Symbolic power and the struggle for more democracy

Flag DE [DE] Symbolische Macht und der Kampf für mehr Demokratie

The democratic principle presupposes both democratic institutions and democratic citizens, that is citizens with a democratic habitus. In our societies habitus formation is marked much more by experiences of inequality than by experiences of equality; it bears the stamp of different orders of inequality which seem to be natural like e.g. sexism and nationalism. Habitus formation is structured through non-democratic power relations. The result of this is a type of habitus, like the national habitus, which hinders the democratization of society and the transnationalization of democracy. This is one way to summarize my argument in this paper which suggests, that habitus formation should be taken seriously by democratic theory and practice alike.

National democracy will not last if it is not transnationalized

The idea of national democracy bas been formed in a long historical process with the American and French Revolutions as milestones. It is based on a set of basic notions of territorially circumscribed, culturally unified and sovereign nation states, representation, national identity and national citizenship. These notions correspond less and less to a reality which has been changed fundamentally during recent decades. Intensified globalization of capitalism and society, the end of the Cold War and European integration have produced new realities and new conditions for social integration and prepare the ground for sociation (Vergesellschaftung) in the 21st century.

For the purpose of my reflections it seems sufficient to mention a few important consequences of these developments:

1. Globalization processes and the emergence of pressing transnational problems (e.g. ecological, economic, military, technological risks) create conditions, in which a single nation state alone is not capable any more to provide security for the citizens. In actual fact not the nation state but humanity as a whole functions as a social unit of survival.

2. Globalization of capitalism has reduced the scope for national social and economic policies. Nation states become more and more dependent on the world market and strategies of transnational corporations. Outside of national and democratic control and representation geo-finance and global media are establishing themselves as “the new masters of the world” (1). National governments compete to provide the most profitable conditions for big capital. To put it simply: Under the pressure of a mercyless world market the fordist welfare and security state has been transformed into a national competition state (Wettbewerbsstaat) (2).

3. After the end of the Cold War and with the dissolution of the two antagonistic superpower blocks, which threatened each other physically and ideologically, a completely new situation arose. As a consequence global security too has been changed fundamentally (3). Security concerns not only states but the whole humanity and every individual; it is not possible any more to provide security with military means and on a purely national base.

4. In today’s world national borders have become more permeable and state sovereignty more brittle. New transnational economic spaces have been built where no national or democratic control can reach them. Ever tighter transnational networks are put around the globe and as a consequence national industrial structures become heterogenized (4).

On the other hand the sovereign has begun to transgress national territorial borders (e.g. where non-national residents have the right to vote on the communal level) and territorial solidarity starts to be complemented by non-territorial solidarity (e.g. human rights). Therefore, to conceptualize humanity as consisting of sovereign nation states does not suffice any more and in this sense the era of the nation states has come to an end. This does not mean, however, that nationalism and nation states cease to exist; both continue developing and having their own dynamics, but the conditions for their existence are changing drastically. They are ever more depending on whether people succeed to organize themselves as humanity and on the ways, in which this happens – or not.

Global changes have produced a new insecurity and fluidity in the relations within and between states. From a democratic viewpoint such developments create dangers as well as opportunities for a renewal of democratic thought and institutions. Democracy as we know it is in itself deficient; furthermore it is underminded by transnational forces and economic givens, which it cannot control. This entails, that the concepts based on traditional images of territoriality and sovereignty have to be renewed as well. Under the present circumstances democracy can no more be maintained on the national level alone; its development requires democratization on all levels, from the local to the global. Democracy will last only if it can also be made transnational or cosmopolitan (5).

Democratic society as a self-determined association: a normative model

A normatively meaningful concept of democracy is needed for an evaluation of democratic developments and possibilities. Only with the help of a normative standard one can measure the distance between ideal and reality of a modern democratic society, its degree of democracy and the direction of its development.

Normatively a modern democratic society can be understood as a self-determined association of free and equal individuals. The members of this legal association (Rechtsgemeinschaft) have the same rights and obligations. The democratic principle presupposes that practical questions can be solved discursively, and it indicates how to institutionalize egalitarian-discursive opinion and will formation. This happens through a system of rights which makes sure that every person has equal opportunities to participate in the making of laws and provides the necessary conditions for it.

Habermas (1992) has worked out such a normative model of democracy in terms of discourse theory (6). He underlines that democratic legislation is possible only, if the public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) and civil society (Zivilgesellschaft) fulfil certain criteria. According to Habermas democratic decision-making requires a steady flow of informal public opinions which can arise only in a sufficiently independent and free civil society.

In terms of discourse theory the justification for this claim is, that neither moral nor ethical discourse can be delegated to experts or representatives; no one can represent the personal needs and values of someone else, they have to be dealt with in the first person. There are thus fundamental questions which are incompatible with the principle of representation and consequently should be resolved in a direct-democratic way (7). In this respect Habermas seems to agree with Castoriadis (1990): Representation is an element foreign to democracy (8). But Habermas does not draw direct-democratic conclusions and remains wholly within the framework of representative democracy.

