Marx and the Bourgeoisie- A Modern Love Story

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“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic, relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound men to his ‘natural superiors’ and has left remaining no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest and callous ‘cash payment’.  It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation”. – Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto

Karl MarxIt’s perhaps hard to decipher in the passage above, but Marx is actually quite giddy about the process he’s describing (*). He’s excited about this group he called the bourgeoisie, or the new capitalist class of the rapidly expanding modern world-system (1). The term bourgeoisie had been in use since the eleventh century, where for a long time it referred to city-dwellers of an intermediate social rank, such as bankers and merchants. By the time of the nineteenth century, Marx’s time, when this group had risen to prominence on an irrepressible wave of economic evolution, the term had come to designate a class of the first rank in modern society (2). 

If we look back over time, as Marx did, we can witness this group gain more and more power in European societies as the expansion of the potent new economic system spread its web over Europe and then eventually across the world, right down and into our own ‘globalized’ day. In the Florence of Renaissance Italy, the Medici banking family was at the heart of power and of the cultural flowering that unfolded there (3). In the Amsterdam of Spinoza’s time (17th century), Dutch maritime power had helped the city will_fishbecome the center of world trade, and also one of the most culturally liberal and tolerant societies in the world, a freedom that was based on “an enlightened understanding of commercial self-interest” (4). The capitalist system and its bourgeois operators were indeed rapidly changing the face of the traditional world.

Now make no bones about it, Marx saw this new capitalist order as grossly exploitative and deeply unconscionable. But he also saw something else, something that a put a certain bounce in his step and gleam in his revolutionary eye. What did he see? That the very dynamics of this new system would create the conditions for the birth of a new kind of human being, one that would eventually reject and outgrow the moral inadequacies inherent in it. It’s hard for us (post)moderns to truly grasp today, but for most of history the pace of life and change was vastly slower than it is now. Capitalism railroadbridgechanged all that. As Marx put it, “The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and colossal productive power than have all previous generations put together” (5). This had much to do with the values or operating principles at the heart of capitalism- the emphasis on relentless competition, constant innovation, creative destruction, unending growth and development, and perpetually new modes of activity. As Marshall Berman put it, “The great bourgeois achievement has been to liberate the human capacity for development: for permanent change, for perpetual upheaval and renewal in every mode of personal and social life” (6).

All this energized Marx because he foresaw that this extraordinarily dynamic new social-economic system would force a new kind of human to grow within it. “In order for people, whatever their class, to survive in modern society, their personalities must take on the fluid and open form of this society. Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change: not merely to be open to changes in their personal and social lives, but positively to demand them, actively to seek them out and carry them through…They must delight in mobility, thrive on renewal” (7). Marx thus had a certain crush on the bourgeoisie because they were instigating a type of evolutionary fervor that would eventually lead to the eclipse of bourgeois values, and eventually (so Marx thought) to a communist society. Capitalism was stoking the evolutionary fire at the heart of humanity, and would eventually be “melted by the heat of its own incandescent energies” (8).

pict_20080516pht29081Setting aside his end goal of a communist society, Marx seems to have had a lasting and penetrating insight. The first real breakthrough of the developmental intensity that Marx intuited manifested in a new set of post-bourgeois values in the 1960’s, especially the eruptions of 68’ that happened in America, France, Hungary and elsewhere. Here was an explosion of new and post-bourgeois values- extended civil rights, women’s equality, anti-war demonstrations, calls for equity and financial redistribution, concern for the environment, and all served on a bed of vibrant new music and cultural expression. This epochal flowering has come to be known as postmodernity, and it has created its own list of failed experiments, dead ends and bad spirituality, all of which will eventually be explored on this site, but it also opened up vast developmental energies that remain very much alive today. If one listens to the many interviews on Craig Hamilton’s Awakening the Impulse to Evolve teleseries, one can hear the luminescent arrival of a fiery impetus to consciously develop, voiced by a wide array of men and women who sound very much like Marx’s humans of the future. But you can also hear almost every person speak to being spurred on by the context of our times- vast environmental problems, war and strife, growing inequity- a context that has largely been the production of the capitalist system itself. Thus our post-postmodern relationship to capitalism and the bourgeois led epoch of modernity becomes strangely ambiguous, if not almost grateful. For it might've been the bourgeoisie, as Marx foresaw, who ripped the next lid off the deep potentials and energies of the human spirit, and all that despite their crude and self-interested reasons for doing so.




(*) This blog is an addendum to the essay ‘What is Modernity? – A Sketch’ in the philosophy section.

 (1) “In ‘world-systems’ we are dealing with a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules”. Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. London: Duke University Press, 2004. p.17.

 (2) Ibid, p.96.

 (3) “More than anything else, it is Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi that captures the transfiguration of finance that the Medici had achieved. On close inspection, the three wise men are all Medici: the older man washing the feet of the baby Jesus is Cosimo the Elder; below him, slightly to the right, are his two sons Piero (in red) and Giovanni (in white). Also in the picture are Lorenzo (in a pale blue robe) and, clasping his swork, Giuliano. The painting was commissioned by the head of the Banker’s Guild as a tribute to the family. It should perhaps have been called The Adoration of the Medici. Having once been damned, bankers were now close to divinity”. Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. US: Penguin Books, 2008. p.47.

 (4) “In a single century, on a piece of land that lay largely below sea level, and a population of two million, which amounted to little more than a rounding error in the continent’s total, the Dutch built a global empire, produced an improbable number of history’s greatest artists, scientists, and philosophers, and set the standards in economic and political practice that shaped the modern world”. Stewart, Matthew. The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of the Modern World. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. p.20.

 (5) The passage goes on to say- “Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground- what earlier century had even an intimation that such productive power slept in the womb of social labor”. Marx, Karl. “Manifesto of the Communist Party”. Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978. p.477.

 (6) Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts in the Air: The Experience of Modernity.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982. p.94.

 (7) Ibid, p.96.

 (8) Ibid, p.97.

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