Cultural Power

Karl Marx, Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu all conceptualize culture power in different ways. Each identifies the agent (the specific social group) which acquires and makes use of cultural power as well as the means by which the agents acquire and maintain cultural power.

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As Marx and Engels observe in The German Ideology, “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (64). Thus, for Marx, laborers were the specific group that needed to acquire power from the elites (capitalists), owners of the means of production. The means of production were, of course, the laborers. Communism was the ideology that would free the laborers from subservience to the owners of capital.


For Weber, culture power is a class struggle that emanates from a “status structure,” which can take various forms — ethnic structure, class structure and so on: for example, “A status segregation grown into a caste differs in its structure from a mere ethnic segregation: the caste structure transforms the horizontal and unconnected coexistences of ethnically segregated groups into a ver-tical social system of super- and subordination” (Weber “The Distribution of Power within the Political Community:Class, Status, Party” 934). Thus, cultural power is essentially based on organization and segregation. The means by which the culturally powerful obtain and maintain their power is the organization principle itself. Weber explains it thus: “Domination in the most general sense is one of the most important elements of social action” (Weber “Domination and Legitimacy” 42) and again lays out the organizing essence that serves as the basis of domination: “The purest type of the former is monopolistic domination in the market; of the latter, patriarchal, magisterial, or princely power” (Weber “The Distribution of Power within the Political Community:Class, Status, Party” 943). In other words, the more organized the structure in terms of concentrating power in the hands of a few, the more monopolistic the power play becomes. This theory is no surprise coming from Weber who is the father of modern day bureaucracy.


Antonio Gramsci view cultural power as having a political basis, which is why he discusses at length the influence of Machiavelli, Savonarola, and others in his Prison Notebooks. He poses the framework in these questions: In what sense can one identify politics with history, and hence all of life with politics? How then could the whole system of super-structures be understood as distinctions within politics…?” (137). For Gramsci, the means of power are political and the special social group that acquires power is the group with the most relevant political message.


Pierre Bourdieu locates cultural power in education — the arts, philosophy, literature, specifically: the arts have the power to inform and to segregate at an intellectual level; thus, the arts are where cultural power resides. Bourdieu states that the struggle for power “which opposes the intellectuals of the restricted field to the ‘bourgeois’…[and] between the consecrated avant-garde and the new avant-garde’ (Bourdieu “Principles for a Sociology of Cultural Works” 187). In other words, those who advance a particular artistic front are the ones who gain cultural power, since those who view works of art “unconsciously obey the rules which govern a particular representation of space” (Bourdieu “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception” 216). Via this avenue of the arts, Bourdieu identifies cultural power as “symbolic power” that “is a power of constructing reality” — its influence is derived from the propagated meaning/message and how well it is received (Bourdieu “Symbolic Power and the Political Field” 166). Thus, politics, religion and social groups all have the ability to construct their symbolic power structures.


In the age of the Internet, wherein power is decentralized and individualized, the classical theories of cultural power have varying degrees of application. The Marxist theory still applies in some form because it is only thanks to the individual efforts of laborers who disseminate information on the Internet that a new media has been able to be achieved: the collective efforts of users of the Internet have given it a basis of power. Weber’s theory however has less application, as the Internet is a direct blow to the centralization that his theory envisions. Gramsci’s view of cultural power as having a political basis is applicable here, as the victory of Trump over Clinton in the recent election shows: Trump used the Internet (social media in particular) to effectively develop a large and diverse base of supporters who disseminated information over the Internet. Trump’s Internet popularity indicated better than the phone polls did that he would be a legitimate contender for the Office. Thus, according to Gramsci’s view, the Internet can be used in a political way to control the movement of cultural power and reshape political realities. Bourdieu’s perspective on cultural power is rooted in a symbolic structure based on education and the arts: the more defined and popular this influence, the more traction it is likely to gain and thus the more powerful its symbolic structure is likely to be. In the case of the recent election, it can be seen how Trump supporters used various memes and symbolic identifications (such as latching onto the idea that they are “deplorable”) to unify and move forward. Thus, the only classical theory that is mainly rejected by the Internet Age is the theory of cultural power by Weber, which is rooted in centrism.


Works Cited


Bourdieu, Pierre. ‘Principles for a Sociology of Cultural Works” In the author’s The


Field of Cultural Production, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 176-191 & 215-237


Bourdieu, Pierre. “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception” In the author’s


The Field of Cultural Production, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 215-237.


Bourdieu, Pierre. ‘Symbolic Power and the Political Field.” In the author’s The Language


and Symbolic Power, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 163-251.


Gramsci, Antonio. “The Intellectuals.” In Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Ed. and trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971, pp.134-161. Written in 1929-1935 — > uploaded as an additional material.


Marx, Karl; Frederick Engels. “Feuerbach- Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist


Outlook.” In the authors’ The German Ideology. Part One. Ed. By C.J. Arthur. New York: International Publishers, 1970, pp.39-95. Written in 1845-1846


Weber, Max. “The Distribution of Power within the Political Community:Class, Status,


Party.” In the author’s Economy and Society, Volume 2. Ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1978, pp 926-939


Weber, Max. “Domination and Legitimacy.” In the author’s Economy and Society,


Volume 2. Ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1978, pp 941-955