Capitalism, half-Bildung and Social Inequality

According to conventional thinking, the task of the educational system is to educate the next generation. This assumption is both true and not true. On the one hand, it is true, because after the implementation of state educational institutions pupils were taught how to use language, to speak and to write, to do math, and to learn other competencies thought to be useful to “survive” one’s everyday life. Language is not just a crucial matter in order to homogenize a nation, but using language is a necessity to participate in a given formation of society. To read the Bible and to sing the psalms, it was necessary to have the capability to read; to understand the principalities’ regulations that have been hung out, it was necessary to be able to read; and, later on, to read instructions in order to operate industrial machines properly, it was (and still is) necessary to be able to read.[1]


The same applies to math. After the introduction of money as general exchange value, people had to be able to carry out at the minimum easy calculations, in order to participate as buyer and seller of commodities on the market place. Later on, in the course of industrialization, the increase of administration, and the more rigid calculation of structured production processes, mathematical procedures were increasingly necessary to pave the way towards conceptualizing and constructing the organization of society.

On the other hand, it is not true, because one crucial goal of formal education has always been to serve the interests of the leading elites. This can be observed throughout the ongoing trajectory of Western history. Quantity (the number of people being educated) and quality of education (the minimum extent of education and knowledge to be able to function) was and is essentially dependent on the exercise of maintaining the social status quo, i.e. structuring and legitimizing societal power. In this context; language is more than just a technique or a tool to communicate: it is the manifestation of social class conditions constituted by the formal institutions of education, distributing life chances.[2] The middle-class is the target-group of schooling and therefore education is constructed in the way to deal with children and juveniles from that societal group. One major constituent of school success is, besides the (social acknowledged) habitus formation[3], the way in which pupils and students are capable of expressing themselves which, following Bernstein, concerns the use of elaborated and restricted codes. Using restricted language codes refers to coming from a lower-class background. Restricted language lacks the necessary context and thus conceals the meaning of the conversation for outsiders, i.e. people that are not using these group-specific codes. Enciphered by specific wording, and the absence of relatedness, meaning is just insinuated but not actually expressed. The organization of schooling is manufactured to support elaborated language codes, which is communication that is spoken and written by both the teaching staff and middle class children and juveniles. It is about functionalized language, i.e. the communicative competence to serve the demands of the labor market. This kind of utilized language must be well proportioned.

On the one hand, restricted language codes do not serve the means of general understanding and on the other hand, the language of poems and “dead languages” (Greek and Latin), do go beyond the sphere of direct utilization, as well as bear the danger of intellectually inspired resistance against economic abuse. When language can be understood as a class-related constituent, mathematics appears to be an objective expression of science. As such, numbers are the abstracted representation of categorized reality, thus having a direct impact on our way of thinking. Or as Adorno and Horkheimer puts it in the Dialectic of Enlightenment:

“Mathematical procedure became a kind of ritual of thought. Despite its axiomatic self-limitation, it installed itself as necessary and objective: mathematics made thought into a thing—a tool, to use its own term.”[4]

Instrumental and methodological reason based on quantification and categorization of the world that is used to order, administrate, and dominate contemporary knowledge-based competition, actually impedes and hinders intellectual development.[pullquote]Instrumental and methodological reason based on quantification and categorization of the world that is used to order, administrate, and dominate contemporary knowledge-based competition, actually impedes and hinders intellectual development.[/pullquote] This kind of reasoning, coordinated with the filter of quantifiable performance, is the regression of curiosity driven interest in knowledge. Everything that is not applicable to categories and modes of thinking perpetuating the process of commodification, production, and the sphere of consumerism is undesirable, lacking assent and legitimation from the profiteers and administrators of the contemporary formation of society.

The bond between domination and knowledge is obvious throughout history. Knowledge upholds and supports the ruling classes by the means of technical possibilities, promising progression as a guarantee for linear societal advancement, securing the social status quo, and thus existing social power relations. At present, with the inauguration of labor market focused institutions of education, the organization of formal education has been concerned with the realization and legitimization of social selection procedures aimed at reproducing the given class formation. This is done by adjusting and disciplining new generations to learn and cultivate given social values and norms, internalizing and accepting the given power constellation.

