I welcome comments, at email@example.com. The comments would be most valuable attached to actual piece of my prose in the Word file, but any form you find convenient will delight me. I really do implore you to tell me about flat (or round) errors, wrong arrangement, massive areas overlooked (in this version: [1.] religion; and [2.] more comparisons with cultures outside northwestern Europe, especially China). Christer Lundh of the University of Gothenburg points out to me that in the bad old days of typescript manuscripts a reading or a seminar was an examination, since the manuscript was so difficult to revise. One was inclined to defend every single lineâ€”to prevent having to retype! In these latter days of word processing, he notes, an author can be much less defensive about comments and improvements, easily inserted, because she can literally take advantage of them. She gets the credit for the commentator's brilliance. Nice.
In our age of modern capitalism —or as it should be called, our Age of Innovation —you can live ethically. Most innovators do. Benjamin Franklin did. Warren Buffett does. And in our innovation-mad society since 1800 you yourself, if in spirit sufficiently bourgeois, probably are an innovator, whether you realize it or not, and live ethically when innovating. You move your yarn-and-knitting store to Polk Street, and its success shows that the innovation was a good idea. You build up Stueland Electric in St. Joseph, Michigan, and won’t bribe politicians to get your contracts. You offer statistical advice through Investor Analytics, and believe in your own forecasts of risk. Contrary to the sneers from left and right, a bourgeois life of seeking a new career in selling Aflac insurance or a new location for a grocery store or a new application for cell phones can exhibit in commercial form the seven principal virtues: prudence, of course, but hope, courage, justice, and temperance, too. And the best versions of a bourgeois life exhibit love and faith as well, the small-town Wisconsin banker who earnestly loves his customers and keeps faith with his identity of the Good Banker.
Bourgeois lives can be corrupted by the practical-minded prudence-only talk of economists and calculators. And the bourgeoisie can be demoralized by the soft-minded, justice-only talk of progressives or the hard-minded, hope-only talk of revolutionaries or by the bloody-minded, courage-only talk of reactionaries and authoritarians. But contrary to such mutterings of the clerisy, late in the Age of Innovation most people lead balanced ethical lives. Or try. Congratulations.
In summary that’s what was argued in The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006).
Where, then, did such virtuous and innovative lives of inventing and manufacturing and selling come from? For 50,000 years, during the old and new stone ages and the bronze age and the iron age, we had $3-a-day lives of axe-making and herding and plowing, with scant scope for virtue. Now after two centuries of bourgeois innovation we have $30- to $140-a-day lives of grocery marketing and computer engineering, college professing at Santa Clara University and high-end cookery at Kendall College. How did we get off the long, long, long handle of history’s hockey stick and onto the modern, up-thrusting blade?
The usual, materialist answers don’t work very well. They lack quantitative oomph, whether they are Marxist or anti-Marxist, whether they speak of the exploitation of English cotton textile workers in 1848 or the high savings rates of Japanese in 1948. What seems to work is a story of bourgeois innovation. After around 1700 the bourgeoisie in Holland and then in England acquired liberty and dignity on a large scale for the first time in history, and radically changed the history.
That in summary is what was argued in Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010) —especially the part about the usual, materialist explanations lacking oomph. Most of the book was devoted to clearing a space for an ethical and rhetorical explanation of the modern world. It showed that surprisingly little can be explained in the usual ways: not trade or legal change or investment or exploitation.
Where then to look for the springs of innovation? The place to look, I say here, is in the innovative activities of the urban middle class, the upper middling sort, the bourgeoisie, and especially in the society’s attitude towards such activities. The bourgeoisie started big in northwestern Europe and became bigger. A fifth or a quarter of the dwellers in the little cities on the shores of the North Sea by 1700 ruled their economies. In the global city from Chicago to Shanghai they still do.1 Nowadays most Americans, for example, call themselves “middle class,” and even in class-ridden France and Britain the figure approaches 40 percent.
Merely possessing a big self-defined bourgeoisie, though, doesn’t do the modern trick. After all, the bourgeoisies of Carthage and Venice and Osaka and LÃ¼beck were large within their borders, yet didn’t make the modern world. Repeatedly the bourgeois princes captured the local government precisely in order to retain easy profits without innovation. The danger of a protectionist power elite is always present —after all, that is what a traditional aristocracy is. You pay up to your lord and master or he cuts your throat. Aside from a few experiments in tribunes of the people, and occasionally egalitarian pre-urban bands, we had always before 1700 been ruled by our permanent betters.
