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Bourgeois

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AOL is having one of those days when all the connections are slow and tend to bump me off every ten minutes, so I have no idea if this is even getting written.

But let me give it a shot–on bourgeois values, and on Cathy’s question as to whether anti-Semitism is just another instance of hatred of the middleman.

The bourgeois values thing is harder, because it morphs.

For Marx himself–and not just Marx, but aristocrats and peasants going back at least to the middle ages, who felt exactly the same way but didn’t have the word–“bourgeois values” are quintessentially priorities placed on material wealth and comfort, social status, and convention.

The original complaints against the bourgeoisie were leveled not against working people per se–most of them were the proletariat, or the peasants–but against the kind of people we in the US tend to think of as “upper class.” 

That is, against the owners and founders of big businesses, like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.

In Europe these people were not “upper class” because they were not aristocracy, and because they made their money instead of simply having it by right of historical possession. 

Along with these people were their just-below-the-surface wannabes, what we in the US call the upper middle class, and exactly the sort of people that get the Tea Party furious–private school and Ivy League educated, six figure jobs in the professions or the arts.

What has happened in the US, however, and in most of the former British colonies, like Canada and Australia, is that the lack of a native aristocracy has pushed the word down the scale. 

Here it’s the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts who are “upper class,” and with them those upper middle class wannabes. 

Bourgeois has come to mean, here, the values of the middle and working class, such as patriotism, loyalty to family over work, religious devotion (at least to the more conservative kinds of Christianity and Judaism), and a stubborn insistance on running their lives and everybody else’s on arbitrary and outdated rules (like that adultery is wrong, or that marriage should be between one man and one woman) and a resistance to “social change.”

In a way, the morphing of that designation–bourgeois–was a neat trick.  In the US today, it now stands for the exact opposite of what it was originally meant to designate, and the people who now fit the original description perfectly have turned that original description into a badge of honor. 

As to how the rest of the world uses the word, I don’t know.  I think that when Europeans and Arabs complain of the bourgeois nature of the US, they’re using the original description.

I’ve also come to think that that description is not necessarily what they’re objecting to.

I don’t mean that such people–dedicated to material things, conventions and social status–don’t exist.  They do.  And they tend to be really annoying and nasty people.

I do mean that I think the actual complaint is about something else–about the representatives of a world that judge all others, and judge them on a basis that the complainers feel they can’t succeed at–and that pointing to the worst products of the system in question makes it possible both to denigrate that system and to do it without exposing oneself in ways one wouldn’t want.

And that was one of those ridiculous sentences.  Maybe I’ll get back to the idea at a later date.

But as to whether anti-Semitism is just the whole thing about the hatred of the middle/man landlord–I don’t think so.

Historically, anti-Semitism has been a very odd commodity. It exists everywhere, not only where Jews act as middlemen or where they actually have money.  It operated in the area now known as Germany a good five hundred years before the fall of the Roman Empire, and the causes seem to have been mostly religious in nature.

But it’s more than that.  Most of the people going nuts about “the Jews” today are not being kept down by Jews as middlemen and landlords, and people who are not Jews but who are middlemen and landlords are not being vilified in the same way.

The standard left-wing American or British academic who is willing to excuse any number of honor killings, executions of women and homosexuals, and officially sanctioned torture and oppression in Arab nations while rushing to call Israel the worst and most evil state in the world is not being driven by a resentment of the middleman/landlord.

He is also not being driven by facts.  If he were, he would be having much bigger fits about slavery in the Sudan, for instance, and the religious police in Iran. 

The same goes for the right wing version of this, people like Pat Buchanon, Robert Novak and Joseph Sobran. 

We can find resentment and even hatred of the middleman/landlord in every part of the world, but in every case except that of the Jews, it’s situation-specific.

The overseas Chinese have incurred the wrath of populations in Muslim nations in Asia for being such middlemen and landlords, but no such resentment in the American west, where that was never their primary status.

The Jews, however, are hated and vilified by anything from solid minorities of all populations to solid majorities of them, and usually on the same grounds–they have all the money (even when they’re dirt poor and have nothing), they run the world (even when they’re forbidden from holding office or participating in government). 

And, of course, they’re vilified for being “bourgeois”–for that love of material wealth and comfort, and convention, and social status.

I have no idea if there is any explanation for what we see in anti-Semitism.  I don’t think we have found one yet, and I don’t think we will.  At least, I don’t think we will find an explanation that is in any way rational. 

I think I’d better go have a day.

Written by janeh

October 7th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Bourgeois'

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  1. The common thread in the two meanings of ‘bourgeois’ is the existence of convention – specifically, a convention that can be seen as restrictive in some way. This is why I never tended to apply it to the aristocracy – especially the inherited one, but also the second or third generation of the earned-money type. I’m going by hearsay and reading here – but I get the impression that at many recent times and periods, such people considered themselves free of the pettifogging rules lesser folk had to consider, particularly where sexual relations are considered. (Hiltons, anyone? or certain members of the royal family?)

