ClassActivist Comment

What Is Cultural Capital?

Classactivist Comment:

This article provides a nice clear and simple distinction between the more simplified Marxist analysis of class (social class primarily being defined by whether someone works for a boss or owns the 'means of production', although Marx did also write about the role of the 'petit bourgeouisie', and the more nuanced analysis that was proposed by sociologist Pierre Bordieu, himself writing and analysing from a low income/low status lived experience perspective.

These analyses of class don't have to be taken as 'one or the other' - they can sit side by side. A better understanding of why working class voices have disappeared from socialist politics and how middle class voices tend to increasingly dominate can actually help us to build a more 'grounded' and inclusive, effective, unified Left movement. Social class combines many factors. We cannot look at the political invisibility and powerlessness of working class people in shaping society just as an issue of economics and poverty or just as an issue of cultural and social capital. All of these forces have combined to not only cause the decline of working class agency and voice alongside their impoverishment. They also combine to maintain the socio-economic and political degeneration of a working class that was once clued-up about the forces oppressing them and up for the fight. As long as their voices and their class consciousness are suppressed and their natural political spaces dominated by the middle class in a way that leaves no room for them, there really isn't much hope for a unified and powerful socialist movement to emerge.

The same is true within education. It is of course essential that inaccessibility of cultural capital for working class children is addressed, but this opens up a wider conversation, the discussion doesn't stop there. There is the awkward reality that if every child had access to a fantastic cultural education, other social class forces would still exist. Poverty wages and under-valued frontline essential work would still need to be done. If every child in the country qualified to attend Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities, some of them would still lack the vital connections to get into the most influential and well-paid jobs and in any case, there would not be enough elite positions to satisfy the supply of qualified and talented candidates emerging. And a functioning society collapses, as we have seen, without cleaners, refuse workers, delivery drivers, cashiers and carers.

There is also the question of the ethics around what forms of culture and who's achievements and stories are valued. We still have very little celebration within our education system, for example, of the incredible levels of industrial development within the Indian subcontinent before colonialism appropriated that. We don't have an honest conversation about our heroes. How many of our children of any social class learn about the Matchgirls Strike? Or the Peterloo Massacre?

There is a requirement to ensure that access to cultural forms considered elite is as available to working class kids as it is to middle class kids, but there is equally a conversation to be had about what part class bias plays in how we value certain cultural forms and certain professions within our society. And none of this will resolve that poverty itself impacts parents' capacity to join their children in school activities and set aside the time, mental and physical energy to support their children's learning, enjoyment and confidence.

Cultural capital and access to it are valid and important conversations requiring positive responses within the education system but this isn't simply a question of broadening access for working class kids; we need a much bigger conversation.

Taken on its own, it fails to resolve that some children will have parents who can afford private tutoring. It fails to resolve that unless we reassess as a society what roles we value (and how well we want to provide for people who need to claim benefits through disability or other support needs) some parents somewhere will always be struggling and their kids falling behind due to inadequate income and through no fault of their own. It fails to resolve the possibility that increasing the income and cultural capital of working class families may unleash more talent and ability than assumed. It fails to address how working class achievements and cultural forms are devalued or even despised, just because they come from working class people.