How One Might See the Coming of a Bourgeois Ideology
An earlier book, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Capitalism (2006), argued that a businessperson can be ethical without abandoning her business. The seven primary virtues of any human life — prudence, temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope, and love — can run a business life, too. “Bourgeois virtues” is not a contradiction in terms. On the contrary, capitalism works badly without the virtues. And the virtues can be nourished in a market.
The peasant of olden times emphasized love among the virtues. She admired most the medieval saint. By contrast, her lord and master the aristocrat emphasized courage, admiring the Homeric or knightly hero. And nowadays the bourgeoisie emphasizes prudence.
We are all nowadays bourgeois, though exactly whom we admire — Ben Franklin or Bill Gates, Ayn Rand or Jane Austen — has not been entirely worked out. We keep being drawn back in our stories and our philosophies into a Christian or an aristocratic ethic. The old Christian or aristocratic stories, the Sermon on the Mount or the wrath of Achilles, meddle with the bourgeois stories we might properly be telling about the seven virtues in a commercial society.
“Emphasizing” one virtue among the seven has grave dangers. A fully human life in a castle, nunnery, or marketplace can’t flourish with one virtue alone. A hero who only ventures courageously, without justice or temperance, will damage himself and his companions. Witness your reckless uncle. A saint who only intervenes lovingly, without courage or prudence, will damage herself and her loved ones. Witness your absorbing aunt. And so likewise a businessperson who deals in the marketplace prudently, yes, but without justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and love, damages herself and her fellows. A bourgeois ethic of Prudence Only, Greed Is Good, such as modern economics came to recommend in the late 20th century, doesn’t work.
The sociologist Peter Berger argues that globalization makes people aware of alternatives, perforce. A globalization going on in Europe since the 15th century challenges the old “taken-for-grantedness” of, say, a Catholic farmer in a 16th-century Swiss village, who never once in his life encountered a Protestant or a Jew. Some people in reaction, he observes, try to form closed communities of belief within the resulting pluralism. We are Amish, they say. Leave us alone. We are Southern Baptists. Shut up. Or — and this is my point here — we are New-York-Times-reading liberals or Wall-Street-Journal-reading conservatives, forming closed communities of belief. I won’t read that.
The better response, Berger argues, is the engaged toleration — not indifference, but conversation — that he sees in parts of Indonesian Islam or in parts of American Christianity. Likewise, I say, for politics and economics. The modern, secular clerisy, left or right, in other words, might try listening. If it does, it will hear that religion is not dead (Berger’s point), that faith and hope need dignified expression in human lives, that capitalism is not in fact or in ideal a system of greed.
So the first book.
The present book asks how an explicitly bourgeois ideology emerged 1600-1848 from a highly aristocratic and Christian Europe, entirely hostile — as some of our clerisy still are — to the very idea of bourgeois virtues.
English society in 1600 scorned market considerations, and therefore, to take one of many pieces of evidence, also scorned Jews, such as the Shylock of fiction and the Jewish physician to the king of England c. 1605 of actual fact. Yet by 1817 England began to be persuaded by a Jewish-origin political economist and member of Parliament, David Ricardo, to take market considerations very seriously indeed. By 1868 it was even willing to elect a Jewish-origin prime minister — who, by the way, in keeping with the new times after 1848 on the right and left advised against market considerations, and looked back nostalgically in his novels and his politics to the anti-market ethical world of 1600.
I ask how the change in ideology 1600-1848 happened. Part of the answer is, I find, is England’s imitation in the late 17th century of the Netherlands, already bourgeois. Part, surely, is the emptying out of Christianity, at any rate in the view of some advanced intellects. Another part is a new philosophical and anti-providential theme of prudence-only from Machiavelli through Hobbes to Bentham. The Enlightenment after Spinoza and Newton figures. So perhaps does Protestantism. The new national states play a role, if mainly merely the role of dangerously violent guardians of the merchants.
And I ask why. The why, I’m afraid, the Lord only knows, and we will do well to remain humble in imagining we can see into His reasons. Does the conflagration come from the match or the gasoline or the oxygen or the absence of a convenient fire alarm? The epidemiologist Kenneth Rothman has a useful way of visualizing causes. Instead of a linear model of Causes to Effects like Hume’s billiard balls crashing, he notes that “causes” are sometimes better thought of as a pie chart, all the mutually necessary causes of the fire present:
presence of match
presence of oxygen
presence of gasoline
absence of firefighter
presence of irresponsible boy
etc., etc., etc.
It’s that way with “causes.” Their selection is more like a story than a syllogism. If your human interest, Rothman notes, wants to draw attention to the absence of a handy fire-extinguisher, that absence too, and numerous other such hypothetical causes waiting in the wings, can be added to the pie chart. It’s our call. The world limits to be sure how big the slices can be — most empty buildings have plenty of oxygen lying around, for example, and so it would seldom be of human interest to emphasize the presence of oxygen to explain the burnt building — though the oxygen is a cause, and professional fire-fighters ruminate a good deal on sources of more or less of it to feed fires, speaking for example of internal ventilating shafts as oxygen-supplying “chimneys.” But the world by itself doesn’t tell us what is humanly interesting to name as “a major cause” of a fire. The same point is called in Freud and I. A. Richards and Louis Althusser “over-determination.” There is more than one cause, more than one slice of the Rothmanian pie, that you can assign to why you married your wife, or indeed why you murdered her.
