IndexPart IPart III

Andy Blunden 2004 [draft in progress]
Social Solidarity versus
“Social Capital”

II. “Social Capital”

1. Overview

There is not a lot one can say about the concept of “social capital” outside of the development and application of the concept by particular writers because the meaning given to the concept is so widely different from one writer to the other.

Briefly, for Jane Jacobs it meant neighbourhood self-government; for Pierre Bourdieu it meant “distinction;” for James Coleman it means the power to control events in other people’s lives; for Fukuyama it means trust; and for Robert Putnam it means sociability — though all with varying degrees of ambiguity. For some, it means something one values in one’s relations with other people which can contribute to making money, but whether it can be bought and sold, and whether its use in business consumes social capital, are questions which people answer differently.

Though the words “social capital” refer to systems of relationships which may be mutually incompatible, almost everyone seems to be in favour it — or at least their own concept of it. Under these circumstances, I think one has a right to make a semantic criticism of the words “social capital.” Of course, if the words signified a clear and useful concept, that they were semantic nonsense would not detract from the value of the concept. But this is not the case.

“Social capital” is an amalgam of two terms, so let’s start by clarifying the meaning of the word “capital” and its relation to “social.” Can social relations be a form of capital?

a. Capital

“Capital” is not a just word which was coined by a political economist who either invented or discovered the concept. Capital had to be there first, as some kind of focus in the way people related to each other and organised their activity before it could be named. But on the other hand, in just this sense capital was not around for ever, and it is fair to say that not such a long time elapsed after people began to organise their lives around capital before someone gave a name to the activity. In fact, the word “capital” was first used in its current meaning around 1611, derived from “capital grant” meaning a grant of land from the King — i.e. the head — which would be the basis of a new estate, and so meaning ‘original’ funds, thus carrying in its genealogy a mirror of the changing sources and origins of power. In broad terms, the moment at which a word enters the language closely follows the moment at which the concept named becomes something significant in people’s lives.

For example, the Sun existed long before humankind, but the Sun, with a capital-S, as something around which people consciously organised their activity and spoke about it, with all the shades of meaning and connotations it has, has only been around as long as human beings, and doubtless the word for it as long as language. “Sexism” was around long before 1968 when it entered the language, but it was only from 1968 that sexism became the focus of activity in the form of the modern women’s movement.

Capital carries the connotation of referring to something natural, outside of the human psyche, but it is undeniably a social construct, that is to say, something which exists only insofar as people act in relation to it. This is compatible with the undeniable fact that the movement of capital is subject to “laws” in the same way as all the other phenomena of mass society. To understand the meaning of the word “capital” it is necessary, momentarily at least, to enter into the conceptual framework of which it is a part, for “capital” is not a simple construct, determined in the day-to-day personal experiences of people, but is a very concrete historical construct of mass society. Capital, as something which existed as a reality for people, only came about after money had been created and developed to such a high level that it was an integral part of social life. Without ruling out for a moment the possibility that things other than money can constitute capital (which is of course the case), we need to call upon the concept of money in order to determine the meaning of capital, since the concept of capital is derivative of the concept of money.

To lessen any suspicion that I wish to determine capital as a form of money, I will use the term “value” in lieu of money, on the understanding that value can be invested in an infinite variety of forms other than money, even though it is an historical fact, that it was not until the value-relation had given birth to money as a central organising factor of societies, that money gave birth to capital.

Capital is an accumulation of values which can be put back into circulation so as to return increased in magnitude. Capital can be invested in the form of materials, machinery or land for example, provided only that a product results which can be put into circulation and sold for a profit so as to increase the invested capital. Wealth in any form which cannot be sold so as to return continuously to itself increased in magnitude is wealth but not capital.

Now, clinging to the idea that “money isn’t everything,” and pointing to all those myriad aspects of life which are enjoyed without having been purchased for cash, the advocates of “social capital” can respond in two ways.

Firstly, one can object to the tying of the notion of “capital” to its entering and returning from circulation: surely social bonds which can be enjoyed in themselves and which can generate other, new objects of enjoyment are as good a form of capital, as worth owning, as money? However, what is being talked about here is simply wealth, and wealth is as old as civilisation. No-one can deny the need of poor people and poor neighbourhoods for wealth, least of all poor people themselves. To observe its lack and to advocate for its accumulation in poor neighbourhoods requires no conceptual innovation at all. Capital is a distinct and historically constructed form of wealth, and the whole argument is about capital not wealth. Wealth is the end not the means, but capital is means, but not in any healthy sense an end.

Or secondly, the objection could be that while good social bonds are not capital in themselves (inasmuch as you cannot lend someone else your friends and contacts) they most certainly are a means of acquiring exchangeable wealth: if you have friends and contacts, distinction, or power over events of importance to other people, you can use them as levers for things that people will pay you for, you can use them to obtain credit, you can use them to establish cooperative working relations with people and you can exchange them for favours from other such people. But this confuses the preconditions for production of value with value itself. No-one would deny that poor neighbourhoods and countries, and poor people, need conditions propitious for the creation of surplus products over and above what they need for immediate consumption, for the creation of wealth, and the possibility for selling their product or at the very least exchanging for something which is saleable and making a profit by it all. This then is an argument about the pre-conditions for capital accumulation. But this is an entirely different argument, and entirely fallacious conclusions can follow from the confusion of the pre-conditions for production of capital and capital itself. No-one of any political persuasion would or could argue against the fostering of the preconditions for the production of a social surplus, whether accumulated as capital or not; what is at issue is whether the surplus produced is transformed into capital and accumulated by capitalists, or remains in the community where it is produced and enjoyed or distributed according to other social norms. The introduction of a concept of “social capital” sheds no light on this universally recognised problem at all, in fact it positively obscures it.

Now these criticisms are not equally relevant to the notion of “social capital” developed by each of the writers mentioned. James Coleman’s definition could survive a critique of this kind, but the social and political consequences of Coleman’s concept of social capital would, if brought into the light of day, meet with much less success. Robert Putnam’s laudable aims on the other hand, rest on a concept of “social capital” which is confusion from beginning to end.

Before proceeding to look at each of the different concepts of social capital in turn I want to just briefly review the concept of capital, without any attempt to bend it towards or away from a notion of “social capital” and without entering in any depth to the vast terrain of issues that are entailed in exploring the concept at any but the most superficial level. And then finally I want to briefly review, in the same terms, the array of similar oxymorons which have crept into our language alongside “social capital”: “natural capital,” “human capital,” and “political capital,” everyone of them a unique and original assault on the capacity of the language to express anything human.

b. Capital as a social relation

Capital is in its very essence quantitative. Wealth is qualitative. Whether a good book or a garden is wealth or a burden on you depends on whether you have any use for it; but a scientific discovery or a corner shop or a field of hemp is only capital to the extent of the value of what it can be sold for. Capital is essentially that which moves into and out of circulation, and capital today circulates on a world market, transforming from one form to another at an unbelievable pace. The overwhelming mass of all capital transactions are electronic, lacking any physical form, constituting one single unified movement of value, and anything which cannot enter that market is not capital. If you can’t put a price on it, it’s not capital.

The process of mentally creating a measure of something, if it corresponds to anything in reality and is not a mental fiction, must be a real process of abstraction, quantification and quantitative aggregation. “You can’t add apples and oranges” so the saying goes, and nor can you add grapes and watermelons, unless by weight, calories, price or some other real abstraction.

It is in this precise sense that we can say that capital is abstract.

On the other hand, capital is a social relation. It exists and counts only insofar as people organise their activity in accordance with its nature. Leaving aside the issue of money as a social relation, definite social conditions are necessary before an accumulation of money can move in and out of circulation and increase itself, — productive forces sufficiently developed to generate a social surplus, the existence of a class of people who do not have access to the means of their own reproduction, and the capacity for those means of production to be monopolised in the form of private property and bought and sold on the market as a form of capital.

Thus capital is also a system of activity. However, we cannot designate capital as a subject, because is not self-conscious. Nevertheless, it does act as if it were a self-conscious agent on the social plane as it determines the activity of people according to definite forms of behaviour and concepts. Indeed, the way in which capital determines people’s behaviour and consciousness bears an uncanny resemblance to the way God determines the behaviour of people in the various traditional cultures that utilise the concept of God.

However, capital is different, because it is an abstraction, and the process of abstraction is a perfectly real social process, not a flight of fantasy — but abstractions are not self-conscious. So we have this peculiar entity which acts for the world like a social subject, with its own ethics and its own ends, but as an abstraction is not human at all.

The work of exposing capital as a social relation was done by Marx in the mid-nineteenth century. This work was of course received with mixed enthusiasm, and for a long time political economists and their successors, the economic scientists, continued to study capital as an entity with its own laws standing above human society, as something ahistorical and natural, governing the affairs of humankind from outside like a force of Nature. However, over the decades, this kind of thinking gradually came into disrespect, and at least since about the 1960s, it has become more or less widely accepted that capital is a social relation, in other words, a form of human life. Amartya Sen’s deconstruction of the notions of commodity, value, utility and so forth, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, are evidence of the currency of the view that people are capable of adopting different constructions of value as a rational basis for public economic and social policy.

While the idea that capital is a form of human life has achieved the status of commonsense, it has taken these geniuses of “social capital” to discover that, on the contrary, human life is a form of capital!

How does this process of abstraction take place? When a group of people are working together, as part of a single system of activity, a single subject, then there is no need of exchange between people casting each other as customer and service provider — they collaborate. Exchange only arises in respect to another subject, an outsider, in the event of an external relation with a separate independent subject. That is, it is only to the extent that the unity of a subject is broken and fragmented that the opportunity and necessity for the quantification of labour and its expression in the form of exchange-value arises. Also, of course, only in the event of contact with another subject does the possibility for exchange arise. But our point here is that the quantification of human labour, its transformation into value, and thus eventually money and eventually capital, expresses the abstraction of human beings from the productive social bonds with each other. In other words, abstraction of labour in the value-form, in money and eventually capital, is but a concentrated expression of the abstraction of human beings, of their being torn away from the social bonds by means of which they sustain themselves and distinguish themselves from the animals.

Capital is an abstraction which expresses the degree of abstraction of people, of the tearing of people out of their context, of abstract, interchangeable, uniform and undifferentiated labour.

Human beings were working and sustaining themselves and producing a social surplus before capital came along. The process of the last several centuries of world history has been the ever-expanding subsumption of human labour under the relation of capital. That is to say, the ever-continuing abstraction of workers from each other and from the means of their labour, obliging workers to sell their labour power to capital, while the surplus of production itself is subsumed into capital, culture itself therefore taking on the form of capital. The relation of one person to another is therefore no longer mediated by artefacts, traditional methods of working, land, herds and such like — since all these are subsumed under capital — but by capital itself.

In the “omitted chapter six of Capital” published as an appendix in the Penguin edition of Capital, Marx describes the subsumption of labour under capital in a two-stage process. First, the workers continue to work in the old way, but their product is directly appropriated from them and they are paid wages. Secondly, the way of working is gradually changed, with the relationships between workers who were formerly cooperating by traditional methods, using traditional tools and methods of work, and producing a product in its traditional form, changing to accommodate with the requirements of capital. Their material are acquired from new sources, their product is changed to adapt to the needs of capital and the relationships between the workers are commodified. [some quotes]

Thus the distinction between the timeless concept of wealth and the specific, historically limited concept of capital is an important one because “capital” denotes specific changes in the relations between people, in particular the “abstraction” of people from each other and the products of their labour, and the concentration of the means of production in private hands, as a saleable commodity. The fat of the former USSR has given us an exhibition of how capital can grow just as wealth declines. Capital is a measure of the concentration of power, not its absolute amount, of the ownership of means of production, not their existence.

Personification of Capital

Although capital is an abstraction it exists only if it is personified, and the owners of capital, companies, whether individuals or collectives, are subjects. The company, the subject which is the owner of a unit of capital, are the subjects which collectively constitute the bourgeois class. The basic unit of the bourgeoisie is the company. [source: Connell]

The human relationships corresponding to capital are thereby two-fold. The subject of a unit of capital relates to others outside that capital through the commodity relation — they buy and sell the labour subsumed under their unit of capital, including the purchase of the labour-power of employees on the labour market. Within the capital-subject the relationships are different; once having purchased the labour-power of the employees, the capital owner disposes of it by direction. Thus within the capital the relations are those of direction; between capitals, the relations are those of commodity, which is the relation which is the fundamental relation out of which capital itself arises. The commodity relation in respect to the purchase and sale of labour-power is of course a very asymmetrical one, since the buyer and seller of labour-power meet not as equals but with an enormous differential in power; on one hand we have wealth and power and on the other necessity.

Thus, although capital is not itself a subject, it exists as a social relation as subjects, plural, in the person of the owners of capital, companies. Companies of course have not only overlapping boards of directors and so on, but their relation to each other is also mediated by all sorts of complex overlappings and different modes of ownership of capital. For our purposes these complexities are of little interest. The main point is the constitution of subjects who must act according to the “laws of the market,” whose internal relationships are those of direction or dictatorship and whose external relations are those of commodity exchange, much like the simple subjects, producing a social surplus and trading with one another that we considered above.

Capital is therefore a specific form of human life, corresponding to a certain pattern of human relationships. It would be labouring the point to carry this analysis any further. I hope that this description of what capital is should raise caution about any proposal to further assist in the subsumption of human life under capital by declaring human life to be a form of capital.

c. Natural, human, political and social capital

I don’t like the term “political capital” and I never use it, but I think it is just a metaphor; no-one seems to propose that gains in political assets is something which can be usefully conceived as a form of capital, only that “political capital” is an accumulation of political assets which, like capital, can be cashed in in the form of political profit. I have no problems with this kind of metaphor. What troubles me is the industry based on the creation of confusing oxymorons like human capital, natural capital and social capital.

Even though capital is a form of value, and as such, an abstraction from a specific form of human relationship, it is the idea of capital that capital, like any value, can be embodied in different forms. That is to say, capital can be a factory, a patent or copyright, a brand name, land, stocks of a product, etc., etc., provided only that these forms have the potential to be transformed into money and enter the process of circulation and return with a profit. Once we admit of the idea that capital can have different forms, the way is open, and quite rightly open, to the consideration of capital of different types according to the momentary form in which it waits for the opportunity to convert itself to money and return again to the same form in expanded magnitude. Thus we have finance capital, manufacturing, the service industry, landed property, the share market and so on. These different forms of capital correspond to different sections of the capitalist class, once we abstract from their overlappings and interconnections. Capital itself, by its nature, is capable of freely transforming itself into and out of any of its “forms,” as the power relations between different sections of the bourgeoisie ebb and flow in accord with the changing patterns of the organisation of labour.

In so far as adjectives are applied to capital to designate in this way forms of capital, corresponding to sections of the bourgeoisie and productive activity subsumed under capital, then we can have no argument.

In The Identification and Analysis of Indicators of Community Strength and Outcomes, Black and Hughes 2001, have offered definitions for the different types of capital; as adapted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, these are:

These definitions are nowadays close to being a consensus among the social policy experts who use these terms. They are frequently referred to as “resources” to be used, though they are also seen as products which are enjoyed.

Natural Capital

“Natural capital” cannot be such a term though, for Nature is precisely that which is outside human society, that which is not a labour process. Of course, the word “Nature” can be used in a corrupted, colloquial sense in which it simply means plants and animals, in which case a commercial pine plantation or a herd of cattle are “natural capital.” But this is not what is meant by the term. Commercial crops and herds are not, even in the colloquial sense, “natural” and are obviously artefacts, and capital in just the same sense as factories and brand names.

What is usually meant by “natural capital” is that part of Nature which is outside of human activity so far, which in the opinion of the speaker constitute the pre-conditions for the accumulation of capital. So for example, a forest which is perhaps a national park, but could be privatised and cut down for lumber, or rivers which are the source of water either for sale in a privatised water industry or for free consumption by a profitable chemical industry or rice and cotton farmers or as a tourist attraction, can be called “natural capital.” The word is also used in an even wider sense as a contributor to quality of life (in which case it ought to be “natural wealth”); so for example, clean air and clean water are “natural capital” because they form part of the natural wealth of the citizens who, if it is destroyed, must spend money to buy water in plastic bottles or move to the countryside and commute into the polluted city centre, and either way suffer a degradation in their life-style. [source: natural capital, book and journalism] By a stretch, those who use the term in this sense could go on to conjecture that the money saved in avoiding the expense of acquiring clean air and water and in the health expenditure on curing the maladies resulting from polluted air and water can be turned to more profitable ventures. But this ignores the fact that all the evidence is that selling bottled water, suburban real estate and private medical services are as profitable as any other industry, and if it weren’t for pollution, these areas of capital accumulation would dry up.

Thus implicit in the use of the term “natural capital” are potentially two kinds of confusion, which are not just semantic offences, but spread unclarity and obscure reality.

Firstly, the pre-conditions for production are not capital. Nature is most certainly the most important pre-condition for human life, and only thereby for the accumulation of capital. The process whereby nature functions as a precondition for human life and thereby for the accumulation of capital is the consumption of nature in production. The question is of course whether or not Nature is able to regenerate itself after its consumption in the process of production. In general, Nature does reproduce itself without human assistance and provides a continuous flow of the conditions for productive human activity. Of course, we are nowadays more conscious than ever that the capacity of Nature to regenerate the conditions for human life is not infinite, and more and more we are engaged in “protecting” and “helping” nature, by deliberately creating artificial environments which can be managed in lieu of simply taking from Nature, and deliberately moderating and regulating behaviour which is destructive of the natural preconditions for human life.

The message usually wrapped up in the envelope of “natural capital” rhetoric is that production, and capitalist production in particular, destroys the preconditions for human life. The basic idea is that if “natural capital” is added to “money-capital” then the sum represents the true level of productive resources of the community; by deducting for the destruction of “natural capital” while adding for the accumulation of “money-capital” we could see more clearly the progress of capital accumulation. In other words, we should put a price on Nature so that we can count it along with our money.

