The world hardly noticed when the Danish party The Alternative snuck their way into parliament with almost 5% of the votes, less than two years after its founding was announced. And why should the world notice such menial, peripheral affairs in the quiet corners of the world? Because this event reveals a certain greater cultural pattern that come to affect the world at large. What we see is the tendency for cultural capital to organize and out-compete financial capital.
“Economic capital, in this case, ‘trickles down’ through sexual and social capital. Exchanges take place. Society stratifies into male power, female beauty and side-kick friends.”
You may be familiar with the idea that there are different forms of capital in society.
Karl Marx argued that the logic of economic capital is what drives modern society and explains large parts of its social and political relations. Pierre Bourdieu argued that in modern French society, there is not only economic capital, but also cultural capital. The hommes de lettres, the cultural elite, were powerful and had their own ways of expanding their form of capital. Bourdieu also added social capital to the model – how well connected and cool you are. Political scientists, like Robert Putnam, have discussed social capital in a somewhat different sense, namely that some societies have more of it and some less – that people trust each other, etc. Later on, other forms of capital have been tried out and developed, such as sexual capital (that you’re hot etc. – a term coined by Catherine Hakim). I would perhaps like to add other forms, such as emotional capital (that you have more energy and make people feel happy etc.) and physical capital (being vital and healthy or being an athlete, this has also been discussed by sociologists, like the Danish masculinity researcher Martin Munk). There is also symbolic capital, which I will get back to.
Exchanges of capital – a Hollywood example
Oh, and you can exchange these forms of capital for one another – in different contexts, in different ways, at different rates. It’s not like Swiss francs and British pounds, where the rates are set at any one time. But if you are learned or sexy, likelihood of you having really rich or well-connected friends increases. Think about that ‘romantic comedy’ where Jennifer Lopez is an Hispanic cleaning lady from Brooklyn and falls in love with a rich member of congress. She is hotter and more overbearing than his other (upper class) girlfriend, which wins her the wedding ring and access to the upper echelons of society. In the happy cut-scene ending, she gets to run a business of her own, and her cleaning lady friends (who were not as hot) get to work there as well. The friends have enough economic and social capital to be close to the hot chick at work, which grants them a share of her dividend. If they were unemployed or less companionable, they would have missed out. Economic capital, in this case, ‘trickles down’ through sexual and social capital. Exchanges take place. Society stratifies into male power, female beauty and side-kick friends.
Maid in Manhattan (2002) is of course a lousy movie, not only for its predictable and dumb story, but primarily for its gender and class biases. 13 years later, we are still waiting for the movie where a hot male Indian immigrant cleaning man called Sandeep has sex with a powerful, good-natured, WASP older female politician and wins socio-economic success as a result – a success he generously shares with his somewhat less sexy ethnic buddies Siddhart and Kareem. I’m sure it would do better than two out of five stars on IMDB.
But then again, both plots are equally unrealistic. In reality, the politician would have dumped the cleaning lady after sex and gone after someone better culturally and socially equipped to be his partner in the social arenas in which he must compete and show results. The reason that these plot-lines remain Hollywood fantasies is that they look at financial, social and sexual capital, but miss out on cultural capital. In any real situation, the Brooklyn lady, her interests and tastes, her conversation topics, her general educational refinement, even her way of moving her body, would have been an embarrassment to the congressman. She lacks cultural capital – something made invisible in the movie by the strangely middle class demeanor displayed by Jennifer Lopez in her role (and her kid is also strangely and neutrally middle class). The powerful politician would appear to others not as magnanimously class-blind, but as sexually perverted, using his position to get a woman who can offer him a beautiful body, but cannot be his equal.
Ours is a cruel world, when viewed with sociological goggles. What I aim to show with this excursion into cheap Hollywood fantasies is that different forms of capital are exchangeable with one another – and how naive we must be to view the world without understanding cultural capital and its growing power. If you want to live in a Hollywood fantasy, that’s fine. But if you want to see what’s going on in the world and change the social games of life towards being more fair, transparent, forgiving and abundant, you need to see what capital is and how it runs the world. We are going from a world run by economic capital, to a world run by cultural capital.
Capital – a general definition
So what is a capital, a general definition that goes for both money, fashion, book-smarts, sex, trust, coolness – the whole shebang? Here is a definition, Hanzi-style:
Something that creates a positive feedback loop
which changes social relations
so that power is accumulated
for the person or organization to which the feedback loop is linked.
