‘On the State: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1989-1992’ reviewed by Tony Lack

On the State: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1989-1992

Translated by David Fernbach, Polity, Cambridge, 2014. 480pp., £30 hb
ISBN 9780745663296

Reviewed by Tony Lack

About the reviewer

Tony Lack is a Professor of Humanities at Alamo College in San Antonio, TX. He received his Ph.D …


This valuable collection of lectures represents Pierre Bourdieu’s thoughts on the state as expressed in lectures given at the Collège de France from 1989 to 1992. The book is 433 pages in length and contains two helpful appendixes: (1) “Course summaries as published in the Annuaire of the Collège de France 1989-1990, 1990-1991, 1991-1992”; (2) “Position of the lectures on the state in Pierre Bourdieu’s work”. The lectures themselves are a veritable treasure trove of insights, reflections, and emendations of theories that Bourdieu finds useful. It contains trenchant critiques of theories he finds lacking. The reader will also find discussions of the rich body of empirical work that Bourdieu and his research associates conducted, including references to Kabyle peasant life in Algeria, where he conducted his early fieldwork.

In the lectures delivered between 1989 and 1990, Bourdieu emphasized the state’s ability to create and monopolize symbolic capital. In “Politics as a Vocation”, Max Weber famously defined the state as a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Establishing and reproducing the state requires constant attention to legitimating the use of force. Bourdieu took this as his point of departure, modifying Weber’s definition of the state as an organization that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical and symbolic violence over a definite territory and over the totality of the corresponding population.” (This definition is found in a number of Bourdieu’s works).

Bourdieu inquired into the many ways that the state ensures the reproduction of its most fundamental self-representations and political categories by framing the categories of public perception, experience, thought, and speech. For example, he explains how the state creates logical conformism through encouraging adherence to the basic categories of thought. This logical conformism must continually be reproduced because it is the condition for moral conformism and social solidarity.

One of the more interesting aspects of Bourdieu’s approach to this question of legitimation is his insistence upon “hyperbolic doubt,” which is a kind of paranoid skepticism about categories and categorization. His methodological concern is to avoid falling into the conventional language of the state that often goes unquestioned by political theorists, leading them to conflate such problems as the genesis and legitimation of the state with the problems of the function and reproduction of the state. This conflation often occurs when the theorist naively adopts the categories that he wants to criticize. For Bourdieu, avoiding this pitfall requires the type of reflexive analysis and constant rhetorical distancing and doubling back that tortures his readers.

It is presumably this hyperbolic doubt that allows Bourdieu to describe the birth of the state in terms of the acts of state officials who speak the state into existence. Those who speak in the name of the state conjure up the state by adhering to an official language about an imaginary referent, the state. Speaking the state into existence means using rhetoric which employs universal terms in order to conceal self-interest. The state official constitutes the ground of his self-interested speech by always speaking of universal rights and universal interests, in formal, universal, terms. The official rhetoric hails its public, encouraging participation in the drama of officialdom because this is how it attains reality and legitimacy. In this sense, the medium is the message. Speaking in this universal manner, and counting himself as one among the many, the official prevents the emergence of a gap between his own interest, the interest of the state, and the public interest.

His approach to Marx in the lectures of 1989-90 is somewhat dismissive. His main contention is that the Marxist approaches to the state are simply reversals of the social contract tradition, wherein the state is explained by its function as an institution founded upon an agreement to ensure the common good. According to Bourdieu, the Marxists simply invert this functional logic, so that the state is an institution imposed by a few, or by capital itself, for the benefit of a few, or capital itself. The Marxist view, “from Marx to Gramsci to Althusser and beyond,” (5) begins with a set of assumptions about the functions of the state, and never questions its own presuppositions. He includes Talcott Parsons and S. N. Eisenstadt along with the Marxists in a tradition that conceals more than it reveals, limiting its ability to think the structures of state genesis, transformation, and legitimation. (73)