    I think such restrictions – you don’t have affairs, you don’t dress or act in such a way that would hurt or offend or upset anyone and so on and so forth – are seen by some people as an intolerable affront on personal liberty.

    The social status thing is a bit different. You can attain a certain kind of social status by following bourgeois rules, that of a respected person in your local bourgeois community, but you can’t get social status in a different class that way – either the super rich or aristocratic or the loyal revolutionary classes. The revolutionary might pretend to be above such bourgeois considerations as social status, but within his or her own circles, status – if not the bourgeois kind – is often all-important.

    As for the Jews – well, there is the tragic history of Christian-Jewish relations, although at long last, some sanity should have come into that. I think the ultimate answer is, though, the human need to have a ‘them’ to contrast with the ‘us’, and to come up with whatever rationalization seems to fit at a time. I’ve seen this sort of thing function in places with – to the outsider – no discernible difference between the majority and despised minority, but the process must surely function better when an obvious minority can be chosen – one with a different religion or ancestry. And they can also function handily as scapegoats, something politicians are always looking for.

    One of the reasons that the injunctions of religions to treat all humans as brothers is so revolutionary is that it contradicts our natural tendency to identify someone as an outsider and then blame them for all our troubles.

    Real revolutionaries, in spite of their rhetoric, don’t often do anything so radical, since they need to identify some group – the bourgeoisie, the running dogs of the capitalists, etc. – as the enemy that everyone else has to unite against.

    Cheryl

    7 Oct 10 at 6:36 am

  2. I’ll second Cheryl, by and large–and for the most part Weber is with us, though you might also take a look at Bancroft, THE UNHEAVENLY CITY. The meaning hasn’t “morphed” much, but the critics have.

    You’re looking at income level, when you should be looking at attitude. At the heart of the bourgeoise is restraint. You don’t wear your wealth on your back, you don’t contract debts you can’t pay, and honor is making your word good–not running someone through over imagined insults. Sexual and religious matters are private. There are rules for them of course–but the FIRST rule is not to parade one’s affairs about in public. And that’s not a matter of scale and time. Sam Walton was playing by the same rules as Andrew Carnegie, but so too were generations of my family, running groceries, real-estate firms, five and tens and farms. As for “a stubborn insistance on running their lives and everybody else’s on arbitrary and outdated rules (like that adultery is wrong, or that marriage should be between one man and one woman)” I believe, to put it mildly, that “arbitrary and outdated” assumes what is to be proven.

    The very existence of such lives is an insult to the true aristocrat with his parade of lovers, extravagent clothing, cars and houses–not to mention
    gambling–and the string of unpaid debts. Bourgeois living is an implied criticism of living any other way. The aristocrat regards criticism as insult, and doesn’t take insult lightly. But we don’t need to go to Europe for aristos. We keep a colony of them in Hollywood, with a few outlyers elsewhere–children or grandchildren of the great bourgeoise who have gone noble in attitude and dress. It’s a common phenomenon: the French aristocracy was complaining about it in the 16th Century, and still today. Many of our internal critics and their bretheren in Europe criticise the bourgeoise from an aristocratic perspective, even though the noblese de l’epee wouldn’t accept the critics as anything but servants.

    But there are also the critics from below, which Jane has elsewhere given the motto “who do you think you are?” If Joe insists on studying and saving, works diligently, marries when he can support a wife and stays faithful to her, what does this say about Sam
    who dropped out of school, cheats his employer whenever possible and, when he has a job, is paying child support to three different mothers? Clearly, Joe is “stuck up” “full of himself” and possibly “acting white.” Anyway, it has to be a cheat. Joe can’t be a better person, and he certainly can’t be setting an example Sam would do well to follow.

    The Sams of this world borrow money from Jews in Europe and America, Indians in Africa and Chinese in Asia–then run the “blood-suckers” out of town in order to settle debts, when they don’t actually massacre them.

    “Third World” critics are often of this variety. We do have a few nearer home, but they can’t spell bourgeoise–though they CAN generally spell “Jew.”

    What have I missed? Ah, yes: patriotism. Not always a bourgeois virtue, but probably more so in America, which they built, and in Britain, which they used to own. It’s often by default. The aristocracy have homes in three or four countries, after all, and didn’t grow up anywhere in particular. The lower critics’ loyalty is to nothing so abstract as a nation–a street gang, perhaps, or a neighborhood. And if push comes to shove, both people with houses on three continents and those two months behind on the rent find it easier to leave than the owners of farms and businesses. Will Rogers was right: “Any man worth his salt will fight for his home. Who fights for his boarding house?”

    So when Baldwin and Streisand finally take off for France–this time for sure!!–my people will wave goodbye at the airport. They aren’t the sort of people we wanted in the neighborhood anyway.

    robert_piepenbrink

    7 Oct 10 at 4:31 pm

  3. Um,, okay.

    I’m just checking here.

    You all did realize that when I wrote that thing about unnecessary and outdated rules, I was doing a POV voice?

    Right?

    I don’t have to worry about that kind of thing on the blog?

    janeh

    7 Oct 10 at 6:49 pm

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