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Passionate Actions:

A Review of Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market

J. Bradford DeLong

April 28, 1999

Published by H-STATE@msu.ecu (April, 1999)

Pierre Bourdieu. Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: New Press, 1999. ix + 108 pp. Notes and bibliography. $12.95 (paper), ISBN 1-56584-523-4.

Reviewed for H-LIST by J. Bradford DeLong,, Department of Economics, University of California at Berkeley.


Passionate Actions:

A Review of Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market


This is a collection of recent op-eds, short lectures and speeches, and an essay or two by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It is a very short collection. None of the sixteen texts included in the book takes up more than twelve pages. The book runs to 108 text pages, printed on 8" x 5" paper. It offered for sale (in paperback) by the New Press for $12.95. Since two pages would fit on one 8 1/2" x 11" sheet without reduction, the cost of xeroxing the text would be about $2.70, 21% of the price of the book--which is quite a low value for this relative-cost-of-xeroxing statistic.

As the book is a collection of sixteen texts, written (or in some cases delivered) for different audiences under different conditions, it does not make a sustained argument. Think of it, rather, as a mosaic. Some pieces of the mosaic are truly excellent. Others are rather dull and commonplace. And--as often happens with mosaics--some large and important pieces of the picture the individual bits of glass would make are missing altogether

It is also a very political book. It is not a collection of academic lectures, or of reviews of monographs. Instead, it is a collection of short (in some cases very short) interventions into the politics of the French welfare state at the end of the twentieth century. And at this point it is necessary for me to make a disclaimer. For when Pierre Bourdieu looks for his intellectual and political enemy he sees... me.

Bourdieu praises what he calls "the left hand of the state... the so-called spending ministries which are the trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past" and condemns the "right hand [of the state] that no longer knows... what the left hand does... [and] does not want to pay for it" (p. 2). I am the right hand of the state. I stood in the back of the room--as one of U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's aides' aides, as the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy--and listened to Secretary Bentsen tell U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (the left hand of the U.S. state) that the potential tax-law changes which Secretary Reich had hoped to use to fund his labor-policy initiatives were reserved for other purposes.

Bourdieu condemns the "half-wise economists" "[l]ocked in the narrow, short-term economism of the IMF worldview which is also causing havoc... fail[ing], of course, to take account of the real costs, in the short and especially the long term, of the material and psychological wretchedness which is the only certain outcome of their economically legitimate Realpolitik: delinquency, alcoholism, road accidents, etc." (p. 7). I am a neoclassical economist; the chairman of my dissertation committee was the arch-neoliberal Lawrence Summers, now Deputy Secretary of the [U.S.] Treasury; I have been an advocate of NAFTA and of the Uruguay Round of GATT; a defender of the broad outlines (though not of all the details) of IMF policy toward Mexico, Brazil, and East Asia; an advocate of deficit reduction; a believer that we can properly manage "globalization" to make its benefits outweigh its costs; I have been called a "banner-waving proponent" of international capital mobility in the pages of Foreign Affairs.

Bourdieu has no respect for the "'intellectuals' of the political-administrative establishment, polymorphous polygraphs who polish their annual essays between two meetings of boards of directors, three publishers' parties, and miscellaneous television appearances" (p. 9). I have not been on TV (though I was quoted yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, and TV producers please call me at home any time of day or night at 925-283-2709) or attended publishers' parties (though I hope to someday) or served on boards of directors, but I have moved back and forth between academia, politics, and public administration--and I very much hope to continue to do so. And I very much want to be an intellectual (although I suspect that Bourdieu would see me as an 'intellectual').

Bourdieu denounces the "rationalism of the mathematical models which inspire the policy of the IMF or the World Bank... that of rational-action theories, etc." (p. 19). I have estimated econometric models and written technical arguments in economic theory for the Journal of Political Economy--although the one of which I am proudest is not a rational but an irrational-action theory ("Noise Trader Risk in Financial Markets," Journal of Political Economy, October 1990). But there is no doubt that when Bourdieu thinks of his intellectual and political foes, he thinks of me (or, rather, he would think of me if he knew who I was).