In his critique of Marxist approaches to the problem of ideological indoctrination and domination, Bourdieu builds upon his theory of the habitus. External, objective categories and classifications are continually reproduced through the tacit and largely pre-reflective behaviors which are part of the repertoire of strategic practices enacted by the habitus. The habitus internalizes the external and externalizes the internal, without recognizing the structural context and conditions of its actions. This action, which continually misrecognizes the real conditions of its production, results in doxa, the self-evident experience of the relationship between objective structures and internal, embodied, states. Doxa is an effective form of domination because it is, “submission without an act of submission . . . belief without an act of faith.” (169) Strategic human actions operate in partial blindness or they don’t work at all. The blindness is made possible by the tacit practices of the habitus, which cannot turn around and look clearly at itself. From this perspective, the gap between false consciousness and emancipatory thinking that exists in standard Marxist accounts of ideology doesn’t exist. Thus, discussions of true or false consciousness and the process of consciousness raising are wrongheaded because the habitus pre-defines, pre-selects, and interprets information in a practical and strategic manner, adhering to biases that work and rejecting ‘truths’ that don’t work, all without consciously acknowledging what is happening.

An example of doxa is Bourdieu’s discussion of calendars, time zones, and clocks. These instruments are not simply technologies for coordinating and distributing human activity across space. The habitus of the people is created through the embodiment of objective temporal structures that are objectified in calendars and clocks, which are then externalized in everyday practices that reproduce and naturalize the temporal structure and bureaucratic logic of the state. Control of time is an example of the state’s ability to generate doxa by putting the demands of the state in the heart of the private lives of its citizens.

In the group of lectures given between 1990 and 1991 Bourdieu took a historical approach in considering the state’s ability to control the means of violence and consolidate economic and political capital. We get an excellent exegesis of the works of Charles Tilly on the state’s emergence as an instrument of war and violence, a furtive discussion of the work of Norbert Elias on the civilizing process and state monopoly formation, and a somewhat confusing excursus on Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer’s work on the creation of political forms that demarcate the boundaries of appropriate political interaction. Viewed from this macro-historical perspective, the state is ultimately the culmination of a process of consolidation, concentration, and control of different forms of capital.

Bourdieu’s discussion of Norbert Elias is interesting in several senses. Elias developed Max Weber’s analysis of societal rationalization into a theory of cultural transformation in which each new social form, which he called a figuration, yields a different relation between the individual and the structure she inhabits. It was Elias who used the term ‘habitus’ long before Bourdieu in his descriptions of the individual’s adaptation and adjustment to large-scale social change. For Elias this process involved subconscious internalization and embodiment of objective cultural norms which soon assumed the form of a taken-for-granted “second nature.” It was also Elias who demonstrated that the civilizing process created a common set of manners and morals that expanded and reconfigured the interdependencies between groups (and mobs) in medieval society, leading to the development of a bourgeois culture centered in the towns which made possible eventual state monopolies over taxation. (Talk about civilization and its discontents!)

Bourdieu’s approach to Elias is evasive at best. His reading of Elias lacks insight and fails to develop the relationship between the embodiment of manners and self-control in the popular habitus, which smoothed out social interactions between different populations and classes. Bourdieu may have been subconsciously resistant to revealing the subtler points in Elias’s thought, lest he find too many of his own ideas.

