Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    From the Editor

From the Editor

Introducing our summer issue.

Jay Tolson

Capital, in the broadest sense, is anything that confers benefit or value on its owner, though we normally associate it with financial assets: the wealth that is used to buy something in order to sell it for profit.

But the capital of the economists is not the only capital that “makes the world go ’round.” In the world that modern commerce helped transform, the gradual dissolution of the traditional hierarchies allowed—indeed encouraged—greater movement up (and down) the social ladder. And the group identified most closely with such mobility was the bourgeoisie, or what came to be known as the middle classes. Members of this broad and elastic social formation made their way in the world through enterprising efforts, acquiring not only wealth but also other forms of capital, including education, affiliations, social networks, special forms of knowledge, manners, tastes, and styles of consumption. Now often called cultural, social, symbolic, or intellectual capitals, these forms of distinguishing capital not only signaled and reinforced one’s wealth (while aiding in the accumulation of more), they also conferred respectability and even moral worth on those who possessed or displayed them.

The dynamics and power of such capitals of distinction—the thematic focus of the present issue—have never been simple or absolute. The good Protestant burgher who Max Weber believed embodied the worldly asceticism instrumental to the rise of capitalism signaled his standing through clothing, habits, and manners reflecting piety, diligence, thrift, and modesty. The cultural, intellectual, and religious capital associated with this figure would strongly influence the emerging society of the British American colonies and the early American republic—so strongly that European observers would conclude, along with John Stuart Mill, that the young nation was “all middle class.” It wasn’t, of course, and the paragons of Protestant restraint already looked stodgy and superannuated to the new men coming to the fore in the Jacksonian era of the 1830s and ’40s. The populist energies they rode and encouraged were bound up with alternative systems of social, cultural, symbolic, and religious capital. Indeed, evangelical currents unleashed by the First Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century continued to challenge the dominance of not only the more established Protestant churches but also the fading cultural and economic authority of the grandees of the founding generation. Recurrent popular religious awakenings in America would further shape or reinforce (though in shifting, ever-realigning ways) some of the deeper social, economic, and political divides in our society—divides that would erupt in the culture wars of more recent decades.

To make sense of the latest iteration of our culture wars—or what he calls our now more irregular culture clashes—Philip S. Gorski, in his essay “The Long, Withdrawing Roar,” looks at the deeper transformations of social and cultural capital within America’s religious camps, particularly the conservative Christian one in its recent embrace of white nationalist politics. Gorski finds that today’s “conservative evangelicals speak derisively of ‘the culture’ as if it were something external to ‘the church.’ In truth, the evangelical movement, as they understand it, is increasingly indistinguishable from American culture, or, more precisely, from certain racial and regional variants of it. Complaints about ‘attacks on the church’ are often just veiled complaints about attacks on ‘the culture,’ or, rather, a culture, or the declining hegemony of that culture.”

While Gorski does not absolve the largely secular “metropolitan meritocrats” for their part in stoking our cultural conflicts, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, in “The Endless Pursuit of Better,” explores the often grating moralism of what she has dubbed the “aspirational” class. Implicated in their oblivious sanctimony are the assorted forms and expressions of cultural capital (including their high-minded ideals), to which they too blithely assume other Americans should aspire. Yet, she notes, “it is not only, or even primarily, the precarious white working class that has spurned the cultural capital of the globalized professional elites. Many middle-class and well-off Americans eschew aspirational class values to inhabit another world in which they find greater contentment and ease. My interviews with these Americans, in places like Missouri, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Kentucky, reveal less anger or resentment than satisfaction with and appreciation of their place in a world that is decidedly removed from the meritocratic rat race.”

In “Identity Tethering in an Age of Symbolic Politics,” Mark Dunbar deplores the displacement of a substantive democratic politics by our fixation on thinly politicized signifiers of symbolic and cultural capital. “The reality is that identity tethering is a type of cultural work that we all engage in…. Symbolic behaviors like driving a pickup truck and refusing to wear a mask at the grocery store compound into a potent if unstable formation of symbolic capital. We engage in this cultural work of accruing symbolic capital because, like financial capital, it is valuable to us. Its pervasiveness, however, is also the reason it is vulnerable to culture war dynamics and to those who have something to gain from producing a steady diet of what used to be called propaganda.”

As glibly as we now talk about cultural and symbolic capitals, we have a poor understanding of how they truly operate in shaping social realities, particularly when it comes to the problem of growing inequality. In “Capital Inequalities,” Shamus Khan explains how two indispensable social theorists, Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu, each in his own way contributed to certain misunderstandings about how status symbols and cultural capital function. Thanks to Veblen, Khan writes, “we tend to assume that elites are more dominant in determining noneconomic forms of life than they actually are.” As for Bourdieu, Khan explains, his problematic legacy is the word capital itself, “which carries with it implications that cloud our comprehension of how noneconomic resources work in our society.” The cultivation of elite cultural styles or the acquisition of prestigious intellectual capital do not assure equal outcomes precisely because such goods are valued as much according to the personal identity of those who possess them as by their inherent worth. Transcending the capital analogy, Khan suggests, can help us see why “elites may open their institutions to those who were formerly excluded without risking the loss of their positions.”

Inequalities will exist in even the most vibrant democracies, but if education, religion, and other cultural acquisitions are seen only as signifiers of social distance and difference, to be weaponized in ever-sharper culture clashes, we can only expect growing disunion in our republic.

Beyond our thematic essays, we offer reflections on, respectively, progress, utopia, our glut of doctors (medical and other), and the troubling history (and persistence) of mob violence in American democracy. Frequent contributor Wilfred M. McClay wraps up the issue with his Signifiers essay on the use and abuse of the word performative.


Finally, careful readers of our masthead will notice that another McClay—this one “B.D.”—has moved from her staff position as senior editor to contributing editor, having decided to devote full-time attention to her own writing. We will miss her many and always sparkling contributions to the journal, her fine editing, and her genuine fondness for finding and cultivating promising young authors. Bidding a sad if partial farewell to her, we are pleased to announce the arrival of Kyle Edward Williams as our new associate editor. A scholar of American history and of classics, Williams brings a wide range of intellectual interests, some of which are on display in his review of two books on the seemingly never-ending “crisis” of the humanities in higher education. No mean Latinist, he will understand it when we say, “Salve, et nunc laboremus!”