Classical sociologists, notably Marx—but also Weber, argued that a vital key to the transition from feudalism to capitalism was the State’s monopolization of violence.
The distinctive French route to capitalism has continued to be a major issue in Marxist and historical sociological discussion, notably in the Brenner (Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe: The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism. In The Brenner Debate, ed. T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin, 10–63, 213–327, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and Davidson (How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket, 2012) debates. Elias assessed the nature of such a State monopoly and its impact on the “civilizing process,” combining a Marxist with a Freudian model to address the consequences of repressing violent and sexual drives. The civilizing process, for Elias, was developed particularly by the seventeenth-century court aristocracy, transmitted to the urban bourgeoisie and then ultimately to the popular classes. Bourdieu, in his turn, addressed such an Eliasian “civilizing process” in various works, whilst emphasizing not just the State monopoly of violent power but also of symbolic power. Further, in his development of Marx’s and Elias’s argument, he sheds light on the comparatively late extension in France of the capitalist market, notably into provincial peasant worlds (cf. The Bachelors’ Ball (2008), On the State. Lectures at the College de France, 1989–1992. Translated by D. Fernbach. Cambridge: Polity, 2014).
We argue in this chapter that there are certain key affinities between Marx, Elias and Bourdieu in their relational approaches and conceptual instruments. Not the least important amongst such socio-historical concepts is that of “decivilizing periods” or “counter-civilizing spurts.” These are Elias’s terms for periods which reverse the earlier direction of pacification and witness a turn to barbarism, as typified in Marx’s classical discussion of Louis-Napoleon in The Eighteenth Brumaire. Elias examines the outbreak of one such epoch-making decivilizing period in his theoretically rich analysis of Nazism in The Germans, in which he draws attention to the National Socialist Party’s use of both ideology and utopia. Bourdieu addresses particularly the intellectual legitimation for Nazism, exemplifying this in Martin Heidegger’s symbolic revolution within the philosophical field. But he also introduces the concept of “decivilizing periods” more broadly, in particular via the withdrawal of the “left hand” of the French State, following the end of paternalistic “planification” and the retraction of the Welfare State, post-1968. In this vein, and drawing on Marx, Bourdieu and Elias, Wacquant has fruitfully made the case for conceptualizing the high rates of homicide in contemporary America as a similar “decivilizing spurt,” offering an explanation particularly in terms of the "desertification" of the State.
A version of this chapter has appeared in German, see Fowler (2008): the present version is substantially revised.
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Federici (2014) has argued persuasively that imperialist and neo-imperialist relations continue to provoke similar forms of primitive accumulation, noting twentieth and twenty-first century enclosures in Africa and Southern Asia.
For an influential critique of “meritocratic illusions” citing Bourdieu, see Piketty 2020: 709–713, 716.
Nevertheless, against the received view that Bourdieu is simply a theorist of reproduction, I argue that his sociology does offer a theory of social transformation (see Fowler 2020).
Imperial administration often revealed the naked coercive power behind the rule of law (Arendt 2017). In this sense decivilizing actions behind the scenes often accompanied the theatrical staging of the colonial powers’ peaceful rule as the gift of civilization. For a brilliant account of the superseding of class conflict by ethnosocial conflict, leading, in specified circumstances, to genocide, see Mann (2005).
I have developed these points earlier: see Fowler (2011).
For example, the taboo on women being seen breast-feeding in public goes unmentioned, although paintings would suggest that the prohibition dated only from the eighteenth century. The segregation of menstruation and childbirth within an inner sanctum is also unmentioned: this may have predated courtly prohibitions. The “civilized” denial of women’s capacity to make legal contracts or to speak in public also go unnoticed, although Elias partly compensated for this silence with his fascinating essay on The Changing Balance of Power between the Sexes (1998: 187–214).
The new agents are the heirs of a similar Grand Ecole-based reproduction but with a greater family component in their inheritance.
Bourdieu also analyses masculine domination (2001). However, as Hadas has argued (2019), he needs to distinguish different forms of feudal masculinity. The masculinity that Bourdieu mainly writes about—associated with violence and warfare—relates more to the medieval knightly ethos; the masculinity of the clergy—often from the same aristocratic class—is more peaceful and intellectual. It is this clerical masculinity that is more often passed down at a later period to the bourgeois male.
It should be added that Cassirer, who was Jewish, had to subsequently take exile in New York.
Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle is divergent from current readings of Aristotle as a theorist of community, heir to Marx—see, for example, Meikle (1995). I should add that there has been a predominantly positive assessment in recent literature of both Heideggerian philosophy and Bourdieu’s perceived regard for his innovation (see, e.g. Atkinson (2016) and Robbins (2019)). This stems from Bourdieu’s memory of his youthful fascination with Heidegger’s Being and Time (Bourdieu 1990b: 10). Yet by the time Bourdieu published his book on Heidegger’s symbolic revolution (1991 ), he had become highly disenchanted with the latter’s antisemitism, antagonism to the Welfare State and repudiation of empirical social science. All these stances are laid bare through Bourdieu’s close reading (1991, see especially vii–viii).
The influence of Elias on Bourdieu is further evident in their respective sociologies of the body and sport. Crucially, for example, given Elias’s civilizing theme, both he and Bourdieu depict the sociogenesis of the modern game of football as one that moved from the bloody struggles of parish teams in folk football to the contemporary, exciting, internationally regulated “beautiful game” (Elias, 1971, Elias and Dunning, 1971, Bourdieu 1978, 1993b: 120). Bourdieu, in particular, notes the rise, historically, of an amateur ethos of sport, a “physical art for art’s sake,” attracting particularly those with sufficient economic means and leisure (Bourdieu, 1978: 823).
Here I accept an argument first formulated incisively by Steven Loyal (2004: 135)
A Black Lives Matter report (2021) states that, in the first eight months of 2020, police in the United States killed 164 black people. But this may be an underestimate: the Washington Post and The Guardian statistics for 2019 stated that over 1000 had been killed by police, disproportionately African Americans (Wikipedia 2021).
An earlier exception to this is Howard Becker’s Art Worlds (1986).
He also offers evidence that second-generation migrants still partly “misrecognize” their situation (Bourdieu 1996b: 30–41) yet are also becoming disenchanted with their parents’ meritocratic illusions. They demand that schools in their areas should have better-educated teachers and improved facilities (Bourdieu in Bourdieu et al. 1999: 422–3).
Bourdieu’s sociology is not, to my knowledge, referred to in Elias’s texts: Elias, on the other hand, is frequently invoked in Bourdieu’s works.
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Fowler, B. (2022). Violence, Symbolic Violence and the Decivilizing Process: Approaches from Marx, Elias and Bourdieu. In: Paolucci, G. (eds) Bourdieu and Marx. Marx, Engels, and Marxisms. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-06289-6_3
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