 In the lectures of 1991-2, Bourdieu began to develop a theoretical model for studying the development of political systems. His definition of a system is minimalistic, “a system means that different strategies share the same objective intention.” (240) However, his model and his examples of political change are dialectical. He begins by showing how a royal dynasty will generate its antithesis through the measures it must take to reproduce itself. The biological reproduction and continuity of the dynasty requires maintaining the right of primogeniture. But upholding this right also requires developing mechanisms to appease those family members who will not inherit; one should visualize something on the order of the family drama in The Lion in Winter. Appanages must be distributed, in the form of offices, land, or gifts. But the system of appanages swells the ranks of the clergy and the army with the disinherited sons of the nobility who are as contemptuous as they are incompetent. The contradiction arising between legitimate heirs and their brothers develops into a contradiction between those who receive appanages and the functionaries who occupy these positions because of their talents and abilities. Under these conditions the dynastic leader is faced with a legitimation crisis. He needs land and offices to distribute as appanages. He needs to find a way to justify the “expropriation of private powers” such as the territory of lesser rivals, taken for the “benefit of a private power” namely, himself and his kin. (259) The paradoxical solution is to conceal his self-interest by speaking the language of universal interests. When the king appropriates in the name of the pubic he constitutes the state, barely concealing the cynical truth behind L’état, c’est moi. In doing so he grants legitimacy to the rival public officials created by the strategy of reproduction, primogeniture, and appanage. One contradiction develops the potential of the other. The universal state is no longer an abstract universal in the form of a sham public interest, but becomes concretely universal, in the form of permanent state nobility. Bourdieu develops the model further to explain the contradictions between the state nobility and their antitheses, as battling interest groups which eventually create and define a vision of the state as pluralistic field. Again, the point is that the actors use the language of pluralism to constitute a field of power that allows them to exist long before the political scientist discovers this and develops a theory of pluralism.

I have deliberately placed Bourdieu’s description of the development of the “tripartite structure” (Lecture of 10 October, 1991) in Hegelian language to pose the question: Is Bourdieu as far from Marx as he claims to be throughout these lectures? He certainly distances himself, accusing Marx, the functionalist, of assuming what he should have explained. Bourdieu also has problems with the cumbersome Marxist approach to ideology, often pejoratively called the “reflection model” of consciousness, with its emphasis on false consciousness and consciousness raising. But all of this is certainly a strawman that Bourdieu constructs from simplistic readings of Marxist thought. Moreover, while it must be admitted that Bourdieu is carrying out an essentially Weberian project in these lectures, his “tripartite structure” is a Hegelian-Marxist dialectic with another name.

After my initial encounter with the lectures in On the State I found myself wanting to read them again. The second time around I will pair the lectures with the Grundrisse, or perhaps Terry Eagleton’s Ideology: An Introduction, because I’m convinced that Bourdieu’s approach to doxa and legitimation is extremely important, albeit much closer to Marx than he wished to admit in this series of lectures.

30 April 2015


  1. You should compare On the State with Bourdieu’s later, explicitly political and critical sociology. Social Structures of the Economy, Political Interventions, Firing Back, Acts of Resistance.

    Bourdieu was trained in philosophy and in the mobilization to restore philosophy’s stature relative to sociology–Philosophy’s claims to truth had suffered with the rise of social citizenship and the decline of economic inequality in the West.

    Where some philosophers accomplished this restoration via the linguistic turn, Bourdieu instead immersed himself in sociological craft, the sociological discipline. Perhaps his early strawmanning of Marx is connected with how seriously he took up Weber at that self-disciplining phase.

    It’s notable and there’s a lot of agreement (whether with approval or opprobrium) that however early Bourdieu helped proliferate cheap dismissals of Marx in currency to pursue sociological knowledge, ultimately–and uniquely for his cohort–his intellectual-research development reconciled him to Marx.

  2. Mara- early Bourdieu is late 1980s/early 1990s? Bourdieu began publishing in the late 1950s. Most scholars see the 1980s as a later period in which he developed his concept of “field” in greater depth. He began to be more active in politics in the 1980s, too, with some participation in the Mitterrand government and some more activist-type actions, esp. after Foucault’s death. The 1990s represent an uptick in the activism and an attempt to communicate to a wider audience. We also get focused studies of gender and economics at this time. The “cheap dismissals” of Marx are continued in the introduction to Pascalian Meditations (1997). He also downplays his connections to Marx and Marxism in the posthumously released “Sketch for a Self-Analysis.” Regardless, as you and the reviewer suggest a sympathetic Marxist reading of Bourdieu is called for, something beyond the older complaints that Bourdieu fails because he doesn’t have a Marxist political economy.

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