It should be observed that in destroying the conditions for the production of human life, capital does not necessarily damage the pre-conditions for accumulation of capital. Destruction of the natural preconditions for human life create a need for the recreation of those conditions, which is in itself a profitable industry in which capital is accumulated: poison a river for a profit and then get the lucrative contract for cleaning it up! Nor does industry “damage Nature,” which will continue to exist whatever we do, without giving humankind a second thought; what is destroyed is only its usefulness for humans.

Now these qualifications aside, this message is a perfectly legitimate one: unchecked capitalist industry destroys the preconditions for human life. But is the message clarified by designating nature as already a form of capital? Counting lyre-birds helps us keep track of our destruction of their habitat, but does it help to put a dollar value on a lyre-bird?

What is obscured by the use of the term “natural capital,” is that nature is what is not yet a labour process and therefore not yet subsumed under capital. It also peddles the illusion that nature is a source of value. This distinction between nature as a pre-condition for labour, and nature as a source of value, is important for understanding the dynamics of capital. If for example a forest is subsumed under capital, for example by privatising it or by making its maintenance the responsibility of a private company, so that its natural attributes become a source of profit, then it is no longer “nature,” but rather an artefact like a zoo or urban park. The only way in which it can then be saved from destruction is by the regulation of human behaviour, by government legislation or by ethical-political action, acting against capital, putting boundaries around capital and restrictions on its activity. Or air pollution can be privatised by means of Greenhouse Gas Coupons, which aims to have the effect of regulating market behaviour, with states paying companies to stop polluting the air. This creates a series of profitable industries in the domain of technology substitution and so forth, but it is not clean air that is the source of profit, but the labour of people dedicated to technology substitution and so forth. Whether this policy works or not is still an open question but the point is that it only works insofar as the policy moves production away from activities which destroy the natural preconditions for human life towards those which sustain those conditions. The point of all such policies can only sensibly be to prevent production from consuming the conditions of human life, and so far as possible to leave conditions so far not consumed and destroyed by capital intact, as part of nature. To forthwith declare Nature to be already a form of capital certainly undermines the only useful objective in this area, namely to prevent the transformation of Nature into capital.

Human Capital

Human capital is another fad term which, while describing human beings as a form of money, aims to encourage companies to enhance the quality of their labour force and governments to take action to improve the quality of the available pool of labour. Slave-owners doubtless well understood that their slaves were human capital and in their case the observation would have been true, since slaves were owned as private property, used in the expansion of capital and bought and sold on the market. What precise benefit is supposed to follow from encouraging modern capitalists to adopt this attitude escapes me.

But although there is such a thing which we could legitimately call “human capital” it is not this which is usually referred to as “human capital.” When directed at employers, “human capital” is taken to mean the skills and knowledge of their employees. But this is not capital; this is the property of the employees. To suggest that it is capital, and that employees are not entitled to take it with them when they go, and offer it for hire to another capitalist is both deceptive in relation to the employer and nave in relation to the employees. The employer has use of the human energies belonging to the employee for the term of the wage contract in the same way that the employer has use of land belonging to the landlord for the period of the lease, but the employer does not own the land, it is not part of their capital. The skills and knowledge of employees is part of labour-power.

Now what is part of capital are the various relationships within a firm which are not portable for the employees individually when they leave. The most significant of this human capital is the specific weight of skill, knowledge, reputation and loyalty which adheres to a company and survives the departure of any and even all of their employees. This is an asset, owned by capital, generally-speaking associated if tenuously with their brand name, and which can be bought and sold. But although attached to a brand name it resides only in the mass of employees, that is, it belongs to the subject, the company.

Even in this usage the term remains a semantic paradox, but if we allow latitude for the idea of a type of capital referring to the form in which capital is temporarily invested which is capable of being put back into circulation, in contrast to finance capital, industrial capital and so on, then this is a legitimate usage of the term “human capital.”

Now, when the term is used in addressing governments, this becomes an absurdity. Improving the health and education of the residents of a locale is supposed to increase the “human capital” of the locale. It does increase the quantity of labour-power available for sale, but labour-power is a different kind of commodity. Why is it necessary to describe saleable skills as “capital” when they are the property of a person whose means of production is the private property of some company? Like nature, a skilled, loyal and healthy workforce may be a precondition for the accumulation of capital, but it is not capital. Many other conditions are necessary for the accumulation of capital. For example, should we count as human capital the low standard of living of a neighbourhood which will provide employees at low wages, the presence of gangs of racist thugs that can be used to intimidate workers, perhaps the defeat of a recent strike creates “human capital” by creating a tendency towards compliance in the labour force? Well obviously yes; these are human capital in exactly the same way as trade qualifications and supportive families, in fact ignorance may be a human trait more conducive to the accumulation of capital than trade skills.

If people want to say to the government: “As well as providing good infrastructure, tax-cuts, anti-union laws, and lucrative government contracts, you ought to be providing a compliant and skilled workforce for business to employ,” then say so.

One of the trends in the “knowledge management” industry, an off-shoot of the “human capital” industry, actually proposes that the appropriate metaphor for “knowledge management” is mining, that is, that employees should be treated like dirt. [source] One of the things that all these trends have in common is that they address themselves to companies and governments, that is, people dedicated to serving capital, and say “Look, this is a form of capital, too; you should care about this!” while people know perfectly well that they are human beings not capital, are perfectly sick of being treated as commodities by their bosses, and do not need to have their bosses given any encouragement in that regard. And yet these trends all think that they are doing something very progressive. But Dracula is already in charge of the blood bank and telling Dracula that the air and water and human life are also forms of blood does not help.

Social Capital

If the concepts of “natural capital” and “human capital” are unclear, then the concept of “social capital” is mud of the thickest order. The general idea is that there is a form of capital inhering in relationships; governments and companies are advised to invest in it, on the assurance that they will reap a profit in return, and do a good deed at the same time. But very different things are meant by “social capital.”

2. Jane Jacobs

It was Jane Jacobs who first used the words “social capital,” in her famous 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The focus of this book is the struggle of urban neighbourhoods for “self-government” and the actions of governments and capital which thwart them. She used the phrase just once, in passing, in the following passage:

“The districts that are effective enough to defend themselves from planned disruption are eventually trampled in an unplanned gold rush by those who aim to get a cut of these rare social treasures. ... If self-government in the place is to work, underlying any float of population must be a continuity of people who have forged neighbourhood networks. These networks are a city’s irreplaceable social capital. Whenever the capital is lost, from whatever cause, the income from it disappears, never to return until and unless new capital is slowly and chancily accumulated.” [p. 148, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacob, 1961. Emphasis added]

Even such a problematic oxymoron as “social capital” can be easily forgiven, especially when it is improvised rather than echoed and used only in passing. I accept however that the entity that Jane Jacobs is arguing for the maintenance of in Death and Life is in broad terms the same entity that she designates in the above paragraph as “social capital.” Jane Jacobs never defines such this entity, but she describes in great detail the factors that make it up, insofar as they are under the control of neighbourhood residents and vulnerable to destruction or protection by city planners.

Personally, I very much value the concept which Jacobs is arguing for, and she does so not as an outside observer or bureaucrat, but as a resident of the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, and as someone who is clearly passionate about the vitality and diversity which urban neighbourhoods generate, when left to their own devices and not destroyed by City councils and/or developers.

Jane Jacobs never qualified in any town planning related course nor worked as a town planner; she spent her life defending neighbourhoods in New York and later Toronto, mostly against freeway projects; yet she wrote the definitive book on town planning.

Recently, Robert Davies of the Urban Village Forum in Britain observed of Jane Jacobs that “everything she said about urban areas was true.” He neglected to add however that many of her criticisms of the “Garden City,” “Radiant City” and “City Beautiful” utopias also extend to the “designer neighbourhood” concept of “Urban Village” promoted by the UVF. [See (133).pdf]

Jacobs repeatedly uses the words “self-government” as the ultimate objective for neighbourhoods, which she refers to as “becoming a Thing.” In my terminology, a “self-governing Thing” is a Subject. The capitalising of the “T” in “Thing” is the only instance of Jacobs emulating the practice of English translators of German Idealism to personify abstractions, and is a clear indication that her concept is precisely that of “Subject.”

What Jane Jacobs describes is in the first place something qualitative, not quantitative; nowhere does she attempt to calculate it or imply that it can be bought or sold; she certainly believes that it is a precondition for doing business, but it is this only as part of being a precondition for a safe and worthwhile life in cities. So on three counts, what Jane Jacobs names as “social capital,” just once in passing, cannot legitimately be called capital. Since I know of no evidence that Jacobs was committed to this word, I will take the liberty of referring to the entity she describes and defends as “social solidarity,” because it is broadly speaking consistent with what I will argue for. Jane Jacobs’ more recent book, Systems of Survival. A dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, (1994) deals with moral conflicts that arise through participation in business and government, and I am reinforced in my view that, for Jacobs, capital and bureaucracy are figures on the stage of life that one must learn to deal with ethically, but there is nothing in her work promoting the idea of capital formation as a route to the Good Life.

For Jacobs, “social solidarity” is all those qualitative conditions which are prerequisites for a vital and sustainable life in a big city. The principal challenge that a big city faces, in order to be able to benefit from the concentration of so many human beings in one place, is the ubiquitous presence of strangers. She is at pains to point out that suburbs, villages and rural properties sustain their own kind of life and self-government in quite different conditions, requiring quite different preconditions, and nothing in Death and Life should be taken as relevant outside of urban neighbourhoods. In order to enjoy the benefit of living within bus-ride of sufficiently many other people engaged in almost any activity you can think of, in sufficient specific weight to make it viable, you pay for it by living cheek-by-jowl with strangers, and certain moral norms and geo-social conditions are necessary to survive these conditions fruitfully.

One of the things which has changed in the 40 years since Jacobs wrote her book is that “urban neighbourhoods” now subsume the majority of the world’s population. Of course, Jacobs was always convinced that the people living in these neighbourhoods were the most important for the future of humanity, but now we can say “urban neighbourhoods” is pretty much the normal environment for modernity.

The social conditions Jacobs was interested in were broadly speaking networks of solidarity, trust and collaboration encompassing people living, working in and passing through a neighbourhood and moral norms supporting the public good up to the point where the population of an area could become capable of “self-government,” of effectively defending itself against the attacks of city planners, big business and hostile strangers, securing safe streets and good living conditions out of which people could go to off work in the morning, in which people could raise their children and enjoy leisure time and into which people could come to visit or do business, etc..

Reading Death and Life is a bit like watching one of those revenge movies where your empathetic anger builds up to such a point that you find yourself cheering when the hero eventually starts knocking the hell out of his or her tormentors. Jacobs shows how even the poorest neighbourhood, if blessed with the kind of urban conditions which would normally be inherited from past unplanned urban development, will eventually pull itself up by the boot-straps and become a place where anybody would want to go to live, a Thnig; but city planners and developers with an instinct equal to that which guides eels unerringly to the Sargasso Sea from the lakes and rivers of central Europe, systematically destroy and sabotage what neighbourhoods achieve, mainly by trying to do it for them, but without understanding what it is which is being built.

One of the central tenets of Jacobs’ approach to urban development is that, given a chance, people do it themselves; invariably governments and municipal authorities and private developers fail to understand the processes involved and in trying to help, destroy neighbourhoods. Of course, better policies on the part of authorities, as urged by Jacobs, could help neighbourhoods a great deal and the book is full of suggestions. Jane Jacobs’ book is a modern classic; it would be surprising if there is even one advocate of “social capital” who hasn’t read it, and yet the infuriating practices which Jacobs describes in the 1950s are still going on, and it would appear, are even using her name to badge their products.

Read in 2004, Death and Life can appear quaint and nostalgic; we have lost the features she wanted to preserve. But the point is that the relationships Jane Jacobs describes do not rest on traditional relationships or modes of life and by their very nature can be reproduced under conditions of modernity, given a chance (though the impact of commercial television was still incomplete in the US in 1961 and the internet still to come, and so remain open questions).

The features which cities need to cope with strangers and build brand new social ties are: (1) the existence of and venues for “self-appointed public characters” known to everyone but intruding on no-one’s privacy, typically a local grocer:

“The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters” [p. 79]

and (2) people brought up in a “sidewalk culture”:

“In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn — if they learn at all — the first fundamental of successful city life: people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public responsibility for you. ... This is instruction in city living that people hired to look after children cannot teach, because the essence of this responsibility is that you do it without being hired.” [p. 93-4. Emphasis added]

and (3) a population which is stable, but not stagnant.

“Even a ghetto, after it has remained a ghetto for a period of time, builds up a social structure and this makes for more stability, more leadership, more agencies for helping the solution of public problems.” [p. 147, quoting from the New York Times]


“The first sign of an incipient slum, long before visible blight can be seen, is stagnation and dullness.” [p. 287]

Maintaining these interconnected conditions turns out to be a complex task, too difficult for big business or local governments, but basically it is all built on these three elements. Let’s look a little closer at them.

Sidewalk culture. Jacobs says that the essence of the experience of having strangers looking out for you as a kid on the sidewalk is that they have not been hired to do so. So, if the neighbours are paid for the job they formerly did for free, the essence of the practice has been lost. If caring for sidewalks is privatised, transformed into “real” capital, then the so-called “social capital” is not “realised,” it’s destroyed!

The insurance/litigation/regulation dynamic has exactly the same effect. It is no longer acceptable for a teenager to mind their smaller cousins, and they are replaced by paid child-carers. Good news for the valuation of women’s labour, but bad news unfortunately for social solidarity.

Busy sidewalks. It is not enough that sidewalks are busy between 8 and 9am; to create a safe environment they need to be busy all the time. The only way this can be achieved is by means of a close mix of functions. Private shopping malls, residential development projects, zoning of areas as industrial or residential, all favourite tactics of big business and government alike to this day, make it impossible to populate sidewalks around the clock. Necessary for busy sidewalks around the clock and also for maintaining venues for “public characters” is the gradual turn-over and renovation of property, so that small and old commercial premises are always around. These allow for small start-up businesses, “mixed businesses” and such like to carry on when they can, and get bought up by newcomers when they can’t, whereas the slash and burn tactics of government and developers never allow for this mixture of buildings, old and new, good and bad, large and small. And building “designer demography” on “brownfields” sites does not solve the problem, which is something which has to be solved by real people with real projects.

Jacobs’ “self-appointed public characters” is an interesting concept; mostly they are local grocers because this is the calling which most lent itself to this role in Jane Jacobs’ New York, an almost extinct race in the MacDonald’s-K-mart world of today. The way she describes these people is a picture of a possible modernity: low-level contacts, but contacts with everyone, not intrusive, but trusted. Again, the essence of the role they perform is that they are not paid for it.

“Cities are full of people with whom, from your point of view, or mine, or any other individual’s, a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either.

“In speaking about city sidewalk safety, I mentioned how necessary it is that there should be, in the brains behind the eyes on the street, an almost unconscious assumption of general street support when the chips are down — when a citizen has to choose, for instance, whether he will take responsibility, or abdicate it, in combating barbarism or protecting strangers. There is a short word for this assumption of support: trust.” [p. 66]

(My one small beef with this passage is that “trust” is not quite appropriate in this context; I believe the operative word for this “general street support” is “solidarity,” which is not quite the same as “trust.”)

It is also worth reviewing the series of types of relationships which build the ethos which Jacobs believes sustains modern life:

“The constructive factor that has been operating here meanwhile is time. Time, in cities, is the substance for self-containment. Time, in cities, is indispensable.”

“The cross-links that enable a district to function as a Thing [read Subject, — AB] are neither vague nor mysterious. They consist of working relationships among specific people, many of them without much more in common than that they share a fragment of geography.

“The first relationships to form in city areas, given any neighbourhood stability, are those in street neighbourhoods and those among people who do have something in common and belong to organisations with one another — churches, PTAs, businessmen’s associations, political clubs, local civic leagues, fund-raising committees for health campaigns or other public causes, sons of such-and-such a village, property owners’ associations, block improvement associations, protesters against injustices, and so on ad infinitum. [most of these ‘bad social capital’ in Fukuyama’s terms and many of them “vertical social capital” in Putnam’s terms AB] ...

“The crucial stage in the formation of an effective district goes much beyond this however. An interweaving, but different, set of relationships must grow up; these are working relationships among people, usually leaders, who enlarge their local public life beyond the neighbourhoods of streets and specific organisations or institutions and form relationships with people whose roots and backgrounds are in entirely different constituencies, so to speak. These hop-and-skip relationships are more fortuitous in cities than are the analogous, almost enforced, hop-and-skip links among people from different small groupings within self-contained settlements. Perhaps we are typically more advanced at forming whole-city neighbourhoods of interest than at forming districts, hop-skip district relationships sometimes originate fortuitously among people from a district who meet in a special-interest neighbourhood of the whole city [or the internet today — AB]. ...

“It takes surprisingly few hop-skip people, relative to the whole population, to weld together a district into a real Thing [SubjectAB]. A hundred or so people do it in a population a thousand times their size. ...

“Settlement-house directors are often the ones who begin such systems of district hop-skip links, but they can only begin them and work at opportune ways to extend them; they cannot carry the load. These links require the growth of trust, the growth of cooperation that is, at least at first, apt to be casual and tentative; and they require people who have considerable self-confidence, or sufficient concern about local public problems to stand them in the stead of self-confidence.” [p. 143-6]

On these basic conditions, people build a complex set of overlapping networks of low-level solidarity, on which in turn, mutual trust highly effective social and political collaboration can be built, capable of self-management of communities and their environs. That is to say, to transform a neighbourhood into a subject.

It may surprise some that I can declare war on the concept of “social capital” and at the same time be so supportive of Jane Jacobs’ views on urban life. I hope to clarify this seeming contradiction as I move on to examining the way other writers since 1961 have made use of this idea. Although Jacobs uses the words “social capital” once and also uses other similar metaphors like “capitalising” on the attributes of a neighbourhood in a “gold rush,” and so on, there is no harm in such metaphors up to a point.

