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Learning to love the bourgeois

Crass middle-class values are what made the modern world, and we ignore them at our peril

By Joshua Rothman
January 16, 2011

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We live in an age of abundance and plenty. Before around 1800, the average European ground out a basic existence on about $3 a day, while today the average American enjoys around $127 a day in food, shelter, energy, and other goods. Millenniums of bare subsistence have given way to two centuries of luxury. What happened?

That’s the question Deirdre McCloskey, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is asking in a sweeping multivolume account of the birth of the Industrial Revolution: the period, starting around 1800, when life improved, suddenly and chaotically, for millions of people across the Western world, as factories opened, cities exploded, and technologies began multiplying.

Economists and historians have varied explanations for what set off the industrial bomb. Most are quantitative in nature: They focus on the expansion of the labor market, on new inventions, or on new patterns of trade or investment. But McCloskey, who also teaches literature and philosophy, has a different theory. As she sees it, it was culture, not economics, that lit the fuse. In her new book, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World,” she argues that changing attitudes toward innovation and money-making, rather than changing technologies or markets, unleashed industrialization. Essentially, people started seeing business as a dignified pursuit, and it boomed.

McCloskey’s explanation fills a gap others have left unfilled. There were big, economically vibrant cities filled with smart people all around the globe — so why did the Industrial Revolution hit Europe and America first? According to McCloskey, it was only there that what she calls the “bourgeois revaluation” persuaded ordinary people not only that they could be entrepreneurs, but also that their neighbors would respect them for it.

In pre-bourgeois Europe, the preservation of order was more important than the generation of new ideas. Power was centralized in royal families and professional guilds. Most importantly, McCloskey argues, ordinary people revered aristocrats and looked down on commercial pursuits. Then, slowly, over the two centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution, culture changed. A new, bourgeois way of life took hold, in which individuals were allowed and encouraged to be creative self-starters. Owning a shop, running a factory, or inventing a machine had been vulgar pursuits — now they were seen as worthwhile, useful, and dignified. Smart kids, instead of wanting to be gentlemen, aspired to become inventors. One of McCloskey’s central insights is that dignified businesspeople act better than undignified ones. As businesspeople and innovators learned to treat one another with increasing honesty, curiosity, and respect, the Industrial Revolution took off.

Thus the bourgeois world in which we live today was born. McCloskey argues that you can see its union of creativity, virtue, and money-making everywhere. She points to the fact that one in 11 Americans wants to start her own business. Or, think of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: He says that people start businesses like Facebook not to make money, but just “because they like building things.” That’s McCloskey’s bourgeois outlook at work.

McCloskey finds a certain joy in being unconventional. (Until age 52, she was Donald McCloskey; she documented her gender transformation in a memoir, “Crossing.”) In “Bourgeois Dignity” and in the series’ previous book, “The Bourgeois Virtues,” she relishes the irony of defending and reclaiming the word “bourgeois,” which has come to be used as an insult. To many people it evokes a combination of hidebound conventionality and snooty consumerism. In fact, she asserts, being bourgeois means having integrity and being creative, courageous, open, and honest. Bourgeois values are what got us here, and can be an antidote to the laziness, greed, and excess that have lately threatened to engulf American business culture.

She wants, too, to challenge partisans on both the left and right who have made a habit of “sneering” at the bourgeoisie. Conservatives, she says, are suspicious of cultural innovation, and look down on the bourgeoisie, labeling them latte liberals. Progressives, meanwhile, turn up their noses at technological innovation, and think of all businesspeople as evil manipulators, like Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.” This is wrong. American politics, McCloskey argues, can turn its back on the bourgeoisie and bourgeois values only at its own peril.

This interview is condensed from two conversations McCloskey had with Ideas from her home in Chicago.

IDEAS: Business might depend on virtue, but it’s also dog-eat-dog. In your book you quote a Tammany Hall politician, George Washington Plunkitt, who said that he practiced “honest graft”: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” What’s the difference between bourgeois striving and honest graft? It seems like a subtle difference.

MCCLOSKEY: Exactly. And it’s somewhat fragile — that’s what alarms me about the 150-year downpour of assaults on the middle class. What I worry about, and I think you can see it happening in business schools, is people say, “Oh well, I’m damned anyway — why bother.”

IDEAS: But aren’t they right? Isn’t the point of business just to make as much money as possible? Max Weber thought that the Industrial Revolution began in a European obsession with “capitalist accumulation.”