Perhaps some insight into the most useful pie chart will emerge from answering how. Let us so pray. The “rise of the bourgeoisie” in sheer numbers seems part of the cause, a very popular one, but not all-powerful, or else earlier, local concentrations of bourgeois in 5th-century Athens or 10th-century Chinese cities would have caused the modern world before the modern world. The bourgeoisie, as the economic historian Jack Fisher pointed out long ago, is always rising. And the connection between bourgeois numbers and bourgeois ideology was not inevitable. Confucian ideology, for example, until it began to be challenged in the late 17th century by Japanese bourgeois theorists, viewed merchants as the lowest of the four classes.
What seems simpler to answer than the why and its distressingly expandable causes is: with what consequence? Bluntly, the coming of a bourgeois rhetoric made possible the modern world. It was a necessary cause, the match or the oxygen as you wish. Without it, no liberty, no literacy, no liberation of women, no breakdown of taken-for-grantedness, no relief from the poverty and ignorance of our ancestors. For the first time in the early 19th century, uniquely, businesspeople even outside their own ranks, over a large area of a globalized market, came to be a little bit admired. Or at least not crushingly scorned. And European governments were briefly reined in by the ideology, and later at least by a balance of interests, from scooping out the bourgeois profits for the greater honor of the state.
The bourgeois rhetoric, I would argue, was a necessary condition, and maybe even a sufficient one, for the industrial revolution and for democracy. That is, it was necessary and maybe sufficient for the modern world. Certainly it is hard to see how an economy can flourish if autocrats, aristocrats, bureaucrats scorn the bourgeoisie, and are able to implement their scorn by putting hooks and chairs in the path of enterprise. Killing a bourgeois-friendly rhetoric has caused the economies of Venezuela under Chavez, Cuba under Castro, and above all Russian under Lenin and Stalin and Breznev to fail. If under a strictly anti-bourgeois ideology you close down vegetable markets and make home restaurants illegal, as the Cuban government did in the 1990s, you don’t get many vegetables or restaurants. You can claim if you wish that socialist economies failed because of imperialist intervention. But the claim is dubious. They have failed regularly in the 20th century not from their stars but from themselves.
And it is not very controversial to claim that the bourgeoisie stands against certain kinds of tyranny. Not all of them so stand, alas. A country-club wannabe tyranny of big oil and little property development is the power elite of the United States. But it is not the worst kind of elite: try a politburo or an aristocracy. And if we keep complaining perhaps it will relent, or perhaps we can occasionally vote it out of office.
The old liberal claim is that out of the representation of the third estate in Parliament and the legal decisions of the parlements came the Western model of liberty. Admittedly, this optimistic, Whiggish history, the standard line in the 19th century, has been challenged by more cynical historians in the 20th century. But the optimistic story has at least one merit. It is true. Without a bourgeoisie — Cuba’s, for example, moved to Miami — no one stands against a tyrant. In an age of literal aristocrats one can depend on the Catos and the Hampdens to stand up. But lacking aristocrats nowadays we must fashion bourgeois protesters out of lawyers and ministers.
My beginning point here 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, that attitudes, beliefs, the circumstances of conversation, in a word, “ideology,” or, in a better word, “rhetoric,” 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 import 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 — á 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 my friends 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.”
The heretical triumph came about crudely as follows. In the classical Mediterranean world the annoyed rhetorical question was, “Who cares about the economy? That’s for slaves and women and metics to deal with, or those awful merchants. What matters is transcendent honor, timê, fama.” Thus the honor-driven expedition to Syracuse in 415 BC ?? or the honor-driven rivalries destroying the Roman Republic. A later version of the classical Mediterranean world declared, “Who cares about the economy? What matters is transcendent soul, psychê, animus.” Thus Christian asceticism and the first monasteries in the wilderness. In the 13th century the urban monks like St. Thomas of Aquino and St. Francis of Assisi modified the declaration a little: “What does matter, to be sure, is animus aeternus. But honest trade in an economy is not wholly corrupting, and can serve transcendent purposes.” Two centuries later Luther and Calvin recurred to the earlier themes: “On the contrary: trade can be a terrible corruption. Let us build a communal city of God.” [work on this: Bradford[
The greater modification, spreading in the 17th century in places like the Netherlands or, later, in England and, still later, in Japan, said "No, no: we should care about the economy — for the transcendent honor of king and country." [quote from mercantilists in Heilbroner] Attention came to be paid, and in the 18th century mercantilism reigned from Paris to Edo.
But the final modification was the greatest: “Yes,” said Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Smith, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Jefferson, Austen, Macaulay, Manzoni, “we should care about the economy, but not for mercantilist reasons of state. We should care — the egalitarianism of the thought is heretical — because ordinary people in such a regime will flourish in this world, benefiting and transforming human existence.”
As indeed it did.