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Bourgeois: Why the abuse?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted July 30, 2007

One of the standard terms of abuse in the last century has been "bourgeois," as applied to regular middle-class citizens. The term, when used in this way, tends to be associated with Marxism, or with leftism in general. Why would the regular middle class be held up to such scorn?

Part of the reason comes from the art world, which holds itself as being above and beyond commerce. The artist's use of the term, though, connotes something quite different from its political use. "Bourgeois," in the mindset of an artist, means "risk-averse." The bourgeois doesn't like to dare very much, so (s)he treats those who do with contempt. This contempt flows from social passivity, which the bourgeois covers up by calling it "prudence." Bourgeois culture is ridden with the philistinism of the safety-seekers, who of course are not averse to a little clothes-borrowing despite their professed disdain for the true artist.

The irony in such castigations is that the typical bourgeois doesn't mind them all that much; there's a certain symbiosis at work. Artists of any repute tend to be extraordinarily self-disciplined: this forms the root of the value-symbiosis. Any fecklessness in the artist circuit, therefore, tends to be compensatory, and it shows. The earmark of a true bohemian might very well be someone that "gets drunk for the sake of the hangover," writ large.

Also, artists do aim at permanence, which tends to give them a very long-term orientation with respect to the typical bourgeois. Since implementing long-term plans tends to be a bourgeois virtue, there's another value-bond between bohemian and bourgeois. The sight of a self-disciplined someone forsaking any opportunity of consumption beyond a meager ration, for the sake of a greatness that might come in years or decades, is impressive to those who are more balanced with respect to creature comforts. The disdain for commerce that is prevalent in the bohemian circuit comes out of the recognition that many artist of great talent achieve no success in life but gain immortality after death, and the consequent realization (reinforced by the checkered career paths of living artists) that "success" is too time-uncertain to serve as a valid metric.

To sum up: the reason why bohemians snub the bourgeois, and the bourgeois seem to take it, is because bohemians tend to be more forward-thinking and purposive than bourgeois. There should be little wonder now as to the frequency of bohemians' cracks about "bourgeois hypocrisy." Any sense of miff felt by the latter group is staunched by reference to "artistic temperament."

The normal criticism the bourgeois face, though, is far from artists' criticism. The politically-based criticism tends to zero in on the criterion that the bourgeois use for gauging success: the merit system. The most-publicized variant of this criticism is from the lower-class perspective, but there is an upper-class variant too.

The upper class in any society tends to be partial to birthright as a criterion for assessing worth; the smarter ones are pluralistic, not hierarchical, about it. Under the birthright system, it is claimed that "true merit" comes from children learning a family calling at their parents' knees, and moving into that calling when their turn comes. The pluralistic option notes that there is no rational basis by which one human being's station can be compared with another, so it is senseless to rank people by calling. The believers in birthright who are also partial to aristocracy make an exception for orders of rank imposed by law, but stick to the pluralism within these categories except for the length of lineage criterion. Those who do not, and who are also not hierarchs, stick to plain pluralism which is extended to all in society.

As a more practical matter, upper-class skepticism towards the merit system is defensive in character. It is a standard bias amongst upper-class people that anyone who lives by the dictates of the merit system is either pushy, vainglorious, or both. The former take advantage of politenesses and courtesies; the latter have set themselves up for a crushing disappointment that might very well be taken out on someone else. The defensiveness in such biases, I should add, does show that society's gentry have been broken to a different harness.

The most socially and politically potent variant of bourgeois-bashing is, of course, the lower-class variant. This kind claims that the merit system is rigged, or is otherwise inherently unfair, and that the bourgeois is filled with the people who think they're smart because they've been fortunate. In times when bourgeois self-confidence is prevalent, these complaints are written off as self-salving captiousness for those who have tried and failed, or for those who walked away from the competition in a huff instead of trying. When bourgeois self-confidence is rooted in moralism, bourgeois-bashing of this sort tends to be written off as the cavil of the lazy, or as the envy of sore losers.

These times, though, don't last, which brings up a question: is there some sort of hook for the bourgeois-bashing of the lower-class sort that keeps its potency dormant when generally dismissed out of hand? The answer to that question is "yes," and it points to a real flaw in the merit system as a universal principle: As long as merit is the standard of value in a polity, then there will be a recurring temptation for some bourgeois to believe they can earn an "above the law" status for themselves. In other words, social climbing sometimes partakes of political climbing, from the ordinary to the privileged.

This kind of attitude surfaces in scenarios as homely as the upper-middle-class person that bristles at being handed a speeding ticket, on the basis that (s)he pays far more taxes than the average person. It also surfaces in politicos who believe that the taxpayers "owe me" something for years of ward heeling once their side has won. It further surfaces in the person who believes that some kind of educational status symbol, such as taking multiculturalist studies or (in Canada) French, grants him/her the right to be a little bigoted when it's safe. Every wealthy person who says, when rousted by a police officer, "don't you know that my taxes are more than enough to pay your salary?" shows it too. The same attitude also shows in someone who thinks that a superior educational accomplishment gives him/her license to ignore "stupid" laws. The underlying attitude – that being a big producer (of whatever sort) suffices to rate securing political privileges at odds with the rule of law – is precisely the hook that keeps bourgeois-bashing politically potent. A stout-hearted person, that genuinely respects the law, is going to turn an open ear to lower-class criticism of the bourgeois when he or she sees quiet flouting of the laws by the merit-successful.

Believe it or not, sticking to law and order – not as a political plank, but as a permanent lifestyle – is the best way for any bourgeoisie to melt down the criticism from below into mere captiousness. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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