Monday, June 09, 2008

Victorian sexual and social morality

Everyone talks about it but few know where it came from, although books and books have been written about it. The question of why exactly the Victorians, people who lived in the 19th century from 1837 on, were both socially and sexually repressive is important because they didn't just decide one day to become moralistic puritans for no reason. And their legacy still colors America to this day.

Well, as far as I can tell, and this is in no way original with me but is one of the big consensuses about the subject, Victorian morality was linked to the rise of capitalism. The capitalists of the middle class saw themselves as being good and virtuous unlike those dirty decadent Aristocrats, who would do anything and had no scruples. They also saw what they had as being the product of good moral conduct, thrift, and ingenuity. They earned what they had through good living and grit instead of through inheritance and they damned sure weren't going to change their attitude now. As the influence of capitalism in the English speaking world increased so did this basic moral philosophy come to exercise more and more power over that world as a whole. In the United States it became a national past time because the entire country seized on the myth that America meant rewards for hard work as opposed to Europe as a whole, from England on down, that collectively wallowed in moral filth and in advantages given for no apparent reason. The people in the U.S. were the salt of the earth, unlike those limeys over there.

Religion also played a large role, specifically the sects that in Britain were known as Dissenters and that in the U.S. were known as Puritans, Congregationalists, Quakers.Presbyterians as well because of the unique make up of the U.S. in relation to Scottish immigrants. Methodists a little bit although that started as a more working class denomination. What all of these had in common was an origin in Calvinist teachings that emphasized the teaching of St. Augustine on the concept of the City of God and the City of the World, where the City of God was a pure state created by the work of the virtuous who rejected worldly desires and instead put out effort to become the elect, to become pure stewards of godly society in a corrupt world. This dovetailed with resentments against the aristocracy as well as pro-capitalist sentiments. Very conveniently, it was decided that any material benefits that a godly person received through decent business practices and clean living were gifts and rewards for keeping ones self in that state.

So on the one hand we have the elect, responsible for the moral regeneration of society through the spreading and enforcement of God's law, and on the other we have the concept of a God given reward in material goods for entrepreneurial skill and initiative. But of course you don't actually work for these material benefits; instead, they're just a pleasant side effect. It's a very convenient doctrine. Be godly and get lots of stuff, that you're absolutely entitled to because you earned it. A tithe and a few gifts to charity ensure that the loot is free for use. But not too much charity or you'll discourage those ungodly lower class people from working to improve themselves and becoming like you. Moral hypocrisy never had it so good.

The lower classes in their book deserved to be poor, the upper classes didn't deserve to have the status that they had, only the middle class, who were making loads of money, deserved their lot in life. Fuck everyone else, we're the masters of the world through our higher morality and industrious values.

People cared a great deal about ensuring society's godly continuation while condoning greed, virtual slave labor, the abandonment of whatever rudimentary social safety net existed at the time, opposing unions as unfair corrupting influences. Women needed to be kept in their place, which could mean working in sweatshops.

No one should be forced into living according to a theoretical, abstract, concept of the city of god on earth, and no one should be forced to condone the accumulation of loads and loads of wealth as being somehow legitimate because the godly people, your social betters, are the ones who have it.

The American dream as it has been handed down to us has a combination of both parts: repressive moral righteousness and approval of greed and the consequences of greed as god given gifts that make this country great.

"God, thank you for our massive accumulation of capital"

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