Okay? So anything that makes you more powerful vis-à-vis others, and that can grow and expand itself by proper management, is capital. The positive feedback loop means that you tend to get more of it once you have a certain amount, it creates an advantage from which you can get more of the same or more of similar. It would be possible to add another dimension: capital must have some kind of psychological lure or desirability. There must be something we can fetishize, something we can crave, possess, call our own, and/or be possessed by.
This general definition lets us know something more about cultural capital. It is not the same as being intelligent, having a high IQ or a high cognitive stage of development. It means that you have better mastery of more symbols, i.e. words and ideas (or names and references); that these symbols are more generally relevant and applicable to the world around you; that you know and understand more creative and abstract ways to put these symbols together; that you know which names and references are seen as ‘good taste’, in which social contexts and why; and that you have a more intimate relationship to the fine and subtle dimensions of the symbols and how to use them. The more you get the drift of the world around you, the more new cool and useful symbols you tend to come across and master.
“Simply: cultural capital means to be intimately in tune with the society you live in.”
Simply: cultural capital means to be intimately in tune with the society you live in. It takes different forms: knowing authors like Hannah Arendt, Aldous Huxley or Theodor Adorno, knowing the culture of the Burning Man festival (and understanding its values), knowing arts and international relations, knowing the logics of various indigenous cultures, knowing many brands of music and being able to see how they make a difference in society, knowing the Silicon Valley culture, knowing the major ideas of the major philosophers and who contends to be a great philosopher today, understanding the Internet Age, understanding sarcasm, irony and sincerity, understanding different religions, political movements and spiritual traditions, knowing about fashion and understanding what drives it, speaking more languages, knowing organic gardening and cool ways to work out … You get the picture.
Who has cultural capital?
In today’s society, especially in countries that epitomize the social structures emerging in our time, like Denmark, a certain pattern is becoming increasingly evident.
High cultural capital is most concentrated to educated young people, especially young women. These are urban, liberal, post-materialist, cosmopolitan, environmentally oriented, individualistic, digitalized, artistic and often have other practices than monogamous heterosexuality.
Low cultural capital is being concentrated at the opposite end in Danish society (and similar societies): older, lower education and often male. These are more rural, conservative, nationalistically inclined and see themselves as ‘good honest folks’ as opposed to those snobs. The snobbishness of those rich in cultural capital can be derided in class terms, terms of being ‘real’ and normal or respectability/decadence or lacking responsibility and realism, in nationalistic terms and sometimes in sexist, hetero-normative and homophobic terms.
And while it may appear, on a superficial level, that the lower cultural capital side is winning all the votes – we see nationalist parties storming ahead all across Europe and parallel tendencies in the US and in Denmark the populist Danish People’s Party is second largest after the social democrats – we must not be fooled into failing to see the power structure that is crystallizing: the people with the highest cultural capital are increasingly running the show. If nothing else, the demographics work strongly in favor of cultural capital. The uneducated, smoking male has a much harder life and much less time left to live than his anti-racist, yoga-practicing fellow gay citizen with a PhD.
Cultural Capital ruling politics
So a chief reason that Denmark has this new progressive party called The Alternative who want to transform political culture into friendlier deliberation, listen more closely to citizens and use open citizen ‘idea labs’ and playful performances to engage the public in transition to environmental sustainability, is that there has been a sufficient accumulation of cultural capital. Cultural capital has accumulated to a sufficiently large group for a distinct ‘creative class’ interest to emerge in society, now being clearly articulated and manifested. In other words, enough people are equipped with an intuitive understanding of our time and with all manners of artful, playful and psychological toolkits to create this kind of organization.
Initially mocked by the media as star-eyed idealists, the movement soon became the media’s discretely held darlings. The people working in the media themselves largely share the same class interests and tend to be sympathetic to the values of the new party. They understand the friendly winks of irony and the idea of not taking oneself too seriously and generally return in kind with a friendlier tone in their criticisms and caricature images in printed papers. Organized cultural capital can automatically get ahead in the media – it doesn’t even have to buy it like financial capital does.
The Alternative critically pictured as silly but with a kindly wink in the media.
