Voltairine de Cleyre’s essay, The Dominant Idea, and Pierre Bourdieu’s work, 'Structures, Habitus, Practices,' both wrestle with the necessity of grounding theory in materiality with the necessity of recognizing the material impact of cognitive and social structures. In her essay, de Cleyre, an American anarchist, attempts to make sense of the role that dominant ideas, themselves, have on society. In his work, Bourdieu, a French sociologist, focuses on theoretical engagement with the structuring forces that allow such ideas to perpetuate and influence action. Placing these texts in conversation helps to better understand how thought both structures and is structured by life, allowing for more effective critique of existing power-structures, and will hopefully contribute to the development of 'a true appraisement of the power and rôle of the Idea' (de Cleyre, 1910).
Voltairine de Cleyre was born in Michigan in 1866. She was one of many who established a particularly American tradition of anarchism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, characterised by the specific conditions of America as a burgeoning capitalist imperial power. As Hippolyte Havel writes in his biographical sketch:
'Born shortly after the close of the Civil War, she witnessed during her life the most momentous transformation of the nation; she saw the change from an agricultural community into an industrial empire; the tremendous development of capital in this country, with the accompanying misery and degradation of labor.'
Similarly, Iain McKay writes that de Cleyre’s 'odyssey through anarchism reflected the change in American anarchism itself as America moved from a predominantly rural pre-capitalist society to a predominantly urban capitalist one' (McKay, 2006). Though the description of mid-nineteenth century American society as pre-capitalist can be contested, de Cleyre herself also highlighted the 'concentration in capitalist production' in cities as a key element in the transition away from individualism and toward communism among American anarchists in the latter half of the century (de Cleyre, 1903).
The emergence of American anarchism was a movement flawed in many ways – lacking in attention to colonialism and steadfast in its belief in civilization and progress. de Cleyre, herself, spent much of her life espousing individualism over communism and championing the importance of property rights; yet, as Alice Béja writes in 'Dreaming (un)American Dreams,' this stage was also defined by attempts to reappropriate parts of the national myth 'in order to forge new alliances, expand the range of the anarchist message, and construct tools of resistance to state repression' (Béja, 1). American anarchists attempted to counteract state claims that anarchism was a dangerous foreign idea by establishing roots within the American tradition of ‘liberty’ itself.
Voltairine de Cleyre was a poet, a lecturer, and a teacher. As is clear, her views shifted significantly throughout her life as she attempted to understand how to best cultivate freedom. Yet, Emma Goldman later said that:
'The Dominant Idea was the Leitmotif throughout Voltairine de Cleyre’s remarkable life… Again and again, in days of excruciating physical torment, in periods of despair and spiritual doubt, the Dominant Idea gave wings to the spirit of this woman — wings to rise above the immediate, to behold a radiant vision of humanity and to dedicate herself to it with all the fervor of her intense soul' (Goldman, 1932).
In 1897, de Cleyre said that 'my feelings have ever revolted against repression in all forms, even when my intellect, instructed by my conservative teachers, told me repression was right.' Here, the notion that social structures condition individual perception is evident. It was clear to de Cleyre, by way of sentiment, that repression was wrong but finding a ‘logical’ explanation which could demonstrate this involved rigorously countering the restraints placed upon the mind by the society in which it existed. This notion was a guiding force in de Cleyre’s life and lies at the heart of The Dominant Idea.
In her theoretical work, de Cleyre was careful to avoid prescribing a single system of social organisation which could serve as a solution to repression, as she believed that different conditions in different localities made different solutions necessary. In 1901, she stated that 'I would see the instincts and habits of the people express themselves in a free choice in every community; and I am sure that distinct environments would call out distinct adaptations.' However, she specified that:
'My ideal would be a condition in which all natural resources would be forever free to all, and the worker individually able to produce for himself sufficient for all his vital needs, if he so chose, so that he need not govern his working or not working by the times and seasons of his fellows.'
Because 'the society of which we are part puts certain oppressions upon us' it is necessary, she said, to focus analysis on 'present conditions' first and foremost – the dominant structures of repression in any particular society must be identified and targeted specifically. This process must emerge within the locality in question.
