Flow of Ideas
Forms of Capital: Critique of Bourdieu on Capital

Glenn Rikowski, London, 18th December 2007


In the 1990s, there was a particular fad in writing on education regarding placing ‘learning’ before social processes and phenomena. Thus, the ‘learning society’, the ‘learning school’ the ‘learning city’ and the ‘learning polity’ are just a few examples. For a longer period of time though there has also been a trend in educational writing and research (and it has gathered pace in the last ten years or so) to stick ‘capital’ after some social or human process or phenomenon. Examples include: human capital social capital, linguistic capital, knowledge capital, informational capital, emotional capital and cultural capital. Perhaps friendship capital or bullshit capital might emerge in future academic debates. In effect, we have ‘capital, capital everywhere’ yet not much insight into ‘capital as such’, anywhere! It seems to me that Pierre Bourdieu, one of the most overrated social theorists ever in my view, has a significant share in the responsibility for this ‘rash of capital’ in writings in social and educational theory and research. Here I will examine an extract from his work, The Forms of Capital (Bourdieu, 1997), focusing on what he says on capital. An article following this one will critique what he says on cultural capital.

Bourdieu on Capital

My first point is that Bourdieu’s concept of capital is at best naïve and simplistic and at worst positively misleading and reactionary. According to Bourdieu:

“Capital is accumulated labour (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e. exclusive, basis by agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labour. It is vis insita, a force inscribed in objective or subjective structures, but it is also a lex insita, the principle underlying the immanent regularities of the social world” (1997, p.46).

First of all, Bourdieu confuses capital and value. Indeed, value seems to play no part in his definition of capital. In the capitalist labour process, the commodity incorporates both value and use-value. It is the former that is the basis and foundation of capital and surplus-value allows for the expansion of capital. Surplus-value, value over-and-above that represented in the wage, is the first form of new capital, and the changes that surplus-value undergoes (always activated and mediated by our labour) represents its movement as the development of various forms of capital (e.g. profit, rent, the state form etc.). As Tumino (2002) notes:

“Capital is the accumulated surplus-value extracted by the capitalists who, having monopolized the means of production, as happened in England during the eighteenth century when the common lands of the peasants were privatized, have forced the majority of the people to engage in unpaid surplus-labor in order to survive” (p.5).

Note that Tumino situates capitalists as ‘monopolising the means of production’, not some vague ‘agents’ (as in Bourdieu).

This leads on to the second point: value, surplus-value and therefore capital are generated in the capitalist labour process; in the actual process of production in capitalist society. Bourdieu’s concept of capital appears to operate at the level of distribution of already produced commodities. It’s not the case that capitalists appropriate commodities after they have been produced. If this was all there was to it then the abolition of capitalism would be a purely distributional affair. Socialists would just have to make sure that everyone received their ‘fair shares’ of the social produce. However, at the core of capitalism is exploitation in the form of unpaid labour-time that occurs in the capitalist labour process itself. Bourdieu deflects our attention from this.

Thirdly, in arguing as he does, Bourdieu confuses and conflates value and wealth. As Postone (1996) has argued, versions of socialist, Left and Marxist theory that critique capitalist society on the basis of its iniquitous distributions of wealth, fail to provide a sufficient critique of the social relations of production. In turn they fail to indicate how the wealth of capitalist society rests on these social relations and how our labour in the capitalist labour process takes the form of value- and surplus-value-producing labour. Thus, Bourdieu’s analysis of capital (and capitalism) is superficial and reactionary. As Postone (1996) argues, the abolition of private property alone, conjoined with a focus on changing the distributional arrangements in capitalist society – in an attempt to make them ‘fairer’ – leaves production relations untouched. Hence, the core of the capitalist mode of production, with its alienated, forced and oppressive form of labour also remains in place. Bourdieu: some ‘radical’!

Fourthly, Bourdieu (in the quotation above) seems to be arguing that there are material commodities on the one hand, and ‘embodied’ forms (cultural and social capital, for example) on the other. But this confuses the situation further. As I have indicated (in Rikowski, 2000, p.20), commodities can be either material or immaterial – and this was in line with Marx’s thinking. The key distinction regarding commodities is between the general class (those which do not generate new value surplus-value) and those which do. This latter class consists of a single commodity: labour power (the capacity to labour incorporated in labourers) (see Rikowski, 2005, p.4; and Rikowski, 2006, p.6-8).

Finally, it could be argued that Bourdieu confuses the distinction between capital and labour power in his outline of capital (above). If labour power is a form of ‘embodied’ capital (Bourdieu), and furthermore it is appropriated as private property, then labourers become slaves in a direct sense. However, as I have indicated (in Rikowski, 2000), the capitalist buys labour power (for a duration) not labour or the labourer. In capitalism, labourers are ‘free’ in the sense that they can sell their capacity to labour wherever they wish. This capacity, their labouring power, is not owned in the same sense that capitalists own the proceeds of production; i.e. material or immaterial commodities produced in the capitalist labour process (Screpanti, 2007).

All-in-all, Bourdieu’s conception of capital debilitates radical critique of capitalist society, blunts analysis through confused or simplistic thinking and undermines clarity regarding the way in which capitalist society is socially constituted.


From this brief critique of Bourdieu on the basis of a single extract from his writing, it might seem unwise to place much emphasis on what he says about ‘capital’, let alone the ‘forms of capital’ (e.g. cultural capital, or social capital). However, in the world of Left educational theory, there are those (such as Richard Hatcher) who feel disinclined to subject St. Pierre to rigorous critique and analysis regarding what he says on ‘capital’; all the better perhaps to take in even more contentious and intellectually inflated concepts launched by Bourdieu (such as cultural capital).

Bourdieu appears to be a muddled thinker on the issue of ‘capital’. Worse, his ideas seem to provide a barrier for the development of Marxist theory and critique. Those wishing to place their intellectual and career bets with Bourdieu and mainstream sociology of education, and therefore in de facto opposition to Marx and Marxism, may well claim that Bourdieu cannot be included as a ‘Marxist’ or ‘Marxian’ theorist anyhow. This would at least be honest. Yet it would not stop the followers of Bourdieu from appearing to say something useful and sensible on something they take to be ‘capital’; thereby leaving their apparent status as radicals and deep thinkers intact. What amazes me is how so many could be fooled into thinking that Bourdieu’s ideas on education can be used as the basis for substantial critique of capitalist education when he is so muddled on what ‘capital’ is.


Bourdieu, P. (1997) The Forms of Capital, in: A. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown & A. Stuart Wells (Eds.) Education: Culture, Economy and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Postone, M. (1996) Time, Labor and Social Domination: A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rikowski, G. (2000) That Other Great Class of Commodities: Repositioning Marxist Educational Theory, a paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Cardiff University, 7 – 10 September: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00001624.htm

Rikowski, G. (2005) Distillation: Education in Karl Marx's Social Universe, Lunchtime Seminar, School of Education, University of East London, Barking Campus, 14th February: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Distillation

Rikowski, G. (2006) Education and the Politics of Human Resistance, Information for Social Change, Issue No.23 (Summer): http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/B3%20Glenn%20Rikowski.pdf

Screpanti, E. (2007) Libertarian Communism: Marx, Engels and the Political Economy of Freedom, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tumino, S. (2002) Pierre Bourdieu as New Global Intellectual for Capital, The Red Critique, No.6, September-October.

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