Departments

Bourgeois

When I read the word bourgeois, I stop reading. If criticism is the context, I try to forget what I have read. When it only slips out, like a curse word, I tolerate it, but used earnestly the word revolts me as proof of the grandiosity of the writer and the irrelevance of the thought. Yet I am not sure that I disbelieve in the bourgeois. Even in criticism, 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. (You could trace them as those to whom 9/11 was less atrocity than existential problem.) Then the feeling passes, and again I see people whose characters are separately conditioned by their particular society and occupation—not by some notional class oversoul. But socially the idea is even more haunting. Of course I accept the existence of the strict-sense bourgeois, the medieval burghers—I accept that the world I live in is 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 uneasing than the libertarian, because libertarian ideas pass on libertarian credit. Marx is the philosopher whom 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 conclusions obscene and anathematical, 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 lie 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.)