Economist Deirdre McCloskey’s transformative trilogy on the “Bourgeois Era” has already shifted the paradigm of popular thought on what, exactly, spurred the rise of capitalism and fostered our newfound freedom and prosperity. According to McCloskey, the Great Enrichment came not from new systems, tools, or materials, but from the ideas, virtues, and rhetoric behind them.
“The modern world was made not by material causes, such as coal or thrift or capital or exports or exploitation or imperialism or good property rights or even good science, all of which have been widespread in other cultures and other times,” writes McCloskey in Bourgeois Equality. “It was made by ideas from and about the bourgeoisie — by an explosion after 1800 in technical ideas and a few institutional concepts, backed by a massive ideological shift toward market-tested betterment, on a large scale at first peculiar to northwestern Europe.”
But if wielding the right ideas and rhetoric are the key to cultural enrichment and civilizational progress, what might we risk when those underlying attitudes begin to sway backwards, aligning once again with alternate, contorted moral visions about work, trade, and free exchange? What happens if the bourgeoisie — and attitudes about the bourgeoisie — begin to regress?
I was reminded of this when reading Brendan O’Neill’s reflections on a recent debate hosted by Jacobin, the brazenly socialist magazine. The discussion proceeded as one might expect, consisting mostly of “bizarrely ahistorical handwringing over capitalism” from those on the socialist side, as well as a good dose of emotive venting — “more moralistic than Marxist, more Dickens than Trotsky,” O’Neill writes.
But amid the more typical complaints about greedy CEOs and working conditions, O’Neill pinpoints an underlying irony that offers plenty of insight. Alas, in a room comprised mostly of upper-class elites and “Park Slope socialists,” as O’Neill describes them, we’re reminded that anti-capitalism has become a privilege of the new bourgeoisie — of the new capitalists.
“The old radical-left insistence that bourgeois values like individual autonomy and choice and freedom of speech are all well and good but they will never be realised under the current economic system has become an excuse,” he writes, “a way of avoiding thinking about how to win greater freedom and democracy; a justification for complaint over struggle.”
What was once a movement of angsty, risk-prone socialist activists has now merged with a peculiar brand of disenchanted, comfortable elites, guilt-ridden by their economic success and outraged by the supposed “greed” of others, even as they continue to indulge in their own pet degrees of capitalistic excess. As O’Neill explains:
Anti-capitalism has become a fatalistic pursuit, a comforting exercise in complaint, a self-aggrandising knowingness about the lameness of life, the pastime, almost exclusively, of the time-rich and well-off, of the kind of people who have gentrified Williamsburg and annoyed their parents by becoming cultural-studies lecturers rather than corporate lawyers, who, lacking answers for now, for the weirdness of this era in which the founders of our society hate their founding values, offset everything into the future. They absolve themselves of the key struggle of our time — how to defend freedom and democracy from an establishment that is chipping away at them, from a bourgeoisie that has lost faith in itself — by saying: ‘Those freedoms will never be realised under capitalism anyway. Not really.’ As if they aren’t real. As if they couldn’t be made more real.
This is the thing: anti-capitalism is capitalism. It’s the form capitalism now takes. Self-loathing is the bread and butter of the 21st-century capitalist elite. Today, much anti-capitalism looks less like an independent strike against the elite than an externalisation of the elite’s contempt for its system and values, a colourful playing out of a top-down rot. Last night’s clapping bourgeois worriers over the working class looked to me less like revolutionaries in waiting, than yet more uncritical footsoliders of capitalism’s own self-doubt.
One detects in O’Neill’s analysis a certain validation (or, at the very least, suspicion) of that self-doubt and self-contempt — that Marxism may, indeed, have its merits, just as capitalism may, indeed, be leading our elites to a crisis of human identity and ownership. And to be sure, there are plenty of paths to civilizational anxiety and insecurity, and the idols of self-focus and consumerism are more than capable of prodding us in that direction.
But just like the bourgeoisie of old, we have control over the arc of our attitudes and imaginations, whatever the system and its supposed temptations. We have the opportunity to embrace freedom and steward our opportunity well, or twist it to no end. “Rhetoric made us, but can readily unmake us,” writes McCloskey (again in Bourgeois Equality).
Whatever its corresponding temptations, capitalism needn’t culminate in self-loathing New York capitalists who play socialists on the weekends. But until we restore the right cultural backbone and maintain the right spiritual wherewithal, it may be where we’re heading. As for McCloskey, she sees plenty of room for optimism amid economic plenty:
The sacred and meaning-giving virtues of hope, faith, and transcendent love for science or baseball or medicine or God are enabled by our riches in our present lives to bulk larger than the profane and practical virtues of prudence and temperance necessary among people living in extreme poverty. True, in our modern times even unworthy uses of our higher income – eating more Fritos, watching more reality TV – are better physically than in ancient times starving in beggary by the West Gate. Look again at falling death rates worldwide. But one would hope that the Great Enrichment would be used for higher purposes. And on the most high-minded criteria, it has been, and will be. Enrichment leads to enrichment, not loss of one’s own soul.
Those idols of modernity and material prosperity needn’t be heeded, and when we find the will to reject them, we’ll realize that capitalism has made more room, not less, for activities centered around the transcendent — and not just in the “extras” it provides in time and treasure. In the work itself, our economy is enriched by new levels of interconnectedness, and the more those connections concentrate and accelerate, the more our work arcs toward service over self-reliance. “Civilization is sharing in the work of others,” as theologian Lester DeKoster puts it. “It is a circle we will finally see close: Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind.”
Even if those pathways of exchange are somehow severed — as our upper-class socialists seems to crave — the vacuum of cultural materialism will surely remain unsatisfied. Capitalism has already “increased capacity for loving and living,” as McCloskey puts it. Let’s not let it go to waste.
Image: Public Domain