Firstly, Jacobs describes “social solidarity” as something qualitative. For example, in outlining the way in which diversity is generated and maintained, she elaborates four factors: mixed use, short blocks, varying age of buildings and sufficient density, and insists that all four must be present for diversity to be maintained. So you cannot add up the degree of each of the four contributors to diversity as “types of social capital.” Likewise, diversity is itself one of a number of factors, alongside population stability, borders and the amount of credit/investment which are needed in just the appropriate measure for a neighbourhood to achieve “self-government.” Again, you cannot add up diversity plus borders plus credit, the more so since too much of any of these factors turns it into a negative. The right combination and balance is required. The capacity for self-government will grow if the soil has the right conditions. It cannot be installed or exchanged.

Secondly, it is in the very essence of the practices that go to making a healthy neighbourhood that they are done for free. The point is the building up of a certain ethos, certain moral norms. It is not the ethos of the rural village which may be exactly the kind of ethos that people came to the city to escape. It is a “thin ethos.” But it is not a “you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours” ethos either. Attempts to cash in on neighbourhoods, what Jacobs calls a “gold rush,” inevitably destroy what it was hoping to exploit. It cannot be bought and sold.

Thirdly, the “social solidarity” Jacobs is talking about does create a viable environment for doing business, but it is unlikely to create a complaint workforce which could be underpaid and bullied and would be unlikely to tolerate the dumping of poisonous waste or other unethical and unsustainable practices. Jacobs is not primarily talking about conditions for the accumulation of capital. In fact, it is capital accumulation which drives the local grocer out of business, pulls down the old houses where cobblers and artists, musicians and hackers, try to earn a living, and pushes up the rents to such a level that the original residents have to move out — in short, capital accumulation has exactly the same effect it has on so-called “natural capital,” it destroys it. What Jacobs is interested in is the whole combination of factors which constitute the preconditions for a dynamic, diverse, interesting and fulfilling urban life, inclusive of the capacity to earn a living, locally or elsewhere. It’s nothing to do with capital.

The issue Jacobs is talking about could be defined thus: how can a group of strangers in a neighbourhood surrounded by other strangers become a Subject — a “Thing"? Jacobs approaches this problem in a perfectly practical way, as a member of the self-governing community of Greenwich Village, under attack by capital and government. Did anyone get the impression that Jacobs was interested in Greenwich Village Incorporated? I don’t think so.

3. Pierre Bourdieu

Social class is defined by relation to the means of production; but this does not tell us how classes are constituted as classes, nor how the complex status hierarchies of capitalist societies are articulated and internalised by individuals or how other systems of status subordination are integrated within a class system of domination. Possession of greater or lesser title to means of production (“economic capital”) in fact fails to explain very much about the dynamics of bourgeois society on its own.

Pierre Bourdieu shows at great length and detail (in reference to 1960s/70s France) how the knowledge and use of cultural artefacts and the body, and the taste which people develop for culture (everything from food, clothing and life-style to preferences in painting and music) constitute multiply sublimated transformations of a single relation of dominant to dominated class, moderating the myriad of struggles between classes and class fractions in modern capitalist society and teaching people to tailor their expectations and their own view of themselves to their place in a hierarchy of political power and their share in the social product, at the same time as providing vehicles to contest the place a class fraction has in that hierarchy and for an individual to claim a place in a given class fraction.

Bourdieu’s ideas also contribute to understanding how other deep-seated relations of subordination, especially age and gender, merge with economic and cultural relations of subordination in sublimated forms, shedding light on how multiple forms of subordination articulate with one another.

Let us clarify some of the main concepts Bourdieu uses.


Let us take it as read that the concept of “economic” capital is understood, and that it can take various forms — factories, stockpiles, intellectual property, shares, finance capital, and so on. What is required then, to justify the concept of forms of capital which are “non-economic” is to establish that they can be converted into “economic capital,” and thus that everything deemed to be a form of capital can be arranged, under some specified condition, along a single axis, i.e., quantified. Here is how Bourdieu deals with this problem.

“Projection onto a single axis, in order to construct the continuous, linear, homogenous, one-dimensional series with which the social hierarchy is normally identified, implies an extremely difficult (and, if it is unwitting, extremely dangerous) operation, whereby the different types of capital are reduced to a single standard. This abstract operation has an objective basis in the possibility, which is always available, of converting one type of capital into another; however, the exchange rates vary in accordance with the power relation between the holders of the different forms of capital. By obliging one to formulate the principle of the convertibility of the different kinds of capital, which is the precondition for reducing the space to one dimension, the construction of a two-dimensional space makes it clear that the exchange rate of the different kinds of capital is one of the fundamental stakes in the struggles between class fractions whose power and privileges are linked to one or the other of these types. In particular, this exchange rate is a stake in the struggle over the dominant principle of domination (economic capital, cultural capital or social capital), which goes on at all times between the different fractions of the dominant class.” [p. 125]

Thus Bourdieu extends the concept of capital according to an underlying concept which only in principle relies on convertibility into capital in the normal economic sense. Bourdieu does not do us the favour, however, of explicitly spelling out what this underlying concept is, which maintains itself across different forms of capital, despite the problem of convertibility. Nevertheless, it can be surmised.

Capital is the resource, command of which, enables one to exercise and resist domination in social relations, or putting it another way, to maintain a position in the status hierarchy of society, or putting it objectively, an “organising principle.” “Composition of capital” thus refers to the composition of total capital of cultural and economic capital (the other types of capital playing a subordinate role), creating a “plane” across which dominance increases monotonically towards the top-right corner (economic capital +, cultural capital +) but with the gradient at every point on the plane subject to contestation.

Thus, as “capital” in this sense, is capable of ordering the relation between any two people, in any given part of social space, but such an ordering principle does not thereby necessarily produce a “complete” ordering of society, along a single axis of subordination.

I think it is fair to say that this conception marks Bourdieu’s concept of capital off from the broader, more intuitive concept of wealth; indeed, it appears that use and maintenance of the various forms of capital is not a matter so much of enjoyment (i.e., of wealth) but of work (i.e., of production).

Conceived in this way, “capital” can span across different social formations, not only bourgeois society, representing the degree of command a subject has over whatever it is in a given society or social stratum, which confers the right to subordinate others. But Bourdieu does not go there.

Bourdieu accepts “economic capital” as the dominant principle of domination in capitalist society, but observes that the efficacy of economic capital as a principle of domination is constantly under challenge by fractions of the dominant class (e.g. artists, professionals, academics, etc.) who are relatively poor in economic capital, but who by dint of their social role, rich in cultural or other forms of capital, who strive to enhance their own specific form of capital as a rival principle of domination.

This conception is not dissimilar to the struggles which have gone on down the centuries between landed property, industrial capital and finance capital. Once it is granted that, for example, possession of the capacity to define what is valid art (or science or body-shape or life-style, for example) by those capable of elaborating it, it can be seen to be a powerful lever of domination, and it seems not unreasonable to designate command of such authority as a “form of capital.” Thus struggles in the domain of art (or science or body-shape or life-style) take on the appearance of struggles within the dominant class, just like the struggles between landed property, industrial capital and finance capital.

The principle which generates taste of a given class fraction across the whole range of different fields or domains, Bourdieu calls the class ‘habitus.’

Cultural capital and educational capital

Cultural capital is the capacity to play the culture game, to recognise the allusions made in a novel, what is being “quoted” or refused in a work of art, to know what and how to approve and disapprove, how to avoid the question if necessary, to have internalised appropriate manners and acquired a taste for appropriate art, to know the directors (or actors) of films, be they popular or avant garde, to know how to make dinner conversation, how to wear clothes, how to occupy space, how to look down your nose, and give or not give someone your time, and so forth — all those manners which infallibly identify you to others as a person of a culture, popular, avant garde or legitimate, with a likely trajectory in life (declining or rising), likely to have access to certain circles or not, and with more or less right to have an opinion on political matters or whatever.

“Thus ... the social order is progressively inscribed in people’s minds. Social divisions become principles of division, organizing the image of the social world. Objective limits become a sense of limits, a practical anticipation of objective limits acquired by experience of objective limits, a ‘sense of one’s place’ which leads one to exclude oneself from the goods, persons, places and so forth from which one is excluded.” [p. 471]

Bourdieu’s research shows that possession of cultural capital is closely predicted by social origins. The bourgeois child knows the price of an Impressionist painting at auction and where it should hang in the drawing room, like the working class boy knows who won the World Cup and how to eat a pie. Professionals know from an early age who is a good director, like a young working class girl knows the actors and actresses of popular cinema.

The educational system both offers a way for parvenus to acquire culture and a certificate to prove it, but Bourdieu’s research shows that “scholastic” culture can never quite duplicate the ease and depth of the cultural capital acquired by constant exposure at home. As the educational system is opened to wider and wider sections of the populace, a struggle goes on to redefine qualifications and jobs, and create new certificates, so as to restore the social order, or on the other hand, to open new doors to young graduates. At the same time, there is a constant struggle going on between rising class fractions and those in decline, between technocratic executives with degrees in business management and all kinds of cultural mediators redefining their own life-styles upwards, while shopkeepers and skilled tradespeople, for example, inexorably decline, and so forth. The autodidact meanwhile, Bourdieu says, enters a race which he has lost from the beginning.

Thus we have the phenomena which Bourdieu describes as judgments of classification which are themselves classified and classifying acts. As is well-known in respect to all internecine struggles, no distinction is so important as the distinction between social neighbours, and thus one has all the acts of refusal in which what is valued by one is refused by the other, obvious in respect to avant garde art in relation to legitimate art.

The main axis of these struggles is within the dominant class, between those who lack economic capital, against those wealthy bourgeois who, relatively speaking lack culture, with professionals of various kinds promoting their own status by trying to shift the dominant principle of domination towards cultural means, distinguishing themselves from the uncultured wealthy by emphasising taste for the refined and off-beat, as against the acquisition of rare and expensive cultural goods. And on the other side, among those lacking in economic capital, among the dominated classes, to promote the sensibilities of professional skills acquired by hard work through the public education system or artistic production, to gain entry to the lower ranks of the dominant class. At the same time, the working class, making a virtue of necessity, call to order anyone of their number who gets above themselves and threatens class solidarity.

Appreciation of culture is thus reduced, with little or no residue, to pretension — people acquire and express a taste which expresses their pretension to be recognised in a given class fraction, refusing the vulgar or the common, the difficult or the fancy, according to the need for distinction.

Social capital, body capital, linguistic capital, political capital

Although cultural capital and economic capital constitute the principal axes of subordination within capitalist society, Bourdieu talks of other forms of capital as well. Social capital are ‘connections’ needed, in particular, to make use of one’s cultural or scholastic capital (certificates). Body capital, both inherited and acquired through the socially-approved diet and exercise regime and so on, also constitutes a resource which gives an individual leverage in social struggles. Linguistic capital is basically a subset of cultural capital contained in appropriate ease in the command of language. Political capital is standing in the political world and the ability to command votes.

Since all these types of ‘capital’ share the conditions of production of economic and social capital, not a great deal of time is spent giving them special consideration.

Class, class fraction and habitus

The concept of ‘habitus’ plays an important role in Bourdieu’s theory.

“To reconstruct what has been pulled apart [the different practices performed in different fields] ... one must return to the practice-unifying and practice-generating principle, i.e., the class habitus, the internalised form of the class condition and of the conditionings it entails.” [p. 101]


“Social class is not defined solely by a position in the relations of production, but by the class habitus which is ‘normally’ (i.e., with a high statistical probability) associated with that position.” [p. 372]

Thus the ‘habitus’ is the “internalised form of the class condition and of the conditionings” by which a member of the class knows, without thinking about it, just how to react to different cultural stimuli, what he or she finds “pretentious” or “vulgar” or “gawdy” rather than “attractive” or “dignified” or “beautiful.” Habitus is not a direct reflection of the conditions of existence of a class, but a sensibility acquired through a life-time and an upbringing in those conditions and the possibilities they include or exclude, with a future (including a future for one’s children) which offers prospects, or on the other side, a past remembered when things were better.

Thus, whether a person actually has money, or skills or education or family, in practice turns out to be secondary to the habitus they have acquired, which may, under exceptional circumstances, be at odds with the life-style and attitudes, the way of using the body, command of language, friends and contacts, preferences in art and aspirations, etc., etc., which are normally associated with those conditions.

Thus we have the phenomena of the miner’s son who leaves town to become a dancer, or the junior clerk who bluffs his way into being accepted as a well-heeled investor and by good luck turns pretension into reality, and so on. But these are rarities.

Bourdieu can be accused of some ideological sins, and it is worth looking at his defence against some possible charges.

Cultural relativism

At the end of reading Distinctions one is left with the impression of an extreme relativism in cultural criticism; everything it appears is appreciated solely for the purpose of establishing markers of one’s social status, albeit unconsciously. The book therefore concludes with a critique of Kantian and other aesthetics and we find not quite pure relativism.

Taste responds to two kinds of stimuli, on the one hand the pleasure connected with basic human needs, on the other, basically “quotation” and “association” which refer to other points in the cultural universe in a kind of “in-group” conversation. This creates distance from the material world and entry to an ultimately social world structured and populated by cultural references and the social universe of the dominant class.

According to Bourdieu, all the dichotomies of cultural criticism are successive sublimations of one basic distinction between the dominated class and dominant class, beginning with animal nature versus human culture, therefore crude/heavy versus fine/light and so on.

These distinctions can undergo inversion when the dominated fractions of the dominant class use the same contrast to indicate ascetic/serious versus light-weight/frivolous, etc. in distinction both to the culturally poor, economically dominant bourgeoisie, and the simple enjoyments of the unpretentious worker.

Bourdieu also finds that the basic dichotomies of gender and age are deployed to express or reinforce distinctions of cultural dominance. So for example, one has the contest between immature/mature against youthful/aged, and all the contested markers of antique subordination penetrate and express the language of cultural subordination.

So although the dominant class’s appreciation of art is sublimated through multiple shifts, it is basically stimulating the same need for a feeling of distinction or distance from the crude necessity of the life of the dominated classes. Through multiple sublimation, culture constitutes itself as a relatively independent domain, but the taste for a work of art ultimately traces its way back to the pleasures of enjoyment or domination.

Thus, we have a window into the class struggles as it is played out in the domain of culture:

“Taste is at the heart of these symbolic struggles, which go on at all times between the fractions of the dominant class and which would be less absolute, less total, if they were not based on the primary belief which binds each agent to his life-style. A materialist reduction or preferences to their economic and social conditions of production and to the social functions of the seemingly most disinterested practices must not obscure the fact that, in matters of culture, investments are not only economic but also psychological. Conflicts over art or the art of living, in which what is really at stake is the imposition of the dominant principle of domination within the dominant class — or, to put it another way, the securing of the best conversion rate for the type of capital with which each group is best provided — would not be so dramatic if they did not involve the ultimate values of the person, a highly sublimated form of interests.” [p. 310]


Bourdieu could be open to a charge of “idealism” by virtue of the fact that he has removed the means of domination from production of the means of existence. However, this charge does not stick, for he shows well enough that the class habitus is basically making a virtue of necessity; taste has its origins in the conditions of production of its characteristic modes of life.

He observes that the means of domination has shifted:

“substituting seduction for repression, public relations for policing, advertising for authority, the velvet glove for the iron fist, pursues the symbolic integration of the dominated classes by imposing needs rather than inculcating norms.” [p. 153-4]

Thus the mode of domination is inextricably connected to the system of needs and the mode of their satisfaction.


Reading Distinctions also leaves one with an overwhelming feeling of objectivism, in the sense that all the social agents appear to be pursuing illusions — tastes and desires which derive from unconscious internalisations of their social position. “Culture is the ultimate fetish,” he says, and there undoubtedly is such a pessimistic flavour to the work, but it is nuanced.

In his analysis of the French newspapers, Bourdieu shows how the culture addresses itself to the bourgeois as “subjects of history, or at least subjects of a discourse about history,” whereas the habitus of the working class, centres around the worker as object of politics, whose only political voice is that delegated to a spokesperson in the language of the dominant class.

The social arrangements reflected in Bourdieu’s analysis therefore capture the form of rule active in bourgeois society. There is little suggestive, however, of how the working class, acclimatised to subordination and ruling themselves out of matters of state, can transform themselves into subjects of history.

“With mass market cultural products — music whose simple repetitive structures invite a passive, absent participation, prefabricated entertainments which the new engineers of cultural mass production design for television viewers, and especially sporting events which establish a recognised division between the spectators and the professionals, virtuosos of an esoteric technique or ‘supermen’ of exceptional ability — dispossession of the very intention of recognition of dispossession.” [p. 386]

Political Opinion Formation

Somewhat as an aside from the main argument, as part of a critique of the nave use of questionnaires to measure political opinion, Bourdieu refers to three modes of political opinion formation:

“first, a class ethos, a generative formula not constituted as such which enables objectively coherent responses, compatible with the practical premises of a practical relation to the world, to be generated for all the problems of everyday existence.

“Secondly, it may be a systematic political ‘slant’ (parti), a system of explicit, specifically political principles, amenable to logical control and reflexive scrutiny, in short, a sort of political ‘axiomatics’ (in ordinary language, a ‘line’ or a ‘programme’) ...

“Thirdly, it may be a two-stage choice, i.e., the identification, in the mode of knowledge, of the answers consistent with the ‘line’ of a political party, this time in the sense of an organisation providing a political ‘line’ on a set of problems which it constitutes as political.” [p. 418]

In countries where there is universal suffrage and people are forced to participate in politics, this is an interesting observation, and demonstrates how the breakdown of collective forms of subjectivity and growing individualism and reliance on the mass media, is enormously destructive of the psyche of working class people, let alone the unemployed and young.

