Decapitalizing Culture

There are countless debates among sociologists and economists concerning the terms ‘human capital’ and ‘cultural capital’. The general view is that the former implies a rational instrumental attitude to the attainment of skills, whereas the latter suggests an investment in what Bourdieusians call illusio: the denial that the game of culture is in fact a game. Iván Szelényi once characterized the distinction slightly differently, writing that human capital denoted skills that are rewarded because of their contribution to productivity, while cultural capital was fundamentally a claim to rent. It seems to me, however, that we ought to be raising a different set of questions. In particular, it is important to ask: under what historical conditions does culture take the form of an ‘asset’ or ‘quasi-asset’?

The preconditions of this formation are a prior process of cultural expropriation, and a subsequent process that can reproduce this expropriation on an ongoing basis. Such ‘primitive accumulation’ of cultural or human capital can take place in a number of ways. It can involve the imposition of a single dialect on the national language which suddenly devalues pre-existing ones, as occurred inter alia with the Florentine dialect on the Italian peninsula. Or it can mean the devaluation of indigenous knowledge, such as managing commons and wastelands according to fertility cycles. Yet a more articulated analysis is needed here. For it is not true that the only options in the formation of cultural capital are complete equality or private possession. Swathes of human history have been marked by a sort of collective, class-wide possession of culture, such that it could not be seen as individually possessed ‘capital’. Consider the culturally omnivorous Renaissance men of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, or the debating publics that Habermas took as his model. Within these spaces of relative exclusivity, culture was a collective ‘possession’. It did not appear as an alien object to the members of the dominant class; it was not an individually appropriated ‘asset’.

This is significant for the politics of the university, and beyond that for the politics of culture in contemporary capitalism. Today, the academy is often defended on the basis of its contribution to ‘cultural’ or ‘human’ capital. But this approach is self-undermining. The claim to be providing ‘capital’ to some is premised on the exclusion of others. Cultural or human capital is only as valuable as it is scarce. Thus, as currently configured, it is not in the interests of the elite universities to provide degrees for all or even most of the people who would like to attend them. The relative value of the degree, like any other asset, declines with the expansion of access.

The response to this from the social-democratic left, ‘free higher education for all’, hardly touches the underlying issue. For the universalization of higher education would simply entail a reduction in its economic value unless the meaning of education were radically transformed. Culture must first be decapitalized; it must cease to be an asset. The humanized university, rather than being a place for the acquisition of human or cultural capital, would be an institution devoted to the construction of the personality. This should not be conceived as a return to the gentleman scholar, but as the formation of a new type of intellectual. The new intellectual would still possess an array of skills, yet the means by which those skills would be transmitted would likely differ from the current classroom. The craft of teaching itself would become increasingly the teaching of craft. Mutatis mutandis, the widespread availability of ‘information’ (rather a misnomer), via the internet and artificial intelligence, would support the project of academia as opposed to undermining it. Our aim should not be the universalization of access to cultural or human capital, but their abolition as social realities. Here, as elsewhere, the programme of the humanized society is not the redistribution of property but its overcoming as a real category.

Read on: Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Pierre Bordieu: Critical Sociology and Social History’, NLR 101.