I look at Pierre Bourdieu, and I see... my friend. Well, perhaps not my friend but my... ally. Well, perhaps not my friend or my ally, but in any event someone who would be if he pushed his analyses just a little bit deeper, and made his intellectual position a little more coherent.

He is my hoped-for ally because there is a lot in Bourdieu's mosaic that I like already. And I find myself hopeful that as Bourdieu thinks more deeply about politics, he will find himself filling in the missing pieces of the mosaic in ways that I will agree with.

But let me start with what is excellent in the mosaic that is Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. It contains splendid denunciations of the media-driven gossip-filled politics of celebrity that makes politics much less a process of collective decision-making about our common future and much more an arena for symbolic posturing in which most of us become not citizens but spectators. It contains eloquent attempts to recall France to its better nature, and adopt a humane and humanist policy toward immigrants.

I read with pleasure the attacks on Bundesbank head Hans Tietmeyer, whose overly-restrictive monetary policies have been (according to an excellent study by Johns Hopkins economist Larry Ball) a principal cause of high unemployment and slow growth in Europe. Bourdieu's reflections on how the permanent crisis of high unemployment and job insecurity is altering European culture and power relations are very fine, as are his arguments that there is no unmasterable process of "globalization" that requires the dismantling of the French welfare state.

It contains admirable defenses of the achievements of post-World War II social democracy--much of the work of the so-called "spending ministries" in modern European governments--and calls to rally to the continued defense of the social insurance or welfare state.

I have but two quarrels with Pierre Bourdieu's defense of the welfare state. The first is that he is fond of defending the achievements of the social welfare state against leftwing nihilist know-nothings by saying that they are "the trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past." Perhaps it sounds better in French. But in English it sounds bad. Those who provide public social welfare services-- "counsellors, youth leaders... magistrates... teachers" (p. 2)--and the programs that fund them and that they carry out are not the mere trace but the substantive conquests of the social and political struggles of the past. To defund public education, public health, family services, disability and unemployment insurance, and so on is to strike at the heart of what the political and social struggles of the twentieth century won. That the main business of the late-twentieth century state is social insurance is an important fact--a fact that is minimized by referring to the spending ministries as "trace" (whether meant in the sense of trace--i.e., rare--elements or the trace outline of a now absent figure).

My second quarrel with Bourdieu's defense of the welfare state... but let me save that for later, for it belongs in the discussion of the large missing portions of Bourdieu's mosaic.

But not all of the mosaic is dazzling. There are duller pieces. Some are simply incomprehensible. I read the short "Sollers tel quel" and I get the message that Bourdieu disapproves of Balladur and Sollers--but I would have had to live in Paris for the whole first half of the 1990s for it to mean much to me.

And some pieces seem to me to be not just incomprehensible but reprehensible. When Bourdieu writes of "conservative revolutions, that in Germany in the 1930s, those of Thatcher, Reagan and others" (p. 35) I find myself thinking how Bourdieu wrote more truly than he knew when he wrote of how "at present, it is often the logic of political life, that of denunciationand slander, 'sloganization' and falsification of the adversary's thought, which extends into intellectual life" (p. 9). I loathe Ronald Reagan, but he was no Nazi. And the parallels between the return-to-an-imagined-classical-liberalism ideology of Reagan and Thatcher and the, in Jeff Herf's phrase, "reactionary modernism" of Nazi ideology is too strained and too remote for me to believe that Bourdieu did not intend the implication.

When Bourdieu writes that "the question of the Muslim veil" (whether or not young women should be allowed to come to French public schools veiled) needs to be analysed as "what it truly is, in all its complexity... often quite contrary to ethnocentric intuition" (p. 23), I am dismayed. I believe that I would agree with Bourdieu's position--that young women should be allowed to come to French public schools veiled. But I hold this position because I think that it is better for all of us that these young women be educated in secular French schools where they will not fail to note that women today have more options than those that their fathers and uncles wish them to have, rather than being educated in communal religious schools where the broader range of modern options may escape their notice. And if I understand what Bourdieu is saying here, I think that he appears to be strangely blind to what I see as important feminist issues.

