©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Bourgeois Ideology as Rhetoric: Haskell, Pocock, Geertz, and Mannheim

by Deirdre McCloskey, February 28, 2007
Filed under academic interests [bourgeois virtues]

1. The Tetralogy

I published a book last summer asking whether one could be ethical and capitalist at the same time. You will expect me to have said, yes she said yes i will yes---as in fact I did, at 600-page length. But I tried in the book not to confine the argument to the usual case that economists make for capitalism. The merely economic case is instanced by what a fellow businessman said to Engels when, overlooking a dismal Northern town, Engels complained to him about the condition of the English working class: "And yet a great deal of money is made here. Good day, sir." That won't do.

I tried in the book to speak to my friends on the left and on the right who join in thinking that markets and business entail ethical failings. I am replying to the assumption that, say, Davidoff and Hall chronicle in their book on the making of the English business class that the sphere of prudence and commercial courage and hope that men should specialize in needs to be separated from the women's sphere, the sphere of the angels in the house, of love, faith, justice, and temperance. No, I say, for full human lives in the businesses and the houses the lives men and women need all the virtues.

I'm now working on volume two of four. As someone put, "a trilogy is perhaps unduly self-indulgent, but a tetralogy is unforgivable" (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief [2000], p. xiv). Unhappily, I can see no other way to do what I need to do, which is a full-dress apology for capitalism. Capitalism has been under assault since its earliest years of triumph, for example 848. The artists and intellectuals of the West, and East, have accumulated since 1848 a long, long list of criticisms of the bourgeois life---which they seem never to tire of repeating, but also seem never interested in examining critically. Sneering at WalMart and Madame Bovary is in a particular sense an ideology, an unthinking commitment, now for a century and a half.

So Volume 1 sets the philosophical scene: "Is the ancient hostility to markets and the bourgeoisie justified?"

Volume 2, a little part of which I discuss today, asks: "How did the bourgeois life become respectable in England, 1600-1848, and with what consequences for economic growth and modern freedoms?"

Volume 3 asks, "How and why then after 1848 did the clerisy and its students turn against capitalism, yielding the anti-ideologies of socialism, nationalism, and, if that weren't enough, national socialism?

Volume 4, if I live to write it, will be the most economic, an omnium gatherum of all the things you dislike about capitalism and the bourgeois life but were afraid to subject to serious challenge: the environment, consumerism, advertising, inequality, the condition of the working class, the vulgarization of culture, the Polanyi argument, and so forth.

None of these books will contain archival research, and so even the two middle ones, the most historical, will not be that sort of history. I hope I will occasionally say something original about the birth of the modern, and especially about its strange clash of ideologies. But the books are essays, using the original scientific work of my beloved colleagues, not doing it---though I want to give a graduate seminar next year in which I and the students do a least a little of it, using the resources of the Newberry in particular.

2. Rhetoric as a Historical Cause: Haskell and Pocock, Followed by McCloskey Far in the Rear

The second essay/book is called Bourgeois Towns: How Capitalism Became Ethical, 1600-1848. Let me tell you of an early fragment of the argument.

My beginning point is something I have reluctantly concluded after decades of thinking the opposite. It is: The materialist causes of the modern world don't work. Or to put it more precisely, they work much too easily, and are at best therefore enabling conditions, helpful but hardly essential. Many other countries at other times have had the material circumstances of Birmingham or Philadelphia or Glasgow. If comparative prosperity and a fully marketized economy sufficed, then parts of India would have industrialized before Britain did. If foreign trade was an engine of growth, then Portugal, not England, would have manufactured textiles, to be traded within Portugal for port wine, in accord with principles of comparative advantage that would have been articulated in, say, 1617 by a Portuguese Jew, rather than in 1817 by an English descendent of Portuguese Jews named David Ricardo. If the decline of feudalism and the rise in numbers of a bourgeoisie sufficed, then Japan would have led the modern world, or Athens would have made the modern world as it made most other things already in the 5th century. If coal were it, China would have made Manchuria into a Rhineland. If an accumulation of surplus value provided an original accumulation of capital for full-blown capitalism, then pharaohs would have erected linen factories rather than pyramids.

