Decapitalize the culture

Image: Muhammad Khairul Iddin Adnan


Our goal should not be universal access to cultural or human capital, but its abolition as a social reality.

There are numerous debates between sociologists and economists about the concepts of “human capital” and “cultural capital”. The general view is that the first would imply a rational and instrumental attitude aimed at obtaining certain skills, while the second would suggest an investment in what Bourdieans call illusion: the denial that the game of culture is indeed a game.

Iván Szelényi once characterized this distinction slightly differently, pointing out that human capital was rewarded because of its contribution to productivity, while cultural capital was fundamentally a rentier claim. It seems to me, however, that we should be asking another kind of question. It is particularly important to ask: under what historical conditions does culture take the form of an “active” or “quasi-active”?

The preconditions of this formation are an earlier event, of cultural expropriation, and the subsequent process that allows the continuous and regular reproduction of this expropriation. Such “primitive accumulation” of human or cultural capital can take place in several ways. It may involve imposing a unique dialectic on the national language that suddenly devalues ​​pre-existing languages, as has happened inter alia with the Florentine dialectic on the Italian peninsula.

Or it could be the devaluation of indigenous knowledge, such as the management of common and desertified lands based on fertility cycles. But we need a more articulate analysis here. Because it is not true that the only options available in the process of cultural capital formation are complete equality or private ownership. Different periods of human history were marked by a collective form of ownership of culture, which encompassed a wide spectrum of classes, in such a way that culture could not be understood as “capital” of individual ownership. One might think of the culturally omnivorous Renaissance men, or the public debates that modeled Habermas. Within these spaces of relative exclusivity, culture was a collective “possession”. It did not take the form of an alien object of the ruling class; it was not an “asset” appropriated by a particular individual.

All of this is relevant for us to think about university policy and, moreover, a cultural policy in contemporary capitalism. Today, academia is often championed for its contribution to “cultural” or “human” capital. But this approach is self-defeating. The claim that “capital” is being provided for some is premised on the idea that others are being excluded.

Cultural or human capital is only valuable based on its scarcity. In this configuration, it is not in the interest of university elites that all or even most of those who so wish receive diplomas. The value of a college degree, like any other asset, decreases as access to it expands.

The answer from the social democratic left, “free higher education for all”, barely touches this underlying problem. Because the universalization of higher education would only result in the reduction of its economic value, unless the meaning of this education was radically transformed. Culture must be decapitalized in the first place; it can no longer be an asset. The humanized university would cease to be a place where human or cultural capital is acquired and would become an institution dedicated to the construction of personality.

This process should not be thought of as some kind of return to the studious gentleman ("gentleman scholar”), but it must be based on the formation of a new type of intellectual. The new intellectual would still possess a wide range of skills, but the means by which those skills would be taught and transmitted would be different from the way in which the contemporary classroom operates.

The craft of teaching itself would increasingly become the teaching of the craft. Mutatis mutandis, the widespread availability of “information” (a bit of a misnomer) via the internet and artificial intelligence would help academia, rather than hurt it. Our goal should not be universal access to cultural or human capital, but its abolition as a social reality. In this, as in other cases, the program of a humanized society is not the redistribution of property, but the overcoming of it as a real category.

*Dylan Riley is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Author, among other books, of Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present (To).

Translation: Julio Tude d'Avila.

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