable from the individuals who embody it. Thomas Jefferson famously hoped that America would replace the “artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth” with a “natural aristocracy of talent.”38 Bourdieu suggests that the meritocratic ideal, “just like the belief in nobility, [is] based on birth and nature, but restored beneath a democratic facade of an ideology of natural gifts and individual merit.”39 The arts, in which highly valorized cultural competencies are idealized as inborn gifts of nature in representations that disavow the social conditions of their acquisition, are only the most prominent example.

The “Racism of ‘Intelligence’”

Embodied forms of cultural capital, more than economic status, serve as the basis for essentialized and naturalized forms of social classification that appear as classism. Bourdieu identifies one of the most prevalent and insidious contemporary forms of such classism in what he calls the “racism of ‘intelligence.’”40 Like all racisms, in Bourdieu’s view, the racism of “intelligence” is an essentialism that serves the need of a group to justify existing as it exists. Unlike “petit-bourgeois racism,” which traditionally is associated with differences of skin color and ethnicity, the racism of intelligence is a racism of “a dominant class deriving its legitimacy from educational classifications” and cultural capital. It is the means through which its members “aim to produce a ‘theodicy of their own privilege,’” to justify their domination and the social order they dominate, above all, by allowing them to “feel themselves to be essentially superior” by way of embodied competencies and dispositions that appear innate. Class differences are thus transmuted into “differences of ‘intelligence,’ ‘talent,’ and therefore differences of nature,” that are “legitimized and given the sanction of science.”41

The racism of intelligence is in no way opposed to racisms of skin color and ethnicity, which, in the United States in particular, it has long served to justify. In his study of intelligence testing in the United States, Jean-Claude Croizet suggests that the fact that the racism of intelligence “is not subjectively experienced as targeting any particular group…makes its expression totally compatible with anti-discrimination values.” However, because the racism of intelligence appears “rooted in cultural practices and not the byproduct of racist individuals” or racist attitudes, “many people who define themselves as ‘non-racist,’ as ‘liberal,’ can nevertheless have a strong derogatory attitude toward the people that occupy the lowest positions in society.”42 The degree to which highly educated white liberals subscribe, consciously or not, to a meritocratic belief that their own advantages are rooted in their intelligence and other innate capacities may help account for the fact that liberal regions have dramatically higher levels of some forms of institutional racism than conservative regions, despite apparently lower levels of racist attitudes.43 The “color-blind” racism of intelligence may produce the same effects as color-based racism, that is, of naturalizing and justifying historically determined and systemic advantages and disadvantages. As Michelle Alexander argues, “callous colorblindness” and “racial indifference” toward those who have “failed” may—“far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems.”44

While covertly, if not overtly, serving to justify racisms of skin color and ethnicity, the racism of intelligence also may play a role in fostering them. In our “economy of intelligence,” Bourdieu argues,

Today’s poor are not poor, as they were thought to be in the nineteenth century, because they are improvident, spendthrift, intemperate, etc.—by opposition to the “deserving poor”—but because they are dumb, intellectually incapable, idiotic… The victims of such a powerful mode of domination, which can appeal to a principle of domination and legitimation as universal as rationality (upheld by the education system) are very deeply damaged in their self-image. And it is no doubt through this mediation that a relationship—most often unnoticed or misunderstood—can be traced between neoliberal politics and certain fascistoid forms of revolt among those who, feeling excluded from access to intelligence and modernity, are driven to take refuge in the national and nationalism.45

Indeed, the rhetoric of idiocy has dominated the center-Left discourse on Trump and his supporters, from the “Stupid Party,” “Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot,’” “A Conspiracy of Dunces” and “Who Ate Republicans’ Brains” (all editorials in The New York Times); “America’s Golden Age of Stupidity” and “Trump Might Be the Dimmest President Ever” (Washington Post); to “America Is Turning Into a Confederacy of Dunces” and “Donald Trump Is Proving Too Stupid to Be President” (Foreign Policy). Daily Kos reported on the Pew survey mentioned above with the headline, “Orwellian Progress, Most Republicans Convinced Education Is Bad for U.S. So Let’s Call Them Stupid.”46

