Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

In 1927, Edsel Ford is in the driver's seat with his 64-year-old father, Henry Ford, next to hom and Charles Sorensen in the back seat as the drive the 15-millionth Model T out of the Highland Park Plant (Ford Ford)
In 1927, Edsel Ford is in the driver's seat with his 64-year-old father, Henry Ford, next to hom and Charles Sorensen in the back seat as the drive the 15-millionth Model T out of the Highland Park Plant (Ford Ford)

How the bourgeoisie changed the world - in a good way Add to ...

No one admits to being bourgeois. As insults go, it's close to being the ultimate, because when you're bourgeois, you're not just smug, mediocre and overly concerned with respect- ability. What's worse is that you're too dull to know that this is even a problem.

But it turns out we've got the bourgeoisie entirely wrong. Far from being the champions of banality and the enemies of joy, contrarian economic historian Deirdre McCloskey says, they are true revolutionaries. Bourgeois values created the modern world, however much the modern world refuses to admit it: Our pursuit of personal happiness, our sense of equality, our freedom to live as we wish all go back to a radical 17th-century idea that doing business and making money could be a very good thing - not just for one, but for all.

Prof. McCloskey, a free-market libertarian who teaches at the University of Illinois, explores this idea with impressive zeal in her new book, Bourgeois Dignity, the sequel to her widely acclaimed volume The Bourgeois Virtues. Clearly she has no problem with the word bourgeois, but that's largely because she has reclaimed it as the name for her pre-modern heroes: the restless innovators and risk-takers who connected the anti-authoritarian ideas of the Enlightenment with the world-altering machinery of the Industrial Revolution.

The creation of wealth may not seem like a heroic act now. Maybe we're too used to entrepreneurial activity as a normal way of life to see it for the miracle it is. Greed-is-good capitalists and their social Darwinist admirers haven't helped the cause, of course, and the impressive ability of the Chinese economy to combine free-market heroics with cold-hearted tyranny has to make us stint on the praise. Environmentalists have persuaded their nervous supporters that industry places profits before planetary survival. And the legacy of Marxism makes good progressive thinkers hesitate to see bourgeois notions of free enterprise as truly liberating.

Marx was better able to see the freedom that post-aristocratic ideas of entrepreneurship offered. As Prof. McCloskey points out, he didn't share our sarcasm about the bourgeoisie and admired them as a class for their highly productive industriousness. Sharing out the wealth thus created? That was a separate issue, another stage in the workplace revolution.

We have a more ambiguous relationship with work. If nothing else, its everydayness, its very bourgeois ordinariness compels us to undervalue its importance in making modern life worth living. It no longer seems transformative in an exciting or ennobling way - new gadgets hardly count - and the pursuit of happiness is rarely connected with the pursuit of profits these days. Work might be the means to an end, but it's not the end in itself. Yet, by demeaning work, we are in danger of undervaluing the two great achievements handed down by the hard-working bourgeoisie of Prof. McCloskey's history: dignity and liberty.

The idea of the bourgeoisie, so scorned by Rousseau and Flaubert, takes on a completely different meaning when you look at the world Prof. McCloskey describes. Traders and merchants had existed since the beginning of human commerce, but their status was low compared with the aristocratic leaders and religious deciders. The making of money was ignoble, and the spreading of wealth was unheard of.

The idea that most people should be or even could be happy was impossible and contrary to God's plan. Invention and innovation in a closed world like this could never lead very far, unless it was a new kind of armament for war or a bauble for princely display.

And then the world starts to change. For Prof. McCloskey, the turning point is a shift in thinking about what it means to be a bourgeois innovator. First, the Reformation makes it possible to envision a different kind of social order. "Radical thinkers like the Quakers have a notion of church government that is highly egalitarian," she says. "They show it's possible for ordinary people taking charge of their own affairs."

There's a civil war in England and a king is executed in 1649, proving that ordinary people can overthrow an anointed leader. The development of the post-aristocratic New World is stunning proof that bourgeois people mattered, that they could do things on their own and do them better than their lordly predecessors.

A cosmopolitan sensibility develops as trade expands and with the reach provided by trade, Prof. McCloskey suggests, develops a broader sense of human ethics. The corollary of business is caring for other people - markets and honesty and compassion are linked - and slavery is no longer a fact of life but a wrong that can be changed.

Prof. McCloskey's point is not that the bourgeoisie is universally good, only that it had an amazing power to upset the established order and reset the values that rapidly led to modernity. You may be less impressed if you don't accept Andrew Carnegie's steel mills and Henry Ford's assembly lines as the summit of human liberty - but how can you not see the bourgeois creation of prosperity as a mode of happiness?

And yet we don't, not any more. Much of the virtue and the dignity that Prof. McCloskey likes to see in her well-intended bourgeois of past centuries has yielded to a coarser, crueler understanding of moneymaking. The bourgeoisie may not deserve our scorn, but somebody does. It's time to get radical, overturn the orthodoxies and go old-school bourgeois.

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular