Departments

Bourgeois

Bourgeois is a curse word. When I read the word bourgeois, I generally stop reading. When it slips out, I forgive it. But when the author persists in repeating it, as if they have just made a discovery, I leave.

Yet I am not sure that I disbelieve in the bourgeois. At times I almost see a class of people – a very large class of people – who have in common a quality that only bourgeois names: they contrive to live in their time as its living posterity. They are free in their judgments and free in their indifference because for them anything that really happens, happens in the past. Then the feeling passes, and once again I see people whose characters are separately conditioned by their particular situation and occupation – not by some class oversoul.

Of course I accept the existence of the strict-sense bourgeois, the medieval burghers – I accept that the world I live in is descended from the one they created. But trying to understand the world in terms of class makes me uneasy (and not only because if there were a bourgeois, they would not be the masters but the helots of our capitalism, pressed between the entitled poor and the empowered rich). No, there is a brink ahead; its name is Marx. I feel the same way when I try to understand the world in terms of markets – there is a brink ahead; its name is Mises. But the Marxist case is more uncomfortable than the libertarian, because libertarian ideas pass on libertarian credit. Marx is the philosopher we agree with under other names. When You-Know-Who is mentioned we throw salt over our shoulders and intone: “He was wrong in his conclusions but right in his basic approach,” or “He was wrong about everything, but at least he cleared away old ideas that were even more wrong.” But folk magic will not protect you if you look into the forbidden books. To read Marxists, to follow principles familiar to you and found among all educated people of good will – to follow these principles step by step plausibly to inhumane conclusions, is to realize how untenable the compromise is. You cannot chain up the devil indoors; you must serve him or put him out. Either social class is a valid principle and deserves to be applied far beyond its present polite limits; or social class is an invalid principle, and any current idea which depends on it should be recalled and melted down. But what else is there? Whenever I ask the question I feel a tense quiet like the party when the parents’ car pulls up early – because if Marx was just wrong then somewhere all the old grave solemn words are waiting to return.

(If you substitute psychology for economics, Freud for Marx, cognitive psychology for libertarianism and neurosis for class, the above essay contains another.)