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BOURGEOIS ROLE

John Sloan

 

Here is my personal effort to summarize the thoughts of Dr. McCloskey found in her three very large books on the critical role of the Bourgeois in enabling and participating on the 'Industrial Revolution" or Revaluation or 'betterment' as she coins that term. I attempt to put the essence of her thesis into a broader context including concepts she does not state explicitly in the texts. The three books are listed here. My extensive comments are found at each link. Together, the three volumes comprise a very complex discussion of a very complex event (process) in world history and its continuation to today. I try to review and comment more explicitly below as well as in more detail with each volume. The author has three very different audiences (readers) in mind - the general public - her professional academic colleagues in economics and history - and public policy makers.

For the general public the author hopes to demonstrate that the event (process) and its continuation today is/was extremely beneficial to everyone, begining with the small core of Dutch and British middle class people who began it, but subsequently to the expanding population and now is at least available to the world population. She also demonstrates that despite this, it has been seriously opposed by various members of the elite, intelligentsia and political interest groups who benefit from the status quo or deplore various preferences, such as in cultural developments. 'Unspoken' but 'between the lines' is her hope that the general readership will be energized to action to defend the regime of increasing innovation which has so benefited everyone. Her hope, therefore, is to influence politicians and government officials both indirectly through the public and directly as readers.

For her academic colleagues, she engages them on their own ground, so to speak. by marshaling authority against their authorities, logic against their logic, rhetoric against their rhetoric. The result is this massive compendium of facts, names, theories - arguments - that are the essence of the lives of these 'experts'. Whether or not she will achieve her objective I cannot venture to guess.
The steps in the argument:
1 - the Industrial Revolution happened and its results are apparent to everyone today, so its existence is not at issue. but its causes and results are much disputed.
2- at the time and for some years later it was seen to provide 'betterment' and it was generally applauded. even while resisted and grudgingly acknowledged by the aristocracy and clerical elite.
3- once underway, however, it came to be seen as also creating various results (social, political, economic, cultural) that were disliked, even hated, by various group and individuals - generally members of elite - self-acknowledged - members of the intelligentsia who railed against one or more aspects (results) and who obtained sufficient favor from authorities responding to interest groups to interfere, manipulate, curtail, and otherwise reduce the general 'betterment' for all.
4. this baleful situation has been much aided and abetted by the participation of the professional economists and historians to whom her argument is addressed. Their errors have not only adversely influenced the authorities (decision makers) but also much of the general public who then make or accept decisions based on errors.
5. the basic cause of the academicians position (errors) is due to their general adoption in mid 19th century of the materialist theory of reality - that is their recognition of only material, physical, observable, theoretically acceptable things as real; and this results in the theory of utilitarianism as the only real motivating source of human decision and action. (Part of the broader Methodenstreit after the 1880's ) The theory, then, creates the 'economic man', that is individuals who seek only to maximize their economic well-being. This, in turn, means that they admit of only one of the seven fundamental 'virtues' basic to Western civilization - Prudence. Everyone is and behaves as this 'economic man' in reality even if he does not realize it. Moreover, humans always did favor Prudence. Therefor economists can and should ignore any other motivations when seeking to understand human action. The 'material' world is it, forget about transcendental myths or other methodological errors in the explanation of earlier history.
6. She denies this theory and its results, claiming that many at least of people did and do seek to live in accordance with other 'virtues' and if they do not they are living in error. She does not point out how hypocritical it is that these economists do not, themselves, act as 'economic man'.
7. This leads the author to devote a very large and significant part of her efforts and resulting prose to elaboration of just what these seven core virtues are and describe how they were for centuries significant motivating factors, especially for the rising middle class as it created this Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, decisions and actions today ought to be based on 'virtues' including more than only Prudence.
8. At the same time, she identifies a second event (process) and claims it was the causal factor behind this incredible expansion of prosperity, namely the achievement of a segment of society, described but not defined - the bourgeoise - the group between aristocrats and peasants - to achieve recognition of their 'dignity' and 'liberty.' The social quality that had been denied them throughout history. For proof of this she presents the literary evidence. This is another wide diversion into comparison of the rhetoric depicting them for centuries before 1600 and the rhetoric describing them especially after 1750 or so. She draws on a huge variety of authors to demonstrate this.
9. But demonstrating the changed status of the bourgeois is insufficient. She provides a long list of the more popular alternate theories about the causes of the 'betterment' and attempts to demolish them one by one - chapter by chapter.

Unless the reader understands from begining to study the three volumes that this seemingly digressive excursion into the history and description of seven 'virtues' and then the other digressive excursion into literary criticism are critical to the author's line of argument he may wonder what it all has to do with the history of economic development.

