The term burgeois literally means city dweller, and is cognate to the English word 'Burgess' and comes from the Germanic root 'burg,' meaning town or city. The burgeois were the urban merchant class in Renaissance France. The term was later used by Marx and other socialist writers, both Communist and Anarchist, to discribe the owner class in capitalism, which, as a class, had largely evolved out of this Renaissance merchant class.

"He bade me observe it, and I should always find,
that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind;
but that the middle station had the fewest disasters.

(Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe)

Not only does the word "bourgeois" refer to the middle class, it has some qualitative connotations as well.

It can be used for a respectable person with moderate wealth, whereas petit bourgeois would denote a person slightly less well-off. There is no notion of avarice inherent to it, though. In this case Scrooge would be a better choice. But mostly this word is used in an insulting way, because it can mean "profane" or "vulgar" as well. How come that this word can have meanings that seem almost contradictory? In the negative sense, the word "bourgeois" denigrates the mindset and attitude of a person. The security and solidity are not due to an artistic or scientific talent; There is narrow-mindedness, absence of dynamism and lack of rafinesse. In this case the bourgeois is all the contrary of an adventurer, connoisseur or savant.

The bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule.
(Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf)

Hachette, Dictionnaire des synonymes
Cohen, The Penguin Thesaurus of Quotations

It is interesting to note how the word "bourgeois", and its most common meaning, Middle Class, have different connotations depending on where you are. In France, the word bourgeois sounds sexy and trendy; it means you are rich and influential. In Germany, it is seen as decadent and corrupt, a negative slur.

Even more interestingly is how this corresponds to the manner of speech. To the Germans, the flowing accents of the French and posh English Classes are seen as effeminate, most definitely unmanly and undesirable. The French, on the other hand, take great pride in their correct pronunciation and cultured speech.

The English sit in the middle of this. Bourgeois, and middle class, can mean rich and powerful, depending on whom you are talking to. In the same way, a flowing accent with all endings, S’s and T’s emphasised, can earn you respect in some circles. More often, however, the Bourgeois name and accent are decried as ‘posh’ and the term “middle class” is used as an insult. Middle class means sheltered, naïve, and ignorant of the real workings of the world, ineffectually pampered liberal.

Marx used the term “bourgeois” to refer to those who owned their means of production. This included outright capitalists as well as those he described as “petty bourgeois”, the kleinburgershaft, (lower middle class). (In the US these would be the Upper class and the Middle class, here in England they are referred to as upper-middle and lower-middle, as we are still burdened with the surviving landed aristocracy, who still occupy the title Upper Class, so the super rich entrepreneurs can’t make that leap to the top and are still stuck in middle class mode.)

Marx theorised that the petty bourgeois would be impoverished by the advance of capitalism. This would be because as technology advanced, production would become more capital intensive. Those without sufficient investment funds for the latest machines would be less efficient and so out competed by the big players. So the petty bourgeois would lose their small enterprises, and the weavers, tailors, hair dressers, blacksmiths, and so on would all be forced into wage labour – joining the proletariat.

This hasn’t happened, partly because of the existence of the service sector, which is more labour intensive, so small enterprises are not out competed by larger ones in the same was as happened in the manufacturing sector. More importantly, Das Kapital was always a gross oversimplification, (though a long winded one). Differentiation in the marginal productivity of labour prevented wages falling in the manner the labour theory of value imagined, and so the middle class has grown exponentially with the economy as a whole.

Part of this is due to government policy. Margaret Thatcher’s government pursued policies of embourgeoisment – turning people middleclass. The lowest qualification for middle class status is homeownership, so Britain’s Conservative government in the 1980s pursued a policy of selling council houses to their occupiers. Once a working class man took out a mortgage to buy the house he was already living in, he immediately joined the blue-collar middle-class, and turned from being a traditional Labour voter to an ardent Conservative. Margaret Thatcher’s was from a lower middle-class background, and this was her core constituency.

I hope I have shown, despite the fact that Tony Blair declared the class war to be over, what constitutes “Bourgeois” is still an intensely political issue. As Tony Benn pointed out, the Prime Minister didn’t tell us who won. But it would be much better to just give peace a chance.

Bourgeois is an interesting word which does indeed mean slightly different things in different places. Really, these different interpretations reflect what strand of political thought has been most dominant in a country. The bourgeoisie can be said to be the defining class of the "modern period" in Western history; historically, we recognize modernity when we find the bourgeoisie there. The big clashes in modern Western history and thought have concerned varying interpretations of the bourgeoisie, and the battle between the bourgeois way of life and proposed alternatives put forward by fascism and Communism.

The political philosopher who pointed the way towards the development of the bourgeoisie was Niccolo Machiavelli, who was the first serious thinker to suggest that political thought should be concerned not just with how men ought to live, but also with how they actually do live. This set him in sharp opposition to Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Jesus, who had all been concerned with the cultivation of their idea of virtue and with positive rules about how men ought to live. In their systems of thought, the goal is the development of a higher way of life in accordance with some concept of the sacred, and of good and evil. The bourgeoisie is the result of the casting away of the sacred and a focus on how to maximize purely human utility; and as such Machiavelli's development of a value-neutral political science was a necessary precursor.

