The moral imperative of strategies of universalization

Bourdieu series, post #1

And one is tempted to say, contrary to the moralists who insist on pure intentions, that it is good that it should be so. No one can any longer believe that history is guided by reason; and if reason, and also the universal, moves forward at all, it is perhaps because there are profits in rationality and universality so that actions which advance reason and the universal advance at the same time the interests of those who perform them (Bourdieu 1997:126).

Bourdieu argues not only that the political project of universality is inescapable—i.e., that someone (or some group or class) will succeed in defining the contents of the universal, even if others eschew the contest itself—he is also suggesting here that there is potential social value in the operations of universality. It is not only a matter of practical necessity in the terrain of politics that contenders claim and contest the symbols, contents, and products of universality; there is also a broader social good in the operation—potentially, at least, and however untidy. While the political operation of constructing, cultivating, and wielding broad unity, and of framing universality(/ies), does indeed obfuscate important differences, heterogeneity, and power concentrations within the constructed alignment—sometimes at great costs to particular groups, especially those that are already marginalized—it simultaneously bridges between the potent solidarity found within fields (and in-groups) and the broad inclusionary project of constructing a common society within which all particular groups and fields must coexist.

Within the operation of a particular group fighting for its own particular agenda, such a contender may attempt to construct a symbol that frames its particular interests as common or ‘universal.’ Yet, as Bourdieu points out, not just any constructive symbol will do—it has to ring true (1990:138). The symbol is necessarily ambiguous in order to avoid being nailed down to too particular a meaning (tied to too particular a group) and thereby losing its broader ‘universal’ appeal. It has to resonate beyond the boundaries that define the particular group. To achieve such resonance, the particular agenda (of the particular contender) must contort and open up in order to make an effective bid to the broader social forces that must be won over—i.e., convinced to join the contender’s particularly framed political alignment—if the contender is to believably project its particular agenda as popular, and thereby open up the possibility of winning for itself recognitions, concessions, or the ability to wrest the helm of the ship of state. This is to say that to some extent the particular contender has to muddle its particularity in order to effectively operate as a symbol and agent of a ‘universal’—thereby transforming both particular and universal in the same move.

Thus, in some sense, the particular contender can be seen as providing a service to other particulars, by performing a disproportionate share in the work of symbolic unification, even as it pushes forward its own particular agenda. By making a bid for broad alignment—i.e., for the sympathies of other particular groups—the contender has to move toward the others; has to bend. Critics (from the left) of such an approach (when utilized by the left) point out the great compromises that groups make in order to engage in such hegemonic contests. Righteous challenges to the status quo are ‘watered down’ in order to become tenable. Such critics are correct only on a discourse level, and through the lens of the type of morality that washes its hands of real-world outcomes. What they almost always neglect to mention is that the alternative for such contenders is to stand righteously but impotently alone, gaining nothing. (Not entirely alone, of course; doomed righteous stands are often able to attract those ‘usual suspects’ who can be counted on to board sinking ships, and unfortunately, these usual suspects—with all their flair—tend to function inadvertently as repellants to other, often more powerful, potential allies.) Such is the type of critic that Bourdieu accuses of “forgetting that it is not sufficient to change language or theory [in order] to change reality” and of “uncritically attribut[ing] political efficacy to textual critique (1997:108).”

But, again, for Bourdieu this is not only a matter of practical necessity. Without this bid to win broader sympathy, without this bending, the world might indeed be the Hobbesian nightmare of unrestrained selfishness — but on the level of selfish groups rather than individuals, looking out only for their neatly bounded narrow interests, constantly fighting against each other, eternally litigious, fragmented, bitter.

This is not to argue that “strategies of universalization” are neat, clean, and unproblematic. Nor is it to suggest a neutral benevolent form of universality whose particular contents are more or less equivalent and inconsequential. It matters who—i.e., which particulars—succeed in the operation of the construction of universality, and how they do so, which is why it is so important that those groups and fields that have the most inclusionary, commons-oriented, social justice values not eschew this terrain of contestation, within which the lion’s share of political outcomes is determined. “If there is a truth,” after all, “it is that the truth of the social world is at stake in struggles – because the social world is, in part, will and representation; and because the representation that groups make of themselves and of other groups plays an important part in shaping what groups are and what they do (Bourdieu 2008:193).”


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. In Other Words: Essays Towards Reflexive Sociology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

——. 1997. Pascalian Meditations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

——. 2008. The Bachelors’ Ball. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

One response to “The moral imperative of strategies of universalization”

  1. […] elites tend to possess both predisposition and capacity to effectively project their particular interests as universal (even if rival elite factions frequently fight amongst themselves over the details). The capacity […]

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