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The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Anti-Market Ideology

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03/01/2004Jude Blanchette

With Pierre Bourdieu's death from cancer in 2002, France lost one of its most active and significant intellectuals. Having written over 25 books and founding the magazine Liber in 1989, Bourdieu was a leading voice for the left, both in France and throughout the world.

In Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2, seven of Bourdieu's speeches from 1999–2000 are collected in this slim volume. Unfortunately for Bourdieu, his final written attempt to exposit the danger of the capitalist market is a failure. His words come off as if they are the desperate, rambling plea of a disgruntled ideologue in the winter of his life. Worried that after dozens of books his message still hasn't been consumed, he offers 96 pages of clichéd, socialistic vitriol.

His thesis is two-fold: first, he attempts to implicate the market-driven ideology of neo-liberalism for most of society's ills, and second, he calls on intellectuals to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Emile Zola; there must be an active resistance to market-driven tyranny, not resigned criticism.          

Most of Firing Back's content is not new. Anyone who has sat through an undergraduate sociology class will immediately be familiar with Bourdieu's message and style. Obscure sociological phraseology coupled with Marxist terminology mix to create an effete statist cocktail of jumbled nonsense. It's hard to understand how "France's most influential intellectual" (in the inestimable opinion of The New York Times) could write such nonsense as ". . . the dominant in this game are dominated by the rules of the game they dominate . . ."     

Above all, Bourdieu advocates intellectual engagement, a point that's pertinent for all sides of the political spectrum. In his speech "For a Scholarship with Commitment," he promotes his vision of a community of socialist activists, alike in their academic pedigree and passionate temperament. In the spirit of Zola's "J'Accuse," Bourdieu calls for the resurgence of the "'public intellectual,' that is, someone who engages his specific authority and the values associated with the exercise of his or her craft, such as the values of disinterestedness and truth, in a political struggle—in other words, someone who enters the terrain of politics but without forsaking her exigencies and competencies as a researcher."

Ultimately, Bourdieu envisions a new Bolshevik revolution; conceived in and born from the intellectual's womb. Complacent the intellectual of today has become while the capitalist order or the "neoliberal doxa," has spread to infect all of mankind. The banner of resistance has "retreated into the 'small world' of academe, where it enchants itself with itself without ever being in a position to really threaten anyone about anything." A salvo against the capitalist order must be fired anew, and the role of the researchers, scientists, philosophers, et al. is to struggle against the market dominated status quo.

Firing Back reads well enough as a call-to-arms for socialist intellectuals. In regards to economic analysis, however, Bourdieu's inability to grasp economic realities dampens the book's impact markedly. His curious economic assertions abound in the book. On page 28, for example, our author states that firms pursue ever higher profit returns on capital investment only through mass layoffs. If this were the case, and increased profits could be garnered simply by firing people, then perhaps GM and Microsoft could turn a huge profit next quarter if they lay-off everyone!

While his economics may not be Stalinist, his vocabulary in describing the market economy most certainly is. For here, over 150 years since the publication of The Communist Manifesto, and almost fifteen years since the death knell of communism was sounded, Bourdieu writes of the "blind forces of economics," the "tyranny of the rates of profit" or the "petty bourgeois."

Truly amazing is Bourdieu's ability to recirculate patently false Bolshevik talking points without receiving mass ostracism. Case in point, Bourdieu blames a flexible labor market for the ills of the downtrodden. He writes, ". . . a deregulated financial market fosters a deregulated labor market and thereby the casualization of labor that cows workers into submission." It is as if our author slept through the mass destruction and human tragedy that was government domination of the labor force in the 20th century.

The plight of low-wage workers in developing countries rests largely with their socialist dictators, not the free movement of goods and services. What constitutes the true submission of workers is the slaughter and slavery of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and still to this day the oppression of "the workers" in contemporary North Korea. Workers in a capitalist system have the option of "firing" their bosses, a choice not available when the State is the only employer.

In Bourdieu's mind, mankind has not progressed economically in the past two hundred years. Despite the fact that those countries where the industrial revolution began enjoy the highest standard of living in the world to date, he cannot see the benefits of free markets. His ideological glaucoma narrows his field of vision to the mundane aspects of globalization. He writes, "…the prototype of the unskilled worker of the 'new economy' is the supermarket checkout girl whom bar-coding and computerization have converted into a genuine assembly-line worker, her cadence timed, clocked, and controlled across a schedule determined by variations in the flow of customers: she has neither the life nor the lifestyle of a factory worker, but she occupies an equivalent position in the new structure."

The battle for liberty is in the end a battle over ideas. If Firing Back is the last testament of one of the greatest intellectuals on the left, the struggle for freedom and capitalism is indeed a hopeful one. Yet for all his erroneous claims, Bourdieu's spirit represents what Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek envied in the socialists, viz. the courage to dream big (although in Bourdieu's case, to dream horribly wrong). This book represents a romantic plea for radical participation, a sentiment not often found among the capitalist intellectuals. While the world can live without the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, it could use his sense of passion.


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