Is it surprising that privileged folk on the Right are reluctant, perhaps unable, to recognise the significance of social capital? This apparent perceptual incapacity might by some be thought of as a rather convenient position to take.
For example, the Conservative MP Louise Mensch, we are told, ‘has that irresistibly easy charm that comes from a really expensive education‘. A Guardian article of 30 September by Decca Aitkenhead leaves us in no doubt that here is a formidable woman. She has ‘steel-plated self-belief’ and in Aitkenhead’s view truly believes that she has achieved her very considerable success as a writer (aka Louise Bagshawe) and politician solely on her own merits.
But Aitkenhead goes beyond the simple diagnosis of steel-plated self-belief. She says of her profile subject:
No amount of socially liberal opinions has altered the implacable conviction that the only difference between Mensch and some jobless loser on a council estate is a go-getting attitude. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that it’s easy to take risks if you have a safety net, when failure means merely dented pride, not financial ruin. If she genuinely can’t recognise the contribution of the vast social capital conferred by her upbringing, all Cameron’s talk about the irrelevance of his MPs’ social class is exposed as self-serving self-delusion.
How true this is of many born into privilege, whether or not of Louise Mensch, who seek to tell the rest of us that they are better than we, or that with a bit more effort we too could be like them. This contemptuous dismissal may be valid very occasionally, but for the vast majority of ordinary people the brush-off is sheerly dishonest. It says much more about the self-elevated commentator than about his or her subject.
To borrow from Pierre Bourdieu (1983), ‘social capital’ is:
… the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.
This definition defines the real challenge facing those seeking an explanation of privilege which moves beyond the simple, here-and-now economic baseline. Any genuine attempt at fairness – let alone social equality – requires that we understand why social capital is important in exactly the same way as financial capital; and that social capital too can be removed by the powerful out of sight, to the equivalent of an old-style off-shore Swiss bank.
When we see things from this wider perspective, we will no longer ask why people who know great privilege in their lives seemingly refuse to – or cannot – acknowledge the significance of enviable connections, a big financial safety net and the ‘right’ sort of demeanour.
Only oiks and losers would want to talk about social capital and the advantages which it brings. The invaluable class-based personal advantages and assets of social capital, like off-shore bank accounts, are things which polite and powerful people, for reasons very much in their own interest, just do not discuss.