But for full understanding the student should also read Geoffrey Ingham's The Nature of Money to learn about aspects of the transformation that Dr. McCloskey leaves out. For instance, this from Dr. Ingham "The social relations for the 'manufacture' of capitalist credit-money were first successfully developed in England from the late seventeenth century onwards, and were copied, with varying degrees of success, throughout the developing Western World. Capitalist credit-money connects the state with the bourgeois classes." And he stresses it was the spread of the bourgeois 'virtues' throughout culture that provided the trustworthiness essential for acceptance of credit-money.
And, in my opinion Dr. McCloskey specifically reduces the importance of the evolutionary development of cultural change in Europe prior to about 1700. Thus, the new book by Joel Mokyr in which he describes this significant cultural basis for the further development that Dr. McCloskey stresses does fill in an important part of the full story. Dr. McCloskey also describes the sitution after around 1848 as the 'reason' of the intelligentsia who became increasingly anti-bourgeois. The chaning composition and role of the bourgeois segment of European society is well described th Richard Evans.

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Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for An Age of Commerce

 
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Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics can't Explain the Modern World

 
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Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

 
 

Review and comment -
Dr. McCloskey explains that she initially conceived of a set of six volumes to describe the central role of the bourgeois in Northwestern Europe in the Industrial Revolution, but she has reorganized her thoughts into the three published volumes discussed here. The first observation about these is to note the remarkable way in which the author has marshaled such a wide variety of references from throughout history and from so many varied authors (playwrights, poets, philosophers, economists, historians. archeologists, novelists, and many more). And organized this information into a literary structure that presents and defends her thesis.

For a better understanding of her complete theory one should read the sections in volumes 1 and 2 in which she outlines her original agenda. Her central idea is that a change in the social position and its recognition of the bourgeois first in Northwestern Europe developed after around 1600 and reached sufficient extent by 1800 to enable the newly accepted bourgeois to accomplish the innovations that rapidly created the unprecedented huge expansion of the means to a better life for everyone. Building on their acceptance in 'dignity' and 'liberty' they expounded the concept of 'betterment'.

That is why I find it unusual that she does not cite J. B. Bury who wrote on the Idea of Progress.. It seems the broader shift in general belief that 'progress' is indeed a characteristic basis of human history was essential for the specific class - bourgeois - to recognize that they were creating progress.

That this event ("Industrial revolution") occurred in the time and place noted is not disputed. But its causes and ultimate results have been widely disputed and both applauded and denounced. Her first mission, then, is both the positive one of explaining how and why the bourgeois played such a central role, and the negative one of showing why each of the many other causes advanced by her colleagues in economics and history are inadequate to explain the unprecedented increase in living standards that developed first in England and Holland and since 1800 has spread throughout the world.

Then, her second mission is to uphold her causes and the bourgeois as still critically important today in the face of continual objection and denigration. She denounces the 'treason' of the intelligentsia, who still today exercise influence that endangers the continued economic innovation that has raised and continues to raise the real living standards of billions of 'poor' families throughout the world

The three volumes describe an integrated argument, but ( I guess) to let each stand more alone, there is considerable repetition of material between them. The names of authors and their works come up repeatedly, many of these are well known, but it is also amazing how she brings in relatively obscure writers as well. Naming names is critical for her method to link her argument with specific opponents and those who support it, but might be 'over kill' for the general reader. Apparently she believes it necessary to cite specific authors and books (or articles) that advance other explanations and then cite others who agree or provide evidence (opinions) that support her case. It is rather a Scholastic appeal to authority. the general reader might be overwhelmed by all these names.

She addresses a multitude of theories and real developments that are claimed by others to might be 'causes' in some way. She marshals counter theories and historical events in her effort to disagree. But in my opinion she does not discuss or give enough attention to the financial aspect of the ability of the bourgeois to innovate and create the explosive expansion of economic 'betterment' that describes the modern world. Checking her sources and the names of the many authors with whom she agrees or disagrees, it appears that she has ignored the whole specialist study and literature on the history of money and banking. Geoffrey Ingham notes that the economist profession came to overlook the nature of money when it split off from sociology and political science. Another significant reference, among many, on the role of modern finance in the success of the bourgeois is Martin.

She also discounts the expansion of 'trade' during this period, but does not include the real history of commercial exchange between the English American colonies and England itself. She also does not address sociological and political aspects of this increase in bourgeois power, or that money has not only economic but also critical political and social roles. It seems to me that ideas are indeed central and critical, but these must include not only ideas about economic activity but also ideas about holding the political power and financial capacity to achieve them. During the same period during which she discusses the bourgeois in terms of its new 'dignity' and 'liberty' as concepts the social composition of the bourgeois changed and it also greatly expanded its political power.