MCCLOSKEY: Weber makes a crucial mistake in thinking that what’s at the heart of it is accumulation, and that it’s this drive to accumulate that’s the key. It’s not....Sheer capital accumulation does not result in innovation....Think of the inventor. She sits down at her desk and she thinks, “Boy, this would be a great idea!” It’s certainly not only because she wants more goods....It’s a fulfillment of her human creativity.

IDEAS: Surely people can be creative, though, in ways that don’t involve inventing new gizmos.

MCCLOSKEY: If we have enough gizmos, then we can do serious personal innovation in our spiritual lives. If you’re making $3 a day, you haven’t got time for a spiritual life — or it’s very crude, because you can’t read. You just can’t develop your soul in a serious way.

IDEAS: Today, though, one of the big objections to bourgeois life is that it leaves out spirituality — that it’s materialistic and shallow, and therefore unsatisfying.

MCCLOSKEY: Richard Hooker, the great late-16th-century Anglican theologian, says that “Man doth seek a triple perfection” [material, intellectual, and spiritual]....The problem with both the left and right, in the 19th century and all the way up through the present, is they say, “Aha! I see some of these people going around not having a triple perfection; that means the whole system is evil and corrupting.” And that’s just nonsense. It’s a dignified and good thing to run, successfully and well, a button factory. We’ve got to stop sneering in this kind of faux-aristocratic way...at the people who do things for other people by making stuff and selling services.

IDEAS: Lots of people think we have too much stuff in America right now — that luxury is one of our problems.

MCCLOSKEY: Intellectuals, especially ones who are very well-off, keep saying that luxury is the problem. Always the luxury of other people!

IDEAS: Who’s someone who benefited directly from the change in values you’re talking about?

MCCLOSKEY: One example is James Watt, an instruments maker in Edinburgh, who did hundreds of experiments of a sort that wouldn’t have happened before, and then invented the steam engine with separate condenser.

IDEAS: What would’ve happened to someone like Watt before?

MCCLOSKEY: He would’ve gone on making astrolabes of a precise sort for ship captains and the rich. [Benjamin] Franklin would’ve been a modestly successful printer, but only modestly so, if he hadn’t been encouraged to innovate. It’s the striving for innovation that’s so important.

IDEAS: Do you think there’s an innate human drive to innovate?

MCCLOSKEY: Sure. And I think you can see it in lots of other aspects, to use the word precisely, of the European diamond. You see it in music, you see it in painting. There’s astonishing innovation in oil painting in the 17th century, just where you’d expect it to happen — in Holland, and, slightly afterwards, in Venice, which was a commercial place.

IDEAS: How do ideological changes take hold? How can the way people talk influence something like an economy?

MCCLOSKEY: Through laws and customs. [In my book] I give a minor example of a new kind of sickle invented in a village in China — they made it illegal, because it would disturb too many people. Well, you couldn’t get away with that in 18th-century England or New England.

IDEAS: What have other economists missed about the Industrial Revolution?

MCCLOSKEY: This is the big economic-scientific discovery in the book: It’s not efficiency that made us rich. Yet the economists keep saying that. They want that to be true, because they understand efficiency very well....But it’s not efficiency, it’s imagination, it’s creativity that made the modern world.

IDEAS: How do economists need to change if they’re going to take imagination into account?

MCCLOSKEY: You read novels and think about philosophy, you take ethics seriously instead of just dismissing it as preaching, and you have an ethical way of looking at the world that’s more complicated than extremely vulgar and ill-thought-out utilitarianism....We need economists who are humanists and scientists at the same time — who walk on both legs.

IDEAS: What’s your challenge to the left and right in this country?

MCCLOSKEY: It’s the utopianism of both the left and the right that’s bad. You say, the only dignified life is being a soldier — that’s the aristocratic idea. Or the only dignified life is being a saint. And those two get adopted, one by the right and one by the left.

IDEAS: Why do you use the word “bourgeois”? Why not write about the dignity of the middle class?

MCCLOSKEY: I want to reinstate the value of that word. You’re bourgeois, dear. That’s what I’m saying to people.

IDEAS: Do you have a political party?

MCCLOSKEY: You know, I’ve always hated parties. I was a Trotskyist and so on, but then I said, “God, this is awful — these people check their minds at the door!” I’d take the best of the impulse from the left, which is to help the poor, and from the right, which is to insist that everyone takes responsibility for themselves, and put those two together. You’d have what I call progressive libertarianism. There’s reactionary libertarianism, which says, screw the poor — and there’s progressive libertarianism, which says, let’s make the pie larger, so that’s everyone’s better off.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.