It is important to recognise that social structures and society are not equivalent concepts. Society exists in direct relations between people; social structures exist conceptually in the collective consciousness of these people and in the material manifestations of these concepts. Collective consciousness, in this sense, does not refer to a linked cognitive structure between minds, but to the fact that conceptual meaning is established collectively – a particular consensus emerges within society about the significance of concepts, perceptions, understandings, and interpretations. These consensuses can be established by elite groups and then imposed upon, or fostered among, the rest of society. The manifestations of these conceptual structures allow for physical or material social organisation. This is important because it means that social structures are not pre-existing platforms upon which people arrange themselves in various roles but are actively-constructed and ever-shifting systems of relation. Critically, recognising this difference allows us to destabilise pre-existing social structures - if they were created in this way and require constant reproduction in order to persist, they might be transformed or replaced through a similar process.
Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus addresses similar problems. Unlike de Cleyre, Bourdieu was not an anarchist. Also unlike de Cleyre, his work can be difficult to engage with outside of academia – it is written in a convoluted style typical of many French structuralists. However, there is much value in his theoretical critique. In 'Structures, Habitus, Practices,' a chapter in his book The Logic of Practice, Bourdieu critiques the way that society imposes belief systems on individuals, and the ways in which these belief systems then guide people’s perception of the world and their actions within it. He demonstrates that such imposed belief systems become treated as self-evident truths and, therefore, go unquestioned, allowing them to reproduce seemingly of their own accord.
Bourdieu begins with a critique of objectivism. Objectivism, he states, is a viewpoint 'taken from high positions in the social structure, from which the social world is seen as a representation… or a performance' (Bourdieu, 52). From this viewpoint, the social world is treated as a spectacle – actions ‘on the ground’ are treated as the ‘playing out’ of preconceived plans. In contrast, another viewpoint treats all knowledge or theory as a mere record of what happens ‘on the ground.’ Instead of falling victim to either, Bourdieu argues that social conditions create certain systems of thought which, in turn, structure social conditions themselves. This process is perpetual.
In his chapter, Bourdieu argues that social structures are created and organised through a 'system of structured, structuring dispositions,' referred to as habitus (Bourdieu, 52). Once established, a dominant system of thought guides individuals to reproduce its logics without the conscious intention of doing so. Habitus is, effectively, a system of dispositions which are produced by social conditions, which then function as guiding principles to 'generate and organise practices and representations' according to their own logic (53). For example, capitalist structures will inevitably produce capitalist logics which, in turn, guide individuals and societies to reproduce capitalist structures. As capitalist logics become ‘naturalised,’ this process seems to occur on its own.
Bourdieu states that habitus is 'embodied history, internalised as a second nature and so forgotten as history… [it is] the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product' (56). Habitus is a system and a process: habitus produces habitus. It becomes a system of motivating, cognitive structures which operate in relation to the 'practical world' and enforce seemingly presupposed potentiality by way of reproducing its own logic (53). In essence, systems of thought emerge in a society which explain and interpret the actions which occur within that society. These systems then guide and police the potential actions that can be taken by people in those societies. The thought can become a matter of ‘common sense’ and, therefore, go unquestioned, allowing the systems to reproduce.
When the logic of habitus is naturalised, social institutions and behaviours, including economic systems, can become fully realised (Bourdieu, 57). Putting ‘thought’ into ‘practice’ seems natural and inevitable – therefore, social structures can continue to exist seamlessly without having to be constantly re-created in a ‘conscious’ way. Acting in accordance with these logics no longer requires ‘active’ justification because the logics guiding and transforming individual bodies and minds, and their respective roles in social organisation, are treated as common-sense (58). In essence, Bourdieu argues that social conditions are historically and materially created but that, once created, they compel people to recreate them and even structure the very way that people think and perceive the world around them, making their recreation seem necessary and inevitable.