A main cause, she believes, of the failure of the majority of the economics profession to recognize this important role of the bourgeois is the movement of the professors into materialism - which then means utilitarianism - which relies on the concept of purely 'economic man' a rational, utility-maximizing animal. This enthrones 'prudence' as the sole 'virtue' providing ethical justification for human action. Her dispute with this notion results in her devoting a great amount of time, space and attention to the entire set of fundamental Western 'virtues', which she shows were the basis for social ethics. Out of the seven, three are religious concepts, faith, hope and love. She deplores materialism and utilitarianism, yet, paradoxically, has no kind words for the previous guiding concept of a 'great chain of being', nor of the religious clergy.

The volumes are of great interest and enjoyment purely for their academic enrichment. But their highest importance today is that the solid arguments directly refute the prevailing Establishment political policies on the basis of their lack of fundamental and theoretical justification. As Clarence Carson wrote some years ago in The World in the Grip of an Idea the reigning political establishment maintains its legitimacy with the people on the basis of promoting belief in false ideas. Dr. McCloskey's work is probably too erudite to engage much of the public directly and it is actually largely directed to professional economists and others. But if the public could be taught to think in the manner and about the content of what she so well expounds we would have more hope for the future.

The subject being this newly enhanced status for the bourgeois, the author does not give an adequate description or definition of exactly whom she is writing about. Well, we presume the 'middle class' but who are they in 18th and 19th century English society? For instance, some social histories of England describe a process in which the younger members of aristocratic families took up business - and some members of the gentry also began commercial endeavors. Merchants (individuals who were shop keepers or engaged in local or international trade) also expanded their activities to invest in production of the assets the were trading. May not the increasing acceptance and recognition of bourgeois 'liberty' and 'dignity' be due to individuals who already possessed such 'quality' becoming bourgeois? For instance, she mentions Ben Franklin several times. Well, he was clearly a bourgeois (and from a colony no less) but was accepted into European high society as a 'gentleman'.

Looking back to classical and medieval societies she focuses on the commonly described disdain of the 'upper classes' for 'work' and/or for 'workers' - especially for merchants. For instance, Cicero provides an explicit listing of the types of endeavour in which a 'gentleman' may engage - war, politics, law, philosophy, oratory, farming, and commerce on a large scale. Such professions as medicine, architecture, and teaching are respectable but are for slaves or freedmen. Totally unworthy are shop keeping, retail trade, tax-collecting and usury. Cicero himself of course was extremely wealthy based on extensive agricultural land holdings worked by slaves and extensive urban slum dwellings from which he obtained rent. Yet, he was heavily in debt and nearly bankrupt due to large debts to money lenders needed to finance his political career. Actually, he is an excellent example of the opposite of this 'economic man' because he devoted all his economic resources to achieving social benefits of honor and distinction. He dispersed wealth as fast as he accumulated it in furtherance of political and social goals. In other words, he is an example of financial 'illiquidity' holding long term fixed assets but having short term liabilities.

The issue from this situation related to the 'new' status of the bourgeois is that increasingly during the subject time ( 18th - 19th century) respectable and increasingly wealthy individuals in England were engaging in these formerly disdained occupations. Worse yet, from Cicero's point of view, they were engaging in politics, or the reverse, politicians were engaging in sordid commerce.) In other words, as a matter of cause and effect, was this a case of the bourgeois becoming newly respectable or was it rather respectable individuals entering into formerly 'unworthy' economic activities denoting their status as bourgeois? Also worth noting was the increasing problem of trying, and often failing, to match the time relationship between short term liabilities and long term assets.

In my opinion the weakness of the author's effort lies in her concentration only on establishing the 'second event' the changed social status of the bourgeois via the extensive appeal to rhetoric. If we agree fully with this thesis, then, even so, we look for the mechanism, the how, did the bourgeois, granted this new status, actually accomplish the process of the Industrial Revolution. It seems to me this involved not only social status, but very significant changed political status - resting much political power from the sovereign. And a major component of this enhanced political power was the new financial power - to create private money backed by the sovereign authority. Felix Martin terms this "The Great Monetary Settlement" and it remains the essential feature today of the unity of public and sovereign money. See also, Wray - Mehrling for current theories and practice in monetary policy.

Throughout, I include a computer link to references I have here that Dr. McCloskey cites and to other books I consider relevant. The links are to the bibliographical data, and eventually to my comment on those books as well, as quickly as I can manage to do it.

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Joel Mokyr - Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

 
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Richard J. Evans - The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815 - 1914

 

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