In terms of power theory the democratic principle means that communicative power rules over administrative power. In contrast to administrative power, which is based on force (Gewalt), communicative power is the power of the public opinions, that citizens have in common. These shared opinions can be crystallized only in civil society and public discourses, and they must have an influence on institutional, official decision-making.

On symbolic power

The power theory of Habermas, like the one of Held (1995), does not shed enough light on the aspect of symbolic power resp. internalized domination. Habermas’ concept of communicative power refers to the formation of public consciousness; although he takes into consideration the institutional presuppositions of communication (civil society and public sphere), he neglects that a democratic habitus is also a presupposition of democratic opinion and will formation.

Communicative power emerges from the publicly shared convictions of the citizens. But the democratic procedure will be distorted, if the convictions of the citizens are structured in a non-democratic way. In reality this is very often the case; to a considerable degree public opinions are structured through non-democratic power (9). In order to grasp this aspect of communicative power formation I use the concept of symbolic power (10).

Symbolic power is communicative power, but the concept does not refer to consciousness, it refers to relatively stable bodily dispositions beyond rational calculation and will control, which work in a relatively autonomous fashion. Symbolic power is founded on the incorporation of domination; it is the result of a naturalization process, the formation of a correspondence between the order of things and the principles of perception and classification, between social reality and the image of this reality.

Refering to this Bourdieu speaks of classfication struggles through which common representations of reality are produced. Elias describes the same struggles as struggles between established and ousiders, where domination and group phantasies (representations of reality) play a decisive role (11).

Symbolic power refers to a classification system, which established and outsiders have, to some extent, in common and which works in favour of the established. The exercise of symbolic power rests on the existence of a shared belief. The production of this shared belief is the result of an immense work (done above all by the state and family), through which body and mind are formed and attuned to a particular order of domination, wherby force (Gewalt) and tensions are stored in the bodies of the people concerned.

Bourdieu (1990) describes this work as the somatization of power relations: Domination is inscribed into the bodies, and this bodily knowledge makes that the dominated contribute to their own domination, by silently accepting the limits which are set to them, or even by reproducing in practice limits which have been abolished from the laws (12).

Elias describes the same phenomena as identifiction with the oppressor and as the limping of the habitus behind mostly unplanned social developments. The latter entails, that the burden of a habitus cannot be unloaded by a simple act of will which follows a liberating insight. This is true for the national habitus too, which I consider as one of the most formidable barriers to a transnationalization of democracy.

Nationalism and transnationalization of democracy

Symbolic power is based on a correspondence between social reality and mental-bodily dispositions. In the case of nationalism it is a correspondence between a nation state and a national habitus (see table 1.). The success of nation state building is one of the most notable developments in modern European history. In its course a national habitus was formed which is attuned to social structures of the 19th and 20th century, bound simultaneously to both the structure of relations within nation states respectively on the inter- and supra-state level (13).

Nation State National Habitus
A) The nation state functions
as a social unit of survival.
The national we-identity is
of particular importance; behaviour and
feeling is fixed on one’s own state
B) Normative double standard:
“Inside” (=humanism) is not
“outside” (=national antagonistic
power politics)
Conscience formation: an internally
contradictory behavioral disposition is
built into conscience
C) Internal domination
(Nationalism and economy prevail
over democracy)
Internalized domination
(Symbolic power or identification
with the oppressor)
This is not the place to discuss the relations between nation state and national habitus (14). Here I pick out only one particular aspect, namely the correspondence between national domination and the incorporation of it into the bodies of the citizens. I do this to illustrate, using nationalism (15) as an example, how symbolic power works and that it can hinder democratization. By doing this I touch an important aspect of the relations between nationalism and democracy, but, of course, much more could be said about them.

On the foundation of an immediate interplay between social and mental-bodily structures national domination is exercised invisibly and in a seemingly natural way; national domination is not experienced as such, because rulers and ruled are united in their thinking, feeling and doing through a belief in their nation that they have in common. National we-ideals and their own conscience diminish the will and capability of the dominated to withstand their internal domination or oppression. Therefore, hostility, which is produced by national domination, is easily turned against one’s own self (self-destruction through alcohol, suicide, sickness), against other socially dominated groups (racism, aggression against outsiders like refugees, women, minorities etc.) or against external enemies (nationalism, fundamentalism).

As symbolic power nationalism contributes to the maintenance of an order of inequality, it helps to reproduce a sociation which is based on inequalities like the one in our European societies. It induces people to put their own desires and needs behind the demands of their rulers, which can bring forth their own desires and needs in the disguise of a general national interest. A majority of the population learns to regulate their feelings and behaviour in specific realms or relations (like national politics) only with the help of external ego-support (Ich-Stützen); their habitus is attuned to external regulation and needs the firm support of state organizations, a national belief, a political party, a church, an authoritarian leadership.