This notion also courses through The Dominant Idea. In her essay, de Cleyre writes that 'my conception of mind, or character, is not that it is a powerless reflection of a momentary condition of stuff and form, but an active modifying agent, reacting on its environment and transforming circumstances, sometimes slightly, sometimes greatly, sometimes, though not often, entirely' (de Cleyre, 1910). In part, the essay was written in response to materialist approaches to philosophy, which served to destabilise the dominant theoretical frameworks that upheld particular structures of authority by abstracting thought from life. As Karl Marx writes in The German Ideology, laying out the premises of a materialist approach to history, 'The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals' (Marx, 1845). As a result, he states, history and philosophy must not seek truth in God or abstract theory but in the lived actions of human beings. Though materialist approaches grounded theory, de Cleyre argues that 'unqualified determinism of the material is a great and lamentable error in our modern progressive movement' because it has often caused the reciprocal relationship of theory and life to be undermined. Some of those who took up a materialist approach, she believed, ignored the influence that thought has on action.
The social power and role of the idea, in de Cleyre’s 'rude approximation of it,' is to guide and shape action (de Cleyre, 1910). Throughout history, she argues, certain dominant ideas have been identifiable in any given society. These ideas are what compelled the Egyptians to build pyramids and the English to construct towering churches – to actively work towards 'the greatening of God and the lessening of Man,' she says. When de Cleyre wrote this piece in 1910, she identified the dominant idea of western society as an overbearing compulsion to manufacture, consume, and possess things. This does not refer merely to commodities but to a possessive individualistic materialism.
In her piece, de Cleyre does not engage in the kind of analysis of 'structuring structures' or theoretical principles that produce and perpetuate generative schemes that Bourdieu does. However, she engages with the fact that certain ideas exert dominance and structuring force, compelling or instilling particular perceptions and actions in people. This is clear from the very first sentence of de Cleyre’s essay, which is as follows:
'On everything that lives, if one looks searchingly, is limned the shadow line of an idea – an idea, living or dead, sometimes stronger when dead, with rigid, unswerving lines that mark the living embodiment with the stern immobile cast of the non-living.'
Though de Cleyre illustrates her point by focusing upon 'an idea' (singular) this is strikingly similar to parts of Bourdieu’s analysis – for instance, Bourdieu’s characterization of habitus as the active presence of history, embodied and internalised, forgotten as history and 'continuously pulling' institutions 'from the state of dead letters, reviving the sense deposited in them' (Bourdieu, 57). de Cleyre continues this approach in her second sentence: 'Daily we move among these unyielding shadows, less pierceable, more enduring than granite, with the blackness of ages in them, dominating living, changing bodies, with dead unchanging souls' (de Cleyre, 1910). The unchanging nature of the dominant, structuring ideas is a point of tension between de Cleyre and Bourdieu; however, the simplified identification of the dominant idea as a singular entity falls away here, elaborating it as a looser, sweeping force.
Drawing upon Bourdieu can help to develop an appraisement of the way that these dominant social ideas function. To Bourdieu, the structures characterising particular conditions of existence establish habitus. When conditions of existence are homogenised, producing a homogenous habitus, certain practices, perceptions, and attitudes become objectified and are, therefore, taken for granted (Bourdieu, 58). The logic that develops from this allows practices, and our understanding of these practices, to perpetuate seemingly of their own accord.
The assumptions and presumptions underlying and motivating social organisation are naturalised and, therefore, seem to be already justified. Bourdieu states that 'the regularities inherent in an arbitrary condition… tend to appear as necessary, even natural, since they are the basis of the schemes of perception and appreciation through which they are apprehended' (Bourdieu, 54). Conditions are arbitrary not because there is no logic establishing or legitimising them but because things could be otherwise – there is no inherent necessity for conditions to take the form that they currently do. Yet, the form of these conditions, and the regularities of this form, establish the conventions and frames through which perception of them takes place. Therefore, further dispositions are established which are largely compatible with present conditions.
Habitus, the body of structuring dispositions, perpetuates itself by reproducing 'similarly structured practices' (Bourdieu, 54). The dominant ideas that de Cleyre examines function in much the same way, though de Cleyre is less forgiving in her characterization of this process: for every 'principled persecutor,' de Cleyre writes, there are hundreds of 'easy, doughy characters, who will fit any baking tin, to whom determinist self-excusing appeals' (de Cleyre, 1910). In both cases, however, ideas compel action and perpetuation seemingly of their own accord when populations are indoctrinated. Despite this, the active cycle of inculcation, circulation, and reproduction is chalked up to circumstance rather than activity.
