January 17, 2010

on the use and misuse of a certain french word

Orrologion reprinted a comment I made at The Ochlophobist, and it prompted a reply that I was misapplying the term "bourgeoise" because the proletariat in this country have regular work schedules as well. My reply:


This thread is possibly already dead, but I'll answer the objection, anyhow.

In America, there is not yet a significant proletariat (though it is growing, and it does not have a "normal work schedule"), and no upper class at all. (Or, a vanishingly small one.) America is all bourgeoisie, more or less (this is good & bad). Re-defining "bourgeoisie" as being equivalent to the American "middle class", defined as it is solely on income (we know no "genteel poor", for example) serves only as a distraction, a sort of attempt to bring class war to a country that really does not take to it very well.

American social theorists–from the era immediately after the Revolution–identified American uniqueness with the rise of the "middling" sorts, which was the 18th c. English equivalent for "bourgeoisie". As a sometimes purist, I would almost like to bring back the term, but part of me likes the polemical edge provided by the latter. The Federalist/Anti-Federalist struggle was often openly defined as one about the role of the "middling" people and much was said about the rise and possible triumph of that sort over all of American society. In the end, we came to celebrate our lack of both aristocracy and proletariat. As an American through-and-through, I have a lot of sympathy for that enthusiasm, but I believe that it was not, in the end, properly tempered with a respect for the dangers of a homogenized culture built around the bourgeoisie "acquisitiveness". I'm not sure what the answer to these sorts of social questions are, but I am fascinated by them.

As for the "work schedule" remark, I was totally serious. There are many–largely converts and American-born "cradles"–who find the idea of Church services they could not possibly attend to be somewhat offensive. It would seem to say that those who attend them are "holier" even though they really just "don't have jobs" or "anything better to do". This language is really used, and I've head it in enough contexts, and in enough different parts of the country, to know that it is not simply an artifact of a particular community. This actually is not unrelated to an old American hostility towards much church-going in general, especially in the frontier, as it was seen to interfere with honest work and be an escape for weak men and women (obviously this was both in tension with, and supported by, revivalist periods in history and regions). While we are more gentle about those sorts of prejudices now, they certainly have only morphed into other forms.

As someone who has spent most of the past three years existing at various levels of un-or-under-employed I often had–even well meaning people–comment upon my attendance at daily services as something that was ok for someone who did not have much else to do. Never mind that I find attending ANY service most hard when I have no productive role. This may be nonsensical (I think there is value in what I do even when "idle"), but my sense of shame at being outside the productive sphere is deeply engrained.

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