Systems of Status Subordination

According to Nancy Fraser, capitalist society is marked by the co-existence of two forms of subordination, “the class structure and the status order,” [Redistribution or Recognition, 2003] and according to Fraser, it is necessary to utilise two different systems of concepts to grasp the two systems of subordination, and understand the interaction between the two. This is in contrast to Honneth’s insistence on using the paradigm of “recognition” to unify the dimensions of social subordination. In this sense, it could be said that Bourdieu is attempting to bridge the reconciliation and redistribution dichotomy by utilising redistribution as the master paradigm.

Bourdieu’s approach to subordination along multiple axes is a kind of utilitarian analysis whereby individuals choose a strategy which maximises their benefit for the particular composition of capital that they have command of, plus a struggle by groups to valorise their own life-style in competition with others.

Thus we have the observation that (in 1960s France) working class women don’t bother about their appearance and prefer to be home-makers and make their men happy, because the jobs on offer for them are rotten anyway, while the daughters of the bourgeoisie dress-up, get educated and corner prestigious jobs as “cultural mediators” because this offers the optimum route to improving or maintaining their own status.

Bourdieu is also attuned to a lot of the observations found in Fraser’s work, such as the deployment of gender stigmatisation on gendered forms of labour, with consequences such as male nurses suffering from low pay and the pay rates of trades falling when they become open to women, and so forth.

There is a sense on which Bourdieu’s two-dimensional map of social space expresses Fraser’s idea of two systems of subordination, and there is quite a lot of overlap between the two different approaches.

Social Capital Theory

“Social capital” plays a secondary role in Bourdieu’s theory; someone who aspires to move up the social hierarchy who has accumulated the necessary qualification and taste, still needs connections for their qualifications to be translated into admission to a class fraction of higher status. It is hard to see how this concept could be broadened into a “third dimension,” in the way it has in “social capital” theory.

The difference between this extension of the concept of capital from that of people like Robert Putnam is that Bourdieu brings the economic and non-economic entities into relation with one another by means of a broader conception of social subordination, from which both notions of (economic) capital and cultural (or social, etc.) capital can be derived.

In contrast, Putnam et al take the fetishistic theory of capital, economic science, as a given, and extend the fetishism into non-economic relationships.

Bourdieu clearly breaks with Marx’s conception of capital, but does so in a way which acknowledges its own break in attempting to take Marx’s critique of political economy a step further, rather than simply ignoring it.

Axel Honneth’s criticism of Bourdieu

According to Axel Honneth [The Fragmented World of the Social. Essays in Social and Political Philosophy, 1990], Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital suffers from a fatal ambiguity: on the one hand, his empirical researches highlight how social groups and individuals cultivate distinction for their own life-style and tastes in contrast to those of other, lower strata, by making use of whatever social assets they have to make their own life-style take on the aura of exclusiveness; on the other hand, social groups express their own values in terms of distinctive social practices and demand recognition for the intrinsic worth of these practices from society at large, refusing to adopt instead, other tastes and life-styles which may already enjoy more general social appreciation.

Capital however, by its essential nature, is the value given to one’s property by society at large, by everyone else. It is quantitative, abstract-general, not qualitative and unique in its value. If distinctions were a form of capital, then the value of possessing them is precisely that everyone else values them, so accumulating capital means getting hold of things that other people value, even if you do not value the stuff yourself at all. Big-time drug dealers are not users; capitalists do not hoard. Equally, the strategy of investing value in something that you already monopolise has exactly the same logic. If no-one values what you do, you will be poor; being poor means that no-one values what you do. “Recognition” and “material self-interest” are in perfect accord here.

For Honneth, this unexplained contradiction constituted a “flaw,” because Honneth’s interest was in developing the concept of recognition in contrast to that of interest. Bourdieu on the other hand is trying to cast the struggle for recognition of the distinctiveness of one’s social group as a form of capital. Capital however, by its essential nature, is the value given to one’s property by society at large, by everyone else. It is quantitative, abstract-general, not qualitative and unique in its value. If distinctions were a form of capital, then the value of possessing them is precisely that everyone else values them, so accumulating capital means getting hold of things that other people value, even if you do not value the stuff yourself at all. Big-time drug dealers are not users; capitalists do not hoard. Equally, the strategy of investing value in something that you already monopolise has exactly the same logic. If no-one values what you do, you will be poor; being poor means that no-one values what you do. “Recognition” and “material self-interest” are in perfect accord here.


As remarked above, Bourdieu is quite pessimistic about the prospects for the working class or any part thereof, to form themselves into subjects of history, and indeed, he observes that those who act as spokespeople for the working class are forced to adopt the language of the dominant class in order to express the political demands of the working class.

On the other hand, his description of the class habitus, contributing as it does to the understanding of class consciousness, and his elucidation of the mechanisms of class struggle within the domain of culture, should give clues about a way forward in the struggle against capitalism.

Certainly, Bourdieu provides ample ammunition to be used against professional and petit-bourgeois claims to high pay and status, as against the under-valued skills and labour of the working-class. There is a sense in which Bourdieu’s philosophically inclined analysis expresses in the most cultured possible way, the spontaneous working-class prejudice that bourgeois culture is nothing more than a pretension aimed to make its connoisseurs look smarter while making working class people look stupid, demeaning even their body-shape.

Bourdieu’s use of the term “capital” at least raises the question of whether one should follow him, by rendering the study of status subordination into the terms of distribution of capital, both cultural and economic, thereby solving the problem of meshing recognition- and distribution-theoretic analyses.

Personally, I do not intend to follow him in this move. His work can stand as a critique of cultural pretension as a form of domination, but I don’t think it is the best form of expression for a critique of subjectivity.

4. James Coleman

James Coleman is the writer who has launched “social capital” as a key concept in social policy. For Coleman, social capital is control over events in which other people have an interest. I would characterise it as “Tammany Hall” social capital (after the ethos of the old Democratic Party machine in New York, in which the exchange of favours and vote-buying was normal practice and developed to a fine art).

Coleman’s social theory generalises the ideas of economic theory to deal with resources of any kind which can be used to gain access to another resource or good. For example, if I have control of something for which you are willing to pay $1, then clearly this power I have is worth a dollar; and if you have control over something for which I would pay $1, then we could exchange favours, and even though no money has changed hands, an economic exchange to the value of $1 has been effected. It is clear enough that an economic theory which did not have this kind of transaction on its radar would be missing a lot of significant activity, especially among people who do not have a lot of money, people whose tradeable wealth, if any, is in forms other than money-capital.

Thus Coleman’s social theory resembles a theory of economics in which the definition of economics has been broadened to include all manner of ways in which people pursue their interests whether or not money is involved.

Let us suppose that A has control over an event in which B has an interest, then so far as A and B are concerned, A has possession of 1 unit of social capital. These units of “social capital” Coleman calls “social capital credit notes,” as if you held an I.O.U. for return of a favour done or promised. The control that A has over events of interest to many individuals could be added up to a quantity which would make some sense as their total “social capital.” However, only those favours owed to A by people who have some influence over events of concern to A, are relevant. If a total dead-beat owes you a favour, you might as well forget about it.

Let us suppose that A has control over an event in which B is interested, and B control over an event C in which has an interest, then this 2-step indirect control that A has over C counts, according to the “linear action theory” applied by Coleman, not has 1/2 a unit of social capital, but as the square root of half, i.e., about 70%.

If the network of control that an agent has over all events is combined by matrix multiplication with the interest all agents who control something of interest to A, directly or indirectly, have in those events controlled by A, then one can add up the total “social capital” an agent has, which would be a measure of the direct or indirect control A has over all events in which they have an interest.

For example, if a PTA committee is deciding who should get the contract for the school canteen, and A has on the committee: his wife, the father of the little girl who sleeps over at A’s place once a week, and a good neighbour with whom another committee member is in love, then A can add up the number of votes they have on the committee, directly or indirectly to try and win the contract.

Now, if there’s a law forbidding A from exercising this control he has over members of the committee to influence their vote, then that is called “friction,” in just the same way that “imperfections” in a market can be called friction, factors which obstruct potential transactions from being completed. “Transaction costs” may limit the ability of an agent to cash in their “social capital” somewhere in the system because, for example, someone has principles against exchanging favours, is unaware of the benefit that will flow to them from complying with someone else’s wishes, doesn’t trust the other party, or whatever. Thus the “social capital market” suffers from “imperfections” in just the same way as a commodity market facilitated by money. Money has the great advantage of course that its value is freely transferable over any distance and can be cashed in at any point in the market, and transaction costs are usually small or non-existent.

Coleman’s “perfect social system,” however, claims to encompass the whole of social life, whereas the “perfect market” of economic theory relies upon “externalities” (such as living human beings and nature) which a “perfect” market cannot sustain — the Pareto optimum, in which every possible exchange been any two agents in the system has been carried out, may be universal famine.

What Coleman means by “perfect social system” is given as:

“a social system in which actors are rational ... and in which there is no structure to impede any actor’s use of resources at any point in the system. In economists’ terms there are no transaction costs. Free rider problems do not exist, for actors are able to use their resources to induce others with like interests to contribute to the common good. As in a perfectly competitive market, there are no advantages to strategic behaviour, because there are no contingencies of actions. Each actor is confronted with a set of goods or events having values that are system-wide. The system-wide values ensure that each actor’s power is system-wide, and not specific to other actors.” [p. 720]

and people act ethically because:

“... the value of each outcome of each event is known, ... In such a system there is no conflict because all confrontations are virtual. The weaker side sees that it will lose and deploys its resources elsewhere, rather than wasting them in a lost cause. Norms exist, and sanctions are potentially present but are never used.” [p. 720]

Coleman’s elaboration of the concept of “social capital” has proved to be very influential, and it is very central to his whole theory:

“In a perfect social system social capital is complete. Also, convertibility of all resources is complete. Thus each actor’s potential power is useable at every point in the system. There are no transmission losses, no transaction costs.” [p. 720]

Although presented in the form of a social theory, there is a strong ethical content to Coleman’s theory.

Market fundamentalists not only compute the behaviour of markets on the assumption that they are “frictionless” and can be expected to arrive some time at the Pareto Optimum, but they also tend to make these features of a market normative; that is to say, there is a tendency for economists to believe that the assumptions that are made about markets for the purpose of calculation are inherently good. Because a “frictionless” market will always provide the best of all possible worlds (so the market fundamentalist believes), a market should be frictionless. In just the same way, although he does not absolutely spell it out, it is clear that Coleman believes that a society in which social capital is freely exchanged without transaction costs or friction, where a resource obtained in any part of the system can be utilised to access a resource in any other part of the system, the situation in which Coleman says “social capital is complete,” is not only an ideal in the sense of being a mathematical abstraction, but an ideal in the sense of being an objective towards which social policy ought to aim.

In the ‘perfect social system,’ norms exist and the actors conform to them without the use of sanctions, and there are no ‘strangers’ or criminals who fail to recognise or respect the norms of behaviour that they are party to. In addition there is convertibility: there are no external constraints on what any set of actors may agree amongst themselves, i.e., all rights are exchangeable, every value is “convertible,” and informal credit is unlimited, i.e., favours may be given in confidence that they will be repaid.

The prefect social system is one in which social capital is complete, and any power one has over any event can be utilised to influence any event in which one has an interest. That is the objective towards which Coleman’s social theory is directed. The society in which social capital is complete is a certain kind of subject.

Let us turn for a moment towards the way in which Coleman develops his social theory. Coleman holds micro-phenomena such as the motivations of individuals to be explanatory of macro-phenomena. However, as remarked above, when one reads to the last paragraph of the 1,000-odd pages of Foundations, we find his definition of the ‘ideal,’ rational social subject — one who has internalised a system of action that corresponds to the external social system of which they are a part.

Supplementing this generalised conception of rationality, the pursuit of self-interest (or “utility”) characterising economics is supplemented with the concept of “psychic investment,” in which the subject is assumed to rationally (in the above sense) pursue the interests of a range of social actors, including themselves and others such as family, friends, colleagues, fellow-nationals, etc., in whom the social agent has a certain “psychic investment.” Thus in lieu of a reflexive action-consequence-benefit vector, the subject acts according to a matrix of benefits accruing to the various subjects in whom the agent has an interest in the consequences of any given action they may take.

This kind of generalisation of the ideal rational-atomistic-instrumental model of the utilitarian agent, allows the methods of linear analysis to be applied to social theory in which the basic social agent is conceived of as a kind of internalised, miniature social system, rather than as an isolated atom.

“Rationality consists not in acting according to his interests, but in constructing the internal constitution so that the actions generated by the internal system of action will bring him maximum viability.

“This model of an internal structure of actors that is consistent with the linear system of action ... does not eliminate purpose, but pushes it back to a deeper level, the construction of an internal constitution. This is the starting point for a theory of the self.” [Foundations of Social Theory, 1990]

Thus rationality does not consist in the perfect, individualist instrumental intelligence of the economic agent of the utilitarianism, but rather in ideal, consistent coordination with some system of interest, trust, delegation, etc..

For example, rather than assuming that a social agent can rationally compute consequences by decoding messages from every other agent, it may be the case that they follow the advice of a trusted other; rather than assuming they pursue individual interest in circumstances where this would lead to mutually assured destruction, the agent may act according to a certain set of norms, even without sanctions.

On the face of it, this sounds much more satisfactory than the conception of the subject in economic theory, consistent perhaps with the concept of “subject” from which we began here. However, the construction of the subject formally lies outside Coleman’s theory, which concerns itself only with external exchanges between subjects. But if the idea that there is more to life than money has any value at all, surely it is precisely in making sense of the constitution of these subjects, not just relations between them; the more so because it precisely the relationships of subjects which constitute them.

In fact, Coleman says that the ideal agent is the ideal internalisation of the social system, so presumably the ideal internalisation of the ideal social system. So, it seems that Coleman solves the problem of the indeterminate ego upon which the whole edifice is built by asserting that the individual constructs their interests and relationships to others in the same way that the social subject constructs its relationships with other subjects in the system.

An interesting extra light is thrown on the nature of Coleman’s “perfect social system” (and therefore ideal social subject and ideal individual agent) with the observation that in a perfect social system, it should be possible for people to trade political power and economic resources, buy votes in other words, or to trade a decision on one committee for an unrelated decision on another: “An economic system in which power is measured by wealth comes closest to a perfect social system,” and he goes on to observe:

“Because of the existence of money as a fungible medium of exchange, an economic system deviates from a perfect social system primarily in social-structural barriers or transaction costs between pairs of actors, rather than in non-convertibility between pairs of resources. A major reason why an economic system most closely approximates a perfect social system lies in its very conception: Within such a system there is no intentional non-convertibility of resources as there is, for example, between money and votes ...” [p. 720]

That is to say, Coleman’s ideal subject is George Washington Plunkett of Tammany Hall.

While Coleman sees that under existing ‘imperfect’ conditions, it is necessary to have laws against corporations buying legislation, he observes that the very fact that it is necessary to have such laws while at the same time the laws are systematically flouted, is an indicator of an ‘imperfection’ in the social system. Coleman holds in fact that legislative bodies are inherently incapable of managing fundamental social change, and furthermore, that national legislative bodies are impotent and effectively irrelevant in a global social world. The kind of informal wheeler-dealing that takes place in small business/local authority/voluntary sector bargaining, constitutes, in Coleman’s eyes, a more rational system of social organisation than the existing attempts to wall off a system of political rights in a constitutional-democratic state, from the system of economic and social rights operating in civil society and the economy. He says that such arrangements are necessary to preserve a plurality of power, something for which there must be “constitutional arrangements,” such as a universal and more ubiquitous right-to-vote — some kind of political anti-trust legislation.

The factors which make up “social capital” are listed by Coleman as: Obligations and expectations — “social capital credit slips;” Information sources; Norms and effective sanctions; Authority relations which allow someone to act on behalf of others and/or offer advice; Appropriable social organisation, brought into existence for one purpose but which can be used to aid another; Intentional organisation, structures of obligations and expectations, responsibility and authority, norms and sanctions intentionally designed for a social purpose.

There is a minor unclarity to do with the availability of information in my view; access to information is listed as part of social capital, but it would seem that information must be counted as a resource like any other. So it seems that the availability of information is subject to the same requirement for convertibility, i.e., there must be no ‘artificial’ or ‘external’ constraint on the provision of information, which can be subject to exchange of favours like any other resource.

So what we have is that the ‘perfect social system’ is actually laissez faire par excellence. Just as the market leads to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, laissez faire in social capital has the same effect, but with a much more thoroughgoing, dramatic effect, because “social capital’ is all-encompassing. Unless there are “constitutional arrangements” to prevent the concentration of social power in the hands of a few — laws against bribery, pork-barrelling, exploitation of children, etc., an independent judiciary, etc., then unrestricted wheeler-dealing will ultimately lead to a form of despotism. The poor will not only have no money, they will also be deprived all rights and non-monetary resources.

We should ask: what is Coleman’s purpose in introducing the concept of “social capital"?

“This concept groups some of the processes together and blurs the distinctions between types of social relations, distinctions that are important for other purposes. The value of the concept lies primarily in the fact that it identifies certain aspects of social structure by their function, disregarding differences in form, just as the concept “chair” identifies certain physical objects by their function, disregarding differences in form, appearance, and construction. The function identified by the concept “social capital” is the value of those aspects of social structure to actors, as resources that can be used by the actors to realise their interests.

“By identifying this function of certain aspects of social structure, the concept of social capital aids both in accounting for different outcomes at the level of individual actors and making micro-to-macro transition without elaborating the social-structural details through which this occurs. ... Whether social capital will come to be as useful a quantitative concept in social science as are the concepts of financial capital, physical capital, and human capital remains to be seen; its current value lies primarily in its usefulness for qualitative analyses of social systems and for those quantitative analyses that employ qualitative indicators.” [p. 305]

That is, Coleman’s approach renders “social capital” as a quantitative entity, which may be put into circulation or invested and which returns a profit on investment, even though Coleman recognises that conceptualising it as an additive quantity is not yet the same thing as being able to usefully calculate its magnitude for any given real individual. This kind of gap between conception and actual calculation is normal for economic theories, and such a gap is not on its own any basis for denigrating it as a possible basis for theorising. If, Coleman’s quantification holds up, then he has, it would seem, described something which can be legitimately described as a “form of capital,” and should facilitate mobilising the mathematical apparatus of modern economic theory across a much broader front.