Nationalism has promoted democracy to the extent that the nationalization of the habitus was possible only after a minimal equalization of power between the different social strata. At the same time nationalism limits the development of democracy. As symbolic power it works against a deepening and transnationalization of democracy and keeps democracy within limits not only with respect to distributive power, but also with respect to e.g. territorial borders and political thought: a) Democracy is not allowed to go so far as to endanger national domination. This entails the protection of the economy from democracy. b) Democracy happens only within national borders. Already since the French Revolution the struggle for democracy has been limited to a struggle within the nation, regulated by national interest. c) Nation state models of sociation limit political imagination and hinder the thinking about border-crossing political reforms. Not the sovereignty of the citizens and not universal human rights, but national sovereignty and national citizenship became the founding thought figure for the institutionalization of political power.

In sum: Nationalism limits democracy and its relations with globalization processes give rise to considerable tensions. Intensified globalization has brought about a rapid change of inner-state as well as inter- and supra-state relations. This creates considerable pressure on the national habitus, which causes a corresponding counter-pressure, e.g. in the form of an activation of nationalist feeling, behaviour and thinking. The tensions between nationalism (concept, representations, institutions, habitus) and globalization processes have increased and call for an adjustment, which may happen in quite different ways. In some ways globalization empties democracy and modifies the conditions for nationalism, that is nation state integration and national habitus formation. A transnationalization of democracy has to consider both, the forces of nationalism and those of globalization; and it should not neglect the effects of symbolic power. In a specific order of inequality people learn to be dependent, and it is this dependence which creates an inner need for precisely this order of inequality. Democratization must overcome such vicious circles and turn them into virtuous ones, where democratic institutions support democratic habitus formation and vice versa. In this perspective nationalism is a formidable barrier for the transnationalization of democracy, and the height of this barrier corresponds to the success of the nation state “projects”.


(1) Le Monde diplomatique, June 1995.

(2) See e.g. Joachim Hirsch, Der nationale Wettbewerbsstaat. Berlin, Amsterdam: Edition ID-Archiv, 1995.

(3) See e.g. The Report of The Commission on Global Governance. Our Global Neighbourhood. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

(4) See e.g. Narr, Wolf-Dieter Narr und Alexander Schubert, Weltökonomie. Die Misere der Politik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994.

(5) See e.g. Roland Erne, Andreas Gross, Bruno Kaufmann und Heinz Kleger (Hrsg.) Transnationale Demokratie. Zürich: Realotopia, 1995; resp. David Held, Democracy and the Global Order. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

(6) Jürgen Habermas, Faktizität und Geltung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1992.

(7) For juridical and pragmatic discourses the matter is different; these can be expert discourses (negotiation of interests) and are compatible with the principle of representation.

(8) Cornelius Castoriadis, in: Ulrich Rödel (Hrsg.), Autonome Gesellschaft und libertäre Demokratie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990, pp. 298-328. *There are differences between the two positions, however. For Castoriadis the principle of representation as such is non-democratic. His justification for this claim differs from Habermas argumentation: As soon as there are permanent “representatives”, political authority, activity and initiative is taken from the body of the citizens and transferred to the limited body of the “representatives”, which usually make use of it only to consolidate their position and to create conditions which allow them to influence the outcome of the next “elections”.**

(9) See e.g. Serge Halimi in Le Monde diplomatique, August 1996; Danilo Zolo, Il principato democratico. Per una teoria realistica della democrazia. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1992.

(10) The concept of symbolic power has a central role in the studies of Pierre Bourdieu (see e.g. La domination masculine. Actes de la Recherche en sciences sociales 84, septembre 1990, pp.2-31). The great work of Norbert Elias contains important contributions about the working of symbolic power too, although Elias himself does not use the words ‘symbolic power’.

(11) Norbert Elias and John Scotson, Etablierte und Aussenseiter. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990.

(12) La domination masculin, see note (10).

(13) Norbert Elias, Engagement und Distanzierung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1987, pp. 132-133.

(14) I have done this to some extent elsewhere: Rolf Büchi, Social Habitus and Democracy. Some Reflections in historic perspective. In Roland Erne (see note 5), pp.109-138 (in German); resp. Nationalism is dead, long live nationalism. Rauhantutkimus Numero 2, 1992, pp.3-15 (in Finnish).

(15) My reflections are based on the following understanding of the concept of nationalism:
1. Nationalism refers to a specific relation between personality structures (national habitus) and state structures (nation state).
2. It is a complex historical process, with some of its roots reaching far back into history; together with other processes it began to dominate Western sociation in the 19th century and has not yet come to an end.
3. Nationalism denotes a specific naturalization process: the nationalization of state and personality in modernizing state societies on the development level of the 19th and 20th century.
4. Nationalism entails a social belief, which makes at least the following demands: a) The nation has to be put as the supreme value and all other values are subject to it. b) The nation must be politically self-determined, that is she needs her own stateness.
5. Nationalism means, that particular, often self-contradictory images of the nation and sovereignty are incorporated into the habitus and built into the order of things (see table 1.).

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The above text was published with the title “Democratization and National Habitus-Formation: Reflections on Symbolic Power”. In Brinkhuis / Talmor (ed.), Memory, History and Critique, European Identity at the Millennium, Utrecht: ISSEI/University for Humanist Studies [CDROM] 1998.

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