And mere urban riches aren’t enough, either. China had massive cities long before the West, but did not become a business-admiring civilization. That’s the ticket. And certainly an urban “middle class” created in post-independence Africa by taxing poor farmers to enrich bureaucrats and soldiers did not make for innovation. Nor has the proliferation of tax-eating regulators in the cities of Sweden or Illinois, bourgeois by education. Acquiring a class of middling wealthy people by taxing other people is merely a repeat of the lord-and-master routine. It’s not the sheer scale of the bourgeoisie that matters but the new toleration for its innovations.
What tipped the world to innovation, that is, were the slowly changing ideas 1600-1848 about the urban middle class and about their material and institutional innovations. A class long scorned by barons and bishops, and regulated into stagnation by its very own guilds and city councils, was revalued from 1600 to the present, first in Holland and then in Britain and then the wider world. When the Amsterdamers after 1600 or so, and the Londoners and the Bostonians after 1700, commenced innovating, some people commenced admiring them. Benjamin Franklin was born poor in 1706 into a world in which only gentlemen ruled, and as the historian Gordon Wood has recently noted he spent his life anxiously attaining and defending gentlemanly rank. He retired very rich at 42 to a long old age devoted to public service and self-promotion, just as Cicero had recommended in 44 BCE: “commerce, if on a small scale, is to be regarded as vulgar; but if large and rich. . . it is not so very discreditable. . . if the merchant, . . . contented with his profits, . . . betakes himself from the port itself to an estate in the country.” 2 Yet after Franklin’s death, as Wood notes, he came to be admired as the model for the middling sort, the shopkeepers and tradesmen who forced a more democratic politics onto the new United States (Wood DDDD, pp. NNN). Most of the middling sort wouldn’t qualify objectively for the upper part of the bourgeoisie that actually ruled in Philadelphia or Cincinnati. But anyway they admired it, and ran their lives with dreams of it, and sometimes got into it, down to the present, first in northwestern Europe and now in many countries once terribly poor.
A “Bourgeois Revaluation,” in other words, changed how people looked at the economy. It was an ethical change, correlated with and to some degree mutually caused by the other R-word rebootings 1400 to 1848 in Europe, of Renaissance and Reformation and Revolution. The Bourgeois Revaluation of a new dignity and liberty was a change in how people applied to economic behavior the seven old words of virtue-prudence, justice, courage, temperance, faith, hope, and love. With more or less good grace the people of the North Sea began to accept the outcome of innovation. Then people did so in Europe generally and its offshoots, and finally in our own day in China and India. Most came to regard creative destruction as just, and were courageous about responding to it, and hopeful in promoting it. Most people, excepting the angry clerisy of artists and intellectuals (and even them only after 1848), stopped hating the bourgeoisie as much as their ancestors for so long had. Many started loving it.
In consequence during a century or two the northwest Europeans became shockingly richer in goods and in spirit. Other societies then became business-admiring, with similar shocking results, as in Japan or New Zealand or Equitorial Guinea. As the historian Joyce Appleby recently put it, in the seventeenth century, first in Holland and then in Dutch-imitating England, the bourgeois entrepreneurs were enabled to “acquire the force and respect that enabled them to transform, rather than conform to, the dictates of their society.” 3 “Force and respect” is another way of saying “liberty and dignity.” Or as the economist Deepak Lal put it, “Capitalism [I would call it by the less misleading word 'innovation'] as an economic system came about when the merchant and the entrepreneur finally were given social acceptance [dignity] and protection from the predation of the state [liberty].” 4
What tipped us into the modern world was not new empires or new psychologies of businesspeople but a new admiration for the “bourgeois virtues” —that is, the seven traditional virtues when exercised in a commercial society, without the evil of slipping back into domination by a permanent power elite of aristocrat or merchant prince. The commercial version of courage and hope called “enterprise” came to be honored, without much monopoly. The commercial version of justice and temperance called “fair dealing” came to characterize even long-distance trade, without much cheating. The commercial version of faith and justice called “trust” made possible unthinkable innovations, without much envy. Look around you: cheap steel, plate glass, machine-made textiles, credit-card purchases, a college education. And your own best self, a Good Bourgeoise.
When the book is finished put here its argument in a paragraph: “what is argued in this third volume of six devoted to defending the way we live now, the Bourgeois Era, is that. . . .”