The racism of intelligence was evoked by one of the few observers to challenge the condescension and classism performed in many assumptions about Trump voters, and not only because they affirm the rightist view of liberals and leftists as arrogant, Ivy-League snobs. Serge Halimi called out the tendency to ascribe to “protest voters” a range of “psychological or cultural deficiencies that disqualify their anger.”47 The alternatives of “frustration versus reason”—or “sadistic, resentful, and destructive passions” versus “judgment” in Butler’s seemingly (to me) unimpeachable assessment—belie a conviction by “educated people” that “their preferences are the only rational ones.”48

A Realpolitik of Cultural Capital

Is institutional critique or, more broadly, critical reflexivity of any use in the struggle against the radical Right today? If I have characterized institutional critique as an ethical more than a political practice, Bourdieu’s belief that reflexivity is the prerequisite to any political action by intellectuals is rooted, above all, in a Realpolitik of cultural capital. The fact that Donald Trump was elevated to the White House, not only against the will of the majority of voters but also against the warnings of almost every media outlet, editorial page, and cultural figure of note who took a public position on the election (including virtually the entire casts of the Star Trek and Avengers franchises), raises serious questions about the impact of intellectual and cultural producers and other opinion makers on electoral politics. It suggests that such efforts to influence public opinion may serve to reproduce and reinforce political and cultural polarization, especially to the extent that the meaning and perception of these position-takings, as Bourdieu might call them, are fundamentally rooted in the social positions of those who produce and consume them, and in the struggles between these positions. Understanding our own positions and investments in those struggles is thus essential to any political action that would not simply reproduce them.

Bourdieu affirms the capacity of cultural producers “to put forward a critical definition of the social world, to mobilize the potential strength of the dominated classes and subvert the order prevailing in the field of power.”49 However, to the extent that both the capacity and the disposition to engage in such contestation is rooted in the paradoxical position of dominated members of the dominant class, he warns that such alliances are liable to mystification and bad faith. In his typically acerbic style, he warns against the confusion between class struggles and class-fraction struggles that enables “dominant class members who are dominated in one or another of the possible respects—intellectuals, the young, women—to experience the sum of their necessarily partial challenges as the most radical assault on the established order” and confers the “gratifications of a simultaneously ethical, aesthetic and political snobbery which can combine, in a sort of anti-bourgeois pessimism, the appearances of intellectual vanguardism, which leads to elitism, and political vanguardism, which leads to populism.”50 If such fractional struggles often boil down to symbolic subversions, it may be because they are not, in fact, struggles to overturn the established order, but rather competitive struggles for succession within it that are redistributive only within the narrow margins of access. In cultural fields in particular, the dynamics of distinction and differentiation through which these competitive struggles unfold tend to produce political discourses that, despite the radical egalitarianism of their content, are fundamentally oriented toward exclusivity as they contest competing positions within their own fields.

While artists, intellectuals, and other “dominated fractions of the dominant class” may believe that they are engaged in emancipatory and egalitarian struggles, the most culturally dominated members of society may see these struggles for what they often are: competition for power among the powerful from which they are excluded. At best (or worst) they become weapons in these struggles: symbolically, as “the working class,” “common folk,” “the multitude” in whose name (other) elites are attacked, or politically, through mobilizations that isolate specific forms of domination (most often cultural versus economic) from the full complex of social power.

Paradoxically, Bourdieu’s theory suggests that the intensification of struggles between economic and cultural elites may be due to the diminishing opposition between them. This is not only because struggles are often most intense between positions adjacent in social space, but also because, as many on the Right and Left have noted in their characterization of “liberal elites,” the current economic regime has developed through an “unprecedented coalition of the smart and the rich,”51 pushing those at either extreme to increasingly narrow margins. This also may account for some of the success of right-wing populism as well as the diminished influence of cultural producers in mobilizing the economically dominated. For Bourdieu, the critical capacity of cultural producers derives not from any essential characteristic of the aesthetic, artistic, or intellectual, but rather from their autonomy relative to dominant and, above all, economic principles of power. As this autonomy diminishes through the corporatization of higher education and museums, the financialization of the art market, the rise of cultural celebrities to the apex of compensation pyramids, and monopolization in the media, cultural producers are more persuasively cast and more likely to perform as bad-faith participants in what Bourdieu calls “the division of the labor of domination” between the owners of material and symbolic means of production.