When Bourdieu condemns the policy of publicly-subsidized loans to workers so that they can buy housing because it led to residential segregation (p. 32), I wonder why he does not say that the increase in residential segregation was a bad effect of a policy that had also other good effects--or don't French workers deserve, in the opportunity to buy small detached homes, a small slice of the access to privacy and space that goes as a matter of course to the Enarques, to internationally-published authors, and to professors at the College de France?

And then there is the great missing piece in the mosaic. A large chunk of the book--the (excellent) "Left Hand and the Right Hand of the State" and "The 'Globalization' Myth and the Welfare State", and the (not-so-excellent) "Abuse of Power by the Advocates of Reason", "Against the Destruction of a Civilization", "Social Scientists, Economic Science, and the Social Movement", and "Neo-liberalism: The Utopia (Becoming a Reality) of Unlimited Exploitation--are devoted in whole or in part to a fangs-bared attack on the political monster of "neoliberalism", with its hydra-heads of the IMF, the OECD, economists, public intellectuals, the technocrats of the Treasury, public and private bankers, international currency speculators, the Thatcherites and the Jospinites, and many others. But nowhere in these fangs-bared attacks are any convincing portraits of the enemy--of what the neoliberals believe and why they believe it, of what I believe.

And there is a powerful logic--which Bourdieu does not acknowledge--to the neoliberal position. It is a fact that the thirty glorious years came to an end in the mid-1970s, with a sharp slowing of economic growth. It is a fact that the social insurance and welfare state's spending plans had been predicated on a continuation of growth at pre-1973 levels. It is a fact that this growth slowdown leaves the advanced OECD economies with three choices: (i) ignore the gap between spending plans and revenues and somewhere down the road mounting government debt will trigger the cycles of high inflation and retrenchment that have carried Argentina and Uruguay from first- to third-world status in the half-century since the end of World War II, (ii) convince voters to raise taxes to support the prevously-planned social insurance state, or (iii) try to save the core of the social insurance state while also saving money by cutting public missions that were not as essential, or at which the public sector was not very competent.

Option (i) seems to me to be disastrous. Politicians willing to take the case for option (ii) to the voters--for tax hikes and the keeping of past implicit welfare-state promises--have been hard to find, and voters have not turned out in droves to elect them where they did appear. That leaves us with option (iii).

We neoliberals are now trying to carry out option (iii): bring the spending requirements of the welfare state back into balance with tax revenues, and at the same time do everything we can think of--from deficit reduction to research and development subsidies to expanded international trade--to try to restart the engine of productivity growth and accumulation, so that a generation hence the problem politicians will face will be how to spend the surplus on expanded social welfare benefits, not how to erase a deficit. We in the present find that we have no power to move toward utopia--little power to even defend the social insurance state we have inherited--but at least we can try to empower the future.

And does Pierre Bourdieu have a better strategy? Does he have a counter to the logic of the neoliberal least-bad-of-three alternatives? Perhaps. His first instinct is to defend everything: no retrenchment ever or any welfare-state program of any kind. If his counsels governed the policies of left-of-center parties, either he would succeed in defending everything--in which case the politics and economics of western Europe in the next generation would in all probability look a lot like those of Latin America in the past; or he would fail--in which case those who dislike even the idea of the welfare state--the true followers of Reagan and Thatcher, truer believers than their former leaders themselves--would govern our destiny for the next generation.

So I don't think that defending everything is a viable political strategy. Napoleon could tell him that to defend everything is to defend nothing.

So does Pierre Bourdieu have an alternative strategy? No. He says that to have a policy programme is to fall into a trap. Instead, he wants to form a study group: a "structure for collective research, interdisciplinary and international, bringing together social scientists, activists, representatives of activists, etc., with the social scientists being placed in a quite definite role: they can participate in a particularly effective way, because it's their job, in working parties and seminars..." (p. 56) to perform a veritable critique of critical criticism.

Sorry Pierre. It may well be the case--still--that the natural tendency of social philosophers is to form study groups, so that they can interpret the world. But for more than a century and a half we have known that the point, however, is to change it.

Develop a policy programme of your own. Balance preservation of the core of the welfare state against empowering the future by encouraging investment, innovation, and technological progress. I think you will find that you are then my ally. And I hope you will find that you are then my friend.

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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