And so, I am beginning to conclude, in a struggle against all my thinking and economic training since my sophomore year of college, attitudes, beliefs, the circumstances of conversation, in a word, "ideology" must be it, the "it" that briefly distinguished northwestern Europe and its offshoots from the rest.

Thomas Haskell wrote in 1999 a characteristically luminous essay pointing to an "escalating sense of human agency" in the 17th and especially the 18th centuries. He finds an index in the very word "responsibility." The word, he notes, is a surprisingly recent coinage from French, found first in Federalist Papers, Number 63. Though "responsible" itself was available much earlier in French, only by about 1600 does English take it up, in an obsolete meaning of "responding to something." It had an American legal use dating from 1650 of "required to appear in court to respond to a charge." The word bumped along in such homely usages for two centuries. It only acquired its magnificence as a concept in liberal theory, Haskell observes, in the middle of the 19th century. The OED finds a use of "responsible" as "morally accountable for ones actions; capable of rational conduct" (sense 2b) only as early as 1836 ("The great God has treated us as responsible beings"). Haskell himself, relying on Richard McKeon, credits Alexander Bain in 1859 as the "earliest philosophical treatment," of "responsibility," Mill agreeing in 1865 with Bain that it was better thought of as "punishability."

Yes, to be sure, the market can corrupt morality, and sometimes it does. But Haskell's claim is that commerce enhances responsibility. For example, the very commerce that made black slavery a New World institution (instead of as formerly only an African and a Moslem and in a minor way a European institution) provided the shocking "expansion of causal horizons . . . for good or evil" (p. 22) that at length killed it. An institution that had existed with scant criticism from the earliest records was killed in a century of anti-slavery agitation 1787-1887 by Christian and especially Protestant and especially Quaker and commercial Europeans.

And, by the way, following his same logic---a la Marx: capitalism raises up its own gravediggers---the expansion of causal horizons contributes a lot I expect to the rise of European socialism. If social problems---the very phrase was coined in the 19th century---are not God's will, Allah be praised, but the responsibility of someone, or of a whole social class, then they can be solved: knock off the person or the class, the slaveholder or the bourgeoisie. Such an argument would explain the paradox that the first large-scale bourgeois society came in its clerisy after 1848 to detest the bourgeoisie.

But---and here is my main point---Haskell's word "convention" would better be replaced by "rhetoric." Now you would expect me to say that. But consider that if the R-word is used we get access to the machinery of rhetorical analysis built up since 5th-century-BC Sicily. We are alerted, for example, to the role of the metaphor of father-child in the defense of slavery, or, again, to the role of a new vocabulary of "social problems" in generalizing the experience of the anti-slavery agitation in the early 19th century. That is, if we focus on the words we get to use word lore, just as Haskell did. Many of our colleagues in history are uncomfortable, as Haskell observes acidly, in the presence of "ideas," which we might as well call "philosophy." But they are also uncomfortable in the presence of "words," which we might as well call "rhetoric." No literary criticism, please. We're historians.

J. G. A. Pocock put my substantive rhetorical claim about 1600-1848 very well in 1985: "In every phase of Western tradition, there is a concept of virtue-Aristotelian, Thomist, neo-Machiavellian or Marxian-to which the spread of exchange relations is seen as presenting a threat. In this perspective those thinker of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries who argued on individualist, capitalist or liberal premises that the market economy might benefit and transform human existence appear to be the great creative heretics and dissenters."

3. Geertz and Mannheim on "Ideology". . . or "Rhetoric"

When politics is not much in dispute, as in France before 1789---at any rate by comparison with France after 1789---one does not need such a word as ideology. "The function of ideology," wrote the late Clifford Geertz in 1964, "is to make an autonomous politics possible by providing the authoritative concepts that render it meaningful, the suasive images by means of which it can be sensibly grasped" [Geertz 1964 (1973), p. 218].