Machiavelli's creation found its most exhaustive realization in the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who are the real philosophers of the bourgeoisie. Locke is famous for being the thinker who inspired Thomas Jefferson to write that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". This is the basic slogan of the bourgeoisie; it defines the type of person he is. In the works of Hobbes and Locke, what man wants is defined essentially negatively - he wants to live free from the fear of violent death, free from bondage to other men, and free to acquire the things which make life comfortable (i.e. property, which was originally in the place of "happiness" in the Declaration of Independence).

They developed elaborate systems of thought to back this up, some of which I have discussed in my write-up under Thomas Hobbes. Nowadays we accept egalitarianism ("all men are created equal") and the primacy of that which has utility over the sacred; this is essentially why our way of life is so repulsive to Islamists, because we place what is good for man above what is good for Allah. However, the dismissal of the sacred was a real revolution in Western thought, not just because the special claim of Christianity has no place in the mindset of the bourgeoisie, but also because the things that animated Western philosophy are also consigned to the ashcan: no special place for the positive virtues, the practice of justice, love, moderation. Jesus said to do unto others what you would wish to be done to yourself; Hobbes said only not to do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself. One speaks of duties; the other, rights.

So, of course, the priests hated the bourgeoisie because it worshipped Mammon; and the aristocrats hated it because he had no place for their claim to be superior in virtue, and hence entitled to rule. Worst of all, the Old Money which used to allow them to realize this right due to the leisure it provided them was quickly overshadowed by the new money which the rising bourgeoisie were making in commerce. The bourgeoisie qua bourgeoisie has no interest in politics except insofar as it can be persuaded to leave it alone to accumulate wealth, which is of course precisely the sort of state which emerged in Victorian Britain and the United States.

The reaction against the rise of the bourgeoisie took two forms. The most well-known is the Marxist. Nowadays many people continue to refer to themselves as Marxists, although this is really an absurdity. Many people are animated for a desire for greater social justice and a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, and this is all well and good; but it is not Marxism. Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie were the dominant class in society, and that all this talk about liberty and the pursuit of happiness was so much hogwash - an ideology designed to cover up the fact that the owners of capital were dominant in society, and they wanted it to stay that way.

Marx's system of thought was supposed to be a science in the strictest sense, literally like physics - it predicted that this situation could only last so long, and History would move onto the next stage, wherein the proletariat would rule. Once this happened, there wouldn't be any ideology left - just the actualization of Truth, the evolution of society to a new and final level. If anybody exists anymore who believes in this, they have missed one hundred years of history (if not History, which to them has not moved on one iota). I am sure some of my readers now consider me terribly ignorant for having also ignored decades of post-Marxist development which have transcended "old-fashioned Marxism"; but "old-fashioned Marxism" is, in fact, Marxism.

The criticisms which are common of the bourgeoisie now, and which really animate most thinkers who trace their lineage back to Marx, in fact have their origins in the other main criticism of the bourgeoisie. The intellectual mainspring of this school of thought is Rousseau and Nietzsche, who deny the very superiority of a way of life defined purely by utility. To them, the bourgeoisie's main crime is not to have erected a system of economic domination, but to be a soulless philistine who is the result of philosophy's descent to the lowest common denominator. They believed that the bourgeoisie were not fully human and were spiritually stunted. As man gained more control over nature, he lost a true understanding of himself; and the popular stereotype of the modern American is this image in its most extreme form.

This view of the bourgeois person - that he loves only himself, is totally selfish in his dealings with other people, is unconcerned with his soul and with learning anything which does not help him master nature - is a view that one finds in Communism, Nazism and Islamism, although obviously with a different flavour in each. You will also find this reaction against modernity an its ideal human-type embodied in Japanese fascism before and during World War II. Any political movement which opposes modernity is always, at heart, built on opposition to the bourgeois man and what he has built; and against it the movement will marshal ideas of community, something sacred, and something which attempts to speak to what is higher in the human soul than mere utility. A regime which self-confessedly has nothing to offer this part of the soul will always be at risk from such temptations.

Bour*geois" (?), n. [From a French type founder named Bourgeois, or fr. F. bourgeois of the middle class; hence applied to an intermediate size of type between brevier and long primer: cf. G. bourgeois, borgis. Cf. Burgess.] Print.

A size of type between long primer and brevier. See Type.

⇒ This line is printed in bourgeois type.

 

© Webster 1913.


Bour*geois" (?), n. [F., fr. bourg town; of German origin. See Burgess.]

A man of middle rank in society; one of the shopkeeping class.

[France.]

a.

Characteristic of the middle class, as in France.

 

© Webster 1913.

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