Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bourgeois Values

One of Marx’s greatest contributions to social theory was to unveil the extent to which putatively universal values are actually conditioned by historical context, and, more particularly, economic context. Systems of production help to shape values over time and this process is usually winds up reinforcing the economic position of the ruling class or classes. In the Medieval epoch, many social mores actually preserved the rights and prerogatives of the aristocracy. In the Modern Era, morality—as the notion gets taught in schools and churches for example—is geared to strengthen the hold of capitalist exploitation.

We know that there is a prohibition against theft, but Marx asked: what kind of theft are capitalists really concerned about? As Proudhon famously argued, all property is theft. According to capitalist logic, individual rights are paramount. A man or women have a right to whatever wealth they have accumulated, whether this wealth was earned, extracted from the labor of others in an allegedly free economy, or inherited.

The logic is taken to extremes, and zealously guarded. If an impoverished man steals food for his family, he might end up in jail, perhaps for a very long time. He also is deserving of a certain amount of moral censure. Yet it’s unseemly for anybody to covet a billionaire’s wealth. This money belongs to the man, not society or the poor—even if the billionaire has never worked a day in his life.

Bourgeois values are incredibly durable. Impoverished people here in America and the world over are quite capable of following the adventures of the real-life superrich on television reality shows as entertainment, never entertaining the notion that some of this wealth might in fact belong to them. Bourgeois values also include privacy, which reinforces some of the inequality perpetuated by the value we place in private property. One has a right to excess riches, and one even has the right not to be interrogated too closely about that wealth. It’s a private or personal matter, not something even the government can scrutinize too closely, except insofar as government maintains the general right to levy taxes (notwithstanding tax loopholes and regressive taxation systems).

Karl Marx

Traditionally, bourgeois values also included an abiding faith in patriarchy, Christian ideology, parliamentary democracy, individualistic artistic expression, personal freedom, constitutional rights, Western forms of legality, etc. Even faith in family is a bourgeois value. People have a choice about where their loyalties must lie. What deserves our reverence: self, family, church, ethnicity, gender, cultural community, race, nation, class, or global community? The bourgeoisie emphasized self, family and nation (and perhaps cultural community and race).

The Soviet Union overthrew many bourgeois values, but the cure was far worse than the disease. Famously, Soviet children were taught to report their own parents if they suspected their parents of harboring ill-will toward the community, embodied in the state. Some apparently did, with disastrous consequences for the parents, and were celebrated for their moral integrity. Apparently, there are worse things than the bourgeoisie. Who knew?


  1. And yet the Soviet Union largely maintained traditional gender roles. (Really, how many Soviet men did the dishes?) Sure, women could become doctors, but the medical profession became a low-paid ghetto. Some feminists (myself included) would argue that to overthrow bourgeois values requires overthrowing patriarchy.

  2. Any recommended books on gender roles in the Soviet Union?