France in the 1960s and 1970s was the source of a tremendous amount of new philosophical, literary, and critical thinking – Foucault, Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, Baudrillard, Barthes, etc. But in my opinion, the most important member of that intellectual generation was the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In Distinction, Bourdieu’s best-known work, he described how economic class is reinforced by cultural capital: economic elites create cultural distinctions, and pass on to their children the ability to make those distinctions, in order to use cultural sophistication as a means of perpetuating class dominance. This may sound abstract, but think about the example that is the subject of Bourdieu’s The Love of Art: museums. Upper-class parents take their children to fine art museums and teach them how to talk about Rembrandt, Monet, and Picasso; later in college, job interviews, and cocktail parties, the ability to talk about Rembrandt, Monet, and Picasso is one of the markers that people use, consciously or unconsciously, to identify people as being from their own tribe. (Note that democratizing museums – making them open to anyone – doesn’t undermine cultural capital, because the key is not looking at paintings, but learning how to talk about them.)
We used the term “cultural capital” in our Atlantic article as a way of describing the influence of Wall Street over Washington. By this, we meant that one of the primary means by which Wall Street got its way in Washington was by creating and propagating the understanding – among sophisticated, educated, cultured people, as opposed to “populists” or the “rabble” that showed up at anti-globalization protests – that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country as a whole. We didn’t mean to say that old-fashioned campaign contributions and lobbying did not play an important role. (We did, however, say that we thought out-and-out corruption of the Jack Abramoff variety was probably a minor factor – not because we have any insider knowledge one way or the other, but simply because such criminal behavior was simply unnecessary given the other levers available.) But I don’t think that implicit quid pro quo bargaining is a sufficient explanation, because I believe it entirely possible that there are honest politicians and civil servants who really, truly believe that they are acting in the public interest when they come to the aid of the largest banks.
Tim Geithner may very well be such a man.