Despite the questionable normative element, one would not have to be a total cynic to think that this approach, if it proves to be analytically valid, would have some powerful insights to give us about how society works. Let’s look then at this ‘linear action theory’ on which Coleman’s highly mathematical apparatus is built.

By ‘linear system of action’ is meant that one-to-one relations may be aggregated indefinitely, as is mirrored by the application of mathematical addition of effects, without “friction;” “linear” means that one plus one equals two, and a million such additions equal a million. To be slightly more precise, linear action theory adds vectors in n-dimensional space, so addition is not “scalar” like 1+1+1=3, but rather, vectors add like the sides of a cube; the diagonal of a cube is not 3, but the square root of 3 times the length of one side. So adding a thousand steps will not take you a thousand metres; in linear action theory it will take you as far as a thousand steps in which each step is in a different, independently chosen, direction from the previous step. This theory has been applied with great success to natural processes in which very simple individual reactions are aggregated in large masses, such as in the behaviour of gases, Brownian motion, and so on. If 1 + 1 equals much more than 1, as for example when an oil is heated to flashpoint; or much less than 1 as in “two’s company three’s a crowd,” then we have “non-linearity.”

The calculation of “social capital” illustrated briefly above is executed as mentioned by matrix multiplication. This allows the influence exercised indirectly by ‘social credit slips’ to be multiplied through longs chains of influence and added up across all potential chains of effect.

Such a calculation is true, however, only under the conditions of ‘linearity’. Examples of systems which are not linear include not only systems with “friction” and “transaction costs,” but systems in which inhibitors or catalysts operate for example. Personally, I believe that the idea that social systems can be subject to linear action theory is absurd. No real natural system such as an ecology or organism is even remotely linear, even the more complex chemical reactions are non-linear. At most one can imagine a kind of market-place in which favours of various kinds are exchanged in addition to commodities. Coleman’s claim to a social theory with a mathematical foundation comparable with contemporary economic theory is crucial to the validity of the concept of social capital, but a moment’s reflection demonstrates that the claim is spurious.

The suspect character of Coleman’s mathematics has not dissuaded Coleman’s acolytes from inventing newer and bigger formulae to calculate social capital without even the foundation of linear action theory to fall back on, generally by simply converting ordinary-language sentences descriptive of social capital into formulae with lots of sub- and superscripts, Ss and Ps.

However on the other hand, money does, within well-known and not inconsiderable bounds, behave linearly. For example, monetary incomes can be added up to determine an agent’s total income; interest accrues over the years according to the formula of compound interest; income from capital through chains of company-ownership can be computed with some sense. I think it highly unlikely that Coleman’s “social capital” computations, on the other hand, work beyond the most trivial application.

The fraudulent nature of the quantitative material and the questionable nature of the ethical content, still does not take away from the qualitative insights. Generally speaking, these are to enumerate and study the range of other means people use to achieve their ends outside of the economy proper, and the events and policies which may undermine these means or serve to expand them.

An issue that needs looking at though is that the concept of “social capital” groups together as a single quantity a range of different phenomena, and this aspect is precisely what makes it useful for quantitative analysis and social policy and which justifies its designation as a form of capital. Here and there Coleman remarks that social capital, or some kinds of social capital, may have negative effects (for example, social capital may militate against innovation and social capital facilitates whatever anyone wants to do, destructive as well as creative activities, comments which are, by the way, just as applicable to capital as such). Generally speaking, however, using the concept in analysis implies accepting that society needs more social capital, and the specific nature and diversity of the social phenomena concerned is rendered secondary. Otherwise, the device of aggregating “social capital” is meaningless.

So, if Coleman’s “prefect social system” is where we arrive when “social capital is complete,” the value of the concept of “social capital” comes to depend on the normative value of the “perfect social system.”

And yet, we have observed that the “perfect social system” has some features which are counter-intuitive as features of an “ideal” system. We have to ask ourselves whether the enforcement of political domains, where political subjects enjoy formally equal rights, insulated from civil society where inequality is endemic, is an ‘imperfection’ best done away with. Should bribery be regarded as a legitimate expenditure of one’s assets, and laws against bribery as bureaucratic interference with the free market? Are laws against corruption and bribery a necessary evil until such time as our culture achieves a level where the community tolerates individuals who want to spend their assets on votes? Whose interests are served by the constraints on “social capital” found in modern society? And whose interests would be served by their removal?

Coleman’s view is that the segregation of the political process from economic and informal pressures is unfortunately necessary to ensure a ‘plurality of power,’ much like anti-cartel laws, but hints at other ‘constitutional arrangements’ to redistribute power which would be more suitable to modern, globalised society and allow vote-buying, nepotism, racial discrimination, branch-stacking, careerism, favouritism, blackmail and bribery to be accepted as normal and legitimate part of social and political practice.

For those who do not favour the Tammany Hall philosophy of life, the challenge is, I think, to elaborate a vision of a ‘perfect social system’ which can do better, or at the very least, explain how the power relations of civil society are to be prevented from determining political decision-making.

This author’s own experience is in the trade union movement, a domain where generally speaking no services are rendered for payment of money and formally at least, decisions are made rationally, for the good of the union and not according to the informal leverage held by someone or by return of favours. Coleman’s description of “social capital” very much reminds me of the way certain union bureaucrats work, very “powerful” people who, despite being utterly incompetent in leadership could never be removed by election because of the network of favours and levers they have established over time which could always be activated when needed at election time or in order to get a required result on a committee. I know enough of the Australian Labor Party to know that much the same kind of relations apply within that party and I suspect in other political parties and in local government everywhere.

The kind of sensuous understanding of “social capital” this experience has given me is sufficient demonstration that “social capital” in Coleman’s sense is a real entity, but it is very far from convincing me that it is something which contributes to the general good. An ordinary member of the union who is in trouble and needs the union’s help typically needs some kind of “social capital.” If a union is working well, then the necessary lines of communication and obligation are there for them: they know how to contact the relevant local union official who in turn knows how to activate and mobilise the necessary assistance and will not need to be pressured in order to render assistance. A situation where a union member needs “connections” in the union in order to get assistance is a situation indicative of malaise.

Greenwich Village vs. Tammany Hall

How does Coleman’s “Tammany Hall” vision of modern life compare with Jane Jacobs’ “self-governing” neighbourhoods; would Tammany Hall have helped Jane Jacobs stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway? The question is rhetorical of course: it was Tammany Hall that she was fighting! When Robert Moses sat opposite Jane Jacobs in their fiery confrontations over the building of the Expressway, it was not two theories of social capital which confronted one another, but two moral philosophies, two conceptions of ethical life, two opposite ideas about the way poor residents of New York ought to live.

Of all the different conceptions of “social capital” I will deal with here, Coleman’s comes closest to being a legitimate form of capital — influence, information, access to personal networks, etc., are all tradeable commodities. Unsurprisingly, on closer examination, it also turns out to be the most consistent with the ethos of capital. Jane Jacobs’ conception is surely the conception which least justified its label as a form of capital, but it is the only conception which I would want to pursue.

Both conceptions have been very influential, although in terms of social capital literature, Jane Jacobs is generally seen as part of the “prehistory” of social capital. Coleman’s mathematical apparatus and general definition of social capital has given a great deal of academic legitimacy to the term, but so far as I can see, his own Tammany Hall conception has been thoroughly eclipsed by Robert Putnam’s social-democratic interpretation, which has moved part of the way back to Jane Jacobs’ original insights.

5. Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam’s concept of “social capital” is the opposite of James Coleman’s in two respects. Firstly, Putnam is an “empiricist” in contrast to Coleman as a “rationalist;” secondly, Putnam conceives “social capital” as “civicness” or “sociability,” a virtue or propensity which can inhere in individuals or whole communities in contrast to Coleman’s conception of levers of power over other people which can be possessed by individuals. The implications of Putnam’s conception for social policy are consequently quite different from those of Coleman’s conception even though there is considerable overlap in terminology.

What Coleman does is to define an elementary mathematical model of the relationship between two individuals, viz., the “social capital credit slip,” and elaborates a mathematical model for the aggregation of these relations by means of the presumption of linear action. If confronted with a real individual in a real community, Coleman has no means of proceeding towards the calculation of the “social capital” held by the individual, their power to control events of interest to them. The mathematical model nevertheless gives the social policy maker a broad idea of how social power is held and how it is accumulated, the kind of measures which contribute to the “efficiency” of the social capital market and identify events and relationships which may be contributors to someone’s “social capital.”

Putnam, on the other hand, is a statistician; his starting point is just a generalised conception of what is to be measured (civicness or sociability) and a real community in which it inheres to a greater or lesser degree. The entity to be measured is manifested in various phenomena which are deemed all to be manifestations of the same entity which itself lies outside the domain of perception. The entity itself therefore cannot be measured; it is a metaphysical entity.

At the time of writing of his earlier book, on Italy (Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, 1993) Putnam referred to this entity as “civicness;” by the time of his writing of his book on America (Bowling Alone, 2000), he had adopted Coleman’s term, “social capital.”

I will explain in due course why I refer to his concept of “social capital” as a “metaphysical entity,” but it should not be taken from this characterisation that I deny that “there is something there.” I will, for short, refer to Putnam’s concept of “social capital” as SQ, by analogy with IQ. IQ measures the score in an IQ test, and the extent that there is something called “Intelligence” lying behind the IQ score is a matter of debate. It is legitimate to argue over whether this or that IQ test succeeds in indicating the generalised conception which is deemed to be manifested in answering the questions on the test paper. Likewise, SQ is the score in a certain range of tests, which is deemed to be a measure of the “Sociability” or civic engagement manifested by an individual, community or any arbitrary sociological sample. The inclusion or not of certain measures, and the weight given them, is a legitimate point of argument, in terms of whether or not the scores reflect the manifestation of the entity whose generalised conception is presumed to underlie behaviour.

At the outset it should be mentioned that Putnam is a sophisticated statistician; all statements made in both books are supported by statistical significance tests on multi-variate arrays of data. It would be tempting to criticise these books from the point of view of statistical analysis or quality of data, but I will take Putnam’s word that all the statements he makes are adequately justified in statistical terms, in so far as statistics is in principle capable of offering support. Although I do intend to subject the measurement of “social capital,” “SQ,” to some criticism, I am going to uncritically accept the myriad of other measures used by Putnam in these two books. Arguments about whether, for example, sufficient weight is given to participating in email listservs as against playing bowls is a legitimate question, but it is very much a debate within the conceptual framework of Putnam’s idea.

Briefly, Making Democracy Work is a report on studies carried out over a period of 23 years since the introduction of regional governments in Italy. Some of these governments (mainly in the North) have “succeeded” and brought about real and lasting improvements in the life of their regions; some (mainly in the South) have failed dismally. Putnam proves that the success of the regional administrations, according to a plausible and comprehensive measure, is correlated with the SQ of the region’s population, and holding SQ constant, relatively uncorrelated with all other factors. He further traces the same trends in SQ back to events in the 12th century AD.

Bowling Alone describes the rise and fall of SQ in the United States, peaking around 1965, declining and then virtually collapsing in the 1980s and 90s, but demonstrates wide differences in SQ across the 50 mainland states. To an astounding degree, all kinds of sociability display almost precisely the same historical trajectory. Putnam goes on to prove that almost every measure of the quality of social life, from child mortality to literacy to industrialisation, are correlated almost exclusively with SQ, and nothing else, if SQ is “held constant.” The geographical spread of SQ, like in Italy, displays a marked North/South divide, with historical roots going back centuries.

a. Calculation of SQ

In Italy (Making Democracy Work, p. 96) the “Civic Community Index” (SQ) was calculated as the weighted average of four measures:

1. Voting by party rather than person in general elections;
2. Participating in 5 national referenda 1974-1987;
3. Reading a daily newspaper;
4. Belonging to a sports or cultural association of any kind.

For the purpose of measuring Civic Involvement 1860-1920, a slightly different mix was used:

1. Strength of mass-based political parties 1919-1921;
2. Incidence of cooperatives, 1889-1915;
3. Membership in mutual aid societies, 1873-1904;
4. Electoral turnout, 1919-1921;
5. Local associations founded before 1860.

In America (Bowling Alone, p. 291), 14 factors were combined in the Social Capital Index (SQ):

1. Percent people who served on committee of local organisation in past year;
2. Percent people who served as officer of club or organisation in past year;
3. No. of civic and social organisations per 1,000 population;
4. Mean number of club meetings attended in last year per person;
5. Mean number of group memberships per person;
6. Turnout in presidential elections, 1988 and 1992;
7. Percent attended public meeting on town or school affairs in last year;
8. Number of non-profit organisations per 1,000 population;
9. Mean number of times a person worked on community project in last year;
10. Mean number of times a person did volunteer work in past year;
11. Number agree that “I spend a lot of time visiting friends;”
12. Mean number of times entertained friends at home;
13. Number agree that “Most people can be trusted;”
14. Number agree that “Most people are honest.”

Having created the index, Putnam can then measure the extent to which each of the component measures are correlated with the index itself and with the other components, a correlation approaching 100% indicating that each component is measuring the same entity. In the Italian index, correlation varies from 71% for newspaper readers to 91% for people voting by party; in the American index, 66% for people volunteering, working on community projects and entertaining friends to 92% for people agreeing that ‘most people can be trusted’.

In addition to the above components of the SQ calculated across a population, other phenomena may be deemed to be reflective of civicness, most comprehensively discussed in relation to America: working for a political party, writing a letter to the editor or one’s Congressman or writing an article for a paper or magazine, making a speech, signing a petition, attending a rally or public meeting, running for office, talking to neighbours, visiting friends, donating to charity or paying dues to an organisation (with qualifications), participating in a team sport, eating out with friends or family, attending church, discussing personal matters at work, advising others on how to vote, even eating with the family rather than alone, going out to movies or a disco rather than watching TV, watching the news rather than soapies, sending greeting cards to friends and relatives, playing rather than watching sports, observing traffic laws and laws in general, sending email or participating in listservs, making a long-distance phone call or any phone call at all and so on. The specific features of a factor, the strength of its association with the SQ, it’s age-dependency and historical trajectory is discussed in each case.

Other phenomena, related to well-being, are investigated for correlation with SQ, to test the hypothesis that SQ generates well-being in various guises, and we find that the decline in SQ means we are dying earlier, sicker, more depressed and prone to suicide, committing and victims of more crime, poorer than we would otherwise be, unhappier, less able to defend our community from toxic waste dumps or highways, unemployed (in a state having higher unemployment), cynical and distrustful of both government and strangers (or your neighbours, since you don’t know them), guilty of tax-evasion, political extremism or religious fanaticism, prone to joining gangs (a low-grade form of social capital, by way of compensation), over-eating and generally with a poor diet. We stay indoors, watching TV, channel-surfing, moaning about the government but never voting, demanding the death penalty for crimes, but not hesitating to commit crime if we could get away with it, not talking even to our spouses, probably living alone in a gated-village where we have employees to guard us, using lawyers every time we buy a sandwich and getting a service to deliver and return kids to/from school while we worked late and spent 2 hours in our car going to and from work, if we had a job, which is less likely. All of these phenomena are correlated with SQ measured across various segments of population.

In terms of factors associated with SQ which are candidates for being identified as causes, the first and most significant of Putnam’s findings is that declining SQ is a generational problem: individuals do not generally change their SQ throughout their life (outside of life-cycle patterns which are reproduced by successive generations), but each succeeding generation has adopted distinctively different habits and attitudes from early and carried them throughout their life. Putnam produces a number of graphs showing population-wide trends over the 20th century all of which have a startlingly similar pattern of SQ: rising up to the beginning of the Depression, during which SQ takes a dive, rising steeply during the war and continuing to increase up till about 1960-65, becoming unstable, declining from about 1975, and then plummeting during last decade or two of the century. Looking at age-specific phenomena, these curves are able to be deconstructed into a steady replacement of the members of the “long civic generation” born between 1910 and 1945, by Boomers born between 1945 and 1965 and Gen-Xers born between 1965 and 1980, each successive generation starting out with a lower SQ than its predecessor. The one ray of sunshine is that there has been a slight increase in volunteering among teenagers in recent years.

Putnam speculates about causes for this generational decline in sociability. He treats generational change (constant across all segments of the American population) as an independent factor alongside TV (10-15%), work pressures / two-career families (10%), suburban sprawl / motor car (10%) and 15% “unaccounted for.” According to Putnam, generational change accounts for 50% of the historical decline in SQ, about a third of this resulting from being reared on TV. So TV is a major factor in his explanation, but so too are other historical conditions affecting the changing outlook of these generations.

Statistics has a limited capacity to shed light on causality: if two phenomena, A and B, are correlated, then for A to be shown to be a cause of B, A must be prior in time to B, A may be found without B, but not B without A, relatively speaking, since there will always be enabling or inhibiting conditions and residual effects, and in addition, there must be a plausible causation theory. This latter condition is generally ignored by statisticians as it is by Putnam, or rather Putnam confines himself to plausible causation hypotheses, and does not test the correlation of PTA membership in America with population of zebras in Lusotho. [John Maynard Keynes was the first to prove this, in his work as a mathematician before he made his name as a political economist, in A Treatise on Probability, 1920]

Nevertheless, statistics can make a reasonable contribution to eliminating causation hypotheses, and perhaps even more interesting are the various factors which Putnam considers and rejects as causes for individual, generational or population differences in SQ. The skilled use of multivariate factor analysis is necessary for this. Phenomena A, B and C may all be correlated across a population P, but if P is divided into sub-populations, PA in each of which A is constant, and the correlation of B and C computed in each sub-population PA, and then averaged across all PA, then we find the correlation of B and C “with A held constant.”

