I read this little essay by Nicholas Ridout in Scenes from Bourgeois Life. It’s surprisingly readable for an academic text, and equally surprisingly political for something coming from theatre studies. Not to say that theatre studies isn’t political, but it’s not the type of field you would usually expect this kind of writing to come from.
The essay tries to deal with the circular logic of describing how the bourgeoisie created capitalism, and in doing so, created itself. Ridout partly breaks through the problem by separating the French concept of the Bourgeois from the German concept of the Burgher. In particular, he brings up the issue of burghers in pre-capitalist societies.
Although, is ‘pre-capitalist’ even the proper way of describing those societies? At least prior to the French Revolution, France had (arguably?) not yet undergone a transition to capitalism, so who were the bourgeoisie in that context? Here’s a description of the Political Marxist position by Chris Harman:
the French Revolution may have been carried through by people calling themselves bourgeois, but they were […] not in any way connected with the rise of capitalism.
Ridout also recognises that there are class ‘attitudes’ which is something I’ve always had difficulty reconciling with the idea of class as an expression of material contradictions. Obviously class itself is not made up of identities or attitudes, and yet, you can see a social group which clearly wants to be seen as bourgeois. They are very sensitive about social status, defining themselves through a constant struggle to be recognised as somehow ‘middle class’, regardless of any underlying social relations. Maybe it’s at this point that the dual origins of the bourgeoisie are visible: on one side bourgeois society is a cultural caricature, and on the other side is the manifest articulation of class power. This is how you can have a capitalist class in general, and a capitalist bourgeoisie in particular?
The theoretical detatchment of the bourgeoisie from their predetermined role as the leading capitalist class entails some important consequences. I like the idea that the bourgeoisie has lost control of the unstoppable cycle of capitalist accumulation. Ed Rooksby addresses this in his reading of the Communist Manifesto.
There’s also I think the suggestion of a psychological dimension to this too – in particular, something hinted about the collective psyche of the supposed masters of the system. Doesn’t this image suggest a certain hubristic terror on the part of the bourgeoisie – as if it recoils in fright and regret at the dark and uncontrollable forces it has unleashed? Certainly there are other passages that suggest the bourgeoisie is itself terrorized by the remorselessly monstrous logic of a system that it simply cannot control.
And on the effect this has today:
Perhaps we can see current obsession with ‘communism’ on the part of the political representatives of the bourgeoisie as intensified expression of these long-running nightmare-desires. If the bourgeoisie has at some level always secretly desired release from the forces it is condemned to reproduce and has always suspected that it is simply ‘unfit to rule’, how much more strongly must it feel the weight of this repressed terrible knowledge at a time when the exhaustion and indeed necrosis of a system that has more and more clearly reached its limits.
Ridout comments on middle class revanchism, bringing out the ‘revanchist’ element of Neil Smith’s Revanchist City. While gentrification is often seen as a process related to (progressive) capitalist urbanisation, this line of thinking turns that on its head to re-frame the transformation of the city along class lines as a historically regressive process. I’ve recently encountered this in reading about the role of landed elites and counter-revolution. Processes such as the spatial fix aren’t so much innovative ways of deferring crisis as they are symptoms of capitalism in decay.
In 1997, John Prescott tried to pretend that “we are all middle class now”. Two decades later we’re still feeling the effect of class politics as seen through the eyes of corporate marketing executives.
Here we go, historicising Marxism again. The engine of human progress moves in one direction only!
None of these little avenues of thought connect directly, and I don’t intend to develop any of this into anything coherent. These are just notes on novel perspectives which might come in useful down the line. Somehow I keep finding myself dragged back into the Origins of Capitalism debate.
🎵 Once there was class war,
but not any longer, because baby
we are all
bourgeois now. 🎵