The Rise and Fall of the Bourgeois Era

Ernst Gombrich was a young  Jewish graduate student in 1930s Vienna when he wrote A Little History of the World, one of my very favorite books. After the Anschluss he fled to England,  where he spent the rest of his life, only translating A Little History into English in the 1990s despite writing many books in English in the interim.

The book is written as a series of little stories for young children (who evidently could understand more complex ideas then than now), but it’s almost always a good first approximation of what you’d get from more thorough reading. So, for example, the Myth of Barter and the rise of the Bourgeoisie:

Have you ever wondered why people actually need money? ‘To live on, of course!’ you say. But that isn’t strictly true. Try eating a coin. People live on bread and other foods, and someone who grows grain and makes his own bread doesn’t need money, any more than Robinson Crusoe did. Nor does anyone who is given his bread for nothing. And that’s how it was in Germany. The serfs cultivated their fields and gave a tenth of their harvest to them knights and monks who owned the land.
‘But where did the peasants get their ploughs from? And their smocks and their yokes and the things they needed for their animals?’ Well, mostly by exchange. If, for example, a peasant had an ox, but would rather have six sheep to give him wool to make a jacket, he would exchange them for something with his neighbour.
And if he had slaughtered an ox, and spent the long winter evenings turning the two horns into fine drinking cups, he could exchange one of the cups for some flax grown by his neighbour, which his wife could weave and make into a coat. This is known as barter. So in Germany people managed perfectly well in those days without money, since most of them were either peasants or landowners. Nor did the monasteries need money, for they too owned a lot of land which pious people either gave them or left to them when they died.
Apart from vast forests, small fields and a few villages, castles and monasteries, there was almost nothing else in the whole great German kingdom – that is to say, there were hardly any towns.And it was only in towns that people needed money. Shoemakers, cloth merchants and scribes can hardly satisfy their hunger and thirst
with leather, cloth and ink. They need bread. But can you see yourself going to the shoemaker and paying for your shoes with bread for him to live on? And in any case, if you aren’t a baker, where will you find the bread? ‘From a baker!’ Yes, but what will you give the baker in return? ‘Perhaps I can lend him a hand.’ And if he doesn’t need your help? Or if you have already promised to help the lady who sells fruit? You see, it would be unimaginably complicated if people who live in towns were to barter.
This is why people agreed to decide on something to exchange which everyone would want and therefore accept, something easy to share out and carry around, which wouldn’t go bad or lose its value if you put it away. It was decided that the best thing would be metal – that is, gold or silver. All money was once made of metal,and rich people went around with purses stuffed with gold coins on their belts. That meant you could give the shoemaker money for shoes, and he could use it to buy bread from the baker, who could give it to the peasant in exchange for flour, and the peasant might then use your money to buy a new plough. He wouldn’t find that
for barter in his neighbour’s garden.
However, there were very few towns in Germany in the days of chivalry, so people there had little need of money, whereas in Italy money had been in use since Roman times. Italy had always had great cities and many merchants with bags of money on their belts and even more stowed away in great chests.
Some of these towns were by the sea, like Venice, which is actually in the sea on a cluster of little islands where the inhabitants had taken refuge from the Huns. Then there were other great harbour towns such as Genoa and Pisa, whose ships sailed far across the seas and came back from the Orient with fine cloth, rare spices and
weapons of great value. These goods were sold off in the ports, to be sold again inland in cities like Florence,Verona or Milan, where the cloth might be made into clothes, or perhaps banners or tents. These then went to France, whose capital city, Paris, already contained almost a hundred thousand inhabitants – or to England, or even to Germany. But not much went to Germany because there was very little money there to pay for such things.
People who lived in towns grew richer and richer, and no one could give them orders because they weren’t peasants and didn’t belong to anyone’s fief. On the other hand, since no one had granted them land, they weren’t lords either. They governed themselves, much as people did in antiquity. They had their own courts of law and were as free and independent in their cities as the monks and the knights. Such citizens (called burghers in Germany or the bourgeoisie in France) were known as the Third Estate. Of course, peasants didn’t count.

