Bourdieu on powerlessness and prophecy

There’s a fascinating discussion towards the end of Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations about the relationship between time and power. He insists we recognise how the capacity to influence the future depends on the resources we enjoy in the present moment, contrary to the imagination of the 90s Giddens that what Archer calls autonomous reflexivity, the disposition to ‘colonise the future’, is a uniform response to late modernity. Those who “are busy in the world because they have business in the world, who engage with the forth-coming because they have a future in it” form “aspirations that are adjusted to their chances of realization” (pg 225-226) in contrast to those who lack this capacity to shape the unfolding of what is to come:

Below a certain level, on the other hand, aspirations burgeon, detached from reality and sometimes a little crazy, as if, when nothing was possible, everything became possible, as if all discourses about the future – prophecies, divinations, predications, millenarian announcements – had no other purpose than to fill what is no doubt one of the most painful of wants: the lack of a future.

Pg 226

It reminded me of this discussion in Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life about the tendency towards “a schizoid scaling of heights that do not stand in any productive relation to the narrowness of the experiential horizon”. He advocates “a form of mountain rescue intervention: the aim is to bring the lost climber back to the valley and explain the terrain to them until they feel able to respect the circumstances on their next climb”. The obvious benefit of the sociological approach is that it explains individual variation in the extent to which the ‘climbers’ lack an adequate map of the ‘mountain’, but also the macro-social factors which generate these patterns at the micro-social level.

As neoliberalism comes to be replaced by something worse, the pool of agents with the resources to control the future shrinks. Contrary to a vulgar Marxist assumption that immiseration will bring with it class consciousness, Bourdieu gives us reason to think that “prophecies, divinations, predications, millenarian announcements” will thrive under these conditions; particularly when we consider a platformised media system which incentivises cultural products which resonate with anxieties and frustration. Far from immiseration being an engine of solidarity, as it might be in industrial conditions which facilitate a recognition of common cause, under contemporary conditions it functions as an engine of fantasies which imagine the contradictions of the present might be resolved in the future, without mechanisms through which this could be enacted. Particularly if those with the capital to shape the future seek to nurture these conspiratorial cultures in order to sustain the status quo. In this sense I’d suggest the epistemological chaos of platform capitalism is playing an increasingly central role in social reproduction rather than being a specialised pathology of the media system.

2 responses to “Bourdieu on powerlessness and prophecy”

  1. Of course all of this presupposes that you change the future by going “forward”, whereas quietism suggests that you can pick other alternatives – different paths that do not involve going “forward” to the future, but you pick your own path to what happens to you next. There is also “Schweikism” whereby people challenge or change what happens next by agreeing to it, and allowing it to fail under its own contradictions and lack of ‘participation’. In this respect – people have a capacity to undermine, disolve or change the future, without possessing the material resources to change it. Martyn

  2. I see what you mean but I think he means it in a sense prior to that; it’s not just having the resources to change it but having a sustained experience of self-effectiveness which means you aspire to try and change it. I find what you’re saying very attractive but I wonder if it presupposes exactly the thoughtful relation to the future which Bourdieu is suggesting that fatalism driven by exclusion is likely to undermine.

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