Note on “distinction” in neoliberalism

Image: Aaditya Arora


Egocentrism expresses a position in the social sphere, that the new rich are agents of a soulless economism

At the end of the XNUMXth century, studies show that the property-owning classes sought luxury consumption to demonstrate the superiority of status Social. In The distinction (1979), Pierre Bourdieu resumes his investigation of the signs that designate the elegance and nobility of being. With the sunset of Ancien Régime, the ruling classes replaced the noble titles that crystallized the hierarchy of command. Before, to exist was to be different. In the Republic, to exist is to have formally equal rights. As a result, no title overlapped that of “citizen”, although social differences persisted.

For the privileged strata, the issue centered on putting on the agenda what differentiated them in the community, not based on heredity, but on material and symbolic achievements. Social prominence by way of life, speaking, dressing, behaving and performing for the amorphous mass became the tip of the scales. Thing that happened thanks to the appeal of “originality”, a salient prerogative that implies preconditions. For example, in sports. To be a member of a golf club, you must be nominated by a member of the association and use expensive equipment, under the care of an employee (caddy) during matches. Thus, social screening occurs. 

Another differentiation is found in the arts. The new rich behave like rastaqueras. They do not recognize an authentic work of art. They ignore aesthetic nuances, pictorial movements and personal styles, criteria for rigorous plastic classification. The aristocratic-bourgeois distinction presupposes a know-how of skills and education. Dispositions that are learned from childhood, in the family context. It is also worth remembering that access to luxury consumer items alone is not enough.

Distinctive objects with the greatest democratization of society undergo continuous displacement. It takes an economic and cultural burden not to meddle from duck to goose, and fall into ridicule. What the middle class uses is stigmatized in bad taste. Reason for the strong resentment of the middle strata, who imitate the wealthy classes in a caricature way. Where traditional fidalgos enjoy seasons, their simulacra transit in lightning sea cruises.

With their eyes turned towards the top of the pyramid, little misses abroad send photos to their friends next to envied yachts. In stand up, they saw jokes like the one told by Ariano Suassuna about the posh woman who divided humanity between those who had gone to Disneyworld Orlando and those who had never been, like the playwright. A social columnist, by the way, ironizes paid trips to Paris “to guide ignorant rich people and tell the story of what they would visit in the City of Light”.

The barbarian representatives of the contemporary Casa Grande only manifest themselves to intervene in defense of the causes that re-update the inequalities inherited from the old colonialism. Hence the support for the neo-fascism of a captain who defended torturers, for the neoliberalism of a chicago boy trained in aporophobia and the neoconservatism of religious fundamentalists. The plutocracy supports anti-Enlightenment actions for the “School without parties” and against “gender ideology”. Consciousness scares.

Bourdiesian surveys date back to the 1960s and 1970s, in post-war France, and allude to an enlightened bourgeoisie. With exceptions, it is not the case of the backward Brazilian elite whose mansions do not even reserve rooms to install the library and cinematheque. Its agenda of subjects composes a mosaic of ostentations, without finesse. What they consider sophisticated comes down to wine labels with exorbitant prices and gastronomic memories of restaurants with stars awarded by the Michelin Guide, to eat a piece of meat with gold dust and take a Selfie next to chef.

billionaire boredom

“In the country, between 1980-2022, according to the Forbes Magazine the 21-fold increase in the number of billionaires was accompanied by a change in their profile. They fit into the role of bankers and linked to agribusiness, when more than three decades ago they were concentrated in the transformation industry and civil construction”, analyzes Márcio Pochman, in the article “Political project of the public debt” (Political Therapy, 25/06/2023). The status change, in fact, did not bring social benefits. The powerful have adapted to the new reason of the world and to the neoliberal society. The subtle demands of the nineteenth-century Enlightenment are behind us. Private donations to institutions of humanistic, scientific and artistic knowledge according to the canons of high culture they broke up in the air.

The gestures of generosity that linked the existence of the commons, with the creation of universities, hospitals and funds for the protection of the environment, gave way to projects that broke all contractual norms of user-friendliness. Billionaires with fortunes made under the domination of financial capital in the global economy, prefer to buy football clubs for the opportunity to do business and enjoy the pleasure of celebrities. They do not fund intelligence or sensitivity. 

Decommunitarianization made the philanthropic activities of the owners of money exceptional. Today, the minds and hearts of winners (1%) are conditioned by a narcissistic hyper-individualism. You losers (99%) do not appear in the power equation. The multimillionaires in Ludwig von Mises' booklet deny Neil Armstrong's ideals when he stepped on the Moon in 1969: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind". The final part of the prayer became a figure of speech, with no commitment to reality. The nawabs divorced the species of the homo sapiens.

The process of income concentration in Silicon Valley (Facebook, Apple, Google, Netflix), in San Francisco Bay, does not arouse Christian love, let alone democratic passion to bring help to continents in difficulty, as in the pandemic crisis. Now, the signs of wealth are given by the idiosyncratic choices of originality; growing, more hedonistic and exclusive pleasures.

In our time, social distinction aims at the chance guaranteed by the dollar signs that propitiate emotion “for the rare”, not in the spiritual sense of Hermann Hesse, in the steppe wolf, but in the petty sense of the wealthy who, after violating the planet, experience the boredom of having everything imaginable on Earth. The trips in the respective rockets of Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, cost R$ 26 billion each. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, was the one who managed to go further after the Apollo expeditions. Space tourism tours for bored billionaires are a victory for selfishness.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres criticized the tycoons' lack of empathy: “They went around in space while millions starve on Earth. Instead of humility in the face of epic challenges, we see arrogance. Instead of a path to solidarity, we are on a dead-end path to destruction.” The submersible Titan, by OceanGate, revealed the irresponsible negligence of the proposal for “deregulation” of free enterprise undertakings. The protocol required ultra-resistant elements in the construction of the capsule, titanium. Carbon fiber did not have the same resistance, and the thickness of the hull was 13 cm, instead of 18 cm according to the technicians.

Furthermore, the itinerary controlled by a prosaic joystick standard generic Xbox will not undergo high pressure testing. Oversight by state agencies on security was neglected. The five rich people who paid BRL 1,2 million to see the ruins of the Titanic, strictly speaking a cemetery, perished in the implosion. Added to the week was the sinking of a fishing boat off the Italian coast, with 500 Libyan migrants missing. The media paid attention to the tragedy of the cool ones. It was the news on the screen. The lives of the poor did not matter in the accounting of human losses. As the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, said: “Society does not exist, what exists are individuals and families”.

Egocentrism expresses a position in the social sphere, that the new rich are agents of a soulless economism, incapable of cementing a lasting hegemony on the intellectual and moral plane. The active and haughty governance led by President Lula da Silva, despite the mercenary alliances in Parliament, is the counter-hegemonic bet of the organized workers to barbarism. The participation of citizens in the formulation of egalitarian policies empowers the people in the republican and civilizational construction of Brazil. What is Thiago de Mello's verse: "I am for what I am".

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was Rio Grande do Sul's state secretary of culture in the Olívio Dutra government.

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