Dale, it’s all very well and good to have fun tossing around two-dimensional stereotypes of unpopular classes of human beings (and there are none more hated than the bourgeois). But when push comes to shove, you’re going to have a difficult time finding any way to build the kind of society you want to build except where the middle class is culturally predominant. Identifying the cultural problem with a particular social class is always destructive, but of all the classes to pick on, I’d say this is the last one you should choose.

You can find all this carefully laid out in Aristotle’s Politics, and the argument is as true now as it was then. The selfishness of human nature, if given a free rein, tends to push us toward a sort of two-humped-camel model of society. The rich have their mountain of selfish power (wealth) and the poor have theirs (numbers). Neither can live without the other. But they can’t understand or trust each other because they’re too estranged. There’s nothing mediating between the two mountains, there is no common cultural ground in which they can meet to forge bonds of common identity. Hence the odds are stacked against civilization from the beginning; there is a deep vein of . . . well, not pessimism, but realism, in Aristotle. A catastrophic conflict between rich and poor is always threatening to break out.

This is why one of the two pieces of advice Aristotle emphasizes most strongly for those who seek a morally elevated civil community is to grow and strengthen the middle class. Just as the mechanics of government are well served by “mixed constitutions” that force opposing power centers to find ways to compromise and cooperate, the moral health of the community is well served by that mixture of social interests that only a large and thriving middle class can provide.

While the rich and the poor have sources of power that are naturally occurring and essentially ineradicable, the middle class—whose strength is the most necessary for cultural cohesion—is naturally the weakest of all classes. To maintain a strong middle class requires deliberate effort in a way that neither the rich nor the poor does. So Aristotle advises us to focus efforts on protecting the middle class. (The other big piece of advice in the Politics, in case you’re wondering, is to ensure that whatever class is dominant is educated to treat the people in the other classes with justice, and appreciate their social value.)

The question of economics brings this to a sharp point. I can understand why you don’t interpret Dawson as attacking the modern, entrepreneurial economy. Formally, he may not be. But he is directly attacking what is probably the single most important sociological precondition for the modern economy: bourgeois dignity. Widespread respect for the social value of the bourgeois is historically abnormal, and if we lose it, we will quickly lose the entrepreneurial economy as well, and (if you will not think me overdramatic for saying so) all the other blessings of modern life as well, to the extent that they all emerge from the rise of the bourgeois in modernity.

This is why crude stereotypes of the bourgeois are so dangerous. You approvingly quote Dawson’s casual slander: “To the bourgeois industrialist, his employees are an accidental collection of wage earners.” That is one of the most factually unfounded statements I have heard in some time. Bourgeois industrialists is a class of human beings I happen to have some knowledge of, and in my experience they are as guilty of many faults—sometimes awful ones—as any other class of human beings. But the broad generalization asserting that bourgeois industrialists regard their employees as interchangeable economic units is as ludicrously false to reality as it is shamefully uncharitable.

The typical middle-class industrialist knows, understands, and (prepare for a shock) cares about his employees. For goodness’ sake, that’s his job. How do you think business works?

The people who really do tend to view employees as interchangeable economic units are not the bourgeois industrialists, but the wealthy (i.e. not bourgeois) Wall Street investors. The rich stockholder is too isolated from the workers to understand them, just as they are too isolated from him to understand him.

An essential function of the bourgeois industrialist in modern society is to mediate between the wealthy investors and the employees. He knows and understands them both, and wants to keep both happy, whereas they do not know or understand one another and are not strongly motivated to look out for one another’s legitimate interests. 

You write that economic exchange must take place within a social space that presupposes bonds that are prior to (i.e. not dependent upon) economic exchange. Yes, it certainly does—and the bourgeois industrialist, who is culturally bilingual and can speak to, and be trusted by, both the rich and the poor is the only person in the system who makes that sociologically possible. If you turn the man in the middle into a villain, you will soon find yourself with nothing but a naked war between the top and the bottom.

Some people like to say that the most important question in economics is “compared to what”? So let us suppose Dawson and Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre get their way, and tear down the bourgeois society that has introduced, uniquely in the history of civilization, such innovations as freedom of religion (which goes hand-in-hand with the so-called “buffered self”), representative democracy, individual rights to fair treatment, entrepreneurial economics, and equal dignity for women. To which other social class would they give the power they took away from the bourgeois, and what blessings do they expect that would outweigh the destruction of these achievements? Such questions are not asked often enough.

Articles by Greg Forster

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