Monday, May 12, 2008

The idea of a bourgeois revolution

This post is a preface to the next one, which will be about why, in my humble opinion, scientific materialism isn't necessarily connected to socialism and enforced scientific materialism in areas like religion is a bad and oppressive idea. People throw the word 'bourgeois' around a lot but its basic meaning is just middle class. The revolutions that people consider to be classical bourgeois revolutions are the American and French revolutions, but the irony is that in many cases even though the ideology of these revolutions was what would later define middle class ideals the middle class itself played a smaller role. In the United States in particular you had aristocrats that agreed with this ideology pushing the revolution forward. So what exactly constitutes a bourgeois revolution? It's more than just the middle class assuming power.

To be quite frank, the only real bourgeois revolutions were those that took place in the late eighteenth century because not only were the goals identified with the middle class but the ideology that motivated them was. The ideology in question is classical liberalism. Classical liberalism opposed monarchism and the feudal system in general, such as it still existed in their era. In place of a kind of great chain of being descending from Kings through Lords to peasant farmers their hope was that society would be defined by independent individuals that were regarded as equal and had equal rights in relation with one another. Instead of monarchs and aristocrats making decisions the decisions affecting society would be made by the people as a whole through their representatives in a congress, parliament, whatever you want to call it. Economically the thought was that society could potentially be made up of small businessmen and artisans who on their own didn't have enough power to distort the whole system to operate in their favor. Free trade and little intervention by the government in the economy would make the system work. After all, free individuals should be able to make free economic choices. Ideologically, the bourgeois revolutions were big on science and scientific materialism.

Part of the idea of free people was free minds, minds that would be freed from the superstitions of the past through proofs gotten through science. Science, in the form inspired by Newton, could explain natural phenomenon and human beings themselves in a self sufficient system that could fill the void left by the destruction of the culture of Medieval Europe. Democracy was thought to be the system of government that Reason, freed from that culture, logically championed. But after the American and French Revolutions a problem appeared.

Politically it was motivated by Napoleon's takeover of Europe that tried to institute a regime based on these values in every place it controlled. There was resistance in philosophy and the arts as well. The political reaction to Napoleon sparked the idea of nationalism in Europe, which was different from what nationalism would become there and what nationalism means in the United States today. It's not that the reforms Napoleon put in place didn't help people, but that people also wanted their particular cultures to not be annihilated. Particular, traditional, ways of doing things started to be championed by liberals and conservatives alike. Things may be thought to have existed in a clock work world but that didn't have anything to do with the reality that people experienced on a daily basis, and that they liked. Philosophy touched on the problem as well.

Even if you can demonstrate that certain miracles were faked, shouldn't people be able to practice Christianity if they want to? Which is more important: asserting your beliefs forcibly over folks over obeying the will of the people? And is the clock work world even real? Kant raised objections to it by making the case that the clockwork world of the materialists only appeared to exist because our brains are wired to perceive reality through that sort of lens. We can only know reality indirectly, according to Kant.

In the arts the stale ideals of realistic novels gave way to Gothic novels that praised the weird and the extreme. Medieval romances became popular. Painting shifted away from the neoclassical style, that wanted to portray people as they actually are without any editorial content by the artist. Architecture moved away from the Greek revival for the same reasons. Even in music clockwork harmony was replaced by emotional expressiveness, for example in the later works of Beethoven, a composer who originally had been for the Enlightenment.

By the middle of the 19th century this sort of ideology was effectively dead in the water although parts of it like democracy were incorporated into the new movements.

Bourgeois ideology was thought to define middle class liberals because they were the ones whose lives resembled it the most. It was in their interest to believe in it. Countries where bourgeois revolutions won officially shifted their praise from the monarchial system to the bourgeois economic and philosophical system, encouraging the middle class values as official policy. Looking that the United States and mid 19th century France confirms this, with the United States today still being dominated by these ideas. The working class had their own opinion about this philosophy of life, though.

When the bourgeois revolutions took place there wasn't really a working class. The big classes were the aristocrats and the peasant farmers. Sure, there were independent businessmen and artisans, but the idea was that they would both operate as economic equals, constituting the new class that the new political order would be based on. There was, however, a sort of proto working class.

In the cities there were people who did menial labor that kept them functioning. There were people who carted goods, people who cleaned stables, people who unloaded and loaded ships, people who worked in construction but weren't skilled laborers. They were people who weren't really integrated into either the pre-revolutionary social system or the post revolutionary one. These were the people that Marx called the proletaires, and were the source of the word 'Proletarian'. The name came from a class of people who lived in the city of Rome during the Roman Empire who were kind of similar, but were in fact substantially better off because they were free people and not slaves. This primitive division of labor between the unskilled and the skilled would anticipate the rise of the working class as the development of capitalism ruined the ideal of small businesses existing in equilibrium with each other.

* on edit: the word 'Bourgeois' also comes from city culture, being the French version of the word 'Burgher', which just meant a city dweller but had the connotation of wealth attached to it. Unlike 'Proletarian', which I think was coined by Gracchus Babeuf, 'Bourgeois' was a word that was used in everyday conversation and was used by the class to refer to themselves, and not just in France but in Germany as well.

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