I would quarrel with leaving it as Geertz wanted to do at the conscious level. Geertz wanted to leave "unreflective" or "received" tradition aside, but I don't think that's wise. The "traditional politics of piety and proverb" (p. 221) is best seen as an ideology, too. Unreflective Weltanschauung is "ideology," since otherwise ideology is something only for the clerisy and the more thoughtful politicians, a system of reflective belief. Geertz would have disagreed, arguing that only when it is explicit and not taken-for-granted is a political thought an ideology. Though he did not argue the point, he wanted ideology to be a matter of "strain, taking an intellectualist form, the search for a new symbolic framework in terms of which to formulate . . . political problems" (221).

Karl Mannheim had defined two sorts of ideologies, one "particular" and the other "total." The particular ideologies are "more or less conscious disguises of the real nature of a situation, the true recognition of which would not be in accord with [ones] interests. . . . [ranging] from calculated attempts to dupe others to self-deception." (Mannheim 19NN [trans. 1936, 1954], p. 49). It "never departs from the psychological level" (p. 51). The total ideologies are "the characteristics and composition of the total structure of the mind of this epoch or of this group" (pp. 49-50). It is a matter of social function.

But both are viewed as objectionable compared with a realm of Science free from ideology. That is, ideology is still in Mannheim a cuss word, a sneer by practical people at mere theorists, as it was with Napoleon when he first diverted the word "ideology" from its original meaning as a "science of ideas." I have political ideas. You, on the other hand, have ideologies.

As Geertz noted, "in Sutton, Harris, Kaysen, and Tobin's in many ways excellent The American Business Creed. . . an assurance that 'one has no more cause to feel dismayed or aggrieved by having his own views described as "ideology" than had Molière's famous character by the discovery that all his life he had been talking prose,' is followed immediately by the listing of the main characteristics of ideology as bias, oversimplification, emotive language, and adaption to public prejudice." Ideology is peculiarly subject to what the rhetoricians call the "circumstantial ad hominem," that is, an attack on the grounds that you have an idea because of your circumstances, and that it is shameful to be so influenced, tending to undermine the very idea you have.

The analysis of ideology is therefore a piece with the Shame of Rhetoric, so prominent in Western thought since the 17th century. Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, and Spinoza among other hard men of the early scientific revolution declared eloquently against eloquence. Since then to be caught arguing a case has been thought to be shameful.

Geertz points out that embarrassment with ideology resembles embarrassment with religion. The "militant atheist" attacks religion the same way even sophisticated social critics like Raymond Aron and Edward Shils attacked communism, as "mere" ideology (Geertz 1964 [1973], p. 199). As the philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga has pointed out at length, the atheist attributions of irrationality to Christianity put forward by Marx, Nietzsche, and above all Freud are precisely attempts---exceptionally clumsy attempts, in Plantinga's view---to dismiss theism as "mere" ideology.

I would add simply that both are similar to the embarrassment with human argument in all its crazy richness, that is, with "mere" rhetoric. Purging our thinking of idols of the tribe or idols of the marketplace, said the anti-rhetorical rhetoricians of the 17th century, leads to Reality. Well, no, it doesn't.

The theory of ideology as interest, Geertz says, is fine so far as it goes, but "lacking a developed analysis of motivation, it has been constantly forced to oscillate between a narrow and superficial utilitarianism that sees men as impelled by rational calculation of their consciously recognized personal advantage and a broader, but no less superficial, historicism that speaks with a studied vagueness of men's ideas as somehow 'reflecting,' 'expressing,' 'corresponding to,' 'emerging from,"' or 'conditioned by' their social commitments" (Geertz 1973, p. 202). What he is complaining about is the absence of any but a simpleton's theory of language, as "expressing" a base of material interests.

Ideology can also be viewed as "a patterned reaction to the patterned strains of a social role" (Sutton et al., quoted in Geertz 1973, p. 204). This is what Geertz calls the "strain" theory. A monarch must be awe-inspiring yet have the common touch, as the fictional Prince Hal said he needed to become Henry V, or as the actual Elizabeth learned and practiced, becoming both terrible and beloved. Thus the "strain." The patterned reaction was in both cases a theory of the great chain of being.