The task of education is irrevocably related to the social promise of modernity, i.e. to follow the path of enlightenment in order to dominate nature, guarantee physical survival, and to strive for a democratic and, humanist society. The decay of the latter aspect is hidden behind the success of the domination and exploitation of nature and the majority of the population — the working class. Even if the working class appears today to be vanished, it is still in existence. The fine separation between differentiating categories like white and blue collar worker and the exchange of the wording “class” in favor of social milieus serves to embellish social relations in a capitalist formation of society. The means of production, the stock market’s share proportions, and economic profit are still in the hand of a few individuals, whereas the majority of society is occupied in making a living. Class-relations still exist; they are just a hidden social fact. To change structural social inequality, based on the exploitation of the majority of the population by the few, it is necessary to reveal the hidden curriculum of education serving the (re)production of societal elites and power holders.

Already in 1976, Bowles and Gintis revealed the primacy of the economy within the educational system, pointing to the hidden curriculum of formal education legitimized by the concept of meritocracy, IQ, and the readiness to accept the given social order. In this context, they made clear that institutional (state) education is middle-class socialization, (re-)producing the given societal power formation. Controlled social mobility within the range of the middle class strengthens the myth of the American dream by continuous repetitions of the promise that assiduity pays off and good performance will be rewarded with just wages.[5] Confusing the economic organization of society with political governance by claiming that capitalism and democracy are naturally related, denigrates and silences all serious attempts to critique ongoing social inequalities based on capitalist class contradictions, expressed in property rights and disposal over the organization of the means of production. Even if democracy and capitalism are supporting a

kind of freedom in distinct realms of social life (…) they are sharply contrasting rules regulating both the process of human development and the historical evolution of whole societies: the one is characterized by the preeminence of economic privilege based on property rights, the other insists on the priority of liberty and democratic accountability based on the exercise of personal rights.[6]

There is nothing like exploitation with a human face. In favor of technological progress in order to attain the illusion of unlimited consumption, the “quest for the good-life” promised by the Enlightenment has been shelved. Capitalism and democracy are inevitably led by mutually conflicting interests. Education, thus, is trapped between these two antagonistic positions. On the one hand, education has to educate to labor, enabling a human’s capacity to satisfy basic needs. On the other hand, education has to keep the promises of enlightenment and emancipation, i.e. to set up the intellectual and ethical foundation to provide self-determination and a happy life within a democratic formation of society. Education appears to balance the political and the economic system’s claim to leadership. But the vision of a truly democratic formation of society, constituted by cultural values representing humanistic ideals, has already been neglected or delayed. Instead of supporting humanity and solidarity, the education system — as one of the major agents of socialization — is utilized by the existing ruling classes and the dominating Western culture in order to develop individuals towards becoming functioning members of capitalist society. The aim is the the acceptance, internalization, and mediation of social norms and values perpetuating the status quo. The guiding principles of education to fulfill the dream of a life without oppression and coercion have been curtailed. What is left is the pure political and economic exploitation of education.

The ongoing deterioration and economic instrumentalization of education is a focus of Adorno’s theory of half-Bildung. The theory seeks to address the aspects of alienation and reification concealed in contemporary education. To grasp the lack of intellectual action, it is crucial to understand the tendencies towards anti-enlightenment which constitute today’s educational institutions, making critical consciousness impossible. In this respect, Adorno writes that the state of “Bildung”, that is the German conception of education defined as aiming towards maturity in the sense of social judgement, political consciousness, reflexivity and competence of action[7], has declined into half-Bildung (Halbbildung).

What Bildung has turned into, sedimented as a sort of negative objective spirit, and not only in Germany, was itself derived from social laws of movement, even from the concept of Bildung itself. It has become socialized half-Bildung, the ever-presence of the alienated spirit.[8]

