Pierre Bourdieu, liberal thought and the ontology of collectives

Well over a decade ago, I was due to start a PhD in Political Philosophy looking at ideas of the individual within liberal thought. There are many reasons why I ultimately moved into a Sociology department instead, though my lack of regrets about this choice hasn’t stopped me occasionally wondering what might this thesis might have looked like. It occurred this morning when reading a collection of Bourdieu’s political writings (Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action) that one likely outcome would have been a subsequent study on liberalism’s difficulty with collectives. As Bourdieu writes, reproduced on pg 58:

Liberal philosophy identifies political action with solitary action, even silent and secret action, its paradigm being the vote ‘acquired’ by a party in the secret of the polling booth. In this way, by reducing group to series, the mobilised opinion of an organised or solidaristic collective is reduced to a statical aggregation of individually expressed opinions.

The difficulty posed by collectives concerns the empirical refutation of this often unstated principle. Actually existing collectives, with all their emergent mess, make it difficult to reduce group to series by methodological slight of hand. The noise and assertion which characterise them challenge us to treat them as collectives. But the broader edifice of liberal thought is dependent on melting collectives into aggregates:

Political action is thus reduced to a kind of economic action. The logic of the market or of the vote, in other words, the aggregation of individual strategies, imposes itself each time that groups are reduced to the state of aggregates – or, if you prefer, demobilised. When, in effect, a group is reduced to impotence (or to individual strategies of subversion, sabotage, wastefulness, go-slows, isolated protest, absenteeism, etc.), because it lacks power over itself, the common problem of each of its members remains in a state of unease and cannot be expressed as a political problem.

How should we conceive of the relationship between individuals and collectives? Much of what I’ve done in the last ten years is ultimately motivated by this question. This paper last year explored the biographical constitution of social movements under digital capitalism, arguing that ‘distracted people’ have much more inconsistent trajectories of participation, with implications for the emergent characteristics of social movements themselves:

Social movements often make an important contribution to the normative order within social life but how are their dynamics changing under conditions of social morphogenesis? It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. This chapters takes a novel approach to this question, exploring the technological dimensions of social morphogenesis and their consequences for the ‘distracted people’ who comprise social movements. Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives.

At some point I’d also like to pursue these issues at the level of cultural representation. For instance in the representation of mindless hoards posing a threat to the liberal order:

The relation between individuals and collectives plays out at many levels. My concern is to reclaim it as a meta-categorical feature of discourse, such that the connections between these different levels can be explored. I’m still rather far away from doing this, but at least the ambition is relatively clear to me now.

4 responses to “Pierre Bourdieu, liberal thought and the ontology of collectives”

  1. My lack of scholarship on what I call “dead French philosophers” is something that I freely admit to. Coming from American sociology, it’s not something that we have a lot of exposure to. A current colleague of mine is deep into Bourdieu and has turned me on to some of his benefits (albeit, I do not agree with everything he says – yet). Since Bourdieu however, others I’ve read have had this same critique. My own work on Neoliberalism as a social movement seems to be supported by the Bourdieu idea, and there have been many since who have had the same critiques.

    Which brings me to the importance of Sociology understanding how economics and neoliberalism works. I went and got a Master’s degree in economics solely so I could learn how economics works, especially under neoliberalism. It was hard work, and there was a lot of math (which luckily I’m good at), but it was worth it. Sociology too often writes about economic conditions without a basic understanding how economics works. And I see a lot about neoliberalism within a Neomarxist framework without any acknowledgement of the deep roots between economics and neoliberalism.

    Both neoliberalism as a social movement and economics as a discipline think in aggregates. Homo Economicus, the basic unit of economic analysis today, has no social location. It has no gender, race, class, or anything else “social.” In both economics and neoliberalism, Homo Economicus is a purely rational actor, and society is made up of an aggregate of purely rational actors. This is still taught in economics courses around the world today. And if it sounds a bit Weberian, it is: the main founder of the neoliberal social movement, von Mises, praised Weber’s Rational Action Theory, as did Karl Popper, another founder of the neoliberal social movement. Nicholas Gane also wrote about this in his 2014 paper: “Sociology and Neoliberalism: a Missing History” (Journal of Sociology Vol 48(6).

    Sociologists should also read Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” to understand how neoliberalism sees collectivism. For the Neoliberal social movement, ANY form of collectivism – including democracy, is bad (remember Homo Economicus). Hayek specifically called for economic systems to supersede ANY other forms of organizing society. Friedman did the same. Karl Popper developed his methodologies to specifically turn this dogma into “science” to make it more palatable to politicians (like Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet). Today, neoliberal ideas permeate our culture on all levels beyond just the economic.

    So Bourdieu was on to something – collectivism is bad, and aggregates are good in the neoliberal mindset, and it has become a set of cultural practices. You’ve sold me more on Bourdieu. Thank you.

  2. Is Bourdieu discussing Sartre there, because the descriptions are practically identical to the account of group-individual relations that Sartre explores in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (and, in relation to elections, in his essay “Elections: A Trap for Fools.” It’s a fascinating field that I don’t think is necessarily limited to political philosophy (or sociology). My reading has taken in Mancur Olsen, Colin Crouch, Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom, purely on foot of reading Sartre. I shall have to check the PB essay too. 🙂

  3. Not explicitly but I noticed the same thing! I guess the distinction doesn’t belong to Sartre but Bourdieu seems to be using his language there.

    What would you recommend from the authors you mention? I know Colin Crouch quite well but I’ve never read the others.

  4. You’re welcome – I’ve only recently become sold on him myself!

    Not for the first time, you’ve left a blog comment which I think deserves to be a blog post in its own right.

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