(With apologies to Louis Bruñel)
Americans would never use the French term for the social class that is the equivalent of the venerable “American Dream.” But we occupants of the American middle class, remaining and erstwhile, as difficult as that class seems at times to define, are the American bourgeoisie. Gawd! That must really piss of those boneheads who ranted over the refusal of the French to join our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Maybe many Americans (probably unwittingly) inherit their contempt for things French from the fact that the bourgeoisie derive their label from being “townsmen” (people of the burg). Americans are notorious anti-urbanists, or romantic dis-urbanists, who long for their rustic roots, but whose pursuit of the American Dream impels them to the city, a place they regard with distrust and distaste.* Recall that it is only since 1920 that Americans became more urban than rural in their location and occupation. The farmer, fisherman and huntsman, the ruggedly individualistic and putatively self-sufficient American of yore and lore, were their own masters of profession and property. The city was the land of the landlord, the property owner, and city land, factory and shop, were owned by the bourgeoisie. That might be what the Teabag party means when they want to “take America back,” but that notion has been counter-trend since the first farm kid got a look at the bright lights of the big city.
The other reason Americans might detest the term is that the concept of the bourgeoisie is linked closely with Karl Marx and those socialists he influenced. According to Marx, thebourgeoisie plays a heroic role in history by revolutionizing industrial production and modernizing society. But they also seek to monopolize the benefits of modernization and exploit the non-propertied proletariat, hence creating revolutionary tension that (will, maybe) result in a final revolution wherein the property of the bourgeoisie is expropriated and class conflict, exploitation, and the state are abolished. After its use by 19th-century social reformers, the term bourgeoisie all but disappeared from the lexicon of political writers and politicians by the mid 20th century. Perhaps because of anti-urban sentiments it has come to connote philistinism, materialism, and a social upward striving, as in the term “petty bourgeois” (a reference to the petite bourgeosie, or sort of he lower middle class). But let’s not get into too much of that Marxie stuff, except to say that a lot of Americans qualify as “petty bourgeois.” Just don’t call them that, especially when they are eating their “freedom fries.”
So Americans are caught in a bit of a bind. By becoming almost completely urban they have bought into the Bour . . . ooops, American Dream and that means that they have ended up in a form of society in which—in American terms—is more, shall we say, “socialism-leaning” than they would care to admit. But they stumble on to our internal conbtradictions it when, for example, Teabaggers scream “keep government out of my Medicare!”
The problem is that to any Americans, like the Teabaggers, just don’t get it. They don’t get that living in an urbanized society, with its social interdependence and geographical proximity requires a greater role for government, not less. It’s fairly simple to understand. You need, zoning and building codes for safety, more sophisticated police and fire, and schools, libraries and public parks. You can “privatize” some of this stuff, but if you think that putting profit into it is going to improve it or make it cheaper, you’re kidding yourself. And, as an urbanist, I want to say just one more thing on this aspect of my topic. While government has been involved in much more of the economic growth than average Americans would give it credit for, probably nothing has been more instrumental in the growth of the American bourgeoisie than that huge government program that came under Republican President Eisenhower, the [National Defense] Interstate Highway Program. Not much more need be said for our purposes here other than it was the program that opened accessibility to the vast lands in the orbit of cities that we callsuburbia.
All of this might not matter because there has been much economic commentary that the American middle class that is both the dream and the bedrock of the American economy is in peril. In fact, it has been for some time, even before the Great Bushian Recession. The middle class grew in number and prosperity fairly steadily from the post WWII period until what they were told by that Great Salesman, Ronnie, was a new “morning in America.” That was the morning middle class woke up to incomes stagnated and have pretty much stayed that way since. At the same time it was a rather profitable dawn for the corporate classes.
When Reagan took office the richest 1 percent of Americans garnered only about 9 percent of the nation’s total income. Although that translated as about 40 times the salary of the average worker, it seems paltry compared to political and economic policies have rendered for those who live at the top of America’s economic “food chain.” By 2007 the top 1 percent was hauling into its pockets and accounts in the Caymans and Geneva incomes that are 350 times that of the average American worker. Meanwhile, taking inflation into account, the hourly wage has barely increased.
There is a lot that accounts for this, although there is plenty of the Gordon Gekko “Greed is good” effect. Along with the “voodoo” of the supply-side economics that Reagan’s affinity for the big money guys urged him to buy into the insidious process that led to the Great Bushian Recession of 2009 and beyond. Beginning with Reagan the greater access and influence of lobbyists and kindred legislators resulted in laws began to dismantle public regulations on banking and finance. Cutting tax rates on the rich was, you must remember, supposed to produce a gentle and merciful “trickle down” of wealth to the less-privileged (who would presumably be building the yachts, mansions and Bentleys). Before you knew it, Wall Street was playing “Monopoly” with the nation’s economy, arbitraging industries, outsourcing production to Third World countries (and pocketing the additional profit) and, at the same time, reducing the power of the unions, and cutting worker benefits. More congressmen joined the “revolving door” to corporation-favoring lobby and law firms, Roberts and Alito (to guys who never saw a judgment favoring management they couldn’t love) joined the Supreme Court, and along came Clinton who signed the law the repealed of Glass-Steagall, and with the Bush tax cuts and let Wall Street run wild, it was “Katie bar the door.”
Not all of the American bourgeosie got creamed in this process. Many of those with educations in the right economic activities (IT, biotech, etc.) were riding a good wave. But large parts of the middle class got scammed and conned into trying to keep pace or up with the Joneses into credit card debt and/or untenable mortgages. Yet, even when tings came crashing down in 2009, throwing most of the nation’s middle class into deep in recession and many out of their jobs and homes, the 25 best-paid hedge-fund managers took in an average of $1 billion each. Even then, their marginal income tax was barely over 17 percent, marginally lower that the typical middle class family, paid a marginal tax far higher.
Marx thought that the communist revolution would take place first in the urban-industrial societies, where the bourgeoisie resided, but things turned out differently. In America today the middle class is being ruined, but it is not by the proletariat (hell, they are being arrested in Arizona). No, it’s the CEOs, bankers, and Wall Street financial managers, and their minions in Washington who have abused them without discretion. They are the real comrades in harm.
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.17.2010)
*Cf. Clapp, “The Wellsprings of Antiurbanism,” in Michael Thompson, FLEEING THE CITY: STUDIES IN THE CULTURE AND POLITICS OF ANTIURBANISM, (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009)