The greatest and most damning intellectual and political failure of the Left may be the failure to recognize cultural capital not only as a socially effective form of power but also as a form of domination, not only substantively, in its particular forms, but also structurally and relationally, in its distributions and through the social differences and hierarchies that it articulates and performs. While the myopic focus on the 1% may be effective symbolically, it not only lets the remaining 99% off the hook but also reduces social power to economic wealth lodged in a single, one-dimensional dominant class. Like many Marxist traditions, in Bourdieu’s estimation, such representations provide a “revolutionary theory with a purely external usage, which questions all powers save for that which intellectuals wield”—cultural capital—and thus allow intellectuals to be “very critical without themselves being concerned by their critique.”52

However, the most mystifying strategies of competitive, fractional struggles may be that of disowning and negating social power. The Right effectively took this strategy over from the Left to drive its conservative “resistance” and now “revolution”—which the Left now counters with renewed resistance of its own. Disowning power and casting one’s own group as marginal, dominated, and oppressed does triple service by delegitimizing competing forms of power, justifying fractional struggles as egalitarian and emancipatory, and aiding in the mobilization of the (more) disempowered. If “elite,” “privileged,” and “establishment” have emerged as almost universal terms of vilification employed across the political spectrum, the most consistent feature of their use may not be the partial and selective forms of social power they frame, but rather that this power is always evoked only as the power of others. From Ivy-League-educated conservative pundits, who attack the educated elite, to highly compensated artists and academics, who attack the 1%, and down through the 10, 20, and 30% with access to urban cultural resources and the booming plutonomy of the super-rich,53 one finds an anti-elitist discourse that serves not as reflexive critique but rather as a means of self-justification. Waged only from the standpoint of relative disadvantages rather than advantages, privations rather than privileges, and subordination rather than dominance—without reflexivity—resistance politics risk being reduced to no more than a cover for the politics of power.

It may be my own bias that leaves me pessimistic that even the most intellectual of anti-Trump conservatives will be willing to confront the economic violence that contributed to his rise. I would like to believe, however, that the Left does have the reflexive capacity to recognize the impact of cultural and symbolic violence and their contribution to the success of right-wing populism.

Andrea Fraser is an artist and professor of art at the University of California Los Angeles. Her book 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, co-published by Westreich Wagner Publications, Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art, and MIT Press, is forthcoming in 2018.