In this way, Putnam proves that wealth, educational level, race, religiosity, gender, urban/suburban/rural living, white/blue collar employment, all affect SQ, but do not account for generational or geographical change in SQ, and while these and more may be correlated with each other as well as happiness, health, cynicism, honesty and much else, none of the well-being “outcomes” are correlated with these other sociological “inputs” when SQ is held constant: SQ emerges then as the predominant cause of well-being in a population.

As an aside, Putnam is embarrassingly inept in a couple of cases: he rejects “capitalism” as a cause of the historical trajectory of SQ in America, because “capitalism is a constant and a constant can’t explain a variable,” despite the fact that all the factors he does identify as causes in the case of America, arise directly out of capitalism and the development of the relations of production of capitalism, while the southern deficit in SQ originates specifically from the persistence of pre-bourgeois relations. The strong correlation between successful regional government in Italy and PCI control of a regional government is dismissed by the thesis that the PCI had an ulterior motive for running the regional administrations well, to support their credentials for national government [Making Democracy Work, p. 119].

This particular blind-spot, is further explored in a review by Sidney Tarrow, whose thesis is that progressive political parties in Italy (as elsewhere) have deliberately fostered civic engagement — the result rather than the cause of the effective performance of democratic institutions:

“Thus, the impressive correlations that Putnam displays in Chapter 5 (figures 5.3 and 5.4), which he interprets as evidence of a causal link between past civic competence and present regional performance, can also be interpreted as a correlation between progressive politics then and now and between progressive political traditions and civic capacity. In both periods, electorates were deliberately mobilised on the basis of networks of mass organisations and social and recreational associations; and in both, civic competence was deliberately developed after World War II as a symbol of the left-wing parties’ governing capacity. Both progressive politics and civic capacity were correspondingly weak in the South.

“To some, these may seem like methodological niceties, but they begin to indicate an alternative model: The operative cause of the performance of the regional institutions in both North and South is neither cultural nor associational but political. Expressed in the form of a hypothesis, the historical evidence can be read as support for the idea that the nineteenth-century popular politics of north-central Italy are themselves the cause of both the civic community and the positive performance of its regional governments. But something more than party building was occurring in nineteenth-century Italy — there was also state building and the differential structure of a public culture.” [p. 394]

“Every regime that governed southern Italy from the Norman establishment of a centralised monarchy in the twelfth century to the unified government which took over there in 1861 was foreign and governed with a logic of colonial exploitation. ...

“Nor did southern Italy’s semicolonial status suddenly disappear with unification. The region was joined to the North by a process of royal conquest, its fragile commercial sector brutally merged with the North’s more flourishing economy, a uniform tax system and customs union imposed on its vulnerable industries, and brigandage rooted out by a full-scale military campaign. Politically, the South’s communes and provinces were governed by northern administrators who regarded the region as a terra di missione, ...”

“But if this reviewer is correct, and if the absence of civic capacity is the by-product of politics, state building, and social structure, then the causes of the malaise in U.S. cities or in Third World agriculture are more likely to be found in such structural factors as the flight of real capital, in the first case, and the instability of commodity prices and the presence of exploitative governments, in the second. In north Philadelphia and the Sahel, as in Southern Italy, while the indicators of malaise may be civic, the causes are structural. If my critique of Putnam in Southern Italy can be extended as far as his theory, then policy makers who attack the lack of social capital by encouraging association would be attacking the symptoms and not the causes of the problem.” [Making Social Science Work Across Space and Time, American Political Science Review, June 1996, Sidney Tarrow, p. 396]

Responses to Putnam’s work are generating a rising chorus of cries that government and political structures and action outside the state (such as corporatist agreements between unions and employers leaders in Sweden, moves towards compromise between the former civil war foes in Spain) are major creators and destroyers of “sociability.”

In decoupling “generational” effects from the three factors identified as other significant factors (work pressures, urban sprawl and TV) all of which have been generationally changing experiences, Putnam can only speculate. Loss of religiosity or “secularisation” is eliminated, but Putnam entertains psychological speculations about how the experience of war and possibly the memory of the Depression figure as factors which may have inculcated sociability and civic mindedness in the generations which experienced war service and mobilisation and remembered the Depression.

In the Italian study, Putnam shows that SQ in a region in 1900 was a better predictor of both industrial performance and SQ in the same region in 1980 than industrial performance in 1900, and the same claim can be made for infant mortality, per capita income, urbanisation or industrialisation. Putnam can go so far as to claim, alluding to the negative legacy of Catholicism:

“Good government in Italy is a by-product of singing groups and soccer clubs, not prayer” [Making Democracy Work, p. 176]

and in reference to statistical correlations of factors affecting the health of Americans:

“As a rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining ... In round numbers, getting married is the ‘happiness equivalent’ of quadrupling your annual income. ... Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income.” [Bowling Alone, p. 331-3]

b. Putnam’s Concept of “social capital” (SQ)

Before going on to examine some of Putnam’s more detailed findings and the contribution he has made to resolving some speculation about the nature of modernity and the factors contributing to contemporary malaise, I want to examine in a little more detail how his concept differs from that of James Coleman, not only methodologically but conceptually.

Looking over the 23 measures which are incorporated in the three different formulations of SQ, we can see that what Putnam is measuring is the disposition people manifest towards civic engagement, sociability, either formal or informal, and recognise norms of reciprocity with strangers, in a given social setting. We say disposition manifested because what is measured is only actions taken, rather than preferences (though preferences are consulted in some cases when Putnam wants to shed light on causality), and joining, for example, depends on having something to join, and consequently, among other things, on the existence of other joiners; trust depends not just on psychological disposition, but on experience and the rationally assessed trustworthiness of others.

The heterogeneity of the components is justified on one hand by the close correlation between them and by a hypothesis that they all originate causally from a common disposition towards sociability. As an empiricist, Putnam pays no attention to the need for such an hypothesis, just as Coleman seems unperturbed by the insuperable challenge of measuring “social capital” under his rationalistic definition.

For example, if one were to define the “temperature” of a gas as the average of the mv2 of all molecules in a sample, this sheds a great deal of light on the nature of temperature and makes it possible to found thermodynamics on the exact science of statistical mechanics, but it does not tell you the temperature of any given body of gas. For that you need a column of mercury and the Centigrade scale. This is the methodological difference.

But there is also a difference in content, in the ethos which Putnam and Coleman are measuring. “Social capital” for Putnam is a condition existing in a population in which the citizens have a disposition towards civic or amicable engagement. Individuals partake in this “social capital” by their contribution towards civic or amicable engagement. Norms of reciprocity, trust, widely distributed organisational skill, and freely flowing information are the intangible substances manifested in the measure of “social capital.”

It is in this sense that I have characterised Putnam’s concept of “social capital” as a “metaphysical entity,” for it is a “something” which lies behind the manifestations of civicness perceived as SQ, a “something” which is not directly amenable to perception but which is inferred from perception. But nevertheless, the generalised conception of “social capital” is civicness.

For Coleman, on the other hand, “social capital” is informal “credit notes” for favours done, held by an individual who has used her control over events to do favours, and expects a return. The total social capital in a population is the sum of the social capital wielded by each individual within the population. The holder of a large quantity of social capital is the Tammany Hall official who has large numbers of the citizenry, contractors, government officials, community leaders, etc., in his debt. It is private property which has been accumulated by self-interested use of relations of reciprocity. The person who wants to acquire “social capital” in Coleman’s sense will always seek to incur obligation to return a favour and seek improvements in their own standing insofar as they act in the more general interest.

This definition of “social capital,” rather than reflecting relations of reciprocity and an orientation towards civicness, more closely resembles what Putnam calls “patron/client” relations, which although recognised as sociality and as a rational social orientation in a society where such relations are dominant, he does not refer to as “social capital” and does not pick up in the components of SQ.

I think it is fair to say that there is a lot of rapport between Putnam’s and Jane Jacobs’ conceptions, though they are not identical in focus, methodology or content. The methodological differences make it difficult to rationally contrast the underlying concepts.

Let us return to my theme of the aptness of the words “social capital” to denote the metaphysical entity underlying SQ. Putnam’s social capital is really much more like social and ethical infrastructure or social environment than disposable assets. When the civic-minded person goes to live in a community, are they going to find other civic-minded people to work with? or they going to find that no-one turns up to the public meetings or afternoon teas that they organise and are the flowers they plant on the roadside going to get pulled up overnight?

This is a real issue. That Putnam has shown that there is a measurable quantity reflecting this “civicness” or “sociability;” that it has determinable historical roots and causes is of great value.

Putnam is concerned with belief and the rational basis for belief in the existence of norms of symmetric reciprocity in a community; it is these norms that make life easier, more productive, happier, healthier and more fulfilling.

These norms are “externals” for Coleman, in the sense that the existence of norms of reciprocity constitute the extent to which the presumed, ideal social capital market corresponds to the actuality. In order that “social capital credit slips” can be added up, it has to be presumed that favours will be returned. Consequently, Coleman’s conception of social capital rests on norms of reciprocity, but it does not measure them; Putnam’s concept of social capital on the other hand, endeavours to measure norms of reciprocity, but is less concerned to measure the extent to which people are actively drawing on them.

Putnam seems to hold that the active orientation of people towards civic engagement and the extent to which people believe in the existence of norms of reciprocity are the measurable phenomena of “civicness.” Nevertheless, Putnam introduces us to certain qualitative distinction in “social capital,” which cut across the idea that “civicness” is something of which a community has more or less, rather than a different kind.

When a good idea like this comes along, there are always epigones who have to make themselves a name by further developing the idea. One thing Coleman and Putnam have in common in their conception of “social capital” and a feature which goes a small way to justifying conceiving of it as “capital” is that for both of them it is a quantity. Elaboration of the original idea in the academic literature falls into two lines of enquiry: (i) further elaboration of mathematical formulae, and (ii) deconstruction of the quantitative conception into types of social capital.

The literature on mathematical aspects of “social capital” that I have seen is of very little value. Some writers try to merge the Coleman and Putnam concepts and set up long formulae adding up sums and products of different measures of social relationships in the hope of “predicting” the SQ. There is no thought in this literature of the application of “linear action theory;” it is just the empiricist search for correspondences between different metaphysical entities; the formulae are no more accessible to computation than Coleman’s linear action formulae and usually serve no better function than to put a respectable “scientific” gloss over empirical sociological speculation.

The other line of enquiry which is used for generating publications picks up on the remarks that Putnam especially, but Coleman as well, make about different types of social capital. The problem with this literature is that it is unconsciously unwinding the quantitative conception of “social capital” back towards a qualitative description, at which point the whole of Putnam (and Coleman’s) achievements fall to bits, for it is based on the observation that different types of phenomena can be subsumed together in a single measure, pointing to a single metaphysical entity. This is all very well. If the results of our investigation show that certain kinds of orientation foster norms of reciprocity and others do not, then we are moving towards a different theory of the origins of public ethos and we should clearly state that “social capital” is an ideological construction.

I would like to briefly outline now the different distinctions between “types of social capital” that are introduced by Robert Putnam.

The concepts relevant to identifying different kinds of social capital are introduced in the latter pages of Making Democracy Work and the early pages of Bowling Alone; I refer to the distinctions between “bridging” and “bonding” social capital, and the related question of the “dark side” of social capital, and the interrelated group of distinctions between “weak” and “strong” bonds (p. 175), or “thick” and “thin” ties, and the radius of association.

c. Bridging vs, Bonding social capital

Putnam describes the distinction between bridging and bonding, two “types of social capital,” as follows:

“Networks and the associated norms of reciprocity are generally good for those inside the network, but the external effects of social capital are by no means always positive. It was social capital, for example, that enabled Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, McVeigh’s network of friends, bound together by a norm of reciprocity, enabled him to do what he could not have done alone. Similarly, urban gangs, NIMBY movements, and power elites often exploit social capital to achieve ends that are antisocial from a wider perspective. ... Social capital, in short, can be directed towards malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital. ... Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual progress, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximised and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimised. Toward this end, scholars have begun to distinguish between different forms of social capital. ...

“Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups ... Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. ... Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilising solidarity. ... Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion.” [Bowling Alone, p. 21-22]

Closely related to the distinction between bridging and bonding is the distinction between “thick” and “thin” relations of community:

“The trust that is required to sustain cooperation is not blind. Trust entails a prediction about the behaviour of an independent actor. ‘You do not trust a person (or an agency) to do something merely because he says he will do it. You trust him because, knowing what you know of his disposition, his available options and their consequences, his ability and so forth you expect that he will choose to do it.’ In small close-knit communities, this prediction can be based on what Bernard Williams calls ‘thick trust,’ that is, a belief that rests on immediate familiarity with this individual. In larger, more complex settings, however, a more impersonal or indirect form of trust is required.” [Making Democracy Work, p. 171]

Thus a “thick” ethos is one which enmeshes its participants in a dense network of relations in which every action has multiple ramifications, such as pertains in the classic rural village where everyone knows everyone. This kind of trust is associated with extreme conformity and social stability, and is the kind of setting which is disappearing in modernity. What predominates in modernity is a “thin” ethos within which people are constrained in their cooperation with strangers despite the fact that the ramifications of any action are unlikely to redound on the actors. It is this kind of trust, described so aptly by Jane Jacobs in her description of the side-walk culture of inner city neighbourhoods, which sustains the fabric of modern life.

The contrast between “weak” and “strong” ties is similar. The concept of a “radius of trust” concerns the social distance, presumably measured by the number of people belonging within a given radius, and entails the idea that at a larger radius, relations are weaker, that ties that extend outside of the circle of one’s associates, neighbours and friends, ties have a correspondingly weaker ramification. Putnam points out the importance for social life of the existence of these “weak” ties, which allow you to find out about jobs, drum up support for a cause and so on. The existence of a wide radius of trust facilitates the development of intricate interlocking networks and “grape-vines,” without the suffocating conformism of too many strong ties.

I think there is no doubt that this insight is valuable in understanding the problems of modernity. This distinction tends to fall below the radar of Putnam’s SQ, however. The component measures focus on activity along “weak” ties, at a relatively wide “radius,” but in Bowling Alone he includes visiting and entertaining friends in the computation of SQ, and claims a correlation of about 70% with SQ for these propensities. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to suppose that maintaining a circle of friends exhibits a propensity which could be further expressed in civic participation.

Let us accept that this discovery of a “thin ethos” sustaining public life in modernity is genuine, and that the contrast with “thick ethos,” found not only in village life, but in institutions and organisations with well-defined codes of behaviour, hierarchy and division of responsibility, is an important one. I question whether “social capital” is an appropriate way of conceptualising this phenomenon.

Let us draw on the concept of subject introduced in the first part of this article. Generally speaking the relations between individuals within a social subject are thick, inasmuch as these relations all belong to a single system of activity, and have multiple ramifications throughout the system. A small rural village is a clear example of a social subject exhibiting a “thick ethos” binding individuals into its cultural norms. On the other hand, the typical relations pertaining in modernity between total strangers include those of commodity exchange, so long as there exists the “thin ethos” characteristic of lawful behaviour in the public arena. As we have said, these relations which are referred to as a “thin ethos” are one of the typical relations between subjects, provided they meet each other with mutual respect and esteem.

The observation that there exist “bridging” and “bonding” forms of “social capital” is therefore, in the terms I am using here, the observation that in modernity participate as component parts of social subjects and relate thereby to individuals as component parts of other subjects, and that this contrast is reflected in different kinds of relationship governing by different norms of behaviour.

However, according to the approach we are arguing for here, these two relationships do not exhaust the field of possible relationships. Relations between subjects can also be those of dominance/hierarchy (which we will come to in the next section) and solidarity (which we will come to in the third part of this article). The simple contrast between bridging and bonding however subsumes the relation of solidarity under “bridging” in a way that is unsatisfactory, and excludes the relation of dominance/hierarchy altogether. Jane Jacobs made the point that the very essence of the ethos which underpins life in modernity is that the relationship of solidarity which a child may learn on the sidewalk is that it is not paid for. Thus this is entirely distinct from the kind of “social credit slip” which underpins Coleman’s conception and which is still lingering in the background of Putnam’s “civicness,” as there seems to have been no settling of accounts between these two conceptions.

d. Vertical vs. Horizontal social capital

Putnam also introduced the distinction between horizontal networks and “patron-client” relations which, as I read it, Putnam does not count as “social capital” at all, even though they are “social capital” par excellence under the Coleman and Bourdieu definitions. Putnam also talks about “vertical” and “horizontal” relations, but it would seem that “vertical relations” (such as a soccer team which elects a captain) are not synonymous with “patron/client” relations.

“Any society — modern or traditional, authoritarian or democratic, feudal or capitalist — is characterised by networks of interpersonal communication and exchange, both formal and informal. Some of these networks are primarily ‘horizontal,’ bringing together agents of equivalent status and power. Others are primarily ‘vertical,’ linking unequal agents in asymmetrical relations of hierarchy and dependence. In the real world, of course, almost all networks are mixes of the horizontal and the vertical: Even bowling teams have captains, while prison guards occasionally fraternise with inmates. ...

“A vertical network, no matter how dense and no matter how important to its participants, cannot sustain trust and cooperation. Vertical flows of information are often less reliable than horizontal flows, in part because the subordinate husbands information as a hedge against exploitation. More important, sanctions that support norms of reciprocity against the threat of opportunism are less likely to be imposed upwards and less likely to be acceded to , if imposed. ...