But it’s not only that. The party’s move to speak in a friendlier and more transparent manner – a skill that arguably can require more nuanced world-views, greater abilities to take the perspectives of others and better mastery of the spoken word (i.e. cultural capital) – is paying off. When the party entered parliament their first speech, held by Rasmus Nordqvist, was one that commended all the other parties for their different contributions and perspectives. When conservative politicians criticize the party for being weird, sect-like dilettantes and take their different playful offices and meeting rooms as an example, they appear small-minded and silly. The Alternative seem all the more magnanimous by not responding in kind.
“When the party was called ‘a bunch of circus clowns’, their members quickly produced this video, with party leaders pretending to partake in all manner of clown acts while discussing serious political issues such as sustainability, welfare and entrepreneurship.”
Already during the elections, the party showed that their members’ higher cultural capital was useful. They refused to put up their election posters before time, and instead designed smaller, cheaper posters that would fit in the off-hand spots left over from the other cheating parties. This was a media event and a young, kind looking man barely 20 years old calmly reported on TV that there’s room for everyone.
When the party was called ‘a bunch of circus clowns’, their members quickly produced this video, with party leaders pretending to partake in all manner of clown acts while discussing serious political issues such as sustainability, welfare and entrepreneurship:
This should be contrasted with the Danish Conservative Party, who have humongous financial means, so many contacts to the industry, and a very established electoral tradition, and miserably failed to produce any positive response in the electorate or the media. Enough cultural capital in one place simply beats financial capital in today’s media-centered world of displays and surfaces.
The party also hi-jacked media events in different ways, for instance by means of their glowing green color showing up everywhere and people standing in the background as audience during TV-interviews, displaying a big textile ‘Å’, the party’s symbol. To create events that are fun and engaging like this without involving sports or military parades is also something that requires cultural capital, including an understanding of today’s media landscape.
By having the most inclusive and idealistic agenda, party representatives are generally asked questions about how doable their ideas are. But because the party is in opposition, their chief mission is to remain symbolically, rhetorically and morally on top. Given that their more politically correct opinions are generally easier to defend, they have all the guns on their side in the long run.
The main challenge is not to dominate the political dialog or to rule Denmark – but, indeed, to include also those segments of the population that are feeling confused and estranged by their sudden success and growing impact.
Cultural Capital ruling Economic Capital
But the rabbit hole goes deeper. And yes, this really is Alice in Wonderland, a world turned upside-down. Because what we are seeing is a symptom of a greater and more profound change that is global and irreversible (unless we have ecological crises etc.).
The deeper reason that The Alternative shows up is that we now live in a globalized economy with vast post-industrial geographic zones and transnational social groups that economically dominate the rest of the world. In this global system of information technology and abundance, resources and information are no longer as scarce (at least not in the post-industrial zones). What is scarce is instead the ability to navigate this great, chaotic system – i.e. knowledge and ideas for combining the information and resources in beneficial ways.
“This means that out of two groups, where one is very rich and the other very high on cultural capital – the latter group will dominate the former.”
This means that out of two groups, where one is very rich and the other very high on cultural capital – the latter group will dominate the former. Cultural capital will be able to dictate the values and ideas of economic capital, and will be able to trade its own value at a very favorable rate. The cultural capital will be able to better capture the hearts and minds of people, making them work harder, for less money, towards more critically informed and productive ends. This is because there is enough abundance to let people get an education, a computer and a flat, and from there extra riches simply make much less difference than better, more sensitive and more inspiring ideas. Even if China has the assembly lines, Europeans trade their cultural capital at a very good rate and become richer.
… Which creates a new class structure. It is no longer very cool to be rich. In fact richness increasingly has an air of ridicule to it. And to flaunt wealth is considered bad taste. Cultural capital creates the highest form of social prestige. It is this prestige that makes it symbolically more valuable, being imbued with more symbolic meaning, making the old masters of the world – the wealthy – feel like silly brutes in its presence. Cultural capital is taking over economic capital as the main source of symbolic capital, as well as the main source of total capital. The young creatives are really more privileged and powerful than the rich magnates. It is a part of their self-image that they are romantic underdogs, but nobody is fooled, really.
This creates a deep frustration, a lot of violent reactions from otherwise pretty calm and normal middle and working class people. But their angry reactions reveal them and they unwittingly contribute to the slow and psychologically painful – but politically necessary – revolution of cultural capital.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.