Or we can see a similar story to the last paragraph (“People who lived in towns grew richer and richer, and no one could give them orders”) in a book for more grown-up readers, Barbara Tuchman’s Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century:

Chapter 7

Decapitated France: The Bourgeois Rising and the Jacquerie

Long exasperated by the anarchy of royal finance and the venality of royal ministers, the Third Estate of Paris seized upon the decapitation of the monarchy to try to impose some form of constitutional control. The summoning of an Estates General to grant money for defense in the crisis provided their opportunity. As soon as the 800 delegates could meet in Paris in October, the inexperienced Dauphin, humiliated and frightened by the defeat at Poitiers, had to report the battle’s shameful outcome and ask the Estates for aids to deliver the King and defend the realm. The bourgeois, chief creditors of the state, made up half the delegates and listened coldly while King Jean’s Chancellor, Pierre de la Forêt, supported the request. After voting themselves into a standing Committee of Eighty, including nobles and clergy, and allowing the rest gratefully to go home, the Estates prepared to confront the Dauphin with their demands. They asked to speak to him privately, believing that without his councillors he would be more easily cowed.

…The upper level of the Third Estate, made up of merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, office-holders, and purveyors to the crown, had nothing left in common with its working-class base except the fact of being non-noble. To overcome that barrier was every bourgeois magnate’s aim. While climbing toward ennoblement and a country estate, he emulated the clothes, customs, and values of the nobles and on arriving shared their tax exemption—no small benefit. Etienne Marcel had an uncle who had paid the highest tax in Paris in 1313 and whose son bought a patent of nobility for 500 livres. Marcel’s father- and brother-in-law, Pierre and Martin des Essars, starting from bourgeois origins in Rouen, had become enriched and ennobled in the service of Philip the Fair and Philip VI. As the crown’s agents, they and their kind provisioned the royal households, commissioned their tapestries and books, purchased their jewels, fabrics, and works of art, served as their confidants and moneylenders, and held lucrative office as treasurers and tax-collectors. Pierre was able to give his daughter Marguerite, when she married Marcel, a princely dowry of 3,000 écus.

Nobles and clergy resented the royal favor shown and the opulence allowed to officials chosen from outside their ranks. Especially they hated the finance officers, “who travel in pomp and make fortunes greater than the dukes and marry their daughters to nobles and buy up the lands of poor knights whom they have cheated and impoverished … and appoint their own kind to offices whose numbers grow from day to day and whose salaries keep pace.”

Between the official class and the mercantile bourgeois like Marcel, no love was lost, though they shared the enterprises of capitalism. When capitalism became feasible through the techniques of banking and credit, it became respectable. The theory of a non-acquisitive society faded, and accumulation of surplus wealth lost its odium—indeed, became enviable. In Renart le Contrefait, a satire of the time, the wealthy bourgeois enjoy the best estate of all: “They live in a noble manner, wear lordly garments, have falcons and sparrow hawks, fine palfreys and fine chargers. When the vassals must go to join the host, the bourgeois rest in their beds; when the vassals go to be massacred in battle, the bourgeois picnic by the river.”

Deirdre McCloskey and other contemporary economic historians have argued that the rise of the bourgeoisie in early Modern Europe was critical to the Great Enrichment that has delivered us from collective penury. McCloskey has adumbrated this thesis in three books so far, but here’s a good snippet from her review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century:

The theory of great wealth espoused by the bourgeoisie and by its friends the liberal economists, on the contrary, is desert by virtue in supplying ethically, without violence, what people are willing to buy. The bourgeois virtues are doubtless exaggerated, especially by the bourgeoisie, and sometimes even by its friends. But for the rest of us the results of the virtue-bragging have not been so bad. Think of the later plays of Ibsen, the pioneering dramatist of bourgeois life. The bank manager, Helmer, in A Doll House (1878) describes a clerk caught in forgery as “morally lost,” having a “moral breakdown.”22 Helmer’s speech throughout the play is saturated with an ethical rhetoric we are accustomed to calling “Victorian.” But Helmer’s wife Nora, whose rhetoric is also ethically saturated, has committed the same crime as the clerk’s. She committed it, though, in order to save her husband’s life, not as the clerk does for amoral profit. By the end of the play she leaves Helmer, a shocking move among the Norwegian bourgeoisie of 1878, because she suddenly realizes that if he knew of her crime he would not have exercised the loving ethics of protecting her from the consequences of a forgery committed for love, not for profit. An ethical bourgeoisie—which is what all of Ibsen’s plays after 1876 explore, as later did the plays of Arthur Miller—has complicated duties. The bourgeoisie goes on talking and talking about virtue, and sometimes achieves it.

