The Degenerate Charm of the Bourgeoisie


Canadians are generally well-perceived abroad: ask most international observers or tourists to describe us, and you will hear words like polite, self-effacing, quiet. Until I moved to Ontario, this puzzled me: in my part of Canada, we are anything but.

Now, I understand. Let me tell you a story of Canadian politeness.

For a couple of years, I and an Ontario-born friend have had a standing weekly date. We hie ourselves to a coffee shop, slurp caffeine and discuss art, philosophy, politics, society, science, and Terry Pratchett. For both, it is the one guaranteed opportunity for freewheeling thought and argument in the restrictive life of the adult wage-earner.

Some weeks ago, my friend met a European visitor who introduced himself as another aficianado of the coffee shop milieu. Call him Nikos. Nikos is confident, charming and given to a high level of intellectual analysis. Before long, he was a regular at our weekly table.

It became quickly apparent that we had made an error in judgement. Nikos is a one-trick pony, and his trick is himself. Raised the only male in a household of women, rooted in the haute bourgeoisie of the Mediterranean basin, Nikos' only topics of conversation are the superiority of that way of life to all others, and the deplorable lack of culture and understanding among the Euro-Americans that threaten to crush it. At first, it was amusing: when was the last time you talked with anyone who had heard of Spengler, let alone taken his historical analysis seriously? Nikos has not only heard of him, he has read him, and others of that metahistorical ilk, and heard the resonances.

For those who have not run into the late-nineteenth/early twentieth century metahistorians, there is a reason they would appeal to Nikos. To a man, they were, themselves, members of their national bourgeoisies, the monied and often landed, classes that stood below the aristocracy but above everyone else. The roots of the bourgeoisie go a long way back -- in Northern Europe, to the recovery of the cities after the end of the Norse invasions, in the Mediterranean, where international trade and exchange persisted from the Classical period through to the present, much farther.

The aristocracy sneered at the bourgeoisie because they were in trade. The bourgeoisie emulated the aristocracy to win social acceptance. Eventually, money, intermarriage and time evolved two classes of aristocracy: the French, always good with words, called them the Nobility of the Sword and the Nobility of the Robe. As the raison d'etre of the Nobility of the Sword faded, the two came to be indistinguishable, except by their titles. The emphasis shifted from blood to culture and breeding. As the aristocracy withered, or was cut down, the Robe became the dominant class.

But, the bourgeoisie, in turn, was challenged. As industrialisation spread and new continents fostered new cultures, there arose new money and new power, and wielding it, men who had no respect for the values of the old bourgeoisie. Worse, there developed an urban working class that demanded a share of the wealth. As once they had challenged the aristocracy, so, now, they were challenged, on two fronts -- the newly monied, who rejected the old values, and the servants, who forgot their place.

In this context, a number of bourgeois historians and philosophers felt compelled to seek models for the rise and fall of civilisations. Their names are redolent of an era: Adams, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Huizinga, Burckhardt, Toynbee are men who sought answers to cultural change in the changes of the past. Each felt he had found the pattern, although no two agreed on what it was. Toynbee was sure that it was part of a great, progressive movement. The Germans tended to be glummer, Spengler the glummest of the lot, and we all know about Marx.

How does this relate to Nikos? Let's be clear: the bourgeoisie lost the war with modern industrialism some years back. True, a few of the new capitalists, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, adopted the cultural status mechanisms of the old bourgeoisie, but such were few and far between. And, despite the wails of the late nineteenth century rich, the proletariat gradually won their battle for a living wage and a share of power. The post-industrial economy is driven by the shared values of, and the conflicts between, the modern capitalist and the people who work for him.

The issue is not conflict, but agreement. The world of the Sword and Robe was born in a deeply Christian milieu. While the power of religion faded, its emphasis on the superiority of the spirit over the material remained, its belief in the rightness of a static, heirarchical society persisted. The Sword contributed the ideas of chivalry, a refined version of macho honour. The Robe, rooted in the heirarchy of the church, brought the idea of the civilising power of learning. These values contribute to a worldview that denigrates the material, social striving, the concern for material comfort.

But these latter are the concerns of the vast majority of mankind. Those not born to wealth, whether peasants in medieval Europe or Sales Associates in the United States, have to make a living. For them, securing food, shelter, a modicum of security, advancement for their children, are of more than intellectual concern. They are matters of life and death.

Nikos is right on two counts. First, North America is the present leader in postindustrial culture. We are young. Not long ago, one slip in the daily struggle could result in catastrophe. It still can: poor and homeless Canadians, most of whom once held jobs and made a living, freeze to death in our winters in shameful numbers. Even the wealthy are only 150 years from the frontier: our culture is formed, and informed, by the need to wrest a living from implacable earth. For the United States, add the influence of the frontier itself, a savage place, beyond the civilising influence of settled cultures, where the only law was the law of the jungle.

In short, we know what is beneath the veneer of agora and academy: we know that death walks on little feet. North American cultures were bred by evolution at its harshest: eat or be eaten. We prize comfort foremost, and value that which brings it: money.