  1. This keynote address, which Pierre Bourdieu delivered via video to the Modern Language Association Meeting in Chicago, in December 1999, is quoted here from Pierre Bourdieu, Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2 (London: Verso, 2003), 19.
  2. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 12–13.
  3. Bourdieu, Distinction, 12. For the best introduction to Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology, see Pierre Bourdeiu and Loïc Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  5. “A Statement from Judith Butler,” e-flux, November 9, 2016, https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/a-statement-fromjudith-butler/5215.
  6. Jon Huang et al., “Election 2016: Exit Polls,” New York Times, November 8, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/politics/election-exit-polls.
  7. Alec Tyson and Shiva Maniam, “Behind Trump’s Victory: Divisions by Race, Gender, Education,” Pew Research Center, November 9, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/behind-trumps-victory-divisions-by-race-gender-education/.
  8. JoAnn Wypijewski, “The Politics of Insecurity,” New Left Review 103 (January–February 2017), 11.
  9. Nate Silver, “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote for Trump,” FiveThirtyEight, November 22, 2016, http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/education-not-income-predicted-who-would-vote-for-trump/. Silver notes that he has no way of knowing which voters shifted to Trump in these low-education majority-minority counties, although other studies suggest that the white vote for Trump was concentrated in the most racially homogeneous areas.
  10. P. J. O’Rourke, “The Revolt Against Elites, and the Limits of Populism,” The Weekly Standard, February 3, 2017, http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-revolt-against-the-elites/article/2006641.
  11. Jason Brennan, “Trump Won Because Voters Are Ignorant, Literally,” Foreign Policy, November 10, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/10/the-dance-of-the-dunces-trump-clinton-election-republican-democrat/.
  12. Paul R. Pillar, “Foreign Policy in an Ignorant Democracy,” November 12, 2016, The National Interest, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/foreign-policy-ignorant-democracy-18392.
  13. German Lopez, “Survey: The Poor White Working Class Was, If Anything, More Likely Than the Rich to Vote for Clinton,” Vox, May 9, 2017, https://www.vox.com/policy-andpolitics/2017/5/9/15592634/trump-clinton-racism-economy-prri-survey.
  14. Paul Street, “The Notion That White Workers Elected Trump Is a Myth That Suits the Ruling Class,” Truthdig, July 7, 2017, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/blaming_working_class_for_trump_is_myth_that_suits_ruling_class_20170707.
  15. Jesse A. Myerson, “Trumpism: It’s Coming from the Suburbs,” The Nation, May 8, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/trumpism-its-coming-from-the-suburbs/.
  16. Peter Lavenia, “The Revenge of Class and the Death of the Democratic Party,” Counterpunch, November 16, 2016, https://www.counterpunch.org/2016/11/16/the-revenge-of-class-and-the-death-of-the-democratic-party/.
  17. Nicholas Lehmann provides a useful overview of the emergence of these representations in “A Cartoon Elite,” The Atlantic, November 1996, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1996/11/a-cartoon-elite/376719/.
  18. Andrew Sullivan, “The Reactionary Temptation: An Open-Minded Inquiry into the Close-Minded Ideology That Is the Most Dominant Political Force of Our Time—and Can No Longer Be Ignored,” New York Magazine, April 30, 2017, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/04/andrew-sullivan-why-the-reactionary-right-must-be-taken-seriously.html.
  19. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Picador, 2004), 114–15, 121, 127.
  20. David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
  21. David Brooks, “How We Are Ruining America,” The New York Times, July 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/11/opinion/how-we-are-ruining-america.html.
  22. David Brooks, “Getting Radical About Inequality,” The New York Times, July 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/opinion/inequality-pierre-bourdieu.html?_r=0. Brooks misreads Bourdieu in a number of ways, including describing cultural capital and symbolic capital as subsets of social capital (for Bourdieu these are all distinct) and essentializing and moralizing the “drive to create inequality” as an “endemic social sin.”
  23. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups,” Theory and Society 14, no. 6 (November 1985): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/opinion/inequality-pierre-bourdieu.html?_r=0, 729.
  24. Bourdieu, Distinction, 478.
  25. Bourdieu, “The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups,” Theory and Society 14, no. 6, 729.
  26. “For decades, Democrats have treated blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, Jews, and nearly every other ethnic and sexual constituency as an independent voting bloc… Trump was the first major Republican candidate to see non-college-educated white voters as a distinct voting bloc.” Ben Shapiro, “The Lessons from—and the Myths about—Tuesday Night,” National Review, November 10, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/442074/donald-trumps-election-victory-myths-lessons.
  27. Pierre Bourdieu, The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 264–65.