The original and sustaining causes of the modern world, I would argue contrary to Piketty’s sneers at the bourgeois virtues, were indeed ethical, not material.23 They were the widening adoption of two mere ideas, the new and liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the new and democratic social idea of dignity for them. The two linked and preposterous ethical ideas—the single word for them is “equality” of respect and before the law—led to a paroxysm of betterment. The word “equality,” understand, is not to be taken, in the style of some in the French Enlightenment, as equality of material outcome. The French definition is the one the left and the right unreflectively assume nowadays in their disputes: “You didn’t build that without social help, so there’s no justification for unequal incomes”; “You poor folk just aren’t virtuous enough, so there’s no justification for your claim of equalizing subsidies.” The more fundamental definition of equality, though, praised in the Scottish Enlightenment after the Scots awoke from their dogmatic slumber, is the egalitarian opinion people have of each other, whether street porter or moral philosopher.24 The moral philosopher Smith, a pioneering egalitarian in this sense, described the Scottish idea as “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.”25

-Deirdre McCloskey, “Measured, Unmeasured, Mismeasured, and Unjustified Pessimism: A Review Essay of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

My fundamental belief is that the major social change of our time is the end of the Bourgeois Era that began in late Medieval Europe. This is not (as McCloskey would argue) mainly because the “clerisy” (experts and intellectuals and artists) like Piketty argue against the Bourgeoisie and oppose capitalism. It is not because (as various Neo-Reactionaries argue)  a democratic system will always, out of demagogic greed, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. It is instead because of the fundamental logic of late-stage capitalism and technological change, combined with the range of characteristics of global humanity, brought now together after many millennia apart.

That is, the Bourgeois Era allowed and required men (and then women) to work within the market system to support their families, but a changing technology of production means we are more in need of consumers than producers now. The Bourgeois Era benefited from people who were in some ways “bred for capitalism,” by the combination of Malthusian circumstances and strong states that punished violence with violence and starved the children of those who couldn’t make a living with market labor. But the majority of the people on the planet did not go through that same, centuries-long process, which was only partially effective in the places it operated in any case.

Just in time, however, the “need” for bourgeois lives has dissipated. Equilibrating consumption and production well enough to keep the capitalist ball rolling has always been an object of dispute, at least since the 19th Century.  But since World War II, the explosion of productive capacity has far outpaced the consumptive capacity of those engaged in market labor. Rich societies responded with the welfare state, and with the various market-embedded incentives for consumption the US has indulged in. The society has been transformed, through both public policies and through marketing and cultural change, into an engine for generating demand beyond need. But, as quickly dropping interest rates reveal, even these manifold mechanisms for boosting consumption are proving insufficient (and destablilizing to the market system, as the financial crisis proved). Thus in our own immediate times, we see, along with various ideological attacks on the bourgeois family unit (smaller and more atomized households consume more), the pressure to incorporate the greater part of humanity (unlikely to fully integrate into the market system as producers, but as suited to be consumers as anyone else) into the engine of consumption that is the modern rich-nation welfare state.

fredgraph (2)

As McCloskey notes, the Bourgouis Era was both cause and result of greater moral equality and lessened hierarchy in the society. Indeed, the American ideal of equality makes most sense as an equality of bourgeois men (and later women) whose equality within the market system supported and made possible their equality in the political order. The eras of post-Emancipation Reconstruction and Civil Rights for black Americans were in many ways also premised on their incorporation into the Bourgeois Society of economic self-sufficiency, a premise and aspiration that has lately been largely dropped, with divergent effects on black men and women.

The Bourgeois Era ended first for black Americans, for whom after centuries of slavery and state and non-state violence it had barely begun, but it is ending now for whites, as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart suggests, with unmistakable social costs.

This end to bourgeois identity and sexual and family norms begins first with those whose education and skills predisposes them least to participate in our strange post-industrial society. Those who have been born and bred for white-collar work can hold on tenaciously to bourgeois norms, and even live lives of plenty. But the cultural and political pressure to abandon these norms, the differential fertility that makes the present elite eager to reproduce its ideas and unwilling to reproduce themselves, will seemingly narrow still more the circle of those who can participate in the political process on their own terms rather than as unofficial wards of the state.

The result will be, I am afraid, a ceding of political power to technocracy, to experts and algorithms who never admit even to themselves the mechanisms, cynical and anti-egalitarian, that ultimately will allow a measure of civil peace at the cost of civil society. And so, the long story of gradual incorporation of the greater number of the earth into the circle of rights and representation will end, with all within the circle, and none with any rights.


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