Symbolic capital, by Argemino Barro

The last time I was in Kyiv, last July, I came across several times Volodymyr Zelensky. Or so it seemed to me. For a split second, Zelensky would enter the cafeteria, or the hotel lobby, or get off the subway. In reality, they were only mirages caused by the clothing and pose of the Ukrainian men, that they had adopted the war package of their president.

It is known that the spirit of the leader spreads to those led. At least in wartime. The summit is a point of reference, and from it flow, in large measure, the morale of the troops and the tones of the national conversation. Once the invasion began, Zelensky exchanged a tie for an olive green shirt, grew a beard and spent more hours in the gym. He turned into a kind of tribal chief, a determined and unambiguous block of testosterone. A message with legs that says: we are an army. You are also a block of testosterone. We will not give up.

The power of this message comes not from the gesture, but from the concrete actions: from staying in besieged Kyiv, when he was likely to be assassinated, or from the recent Kharkiv counter-offensive, capable of reconquering 6,000 square kilometers in a week. A feat that has renewed the patina of bravery, ingenuity and military originality accumulated by Ukraine at the beginning of the war.

A feat that reinforces, in other words, the symbolic capital from Ukraine.

This expression, «symbolic capital», coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, refers to the intangible power that emanates from honor and prestige. A victorious politician has symbolic capital, for example; a Nobel laureate, a war hero. The symbolic capital can then be exchanged for tangible goods, such as a job, money, or, in the case of Ukraine, NATO weapons.

«It is known that the spirit of the leader spreads to those led. At least in wartime.”

One of the properties of symbolic capital is its power of attraction. People want to take photos with the owners of this invisible wealth. They want to be their friends and confidants, take photos with them, be close. Everyone wants to dip their beaks in the pools of reputation and glory.

Ukraine, which, for many Westerners, was just a faded country on the borders of Russia, is today a premium brand in high demand. Since mid-March, when Kyiv was known to hold out, numerous foreign dignitaries and celebrities have made pilgrimages to meet Zelensky. Heads of State and Government, academics, disseminators, presenters or movie actors raise their status by visiting the man of the moment.

But the line between respect and opportunism is fine, and some vultures of symbolic wealth even take the liberty of dressing up as the president of Ukraine. They wear sports attire, in a T-shirt or hoodie, as if they were the ones at war. How dare they?

British historian Neill Ferguson, who has known Zelensky for years and has just visited him in Kyiv, noted that in Ukraine, only the military, the president and his ministers have the right to dress like that. They have earned it. Dressing like this for the photo, without having faced death, is a fraud and a lack of respect. Like someone who hangs a Medal of Valor from his chest without having set foot on a battlefield.

According to Ferguson, Ukrainians still mock French President Emmanuel Macron, who one day showed up at the Elysee unshaven and in a hoodie. Macron is a victorious politician who has plenty of symbolic capital. But one thing is politics, and another, an existential struggle.

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Symbolic capital, by Argemino Barro