  28. Bourdieu argues that social positions and positioning can only be understood by taking into account at least three intersecting axes: not only the volume of capital and the composition of capital but also trajectory. Trajectory is the point at which social space intersects with social time: the time of realized and unrealized aspirations and social mobility that extends through life and even across generations. He emphasized trajectory as particularly important in understanding political orientation, which is so often rooted in an opposition between an orientation toward the future and an orientation toward the past, between ascending and declining trajectories. In these terms, Trump voters might be characterized as the threatened and declining fractions of the petite bourgeoisie. See Bourdieu, “The Specific Effect of Trajectory,” Distinction, 453–59. For overviews of Bourdieu’s theory of class, see Loïc Wacquant, “Symbolic Power and Group-Making: On Pierre Bourdieu’s Reframing of Class,” Journal of Classical Sociology 13, no. 2 (May 2013): 274–291, 1–18; and Elliot Weininger, “Foundations of Pierre Bourdieu’s Class Analysis,” in Erik Olin Wright, ed., Approaches to Class Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 82–118.
  29. Bourdieu elaborates this theory in a number of texts, most notably “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed” and “Field of Power, Literary Field and Habitus,” The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
  30. Bourdieu, Distinction, 115.
  31. Ibid., 438.
  32. Bourdieu, “Field of Power, Literary Field and Habitus,” The Field of Cultural Production, 164.
  33. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed,” The Field of Cultural Production, 44.
  34. Bourdieu, Distinction, 438.
  35. “Sharp Partisan Divide in Views of National Institutions,” Pew Research Center, July 10, 2017, http://www.people-press.org/2017/07/10/sharp-partisan-divisions-in-views-of-national-institutions/.
  36. Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (Boston: Mariner Books, 2005), 549.
  37. The Upshot, “Some Colleges Have More Students from the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours,” The New York Times, January 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/upshot/some-colleges-have-more-students-from-the-top-1-percent-than-the-bottom-60.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0.
  38. Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s61.html.
  39. Bourdieu, The State Nobility, 373.
  40. See Pierre Bourdieu, “The Racism of ‘Intelligence,’” Sociology in Question (London: Sage, 1993).
  41. Ibid., 177–78. Bourdieu also renders the political dimension of this racism of “intelligence” explicitly, revealing that right-wing hostility toward science—or at least the seduction of this hostility to those it helps mobilize—may be rooted in more than just the economic interests of their fossil-fuel fractions. “A power that believes itself to be based on science, a technocratic type of power, naturally asks science to be the basis of power; because intelligence is what gives the right to govern when government claims to be based on science and on the scientific competences of those who govern.” Thus science appears as a form of power that justifies power, above all that of “‘leaders’ who feel themselves to be legitimized by ‘intelligence and who dominate a society bounded on discrimination based on ‘intelligence.’”
  42. Jean-Claude Croizet, “The Racism of Intelligence: How Mental Testing Practices Have Constituted an Institutionalized form of Group Domination,” in H. L. Gates, ed., Handbook of African American Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 805.
  43. For example, California, New York, and Massachusetts incarcerate black men at a much higher rate (seven times the rate of white men) than Louisiana, Mississippi, and most of the other states in the Deep South (which incarcerate black men at twice the rate of white men). Liberal Vermont incarcerates 1 in 14 black men in the state, while conservative Mississippi incarcerates 1 in 33. Ashley Nellis, “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” June 1, 2016, The Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/.
  44. Michelle Alexander, “Against Colorblindness,” The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), 240–44.
  45. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Invisible Hand of the Powerful,” Firing Back, 33–34.
  46. Idontknowwhy, “Orwellian Progress, Most Republicans Convinced Education Is Bad for U.S. So Let’s Call Them Stupid,” Daily Kos, July 11, 2017, https://m.dailykos.com/stories/2017/17/11/1679874/-Orwellian-progress-most-republicans-convinced-education-is-bad-for-U-S-So-lets-call-them-stupid.
  47. Serge Halimi, “Trump, the Know-Nothing Victor,” Le Monde Diplomatique, December 5, 2016, http://agenceglobal.com/2016/12/05/serge-halimi-trump-the-know-nothing-victor/.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production,” The Field of Cultural Production, 44.
  50. Bourdieu, Distinction, 451.
  51. Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, quoted in Nicholas Lehmann, “A Cartoon Elite,” The Atlantic (November 1996), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1996/11/a-cartoon-elite/376719/. See, for example, Eric Alterman, “‘Thought Leaders’ and the Plutocrats Who Love Them,” April 12, 2017, The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/thought-leaders-and-the-plutocrats-who-love-them/.
  52. Loïc Wacquant, “From Ruling Class to Field of Power: An Interview with Pierre Bourdieu on La noblesse d’État,” Theory, Culture & Society 10 (1993), 39.
  53. The term plutonomy (plutocratic economy) was coined by Citigroup analysts in a now-notorious report that was subsequently pulled from the Citigroup website. See Ajay Kapur, et. al., “Plutonomy Symposium—Rising Tides and Lifting Yachts,” The Global Investigator, September 29, 2006. The report’s authors note: “The Uber-rich, the plutonomists, are likely to see net worth-income ratios surge, driving luxury consumption… Beyond war, inflation, the end of the technology/productivity wave, and financial collapse, we think the most potent and short-term threat would be societies demanding a more ‘equitable’ share of wealth.”
Further Reading