“Patron-client relations, for example, involve interpersonal exchange and reciprocal obligations, but the exchange is vertical and the obligations asymmetric ... vertical bonds of clientelism ‘seem to undermine the horizontal group organisation and solidarity of clients and patrons alike — but especially of the clients.’ Two clients of the same patron, lacking direct ties, hold nothing hostage to one another. They have nothing at stake against mutual defection and nothing to fear from mutual alienation. They have no occasion to develop a norm of generalised reciprocity and no history of mutual collaboration to draw on. In the vertical patron-client relationship, characterised by dependence instead of mutuality, opportunism is more likely on the part of both patron (exploitation) and client (shirking). The fact that vertical networks are less helpful may be one reason why capitalism turned out to be more efficient than feudalism in the eighteenth century, and why democracy has proven more effective than autocracy in the twentieth century.” [Making Democracy Work, p. 174-5]

As Putnam conjectures, the social habits of “patron/client,” implanted in the 12th century in the south of both Italy and the United States (and according to Fukuyama, in France), have long-lasting effects. In general, Putnam talks of “patron/client relations” always in the context of an alternative, antithetical mode of social connection to the norms of symmetric reciprocity which manifest “civicness.” At the same time, in passing, he accepts the categorisation of delegation and representation as “vertical” relations, like patronage. Serving on a committee or making a speech are counted in the calculation of SQ as manifestations of civicness, but then a bowling team electing a captain is taken as an instance of “vertical social capital.” Other writers, make much of this business of “different kinds of social capital,” of good and bad social capital. This is not the dominant theme of Putnam’s writing. But he is unclear about this. The subsumption of all these different kinds of relation under a single measure, however, key as it is to the concept of “social capital,” is surely problematic even within Putnam’s own terms. People who voluntarily come together and bend someone’s arm to function as “secretary” are expressing a relation of solidarity, building a new subjectivity and pressing one of their number into service in order to give their subjectivity a human voice. This complex of relationships is the diametric opposite of a group of people who, with no relationship between them at all, are herded together under the whip of, for example, an employer or a landlord or whatever in the “patron/client” relation.

Let us bring together these two aspects of the quality of social relations (bridging vs bonding and horizontal vs vertical). Modernity extends the radius of social relations, supplanting the “thick” ethos of a range of traditional and bureaucratic relationships with the commodity relation. This is manifested in expansion of the market and especially the financial sector, the blossoming of the service sector, including contract employment, consultancy, part-time and casual work, the socialisation of women’s labour, the corporatisation of internal corporate relations, privatisation of utilities and other government and social services, the intellectual property boom, mass media and the decline of status of teachers, priests and other authority figures.

The commodity relation both fosters and requires the support of an ethos of symmetric reciprocity, of fair dealing with strangers. Asymmetric relationships, whether aristocratic or bureaucratic, are undermined by modernity, but these relations cannot be put in the same basket with relations of delegation and mandation which are essential for civic life. But these too, it appears, are being undermined in modernity. Social life built solely on relations of fair exchange does lead to isolation and a loss of civic engagement, to a distancing between people, and it also leads to inequality and consequently, poverty, exploitation and alienation. Combination is the classic answer to both inequality and isolation, and combination is impossible without mandation and delegation. The conception of “vertical” completely misses the distinction between combination and dependency, between mutual respect and esteem, and solidarity.

Coleman’s version of “social capital” is precisely the kind of relation which is notoriously capable of transforming relations of combination into those of dependency, by way of nepotism, corruption and careerism. So this distinction in what is classified as “vertical” are of vital importance.

The fact remains, that the picture Putnam has painted of contemporary America gives grave cause for concern. The rise of “cheque book” or “subscription” organisations coinciding with the decline of “chapter based” organisations and all forms of social mediation, and coupled with this, the “professionalisation” of voluntary organisations are a couple of the most spectacular trends.

union membership 1900-2000

It may be some cold comfort to trade unionists to see that the curve of union membership (p. 81) fairly closely matches the curve for all “chapter-based” associations (p. 54); Putnam reports how, as these phenomena began to bite in the 1970s, activists in various kinds of organisation began to soul-search and enquire into the reasons for their demobilisation, but we now know that the issue is not the unpopularity of trade unionism, or whatever, but a society-wide decline in civic participation of any kind. Also, unionists will be aware of how leaderships reacted to this crisis by a move to “service” unionism, of transforming activist-based self-organisation into cheque-book unionism, resembling an insurance service rather than an organisation in the normal sense of the word. This same move was accompanied in the union movement, as elsewhere, by professionalism; even child-care now no longer employs part-time teenagers, but relies on professionals with degrees in early childhood development. Putnam’s curve showing the rise of membership of national environmental organisations (p. 156) shows not so much a rising interest in the environment rather than worker-solidarity for example, but the rise of subscription membership as opposed to participation.

So what Putnam has drawn out here, is the supplanting of concrete mediation with what I would call abstract identification. A group of people all purchasing a service off the same provider are not participants in the same subjectivity in anything like the same sense in which participants in a “chapter-based” organisation are.

The same relationship is built into the electoral process. Voting on a multiple-choice list of candidates in electorates of 100,000s, if not millions, is the same kind of relationship with government as paying an annual fee to the Motorists’ Association or the Senior Citizens Association. It is an abstract relationship: I invest x percent of my disposable income to insure each separate aspect of my identity, but my labour is sold, by the hour just to earn a living.

Information provision and entertainment of course have led the way in this change, and one cannot avoid some empathy with Putnam’s fingering of commercial television as a culprit in this crime. Broadcast represents abstract communication, moreover one for which recipients are simply the targets for advertising, “consumers.” The multiplication of channels and the various means by which choice is built into broadcast technology actually accentuate the problem. This is not “communication” in the normal sense of the word.

As Putnam points out, the move to this kind of relationship brings with it the conception of the politician elected or the lobby group subscribed to as a service provider who should be judged according to the quality of service delivered and consequently, is expected to be a professional. Amateur participation is replaced by professional service. It is essentially a process of commercialisation — the replacement of relations of delegation and representation by the relation of client to service provider, whether the service is purchased by a cheque or by a vote makes little difference, but in the long run (as Coleman points out), even votes and cheques become interchangeable. The result of this move can be described as the transformation of human beings into abstract beings, “consumers” that count as just so many old people, motorists, supporters of environmental issues or this or that vote on a referendum.

As pathological as this relationship may be, it is quite a distinct kind of relationship from the relationship of patron to client found in communities accustomed to central authority or in authoritarian organisations. At first sight it appears “democratic;” dictatorship is replaced by “choice.” Commercialisation is the process of breaking down internal relations within a social subject, be they client-patron, democratic participation or conjugal love, and replacing them with external client-service provider relations. Both Sultan and CNN equally are antithetical to civic republicanism.

e. Historical changes in sociability

average membership of environmental subscription groups 1960-2000

Putnam’s graphs showing historical trends in various aspects of sociability are startling in the coherence of the picture they paint. The graphs of membership in 32 chapter-based associations closely resemble the graph of union membership and participation in card games. Any generalised claim about modernity has to deal with this trajectory affecting “chapter-based” organisations of any colour whatsoever, while subscription-based professional service/representation and lobby groups follow an almost inverse curve.

Taking the graph of membership in the 32 chapter-based organisations as a base:

Secondly, we know that the decline is generational, with “chapters” becoming older and older as each generation participated less than the generation before.

Thirdly, as participation in chapter-based organisations declined, membership of subscription groups rose. The curve from 1960-1991 is virtually the same curve turned upside down — except that even this manifestation of sociability declined in the 1990s!

average membership of 32 different associations 1900-2000

While participation in cards and sport declined, attendance at spectator sport linearly increased from 1960 to 1997. Church attendance follows a similar curve but the recent decline is more modest, and coincides with a church membership which steadied after 1980. Voter turn-out also declined after 1960, but from a level which was already below voter turn-out in 1896, which plummeted until about 1920 and only partially recovered up to 1960.

It is the contention of this author that the key factor which needs to be put into the mix along with TV, the War and the motor car is the development of the relations of production and in particular commodification. I don’t accept Putnam’s assertion that since America has always been capitalist, capitalism has nothing to tell us about this process. Commodification replaces the satisfaction of a need internally to a subject’s system of activity, with production of a good or service for sale. Conversely, commodification replaces the satisfaction of a subject’s needs through collaborative labour, domestic servitude or otherwise according to right, with instead the purchase of goods and services either from outside the subject’s system of activity, or by means of breaking up the subject into mutually alien subjects with commercial relationships between them.

What is clear is that sociability is an historical variable, a variable which changes only generationally it appears, but changes.

Putnam’s evidence from Italy especially, and from state-by-state comparison in the U.S., on the other hand, shows that the roots of sociability lie very deep. The experiences of slavery or of a centralising or oppressive regime, or of war and depression can fundamentally change the ethos of a generation and that such changes can be passed down through many generations.

f. Tolerance and sociability

Putnam’s analysis sheds some interesting light in the communitarianism vs. liberalism debate. Putnam shows that measures of racial and other tolerance have steadily increased since 1960, when the big battles over Jim Crow laws and segregation were fought, during the same period when sociability was falling. Let’s face it, during the period where “sociability” reached such heights in America, this was a society dominated by conformism, MacCarthyite anti-communism and racism.

But on the other hand, he also has evidence from both the US and Italy, that those sections of the population (other things being equal) who are not sociable, who are not civically engaged, and who only know about other races, other cultures and other sexuality by watching TV, are the least tolerant, most fearful and prejudiced members of a society which is becoming more tolerant.

Putnam also observed that high levels of social, ideological political disputation and diversity do not lead to a loss of sociability or, in the case of Italy, undermine the effectiveness of government. An intense civic life is factional. Civic engagement is not limited by the lack of a “comprehensive doctrine” (in John Rawls’ terms); the community with a high level of civic engagement can absorb high levels of disputation and diversity without negative impact on social life and happiness; people learn to deal with difference.

g. Good vs. Bad social capital

Where does one go with this complex process in which relationships of one type decline while other kinds of relationship are on the rise? Putnam’s work which hinges around connecting everything to the ebb and flow of a single quantity cannot be bypassed; but nor I think can it provide the answer to its own questions. If social capital was strong in the hey-day of MacCarthyism, racism and conformity, how do we know that efforts to “increase social capital” are any different from efforts to wind the clock back to 1956?

In his introduction to Democracies in Flux, Robert Putnam shows that he does not understand the problem of quantification at all. He says,

“In the 1950s and 1960s a great debate rages in the discipline of economics ... about whether physical capital was sufficiently homogeneous to be added up in a single ledger. A dentist’s drill, a carpenter’s drill, and an oil rigger’s drill are all examples of physical capital, but they are hardly interchangeable.” [p. 8]

But all these drills are quantifiable according to how much they can be sold for. Their status as capital raises additional questions, but their quantification depends only on their market exchangeability.

“The same is true of social capital — it comes in many forms that are useful in many different contexts, but the forms are heterogeneous in the sense that they are good only for certain purposes and not others.”

Difference in form is the very essence of quantification and is not the issue with social capital at all. The point is: can an element of social capital be transferred to another in exchange for something else, or purchased off someone else by way of exchange, or exchanged for a different element of social capital? This is the practical, objective process of quantification, carried out every day in the capital market.

“Your extended family represents a form of social capital, as do your Sunday School class, the people you meet regularly on your commuter train, your college classmates, the neighbourhood association to which you belong, the civic organisations of which your are a member, the Internet chat group in which you participate, and the network of professional acquaintances recorded in your address book. It is even less clear in the case of social capital than it was in the debate [above] about physical capital that we can simple “add up” all these different forms to produce a single, sensible summary of the social capital in a given community, much less an entire nation.”

Exactly. In the case of capital the problem is easily resolved, for example, in the stock market, or when a corporate raider breaks up a company and sells it off bit by bit. In such cases of quantification, the change of form is the very purpose of the quantification. The ability to use a social connection profitably may serve to qualify it as an element of capital rather than simply wealth, but does not bear on the issue of its quantification. The problem of adding these various conditions as forms of capital is like adding the existence of a labour force, adequate demand and competition — all contribute to the profitability of capital, but are not capital as such.

“Precisely because social capital is stubbornly resistant to quantification, we cannot say that an outward-looking youth service corps that clears an urban playground has somehow increased our stock of social capital more than, say, an inward-looking credit union that has allowed a new immigrant community to flourish.”

Absolutely. So why not draw the conclusion that the whole concept of “social capital” is mistaken, and apply qualitative methods to the issue of the social preconditions for production?

“Because social capital is multi-dimensional, and some of those dimensions themselves are subject to different understandings, we must take care not to frame questions about change solely in terms of more social capital or les social capital. Rather, we must describe the changes in qualitative terms. For example, within a given country one could imagine that the stock of social capital has become more formal but less bridging, more bridging but less intensive, or more intensive but less public-regarding. Or there could be truth in all three developments. That is a nation could simultaneously see growth in ethnically based social clubs, rainbow coalitions, and government-hating citizens’ militias.”

Which goes to show that while “social capital” theory is looking at something of importance, it is using the wrong kind of “lens.”

Much of the public debate about this problem hinges around concepts of “good” and “bad” “social capital,” distinctions which, as I have said, negate the very idea of “social capital.” Foremost among those who want to promote the distinctions between good and bad social capital is Francis Fukuyama.

6. Francis Fukuyama

We have seen that Putnam introduced the idea of “different kinds of social capital,” but generally speaking, he did not give a lot of priority to this approach, preferring to count “social capital” as a social good, qualified by the observation that like any form of wealth, it can be misused. The “patron/client” relations he observed in Southern Italy, though constituting useful social connections, were not counted as “social capital.” Fukuyama however, makes the distinction between good and bad social capital central.

For Putnam, the negative aspects of “bonding” as opposed to “bridging” social capital is important, but since “bonding” social capital is also both useful and in decline, the distinction does not figure strategically as a problem. For Fukuyama however, “bonding” social capital is valued, and the erosion of “bonding” social capital by increased tolerance and sanctions against exclusiveness is positively a social bad.

I want to quote at length this passage from Fukuyama’s book on how the modern “rights culture” has destroyed “communal” bonds:

“while nuclear families have broken down ... A more serious threat to community has come, it would seem, from the vast expansion in the number and scope of rights to which Americans believe they are entitled, and the ‘rights culture’ this produces.”

“Rights-based individualism is deeply embedded in American political theory and constitutional law. One might argue, in fact, that the fundamental tendency of American institutions is to promote an ever-increasing degree of individualism. We have seen repeatedly that communities tend to be intolerant of outsiders in proportion to their internal cohesiveness, because the very strength of the principles that bind members together exclude those that do not share them. Many of the strong communal structures in the United States at mid-century discriminated in a variety of ways: country clubs that served as networking sites for business executives did not allow Jews, blacks, or women to join; church-run schools that taught strong moral values did not permit children of other denominations to enrol; charitable organisations provided services for only certain groups of people and tried to impose intrusive rules of behaviour on their clients. The exclusiveness of these communities conflicted with the principle of equal rights, and the state increasingly took the side of those excluded against these communal organisations.

“The chief injustice that began the rights revolution from the 1960s onward was racial discrimination. One of the great and necessary victories of American liberalism was the ending of legal discrimination with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the courts to open up public institutions, and then private organisations serving the public, made it the strategy of choice for subsequent excluded minorities, including people accused of crimes, women, the disabled, homosexuals, and more recent immigrant groups like Hispanics. Over the second half of the century, this drive to include the formerly excluded led to increasingly broad interpretations of the individual rights defined by the Constitution. Although each of the individual steps taken could be justified in terms of the country’s basic egalitarian principles, the cumulative and unintended effect was for the state to become an enemy of many communal institutions.

“As an example of the difficulties that communal institutions face, consider the Boy Scouts, an organisation founded as a Christian group intended to inculcate “manly” virtues like courage, self-reliance, and fortitude in boys. In subsequent times, it has been sued by Jews for excluding non-Christians, by women for admitting only boys, and by gay rights groups for excluding homosexual scout masters. The organisation, as a result, has become fairer and less exclusive, but in the process of becoming as diverse as the American population, it has also lost those features that made it a strong moral community.

“Americans have developed a ‘culture’ of rights that is quite distinctive among other modern liberal democracies. ... American law does not support any kind of duty to rescue or otherwise enjoin citizens to do good to strangers in need. A Good Samaritan in the United States is much more likely to be sued for administering the wrong kind of help than rewarded for his or her troubles...

“What is particularly insidious about the American culture of rights is that it dignifies with high moral purpose what often amount to low private interests or desires.” [p. 314-16]

The reactionary content of Fukuyama’s defence of the institutions of privilege hardly needs comment, but this should not obscure the observation that the extension rights destroys the bonds internal to social subjects, in the cases Fukuyama discusses, the ruling social subjects of mid-twentieth century America. The “bonding social capital” which Fukuyama is defending in the above passage, against assault from self-interested promoters of the “culture of rights,” clearly of exactly the same kind as the “bonding social capital” that Putnam attacks in the early pages of Bowling Alone, is contrasted by Fukuyama with the bonds of self-organisation formed by “interest groups”:

“Cartels, guilds, professional associations, unions, political parties, lobbying organisations, and the like all serve an important political function by systematising and articulating interests in a pluralistic democracy. But although they usually serve economic ends of their members by seeking to redistribute wealth to them, they seldom serve the broader economic interests of society as a whole. For this reason many economists regard the proliferation of such groups as a drag on overall economic efficiency.” [Francis Fukuyama, Trust. The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. The Free Press 1995. p. 157-58]

These observations make some sense of Putnam’s observation of the coincidence of declining sociability with increased tolerance.

Fukuyama goes on to contrast “British horizontal solidarity” with “Japanese vertical solidarity,” the Japanese version proving much more effective in creating wealth.

This highlights the unclarity contained in the concept of “vertical” versus “horizontal” social capital, lumping together patron/client relations with those of delegation and representation. Fukuyama condemns “horizontal social capital” as uneconomic and contrary to the broader social interest, while “vertical social capital” is to be applauded. Likewise, the unclarity of the contrast between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital is turned on its head by Fukuyama for whom “bonding social capital” is praiseworthy in sustaining the privileges of ruling elites, but condemned as uneconomic where it is manifested in “interest groups;” bridging is necessary and proper, but unfortunately is destructive of “community.”

