Pierre Bourdieu, liberal thought and the ontology of collectives

Well over a decade ago, I was due to start a PhD in Political Philosophy looking at ideas of the individual within liberal thought. There are many reasons why I ultimately moved into a Sociology department instead, though my lack of regrets about this choice hasn’t stopped me occasionally wondering what might this thesis might have looked like. It occurred this morning when reading a collection of Bourdieu’s political writings (Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action) that one likely outcome would have been a subsequent study on liberalism’s difficulty with collectives. As Bourdieu writes, reproduced on pg 58:

Liberal philosophy identifies political action with solitary action, even silent and secret action, its paradigm being the vote ‘acquired’ by a party in the secret of the polling booth. In this way, by reducing group to series, the mobilised opinion of an organised or solidaristic collective is reduced to a statical aggregation of individually expressed opinions.

The difficulty posed by collectives concerns the empirical refutation of this often unstated principle. Actually existing collectives, with all their emergent mess, make it difficult to reduce group to series by methodological slight of hand. The noise and assertion which characterise them challenge us to treat them as collectives. But the broader edifice of liberal thought is dependent on melting collectives into aggregates:

Political action is thus reduced to a kind of economic action. The logic of the market or of the vote, in other words, the aggregation of individual strategies, imposes itself each time that groups are reduced to the state of aggregates – or, if you prefer, demobilised. When, in effect, a group is reduced to impotence (or to individual strategies of subversion, sabotage, wastefulness, go-slows, isolated protest, absenteeism, etc.), because it lacks power over itself, the common problem of each of its members remains in a state of unease and cannot be expressed as a political problem.

How should we conceive of the relationship between individuals and collectives? Much of what I’ve done in the last ten years is ultimately motivated by this question. This paper last year explored the biographical constitution of social movements under digital capitalism, arguing that ‘distracted people’ have much more inconsistent trajectories of participation, with implications for the emergent characteristics of social movements themselves:

Social movements often make an important contribution to the normative order within social life but how are their dynamics changing under conditions of social morphogenesis? It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. This chapters takes a novel approach to this question, exploring the technological dimensions of social morphogenesis and their consequences for the ‘distracted people’ who comprise social movements. Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives.

At some point I’d also like to pursue these issues at the level of cultural representation. For instance in the representation of mindless hoards posing a threat to the liberal order:

The relation between individuals and collectives plays out at many levels. My concern is to reclaim it as a meta-categorical feature of discourse, such that the connections between these different levels can be explored. I’m still rather far away from doing this, but at least the ambition is relatively clear to me now.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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