According to Adorno, half-Bildung is a socialized regression of culture.[pullquote]According to Adorno, half-Bildung is a socialized regression of culture.[/pullquote] Half-education is not the mathematical absence of a percentage of Bildung as such. The state of half-Bildung is worse than not-knowing at all. The latter state of mind bears still the opportunity to gain a critical consciousness via the appropriation of the antagonistic societal realities, whereas the first state of mind is already reificated, i.e. a process of the withering away of revolutionary potentials, visible in the rejection of critical consciousness. It is the reification of human consciousness, the submission of Bildung under the rule of production and consumption processes. The latter aspect refers to the incorporation of all matters of education in order to train for labor and technical innovation, creating profit as well as ensuring conformity to the social status quo within the given society. Turning education simply into an instrument means education is to be the driving force to enable individuals to compete on the labor market, generating a higher income by collecting “useable” knowledge. The first aspect, i.e. the coagulation of culture, can be described as a musealization of culture, i.e. is the fixation and fragmentation of cultural elements serving the categorization of social “habitus formations.” This kind of culture is a part of feudalist and bourgeois’ history, separated from everyday life and thus not being related to the matters of the working class. It is historically connected to the consumption sphere of the upper class profiting from the time stolen from the working class in order to create added-value. Following Adorno, “half-Bildung is the spirit that has been captured by the commodity’s fetish character”.[9] In its double character, half-Bildung expresses both, the contemporary alienation of the working as well as the bourgeois class’ consciousness. Half-Bildung is the destruction of all what Bildung is and thus the promises of enlightenment; the emancipation of mankind from submission, exploitation, and class domination based on a just distribution of all of society’s wealth. Education should be about the opportunity for self-realization, not only providing the pre-condition of possibility, but actual opportunities for self-realization in non-alienated work. Being aware of the nearly impossible task of Bildung, Adorno concludes in the “Theory of half-Bildung”:

If in the meantime the spirit only does what is socially correct, as long as it does not dissolve into society in an undifferentiated identity, anachronism is upon us: clutching to Bildung after society has destroyed its foundations. But it has no other means of survival than critical reflection on half-Bildung, which becomes essential for it.[10]

The alienated consciousness solidifies and consolidates the societal economic relations concealing social contradictions. It is thus the objective production of the subjective condition, making the objective possible understanding impossible.[11] Also critique is instrumentalized, for the half-Gebildete (“half-educated” person) uses shrewdness, i.e. degenerated critique being above all improvement and better understanding, as a mean to attain a better social position.

The analysis of the conditions of the ongoing decay of Bildung is a first step to (re-)gain critical consciousness by the means of reviving Bildung as potential liberation of man from societal coercions within the capitalistic formation of (Western) societies. In that sense overcoming the state of half-Bildung might serve as a possibility for critical awareness and consciousness in order to (re-)discover its original task of self-determination and thus human development.


[1] von Friedeburg, Ludwig (1989). Bildungsreform in Deutschland. Geschichte und gesellschaftlicher Widerspruch. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

[2] Bourdieu, Pierre/Passeron, Jean Claude (1971). Die Illusion der Chancengleichheit: Untersuchungen zur Soziologie des Bildungswesens am Bespiel Frankreichs. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag; Bowles, Samuel/Gintis, Herbert (1978). Pädagogik und die Widersprüche der Ökonomie. Das Beispiel USA. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

[3] Bourdieu, Pierre 1998: Die feinen Unterschiede: Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

[4] Horkheimer, Max/Adorno, Theodor W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press, (p. 19)

[5] Bowles, Samuel/Gintis, Herbert (1978). Pädagogik und die Widersprüche der Ökonomie. Das Beispiel USA. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

[6] Bowles, Samuel/Gintis, Herbert (1986). Democracy and Capitalism. Property, Community, and the Contradictions of Modern Social Thought. New York: Basic Books, (p. 3)

[7] See Sünker, Heinz (2006). Politics, Bildung and Social Justice. Perspectives for a Democratic Society. Rotterdam/Taipei: Sense Publishers.

[8] Adorno, Theodor W. 1997: Theorie der Halbbildung, in: Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften 8. .(pp. 93-121) Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp , (p. 93)

[9] Adorno, Theodor W. 1997: Theorie der Halbbildung, in: Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften 8. .(pp. 93-121) Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp , (p. 109)

[10] Adorno, Theodor W. 1997: Theorie der Halbbildung, in: Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften 8. .(pp. 93-121) Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp , (p. 121)

[11] see Adorno, Theodor W. 1997: Theorie der Halbbildung, in: Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften 8. .(pp. 93-121) Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp , (p. 117)


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1