Monday, September 7, 2020

Bourgeois Ambivalence

When I ponder what goes on in America, and in my own family, I keep coming back to one point: our intense ambivalence about the disciplined middle class existence we hold up as the standard of a good life.

The path through life that defines "success" for us looks something like this: study hard for a long time, at least through college and perhaps through graduate school. Then work hard at a demanding job, putting in long hours. Get married and stay married. Don't drink too much or use too many drugs. Shun violence. Keep your lawn neat, your bathroom spotless. Exercise. Eat right. Floss. Do it day after day, all day. Never slip up and say the wrong thing to the wrong person, or do the wrong thing when somebody is watching. Never lose control.

There is in our world a suspicion of ecstasy in any form. We are more likely to practice yoga than go to the sort of church where people tremble and fall on the floor. With us, it's all about self-discipline, even spiritually. Drunkenness, which used to be celebrated in a thousand ways, is now a health threat nobody would dare to laugh about.

I am not saying that this is arbitrary or even wrong; so far as I can tell, we emphasize this way of living because it is the only way we know to make civilization work. For many people, including me, it works pretty well psychologically as well. People who escape from these limits, for example by winning the lottery, sometimes end up wishing they hadn't. People who keep working live longer and more happily than those who retire early. But many people hate our disciplined, tightly constrained way of living and either openly or secretly seethe against the limits it imposes. I think this anger, this restless pushing against the limits of middle class life, drives much of what happens in our world

Something that sticks in my memory is what a county official in Tennessee told Tom Friedman:

Employers want someone who will get up, dress up, show up, shut up and never give up.

Is that the person you want to be, how you want to be remembered? "He showed up and shut up." 

I doubt it. Our popular culture celebrates, almost exclusively, the heroes who refuse to give in to the system, who break all the rules, who insist on doing things in their own way. This is, I think, our rebellion against the constraints we live under.

It may be that I am describing, not my own culture, but all cultures; maybe this ambivalence of order vs. freedom is a defining feature of human life and maybe among other social mammals as well. I don't know. But I do believe that it is one of the central features of our own time, and our own psyches.

What does it explain? Well, why are some people so enraged by the thought of freeloaders who collect welfare or disability checks? It seems to me that if they loved their jobs they would feel sorry for those who can't work, not hate them. The rage, I think, stems from the dark side of our disciplined working lives, the frustration and weariness that builds up over decades of toil. Plus by their very existence such people undermine the principle that everyone has to work, which is one of the motivations that keeps people getting up and going to the office every day. I watched my own very liberal wife turn against old-style welfare when she had to go back to full-time work while her children were still toddlers; if I have to work, she said, then having children is no excuse for anyone else not to work, and I'm not paying for it. 

Why are some conservatives so opposed to things like extending unemployment benefits in a recession or expanding disability? Because they believe that only the threat of hunger and homelessness is strong enough to keep many people working. Because they share my sense that the demands of working life in our age are very great, and they worry that most people just won't do it if they don't have to.

Why were hippies so polarizing? Because they challenged the system of bourgeois discipline.

Why does rising inequality matter? Because the survival of our world depends on most of us knuckling under to the demands of the system, and we only do that because we think the system is in some sense fair. We consider the rewards we get for our efforts to be reasonable. But a world in which most people labor all their lives for less money than insiders can make off a single stock trade strikes many of us as completely unreasonable, as unfair. And if the system is so unfair, why participate? And if people won't participate because they think the rewards they get are not reasonable, the system collapses.

How does racism generate such large gaps between black and white educational and economic success? I don't want to deny that sometimes black people are just not hired etc., but it strikes me that those barriers are not high enough to account for the disparity; after all immigrants from Nigeria and Jamaica also face racism, and they are richer and better educated than native-born whites. I think racism does its damage by intensifying the ambivalence over the bourgeois path through life. Young black kids face the same high mountain to climb as everyone else, along with a sense that this is a *white* mountain, a system designed and constructed by and for white folks – which is true. Not only are they expected to "show up and shut up" for the man, they are supposed to show up and shut up for the *white* man. Every racist slight they face, intentional or not, reinforces a suspicion that this path is not for them. Why keep going when no matter how hard you try you still get harassed by the cops if you walk the street in a sweatshirt? And since, remember, I think this is a very demanding way of life that is hard for everyone, it doesn't take much discouragement to knock people off the narrow path of middle class existence.