Thus, Fukuyama succeeds in putting a conservative spin on “social capital,” in which self-help organisations, trade unions, neighbourhood defence organisations, are thrown into the same bucket with feudal relations of dependence, the Klu Klux Klan and professional lobbyists. To my mind, this trajectory demonstrates the dangers implicit in the concept of “social capital” from the beginning.

Nevertheless, Fukuyama makes two important contributions to the concept of “social capital.” In Trust. The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. 1995, Fukuyama (1) uses comparative historical study of the structure of the family in a number of different countries to elucidate how different forms of company-subjects have historically evolved out of family-subjects, and (2) posits the term “trust” in lieu of Putnam’s “civicness” and “sociability” to conceptualise the entity reflected in “social capital” studies. Given that Putnam registered a 92% correlation between his “basket” of measures making up SQ and the single measured based on “Do you think most people can be trusted?” I think Fukuyama can claim empirical support from Putnam for his move.

The Transition from Family to Company

With the aid of a team of researchers and a host of collaborators, Fukuyama has reviewed the historical development of the bourgeoisie in Italy, France, Korea, Japan, Germany, China (and ex-patriot Chinese communities) and in the United States, to compare and contrast the specific character of the bourgeoisie of each country.

With Church and State in the background, the essential form of organisation of pre-modern ruling classes is the family, in the broadest sense of the word; the form of organisation of the modern bourgeoisie is the company, again in the broadest sense of the term. Apart from Church and State, late-feudal and early-modern societies also produced other non-familial organisation such as religious orders and guilds, but these were conditioned by and inseparable from the form taken by the family in the given culture. Fukuyama shows how the diverse forms of company structure in different more or less successful capitalist developments have been shaped by the modification of the family in connection with other forms of organisation inherited from the past — sometimes by deliberate adaptation, by state intervention, outside pressures, liberal ideology, established or disestablished church, as well as the effects of capital accumulation itself.

Fukuyama does not use the word “bourgeoisie” of course; “class” is a word that he generally uses only in a pejorative sense. What is more, “society” for Fukuyama is exclusively the society of property-owners — property owners, the family of property-owners, potential property owners and ideologists. The working classes fall entirely below the radar for Fukuyama except as material for employment, more or less resistant to the extraction of profit. So although Trust is a history of the bourgeoisie, the reader could be forgiven for taking it as a social history of society as a whole. To be sure, the working class in each country emerged from within bourgeois society, and has always been more or less dominated by the culture of their own country, so a history of the ruling classes goes a long way to giving an insight into the culture of the working class in any given country. But it is not the same thing. Wherever the working class disturbs the development of the bourgeoisie, Fukuyama calls it “ideology,” which of course, is now “at an end.”

This study is of interest to us because it claims to demonstrate the various paths through which the subject of pre-bourgeois times transformed itself into the bourgeois subject. The state and the church are also subjects, but these have already been the focus of any number of historical studies.


Fukuyama’s thesis is that the substance of “social capital” is trust.

“... economic activity represents a crucial part of life and is knit together by a wide variety of norms, rules, moral obligations, and other habits that together shape the society. As this book will show, one of the most important lessons we can learn from an examination of economic life is that a nation’s well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society.” [p. 7]

“Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of the community.” [p. 26]

Trust exists within subjects, that is to say, within self-conscious systems of activity such as the family or any institution which supports a “thick ethos” of collaboration. The point is, in the transition to modernity where day-to-day interaction, commerce and production all require collaboration with those outside the family and strangers, even people in other parts of the world, how is it possible to extend the radius of trust more widely, so as to be able to create collaborative enterprises with scope much wider than the immediate family?

Thus, from his own right-wing perspective, Fukuyama is looking at much the same problem as Putnam and Coleman — how can poor people create capital out of nothing? Fukuyama’s investigations into this question do shed light on the broader question of how poor and oppressed people can constitute themselves into subjects, not necessarily just by transforming themselves into capitalists.

Fukuyama makes a broad categorisation of cultures into “low trust” and “high trust” societies. Initially, trust extends as far as the boundaries of the family; the first kind of company is therefore invariably the family business. “Family structure affects the nature of family businesses.” [p. 336] The questions are firstly, whether the history of a nation has given it forms of family which facilitate the maintenance of enduring and extensive family businesses, and secondly, whether their history has created forms of non-kin association which have promoted the habits of trust and which can be turned to the construction of corporations transcending the boundaries of the family. This capacity to form new bonds of trust Fukuyama calls sociability:

“There are three paths to sociability: the first is based on family and kinship; the second on voluntary associations outside kinship such as schools, clubs, and professional organisations, and the third is the state. There are three forms of economic organisation corresponding to each path: the family business, the professionally managed corporation, and the state-owned or -sponsored enterprise. The first and third paths, it turns out, are closely related to one another: cultures in which the primary avenue toward sociability is family and kinship have a great deal of trouble creating large, durable economic organisations and therefore look to the state to initiate and support them.” [p. 62]

Southern Italy and China are instances where history has not provided opportunities for the extension of trust beyond the immediate family. China has had the minor advantage of extensive “clan” relations traced through many generations, but these are relatively loose. In addition, Chinese tradition has it that a father must divide his estate equally between all his sons. As a result, any large estate is inevitably dissipated within two generations. The only way for a Southern Italian or Chinese society to form a large business is by the intervention of the state.

In feudal Japan on the other hand, primogeniture was the norm; that is, the entire estate was passed to the eldest son. As a result, not only could the family business grow from generation to generation, but there was always a ready supply of the younger sons of noble families out there looking for work, and these formed excellent professional managers as well as samurai. In fact, a by-product of primogeniture was the sanction given to adoption; not only could you hire a younger son from another noble family to run your estate, you could adopt him into the family, and Japanese culture was accepting even of the adopted child inheriting the estate when the master died.

The ease with which modern Japan has built giant capitalist corporations while China and Taiwan are a seething mass of small businesses then makes sense. Fukuyama shows however how the deliberative intervention of the state in Korea, under Park Chung Hee, was able to change the culture in Korea, whose families were more like the Chinese than the Japanese, and force the creation of large corporations.

But whereas as Southern Italians and Chinese knew that other Southern Italians or Chinese shared the same values, that only meant the presumption that they would be always looking after their own family and therefore could not be trusted. A Japanese on the other hand, could trust a fellow-Japanese of noble birth, even though a total stranger, to keep their promises even at pain of death.

Germany and the United States are also examples of societies exhibiting a high propensity for “spontaneous sociability.” In the case of Germany, the medieval guilds continued in existence right up into the present time, while changing their form to meet the exigencies of modernity, and have carried forward not only the ability of non-kin to associate for mutual benefit but the pride in work, professionalism, the valuing of work-related skills and ability to collaborate in relatively egalitarian ways which have served Germany industry so well.

“... the apprenticeship system, which is broadly credited as the basis of Germany’s industrial dominance in Europe, is the direct descendant of the medieval guild system. Throughout the industrial revolution, the guilds were the bte noire of liberal economic reformers, who believed the latter represented hidebound tradition and a hindrance to modernising economic change.” [p. 245]

“The Germans hardly preserved the guild system intact any more than the Japanese preserved feudal clan structures, but nether did they remake society entirely anew based on purely liberal principle. Instead, the liberal framework was moderated and given cohesiveness by certain pre-modern holdover institutions.” [p. 249]


Fukuyama is most interesting, however, in his analysis of American history.

“The source of spontaneous sociability ... Japan’s stem from family structure and the nature of Japanese feudalism; Germany’s is related to the survival of traditional communal organisations like the guilds into the twelfth century; and that in the United States is the product of its sectarian Protestant religious heritage.” [p. 151]

He convincingly shows that America is historically a society with both an exceptionally well-developed capacity to form new bonds of sociability and that Americans have an exceptionally high tolerance for conformism within large bureaucratic organisations. This history belies the self-concept of the American bourgeoisie as highly “individualist.”

“The business elite that created the impressive corporate world that had emerged by the middle of the twentieth century was as homogeneous ethnically, religiously, racially, and in gender terms as those of Japan or Germany. Virtually all the managers and directors of large American corporations were male, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, with an occasional Catholic or non-Anglo-Saxon European thrown in. ... they enforced on their managers and employees codes of behaviour that reflected the values of their WASP backgrounds. They tried to instil in others their own work ethic and discipline, while ostracising divorce, adultery, mental illness, alcoholism, not to mention homosexuality and other kinds of unconventional behaviour. ... at mid-century most critics of American life characterised U.S. society - and particularly the business community - as overly conformist and homogeneous ... the Americans who had built the country in the nineteenth century were inner-directed by religious or spiritual principles, and therefore determined individualists; the contemporary Americans of the 1950s had become other directed, setting their compasses by the least common denominator of mass society.” [p. 277]

He traces this contradiction to the founding of the United States by the Protestant religious sects.

“... the sectarian Protestantism that the early immigrants to North America brought with them from Europe ... is simultaneously one important source of American individualism; a doctrine subversive of established social institutions at the very same time gave a powerful impetus to the formation of new communities and strong binds of social solidarity.” [p. 283]

The founders of Protestant sects are individualists par excellence:

“Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five Theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg in 1517 was just the first of many individualistic acts in the Protestant tradition. In the long run, the individual’s ability to have a direct relationship with God had extremely subversive consequences for all social relationships, because it gave individuals a moral ground to rebel against the most broadly established traditions and social conventions.” [p. 286]

Protestantism shared this opening for an individual to question authority with Buddhism:

“In Japan, Buddhism has displayed a Protestant-like tendency to spawn new sects. ... Hobbes and Locke ... shared the Christian view that the individual had a right to judge the adequacy of the laws and social institutions surrounding him based on higher principles.” [p. 287]

The individualism of the founders of religious sects is belied by the conformism of the organisations they create. But the ability to engender to conformity in a brand-new sect is a significant departure from conformity to traditional institutions:

“The most useful kind of social capital is often not the ability to work under the authority of a traditional community or group, but the capacity to form new associations and to cooperate within the terms of reference they establish.” [p. 27]

But the germ of non-conformity is lodged in the founding principles:

“Individualism is deeply embedded in the rights-based political theory underlying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, so it is no accident that Americans think of themselves as individualistic. This constitutional-legal structure represents, in Ferdinand Tnnies’s phrase, the Gesellschaft (“society”) of American civilisation. But there is an equally old communal tradition in the United States that springs from the country’s religious and cultural origins, which constitute the basis of its Gemeinschaft (“community”). If the individualistic tradition has been, in many ways, the dominant one, the communal tradition has acted as a moderating force that prevented the individualistic impulses from reaching their logical conclusion.” [p. 283]

Furthermore, the nonconformist founders of the United States did not seek the establishment of the Church, but rather opted for a “free market in religion,” and Fukuyama believes that this has given American society an unparalleled religiosity:

“the United States, with no established church and an increasingly secular public life, continues to enjoy a far higher degree of religiosity than virtually all European countries’ national churches. ... when religious identity is mandatory, it often begins to feel life an unwanted burden. ... The Church to which one belongs, rather than becoming a lightning rod for complaints against the state or the larger society, can itself become a vehicle for protest. ... they can also generate a much higher degree of genuine commitment.” [p. 288]

“While revolt against an established church and the setting up of a new sect promotes community within that sect over the short run, the long-term impact of this habit of mind is to weaken respect for authority per se; and not just of the older institution. In the long run, with the broad secularisation of society the habits of sociability would fade away as the social capital accumulated by the original converts was spent. ... The sociability it created, in other words, became gradually self-undermining.” [p.. 294]

It was these Protestant sects which Fukuyama sees as providing the model for the capacity to set up new enterprises which made American capital so dynamic.

“Sectarian religious life served as a school for social self-organisation and permitted the formation of a kind of social capital that could be useful in a variety of non-religious settings.” [p. 293]

The propensity for forming voluntary associations with total strangers was turned to good use in America with the invention of the railways:

“Railroads were the first economic enterprises that could not be practically managed by a single family, and it was they that gave the impulse for the creation of the first managerial hierarchies.” [p. 274]

American entrepreneurs were comfortable setting up branch offices hundreds of miles away and doing deals with people over the telephone. This opened the way to building capitalist corporations of unprecedented scope.

A US corporation thus resembles a secular Protestant sect, just like the Japanese company-man resembles a modern samurai.

“Highly sociable Americans pioneered the development of the modern corporation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, just as the Japanese have explored the possibilities of network organisations in the twentieth.” [p. 27]

One of the interesting points of contrast between the Japanese bourgeois and the American that Fukuyama observes is that the relations between, for example, an automotive assembler in Japan and their suppliers is neither one of direction nor of commercial exchange, but one of collaboration:

“The relationship might not be so hands-off: the assembler’s engineers might critique the supplier’s own manufacturing methods and request changes, ... The whole supplier network is extremely difficult to set up, but when it is fully coordinated, it becomes a vast extension of the lean manufacturing plant itself. ... The keiresu relationship, ... is based on a sense of reciprocal obligation between assembler and supplier.” [p. 261]

The point is of course, that the reciprocal relationship goes further than the exchange of equal values; American firms seem unable to go beyond such relations of exchange in relations either with other firms or with employees. The same problem arose when US companies tried to implement teams and quality circles: they never put in their part of the unwritten bargain.


Most of what Fukuyama has to say by way of explaining the decline of sociability in the US, as catalogued by Putnam, his comments on African-Americans and on “recognition,” is so misinformed and reactionary that it does not warrant critique. I have reviewed both Trust and End of History elsewhere, and I will confine myself here to what seems to be a worthwhile contribution in this section of Trust.

Sociability is a subject’s disposition towards expanding its system of activity. Trust differs from sociability in that trust reflects both objective characteristics of the wider social environment and a subject’s assessment of that environment, in terms of the possibility for sociability. Is it reasonable to suppose that it is trust which is driving sociability, that for example, if trust is established, then sociability will follow; and is it reasonable to suppose that if the objective basis for trust is remedied, then the subjective perception of trust will follow?

Further, if we grant that trust is substance for building companies, is trust also the substance for the building of social movements in modernity capable of carrying out emancipatory tasks?

I think at least qualified positive answers can be given to each of these questions. That is to say, subjects which have emerged in modernity, seeking liberation from stigmatisation and exploitation by capital, need to expand and strengthen themselves. The problems that both the workers’ movement and all the social movements face (feminism, ant-racism, etc.) have considerable overlap with the problems that Jane Jacobs’ neighbourhoods faced.

The idea that social movements need to orient towards creating trust across the social terrain in which they operate is not implausible, and is not identical with the idea that issues of ideology and program need to be resolved. But which comes first? Will scattered individuals whose activities are not coordinated with one another, between which there is no basis for trust, succeed in resolving problems of ideology and program? Or is it possible that people with no agreement about ideology and program could nevertheless develop mutual trust? And if so how?

Both Putnam and Fukuyama have shown, convincingly enough for me, that building trust is a process which extends over centuries, not years, at least in respect to the bourgeoisie. If this is the case, and if building trust is the process of building new subjects, capable of determining their own future, then this needs to be paid attention to.

Does the definition of social capital as “trust” affect the semantic problems with “social capital” ? I don’t think so. Trust is both a precondition for the formation of the social bonds that go to making up a new social subjectivity, and a product of social subjectivity. Putnam’s and Fukuyama’s investigation warrant I think the identification of Trust as a key concept for understanding the problems of modernity and their solution. However, trust does not pass muster as the substance of something which could be called a form of capital. Like Nature, trust is a precondition for human life in general and capital accumulation only because capital accumulation is a form of human life. Trust therefore can be “traded upon” in the sense that in a social environment where trust exists, all kinds of business can be better conducted. Successful participation in all kinds of collaborative activity tends to build trust. However, I think it is doubtful that profits made by trading on trust can be returned in terms of increased trust. Gradually, that trust is going to be used up if its income is accumulated in the form of private capital.

Fukuyama has shed some light on how subjects personifying capital come into existence, but he has little to tell us about the process by which other, radical subjects are born. This will be the focus of Part III below.

7. Summary

Our review of five different elaborations of a concept of “social capital” has revealed that each writer has given quite different, mutually exclusive definitions of the term. In August, the following further definitions of social capital were identified in the Australian Bureau of Statistics discussion paper on measurement of social capital:

While James Coleman’s definition of social capital as control over events of interest to other people, came closest to something which could legitimately called a form of capital, as something which can be put into circulation in order to return a profit, the scientific respectability which Coleman gave to the term is spurious and his definition, with its connection to cronyism is unlikely to be welcomed by any of the others who have picked up the baton for “social capital.”

Only Jane Jacobs’ concept seemed to have conceptual clarity and recommended itself unambiguously as something which poor neighbourhoods ought to cultivate, but Jacobs’ definition of social capital as the capacity for self-government, least withstood the test as a “form of capital.”

Putnam’s concept we saw had the great virtue of being rich in empirical content, but on the other hand was poor in theoretical clarity. Putnam’s work has been the stimulus for a wealth of empirical work which however only tends towards the unravelling of the idea of a unitary quantity of something which could be called a “form of capital,” tending rather towards a qualitative description of the pre-conditions for starting up successful businesses.

The theoretical contradictions within Putnam’s “concept” of social capital are exploited by Fukuyama to the point of destruction, but despite this, Fukuyama’s proposal to conceive “social capital” as trust is worthy of consideration, as is the light he sheds on the formation of subjectivity in modernity.

Bourdieu adds a further aspect to this picture by connecting the idea of “social capital” with “cultural capital” — something which bears scant resemblance to a form of capital, but sheds some light on the process of formation of subjects in modernity.

The recent OECD identification of social capital as “networks, together with shared norms, values and understandings which facilitate cooperation within or among groups” signals that it is Robert Putnam’s work that has conditioned current usage which social capital is becoming an increasing focus of social policy.

A great deal of criticism of Putnam has focused on his assertion that causality runs from habits of sociability in the population to effective political institutions, making the convincing point that effective political leadership is the single most significant factor in the building of strong civic ties. This correction, in my opinion, by no means cancels the validity of Putnam’s conclusion, but it does lend support to a different approach to the conceptualisation of “social capital” data in terms of subjectivity.