We are the heirs of the late medieval bourgeois, the traders and manufacturers whose new fortunes threatened the complacent order of Church, Nobility and everyone else. We are the heirs of the British, who used to be the butt of the derision of the continental bougeoisie for their lack of spirit and their preoccupation with trade.

Second, this materialist culture has been wildly successful abroad, to the dismay of established elites in all nations. Our own left condemns this cultural imperialism, but what should be instructive to both old money and new radicalism is the eagerness of the subject populations to adopt the American way of life.

This should not surprise anyone, least of all the left. After all, the left is rooted in a movement to gain for poor and working people a fair share of the wealth, as one writer on the early union movement entitled his book, A Better Life. No one was fighting for honour or breeding: the fight was for decent wages, protection from oppression, a say in our society and future.

At the height of their power, the Nobilities of Sword and Robe made up no more than 2% of any European population. Allowing for intermediate classes, craftsmen, middling traders, rich peasants, at least 90 percent of any nation was struggling against odds to make a living, always on the edge of catastophe should there be bad weather or a war that limited the trade of nations. Roughly the same porportions hold true for other cultures. The Chinese peasantry is legendary for its numbers, its dedication to family, its acquisitiveness, its endurance. Let those who admire the cultures of the Ottomans, the Shoguns, the Classical Greeks, remember that those cultures were the products of monied and leisured classes supported by exactations from the struggling majority, who slaved and died at the whim of their rulers.

This, and not the milieu of taste, breeding and disinterested learning, is the heritage of the largest part of the world's population. Is it any wonder that, seeing a culture which promises that anyone, regardless of birth, breeding or education, can achieve comfort, they should be attracted to it? That the average person often mistakes the trappings for the substance is only to be expected in a species given to cargo cult thinking, and among peoples trained for generations to judge the power of their betters by their conspicuous display of wealth.

Those deplorable Euro-Americans with their cellphones, their noise and rush are, without doubt, a threat to the monied and leisured bourgeoisie. They, too, are within a few generations of starvation on the land and in the cities. They, too, are a product of an unforgiving struggle to survive. They are still struggling, but in the new world of postindustrial society. They can still fall, and be crushed, as surely as the peasants from which they sprang could be crushed by the famines, wars and oppression that kept your class in the leisure necessary to develop the art of playfulness, the culture of disinterested debate, the breeding to appreciate matters of the spirit.

They have rejected the culture of leisure and deference for the one that promises material comfort and the democratic status of consumption. If they are crowding you out of your cherished coffeehouses while they dash in for a quick cappuchino, tant pis. They do not have the time to linger: they did not inherit wealth, nor will their children inherit, if they don't get on with it.

What astonishes me, in retrospect, is how long we listened, politely, to Nikos, how polite we were in observing the niceties of soi-disant civilised debate, while he poured scorn on our nation, our culture, our class and our society, how long we let him dominate the table with his assumptions while we put forth, politely, the case for the other side. In retrospect, I realise this, too, was an error. The inherent arrogance of the spoiled bourgeois scion took our politeness for weakness, our willingness to concede points in the overall argument as agreement with the underlying assumptions.

How very Canadian we were.

Not that nothing came of it. It has been years since I have heard so clear a statement of the bourgeois critique of the modern order, and not from books and historians, but from a living individual. It has been instructive and a little sad. For the great bourgeois critics were men of deep moral concerns and great intellectual breadth, who worried that the preoccupation with the material would overwhelm the spiritual values of concern for one's brother and awe in the face of the ineffable, men capable of leaping across vast cultural divides to understand the concerns of, if not a whole people, at least those who shared a similar social position.

There is no hint of this in Nikos: his concerns are solely for his own comfort and welfare, and he boasts his amorality. When, after weeks of polite discussion, my friend finally managed to communicate to him the harshness of life that underlies the success of that culture Nikos so deplores, his response was not a widened understanding, not an appreciation of his own good fortune, not a deepened fellow feeling for those who had not been born so fortunately, but a greater determination to defend his priviledged position against all comers.

In short, Nikos is no different from the crass Euro-Americans who have invaded his favourite cafés: he is heir to the modus vivendi of his class, but not to their deeper values. He has a sense of moral superiority, but no morality. He is a living straw man, and pleased with it besides.

Tant pis. There are others concerned about the impact of the modern economy on the people who labour in it. They understand that the first step to realising the spiritual is acquiring the material, that culture is a flame that can only flourish when the need for fuel is met. They remember the lessons of the bougeois medieval guild, of mutual self-help and concern for one's fellows. They struggle to get for the poor and the lowly that better life that will allow all the leisure to pursue intellectual debate or stand in awe of the ineffable.

Yes, Nikos, it is true: we are the true heirs of the bourgeoisie. We, the grasping, uncultured, uneducated objects of your derision. It's down to us to see that our inheritance is not re-appropriated by another class of rich exploiters and turned against those whose sweat has paid for the comfortable houses, the secure livings, the private libraries, and country estates.

That's what made it so easy to listen so politely for so long. Like the victorious general, we value the timely reminder that we, too, are mortal.

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