The expression “symbolic capital” is all the rage in Russia. It is perhaps the only term in Pierre Bourdieu’s entire social theory that has found its way into everyday usage. A Google search returns something like a million and a half links to the term in various languages.

Not long ago I had occasion to ponder the usage of the concept. The Chto Delat group and the Forward Socialist Movement carried out a collective action against the plans of Gleb Pavlovsky’s Foundation for Effective Politics to invite French leftist philosopher to Russia. Badiou heeded the arguments of his Moscow comrades and refused to come to the Russian capital at the bidding of this pro-Kremlin organization. Afterwards, the Internet was filled with accusations that Chto Delat and Forward had simply wanted to cause a fuss and raise some “symbolic capital” in the process.

This take totally nullified the intentions, political motives, and internal debates of the people who took part in this action. Everything was reduced to an instrument for raising that elusive substance known as symbolic capital (fame, reputation). The activists were told that they hadn’t done anything special. You’re just like us, their critics said; you’re out to get what everyone else is after, only you use different means and work in a different area.

Any critical action or protest can be declared an alternative means for laying hold of symbolic capital or real goods. For example, when a political, activist or protest-minded work of art appears in Moscow (which happens less and less often), it is almost de rigueur to comment that the artist wants to make a career or draw attention to himself. The notion that everyone is corrupt, albeit “symbolically,” is quite comforting.

When confronted with such “unmaskings,” the accused often reply that their motives are, in fact, pure and disinterested. Or, on the contrary, they say that they have to be cynical to get their views across to the general public. A leftist cultural activist from Austria once even said to me, “Well, yeah, we have to ‘sell’ ourselves, but for the highest price, so that we can use this symbolic resource to propagandize our stuff.”

Both stances implicitly recognize the existence of symbolic capital in the broadest sense of the term. This notion has the amazing capacity to explain everything. But when someone offers to explain everything to you, you should be on the lookout for the sleight of hand.

If we view it in isolation from the rest of Bourdieu’s theory, the concept of symbolic capital is fairly simple. Bourdieu’s intent was to introduce other species of capital—cultural, social, and, finally, symbolic—to complement political economy’s conception of capital. This enabled him to get a subtler grasp on many things, including the realm of art. For example, symbolic capital allows us to take into account the relative autonomy of the “field of art” while avoiding the simplifications of “vulgar” sociology. We cannot reduce everything in this field to pure market relations—to investment, selling and buying, the extraction of profit. There are forms of capital that are not economic: prestige, reputation, “aura.” The evaluation of these forms is regulated by the internal configuration of the field (milieu, institutions, experts). Prestige and reputation are hidden forms of “credit” entrusted to their possessor. Everyone knows that displaying tokens of such influence (social connections, fame) can make it easier to make financial deals with others.

The relationship between symbolic and other forms of capital is not simple, however. Symbolic capital is like real capital—you can save it, spend it or invest it. True (as Bourdieu himself emphasized), it cannot be converted into other forms of capital. On the other hand, converting real capital into symbolic capital is a snap. The name of the person who purchases works by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud instantly winds up in the media’s spotlight. This, however, is unlikely to add anything to the symbolic aspects of these artists’ works, for they can get along just fine without Roman Abramovich’s sultry two-day stubble. As can legendary Soviet architect Konstantin Melnikov’s famous garages. [They have now been converted into a contemporary art gallery by Abramovich’s girlfriend Daria Zhukov.]

Russian journalists, critics, and intellectuals misuse the concept of symbolic capital. They crudely equate symbolic capital with real capital. They rip the concept out of its proper context—the complicated architecture of social theory. They generalize it into a universal principle that explains people’s actions and decisions.

But why do they do this?

We live in an age in which the neoliberal doctrine of economics holds sway. It states that that we have to look at things “soberly.” What is meant by “sobriety” is our acceptance of the profound truth that human beings are economic creatures. Each human being is his own entrepreneur. Only one thing concerns him: to increase all sources of profit. Hence the rewriting of Bourdieu’s concept to fit this mode of thinking.

In his own late works, however, Bourdieu uses the concept in a sense that is diametrically opposite to the meaning attributed to it. In the book Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market (1999) he examines authority and human dignity as symbolic forms of resistance to the “neoliberal machine.” We don’t have to look hard in the field of contemporary politics to find examples of what he means. Practically all contemporary forms of protest—strikes, hunger strikes, demonstrations—defend human dignity in the face of a system that reduces human life to the narrow limits prescribed by the market-based view of it. Activist artists also make use of their own practices to masterfully intervene in the “wolf’s den” of capital. This, for example, is what the Yes Men are up to when they impersonate WTO representatives.

Alas, all of this takes place far from our “isle of Moscow,” which, like the rest of the country, is now mainly populated by apathetic, politically sluggish aborigines who still haven’t had their fill of the market’s shiny rattles.