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Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market

By Mark Greif

Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market
By Pierre Bourdieu, Translated by Loïc Wacquant, New Press, 112 PAGES, $14.95
At the time of Pierre Bourdieu's death in January 2002, he stood as the dominant intellectual in France, if not in Europe. Only Jürgen Habermas in Germany, now age 74, is of the same stature, but Bourdieu's last years had turned him into far more of an activist as a visible opponent of the neoliberal dismantling of social protections.

Just as Puritan divines once preached an annual election sermon, every dominant French intellectual since Émile Zola has made a public pronouncement on the duties of intellectuals. Bourdieu's declaration could be expected to be different. He defined himself as a sociologist, not a philosopher. His most famous work anatomizes how thinkers, artists and educators establish superiority as dominant "cadres" even without appeal to money. His best-known book in this country, Distinction, could have been called Pretension. He was out to skewer pretense, with scientific precision. The book gave a drubbing to fellow intellectuals who felt their taste for "The Well-Tempered Clavier" hoisted them above working-class admirers of the "Blue Danube Waltz."

Born into a peasant milieu in 1930, Bourdieu's task all along was to use sly means to draw academics and intellectuals into solidarity with workers. Exhortation had been the style of Jean-Paul Sartre's communist comrades. Armed with charts, statistics and a devotion to empirical methods, Bourdieu instead made intellectuals' exclusionary systems look embarrassing. He used the tools of reason to shame those who took reason as their guide.

In his other work, meanwhile, Bourdieu demonstrated how a social-scientific scholar could contribute expertise to the most pressing political issues of his era: Algeria, student life before May 1968 and, finally, economic globalization. A wonderful book from the early 1990s organized a large team of sociologists to interview people left behind by recent economic changes. Bourdieu came out looking like Studs Terkel by way of an aggregation in philosophy and an intellectual dialogue with Immanuel Kant.

Sad, then, that the lectures and addresses collected in the posthumously translated Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market are so weak. They give little sense of Bourdieu's genius. The book covers three topics: neoliberalism in Europe, market threats to true culture and the role of the intellectual. It reads like a string of back-to-back editorials from The Nation. Bourdieu calls for "coalitions." He calls intellectuals to organize themselves, to retain their autonomy, to develop a progressive program, to be scientific. These are ineffectual pleas in an almost desperate tone. It is as if, in his last years, Bourdieu could see everything Europe's social movements had achieved being liquidated and knew he didn't have enough time to contribute to a solution.

There are emotional highlights. A few direct confrontations hint at the courage and tenderness that came through very differently in the sometimes Olympian tone of his other books. In Bourdieu's contribution to Télérama -- a French equivalent to TV Guide -- he pleads with employees of the magazine to use their minor positions to defend true culture from the powerful. He asks of a Paris convention of worldwide media CEOs, headed by Henry Kissinger: "[M]asters of the world, do you have the mastery of your own mastery? Or, to put it more simply, do you really know what you are doing, all the consequences of what you are doing?" Bourdieu was cashing in his chips at the end, trying to intervene with audiences that agreed to hear him only because of his eminent name. Yet this book of speeches is most likely to be read by people concerned professionally with scholarship or policy. For them, Bourdieu's most interesting charge rests on his idea of the "intellectual."

The intellectual, in French terms, is what Americans often call a "public intellectual" -- someone who not only works with intellect but intervenes authoritatively in political life on the basis of the central values of art, culture or scholarship. Intellectuals, Bourdieu always argued, don't just bring to the table relevant expertise or skill at public presentation. They import the moral norms of another social field.

Presumption is the intellectual's strength and weakness. Zola and Sartre are the two outstanding protagonists in this figure's development in France. Over the course of his career, Bourdieu had plenty to say about both. Zola created the modern image of the intellectual in 1898, when he famously came to the defense of a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason. He used the bohemian writer's studied indifference to money and power -- and, indeed, to ordinary politics -- to make a political stand. The consequences were not all good. Zola's example instilled in artists the determination to speak up for public causes, but his gambit also suggested that intellectuals must be still somehow above the reach of day-to-day affairs, superior and aristocratic.

The villain in Bourdieu's history of the intellectual was Sartre, who claimed to inherit the mantle of the "omnipotent intellectual." According to Bourdieu, Sartre had yoked together mediocre versions of several previously separate intellectual vocations: academic philosopher, avant-garde writer and Marxist, among others. Dismissing rivals whose personal situation made them professionally competent in only one of these disciplines, Sartre narrowed the useful breadth of the intellectual field. The likes of Albert Camus became unskilled by comparison -- less-than-total. Much worse, Sartre thereby dismissed the remaining threads of life training and experience that had connected intellectuals to the lives of other people.

The major shift in Bourdieu's late lectures is his defense of certain institutions he was famous for critically examining. His concern was always at bottom that "cultural capital" not be restricted to a few. But there are two ways to equalize a differential between the few and the many: by spreading resources to wider groups of people or by annihilating the privileges in question. In Firing Back, Bourdieu finds himself vigorously on the side of cultural capital -- high art, higher education, elite taste -- because the new market ideology of limited government and profit-driven media would simply destroy it for everyone. "This situation is all the more paradoxical in that one is led to defend programs or institutions that one wishes in any case to change," Bourdieu writes.

As a defender of what he had criticized, though, Bourdieu can't bear to make the intellectual a hero on the old model. So he waffles, calling on intellectuals to collaborate in vast organized projects or to advance others' programs. One of Bourdieu's projects calls for a pan-European initiative by social scientists to develop an alternative economics and social policy. It is an embarrassingly fuzzy idea in the absence of any institution to lead the charge. Bourdieu falls back on phrases about the "autonomous collective intellectual" and the "production of realistic utopias." The lessons of this last of the French maître-penseurs will be carried forward from his earlier books. The best advice he could have given would have been to encourage budding Jean-Paul Sartres to become humbler Pierre Bourdieus.


  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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