Or, at the other end of the story, Jane Austen's heroines must have both sense and sensibility. The strain was relieved in the English gentry c. 1810 by a theory of the self-fashioning ethical person, an essential bourgeois construction, free of the faux-aristocratic absurdities of many of Austen's minor characters. You are most essentially, in value terms, who you make yourself, said bourgeois Jane; not who you were born as.

The problem is that "Both interest theory and strain theory go directly from source analysis to consequence analysis without ever seriously examining ideologies as systems of interacting symbols, as patterns of interworking meanings" [p. 207].

That is, the students of ideology ignore the humanities (cf. Geertz, p. 208). To be more particular---Geertz himself confines the R-word to footnotes by-the-by, e.g., pp. 209n22; 213n30---they ignore rhetoric.

Geertz gives as an example the attempt by American labor unions to attack the Taft-Hartley Act of 19.. as a "slave-labor law." A more up-to-date example is the brilliant rhetorical move of Republicans recently to label the inheritance tax---agreed by economists to be close to ideal in its effects, by contrast with income or sales taxes---the "death tax." Not only do I die, but they tax me for it.

If you don't fully appreciate the figurative character of language you might think that people are mechanically fooled by such a metaphor. You are prone to miss that they might be playing with it, or find it illuminating, or be making a joke, or staking out argumentative ground, forcing the opponents to explain awkwardly why a tax at death is not a tax "on" death. And the trouble with the machine metaphor is that language can't be mechanical in its effects, because it is such an inexpensive machine. If "death tax" is effective as rhetoric mechanically, then why is not a locution such as "a tax on the unjustly inherited wealth of spoiled rich kids" equally effective? And if so, why would not some inexpensive counter-move? And a counter-counter-move?

As Geertz points out, then, the very meaning of the mobile army of metaphors we call "an ideology" depends on the context, material and ideational. The metaphor of a "great chain of being" is drained of its meaning when the God term at the top is toppled. It's no longer an effective metaphor. Geertz quotes Kenneth Burke, who believed that Japanese smile rather than look properly sad when a friend's death is mentioned, presumably from the pleasant thoughts the mention evokes. Without that social context, particular to Japan, a Westerner regards the smile as macabre.

Mannheim explicitly took Bacon's four idols as a "forerunner of the modern concept of ideology" (p. 55), with of course Machiavelli, and Hume's History with its focus on interest and on the "feigning" involved in politics (p. 56). But all of these are anti-rhetorical thinkers. Attributions of (mere) ideology are ways of damning (mere) rhetoric. "Ideologies are ideas whose purpose is not epistemic, but political," declares the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2001). The remark encapsulates the philosophical attitude towards rhetoric. "Epistemic" ideas are honest, etc. Merely "rhetorical" ideas are [merely] political, etc. It is an expression of the contempt that philosophy has shown since Plato for democratic institutions such as assemblies and law courts, in which [mere] rhetoric is used.

Mannheim thus subjected himself to what Geertz calls the Mannheim Paradox, that one is ideological in opposing an ideology. As Mannheim himself put it, "it is no longer possible for one point of view and interpretation to assail all others as ideological without itself being placed in the position of having to meet that challenge. . . . Nothing was to prevent the opponents of Marxism from availing themselves of the weapon and applying it to Marxism itself" (Mannheim, pp. 66, 67).

"The social function of science vis-à-vis ideologies is first to understand them --what they are, how they work, what gives rise to them--and second to criticize them, to force them to come to terms with (but not necessarily to surrender to) reality" [Geertz 1964 (1973), p. 232]. But the same could be said of rhetoric.

So, in short, in figuring out how the English moved from aristocratic ideologies c. 1600 to bourgeois ideologies c. 1948 we need not confine our evidence or attitudes to the modern word "ideology." We can use a much older word, and take full advantage of the humanistic side of our civilization, by studying the rhetoric of capitalism and anti-capitalism, Shakespeare's time to Macaulay's.