Blueprint of the Bourgeois

If Hanna Arendt is to be believed, and I strongly suspect she is, Thomas Hobbes writing in the seventeenth century provided us with the blueprint of the bourgeois personality, one who is relentlessly engaged in the process of acquiring wealth, the type that would become the predominant character, world-wide, in the three hundred years that have followed. In this regard, she tells us that:

“There is hardly a single bourgeois moral standard which has not been anticipated by the unequaled magnificence of Hobbes’ logic. He gives an almost complete picture, not of Man but of the bourgeois man, an analysis which in three hundred years has neither been outdated nor excelled. ‘Reason . . . is nothing but Reckoning’; ‘a free Subject, a free Will . . . [are words] . . . without meaning; that is to say, Absurd.’ A being without reason, without the capacity for truth, and without free will — that is, without the capacity for responsibility — bourgeois man is essentially a function of society and judged therefore according to his ‘value or worth . . . his price; that is to say so much as would be given for the use of his power.’ This price is constantly evaluated and reevaluated by society, the ‘esteem of others,’ . . . “

The bourgeois was originally the owner of the means of production who was the bane of Karl Marx’s existence, the ugly capitalist who ground his workers under his foot, stealing the profits they made and keeping the profits for himself. The capitalist today may no longer own the means of production. He may own properties, deal in stocks and bonds, or more than likely be the C.E.O. of a multinational corporation. He might even be a professional athlete! He has become the man Hobbes described early on, a man fixated on making more money than he can possibly spend in his lifetime. The amorality of the bourgeois who simply wants to live well soon becomes the immorality of the exploiter and the dodger of taxes who uses others and places additional burdens on those who can ill afford to take up the weight. All of this is predicated on his fascination with wealth and power as ends in themselves. As Arendt notes:

“The so-called accumulation of capital which gave birth to the bourgeois changed the very conception of property and wealth: they were no longer considered the results of accumulation and acquisition but their beginnings; wealth became a never-ending process of getting wealthier. The classification of the bourgeois as an owning class is only superficially correct, for a characteristic of this class has been that anyone could belong to it who conceived of life as a process of perpetually becoming wealthier, and considered money as something sacrosanct which under no circumstances should be a mere commodity for consumption.”

Arendt thought the Leviathan, Hobbes major work, provided the blueprint I mentioned at the outset. The type of person he describes feeds on raw competition, creating in the world of the bourgeoisie a war of man against man, survival of the fittest. Hobbes said this was a state of nature and suggested that in such a state life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In this state humans cease to be human and become pawns in a game in which the capitalist himself becomes wealthy at the cost of those who oppose him.

Needless to say, this blueprint has changed considerably since Hobbes drew it. Raw capitalism has never seen the light of day, the state of nature becoming in the transition a bit of an exaggeration. Capitalism has always been tempered by remnants of Christian ethics and the rule of law, constraints on the raw greed that motivates the man or woman who seeks only money and more money, a person Arendt describes as “more-than-rich.” In this country we have a number of such laws that prohibit the unfettered growth of capital in the hands of a few — or so it would seem. But those who are more-than-rich spend much of their time working to make sure that those laws and those restraints — such as tax laws and the E.P.A., for example — are rendered nugatory, weakened so that the government cannot effectively interfere with the making of huge profits. The type Hobbes describes still exists.

There are good people owning property and paying others to work for them. And there are private owners of small corporations who do not exploit their employees. To be sure. These people do not fit the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with. But for the “more-than-rich” in this country the blueprint is accurate: there are those who would squash all opposition underfoot in order to amass more and more wealth –money beyond reckoning — thereby creating ugly juxtapositions. Athletes sign multi-million dollar contracts while many others around them must work two jobs or have no place to live and no food on the table. The average corporate C.E.O. in this country makes nearly 400 times as much annually as his or her average employee. And the C.E.O. typically pays little or no income taxes.

The picture is unpleasant, but it is not overblown. We claim to be a Christian country (or some make the claim) while at the same time we see around us the 1% growing richer, the middle class disappearing, and the more-than-poor growing poorer and more numerous. What this means, it seems to me, is that those laws that protect the rest of us against the rich must be enforced and even strengthened because the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with in the seventeenth century is not the least bit exaggerated when it comes to describing unfettered capitalism, including the type of person who flourishes in our day and who would just as soon see all around him fail as long as he amasses great wealth.

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A Modern Parable

Harry Jones is a happily married man with two kids and a good job. He is an investment counselor and very good at his job. He is living the American dream and doing very well, so well he has a cabin on a lake and an RV he and his family take to Colorado every Summer. He is putting money away for the kids’ college because he knows the costs are rising and despite the fact that his daughter, at least, is sure to get a scholarship she will get married and want a big wedding. So it is a good idea to be ready for whatever the future might bring. He works hard, loves his job, takes his family to church every Sunday and regards himself as a good Christian. By most standards, he is a happy and successful man.

On a business trip Harry happens to pick up the Gideon’s Bible in the table at his bedside in the Motel and starts to read. He has always half-listened to the sermons at Church and thinks he pretty well knows what his religion demands of him. He regards himself as a good man, certainly better than many he knows. The minister is a good one, though he seems more intent on making his flock feel good about themselves than getting them all riled up. Harry likes him for that. But what he is reading sends chills down his spine. He is reading in St. Matthew and he reads what the Lord said about wealth and the blessedness of the poor. This is not sitting at all well with Harry. He is especially put off by the notion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. And especially disturbing is the passage “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” He has never thought much about heaven, or about death in fact. But he isn’t getting any younger and he certainly doesn’t want to go to “that other place.” He is in a quandary. As he reads on he becomes more and more disturbed by the thought that he has been living a lie. He considers himself a good Christian, but he hasn’t been living the life Christ talked about in the New Testament. There it is right in front of him: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” That is precisely what he has been trying to do.

He feels like he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He can’t have it both ways — either he gives away all his wealth and follows Christ, as the New Testament teaches, or he continues to pursue the American dream. He loves his job, loves the challenge of finding the right investment and seeing his clients do well. And he has to admit he likes the commissions that come his way. But the purpose of his life to this point has been to “serve Mammon.”  What is he to do?