It is important to recognize that, in both Bourdieu and de Cleyre, the possibility of remoulding circumstance by critiquing dominant ideas is ever-present. This is an integral part of their analysis. To de Cleyre, resistance to the compelling power of dominant social forms exists in the existence of individual will: 'the immortal fire of Individual Will' can be harnessed to 'conquer and remould Circumstance.' This might initially be read as another point of tension between de Cleyre and Bourdieu – Bourdieu’s elaboration of habitus as a generative scheme seems to suggest that all potential dispositions are established and restricted by it; however, with more careful attention it becomes clear that his analysis is not actually this restrictive. For instance, Bourdieu also argues that:
'Because the habitus is an infinite capacity for generating products – thoughts, perceptions, expressions and actions – whose limits are set by the historically and socially situated conditions of its production, the conditioned and conditional freedom it provides is as remote from creation of unpredictable novelty as it is from simple mechanical reproduction of the original conditioning' (Bourdieu, 55).
Though habitus establishes the conditions and limitations of thought and action, the potential for redefinition and subversion always exists. The fact that mediation of socially constructed and collectively determined dispositions and practices always concentrates in the individual mind means that this is not an irreparable divide in thought. In fact, Bourdieu also writes that it is 'extremely dangerous to conceive collective action by analogy with individual action' (Bourdieu, 59). Individual bodies and dispositions are heavily structured by habitus; however, the individual must comply (knowingly or unknowingly) with the logic established.
Habitus is a dominant and powerful structural force but is not all encompassing. Individual habitus, 'inseparable from the organic individuality that is immediately given to immediate perception,' is not immediately homogenous (Bourdieu, 60). Even members of the same class of conditions do not have identical experiences, meaning that habitus is not uniform and allows for variance, though it will likely conceal or veil this potential. Furthermore, habitus is merely a primary form of conditioning, not the sole conditioning element active in any particular class of conditions of existence. Therefore, as de Cleyre states, 'the dominant idea of the age and land does not necessarily mean the dominant idea of any single life' (de Cleyre, 1910); or, as Bourdieu states, present conditions can produce 'misadaptation as well as adaptation, revolt as well as resignation' (Bourdieu, 62).
Voltairine de Cleyre and Pierre Bourdieu both undertake theoretical analysis of the relationship between material and cognitive/conceptual structures, exploring the manner in which thought structures, and is also structured by, materiality. The implications of this for social forms, particularly social systems of dominance, are driving factors of both The Dominant Idea and 'Structures, Habitus, Practices.' Bourdieu and de Cleyre demonstrate that material conditions will reproduce seemingly of their own accord unless people actively attempt to destabilize and transform the logics which uphold them. This has immediate significance. The racist nature of policing, for instance, will not simply disappear by increasing ‘diversity’ in the ranks - the logic of policing itself must be rigorously critiqued on a much deeper level. Likewise, it is because certain structures of thought are so deeply ingrained in the fabric of society that the abolition of policing seems ridiculous to so many. Without critiquing those structures of thought, the repressive practices of policing will continue uninterrupted in one form or another. These practices will also, in turn, cultivate certain perceptions among people which make the practices seem natural, necessary, and justified.
Recognizing the structuring power of pre-existing dispositions can initially seem to suggest that resistance or transformation is futile or impossible; however, by recognizing the reciprocal relationship between conceptual and material structures, the ever-present potential for change opens up. In fact, the potential for change may be even greater once this fact is established: transformative action can be undertaken in both physical spaces of oppression and conceptual or cognitive spaces of oppression. The value that this holds for practical resistance work might be understood in terms of cognitive imperialism. The importance of breaking down harmful ways of thinking, and rigorously critiquing the basic principles underlying thought, becomes evident when the structuring power of dispositions is realized. The importance of such exploration might also be made evident when looking at the very real potential for radical work under entirely restrictive conditions, such as imprisonment. Abdullah Öcalan, for instance, is one of many examples of people who have produced work which has had a significant material impact from a place of apparent disempowerment.
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