In Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” , the class struggle between proletariat, bourgeois and aristocrats is examined.
Marx, an economic determinist, explored the nature of society and politics, almost entirely in terms of class struggle. He observed that as the bourgeois [middle class] emerged, they gained economic and political power. However, instead of wielding this power, they found it more expedient to tolerate a despotic aristocracy which did not work against their interests. Instead of siding with the growing proletariat [working class] to overthrow the aristocracy, the bourgeois preferred to compromise with the dwindling aristocracy.
In doing this the bourgeois refuse to acknowledge the rising power of the proletariat. By establishing themselves as enemies of, rather than allies of the proletariat, the bourgeois frustrate true social progress. France post-revolution was a case in point. Marx observed that the bourgeoisie realised that they had been better off under the monarchy (1830-1848) than during the brief period when they wielded power themselves (1848-1851) since they now had to handle the subjugated classes without mediation or protection by the crown.
The term “bourgeois” has largely been dropped from vernacular now as Marx’s theories have fallen from grace in western nations. However, early 20th century modernist literature is peppered with the sentiment:
Don’t be so Bourgeois!
In literary use, the phrase means, “don’t be so crass or vulgar!” Or “don’t have aspirations to aristocracy,” or “don’t be a brown noser.” In cultural terms, the expression is wielded against artists or citizens who do not embrace their full humanity, who look up to power holders to grant them financial endowments or validate their existence. In economic terms, it caricatures the wealthy middle class always keeping up appearances – trying to seem richer than they are with materialist tastes and faux totems of grandeur.
Marx has a point – that the middle class are surprisingly powerful as owners of means of production. They [we] hold the power to right injustices and fight for equality of resources and opportunities to be distributed to the working class.
If the middle class defer this responsibility by always looking the aristocracy, and indeed by seeking to mimic the aristocracy by guarding up privilege for the self in order to “look like blue-blood” or to seek alliances and privileges and to shore up position, the proletariat are only more seen as enemies and a problem.
The solution hasn’t been found in economic or social reforms as our current capitalist climate would attest. However, I believe the answer lies in reading more narrative, listening to more songs, looking at more paintings and art, in playing more sport.
Art and games are the great levelers – kings and queens look to art forms and celebrate the humanity made noble. In them the human voice is made strong, the nobility inherent in living is celebrated, no matter class, creed or colour.
If the bourgeois loose their inclination to “look up” for validation, but instead “look down” to the humans around them, their inherent value and see the injustices they face as their own, the world would be a more equitable place.
An aspect of being bourgeois (ha I can hardly spell it, but I still think I am one!), is that we choose to retain an emotional distance from the world’s injustice. A protected distance. Not just from being harmed by it directly but from being shocked by it into action. Maybe that’s the ‘aristocracy’s’ job to do something appropriate about it. Our job is to live a decent, upright, shielded life. Maybe a vital role literature can play is to transport us, irresistibly yet unbearably(!) into the very real poverty, violence, depression and corruption and death that lurks in every alley of our world. Then we might realise that far from being removed from this injustice we’re involved in it, in a most terrible way – as cowardly bystanders!
Hi Christian, yeah interesting observation that literature opens the door to empathy. I believe Dickens’ work had that power in 19th century Britain – changing attitudes towards the poor.