I think this is an even bigger issue for American Indians, which is why by the usual metrics they are the poorest group in the country. It also explains persistent poverty among white communities for example in Appalachia; to them the bourgeois path is how city folks live, not them, so to pursue it is to give up their own identities.

Why do Americans, and especially poor Americans, idolize musicians? Because music is a path to success that doesn't require you to knuckle under to the demands of middle class life, a path that in fact encourages you to be wild and crazy and break rules.

What do young anarchists, and even anarchist philosophy professors, want? To be free. And to them (in particular to my sons), if you have to get up and go every day to a job you dislike or school you despise, then you are not free. If you have to work whether you like it or not, then you are actually a slave. (Aristotle, incidentally, agreed with this, and he would have said that those people who can't seem to make it without going to work every day are by nature fit only for slavery.) To people who feel this way about work and school, pointing out that this is the only route to a decent life is met with, "So you want me to become a slave like you?"

This is why I support a more regulated society, along the lines of Denmark or Sweden; a mandated month of vacation does something to rebalance our lives, and things like universal health insurance make the system more fair and more tolerable. This is also why I and many others are intrigued by Universal Basic Income schemes; if there were an out, some of the pressure the system applies might be eased.

Anyway it seems to me that you can't understand the craziness of our time without understanding that many and maybe most of us have serious misgivings about the fundamentals of the way we live.


David said...


What a wonderful essay! A refreshing and bracing piece of prose.

I think you're fundamentally right. I would definitely say that the kind of order-vs.-freedom ambivalence you're talking about is part of all cultures, but also very much central to much of what goes on in our culture, and perhaps more than in other cultures.

I am puzzled by one statement: "they share my sense that the demands of life in our age are very great, and they worry that most people just won't do it if they don't have to." Isn't there a problem here? If the demands of life are very great, then surely people already have to "do it," no? Why do the demands of life need, so to speak, a push? I get the sense that some on the right don't just think the demands of life are very great, but that we must make sure they are great, in order to prove some sort of point. There's long been a type of the rich man at his ease in the club smoking room, prating about how the poor need to be taught that life is hard.

John said...

I mean the demands of middle class life, not life in general. The fear would be that more people would be like my friend with the West Virginia shack who works a few months a lyear.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

I basically agree with John and David. It is indeed a good text, and the subject is probably the most important (in the political field) of our times: more liberal or less liberal? more social or less social? more State or less State ?

Some countries got ir better, and Sweden or Denmark are undoubtfully some of the most livable societies in the planet. I´d very much like my own country tp go that way; but there is a very simple and elementary topic you don't mention; wealth, the GDP per capita. A wealthy state can give good social support measure to its citizens and still invest and export; a poor one like mine, or Argentina, will fast increase the national and foreign debt to frightening levels. The other critic factor is cultural, of course: Sweden and Denmark are since WWII strong, healthy democracies with educated citizens. The ambivalence you talk about originates from this.

So there is a part of 'fate', of the general unfairness of the world, in the differences between national politics, either equality-oriented or elite-oriented. Dictatorships also have the two kinds; elite-oriented in the case of right wing upperclass ruling; or equality-oriented in the case of radical socialism , with just the top state dirigents having the best of wealth and healt.

On the whole, I'm rather happy with my country's modest in-between, meaning a modest unsufficient health care and social support program, plus a modest and unsufficient GDP and growth, making up a lot of discontentment or sad resigning as well as a modest happiness to not be amongst the miserable.

Myself, I can't let go of liberalism. It has been the most radical conquest of political thinking, it has allowed for progress and growth, it has allowed for mitigation of the poorest lives. 1/2 of liberalism, 1/2 of humanism, that's the good ambivalence.