Friday, September 23, 2016

Steven Smith's Straussian Scorn for the Bourgeois

Although the Bourgeois Era has brought the Great Enrichment--the unprecedented increase in human prosperity and population over the past two hundred years--critics have scorned the Bourgeois Era for promoting proletarian poverty, economic inequality, and bourgeois boredom.

Karl Marx predicted that the enrichment of the capitalists would require the impoverishment of the proletariat.  During the first half of the nineteenth century, the British Industrial Revolution produced only a slow growth in the wages of the working class, which seemed to support the Marxist argument. But by the end of the century, wages rose in such a way as to indicate that the Great Enrichment would benefit workers as well as employers. 

Today, the success of the Great Enrichment in reducing poverty has spread around the world.  According to calculations at the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $2 per person per day) has declined by fifty per cent in the last twenty years. In 1981, 44 per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty.  Today, it's less than 10 per cent and falling.  It's realistic to expect that by 2030 such extreme poverty will no longer exist in the world. 

Moreover, this world-transforming enrichment of human life is not only material but also intellectual and spiritual.  For the entire history of the human species, most adults were illiterate.  But now over 85 percent of adults around the world are literate, and this is rising.  Prior to 1800, most human beings lived in grinding poverty and mind-numbing ignorance.  Now, for the first time in human history, we are eliminating these and other sources of human suffering.

And yet, even though those on the Left have to admit that bourgeois liberalism has largely abolished extreme poverty, those like Thomas Piketty complain that while the poor have been enriched, the rich have become even richer, and thus we suffer from an economic inequality that must provoke the resentment of the lower and middle classes against the richest classes.  But while it is true that economic inequality has risen in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, it has not risen as much in the rest of the world.  International inequality is declining because of the rising incomes of the poor in countries like China and India.

Moreover, as I have argued in other posts, it is not clear that economic inequality should be morally offensive if the poor are becoming richer, and if there is enough economic mobility so that those in the middle classes have some chance to rise to the richest classes.  As long as most people have the economic resources to live dignified lives, and as long as we recognize envy as a vice, there is no moral justification for those who have less to resent those who have more.

Yet this will not satisfy the bohemian artists and intellectuals--the "clerisy" as Samuel Taylor Coleridge called them--who complain that what's really wrong with the bourgeois life is that it is so boring! 

That's the complaint of Gustave Flaubert, who showed us how Emma Bovary was forced to have two adulterous affairs and then commit suicide as a heroic protest against the bourgeois mediocrity of her husband Charles.  In a letter to George Sand, Flaubert proclaimed: "Axiom: Hatred of the Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue."

Steven Smith quotes this in his chapter on Madame Bovary in his new book Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow, which has been receiving a lot of attention, including a review in the New York Times Book Review.  Smith is a Straussian, and the influence of Leo Strauss permeates his book, including a chapter on Strauss.  According to Smith, Strauss "fulfills the office of the philosopher to the highest degree" (312). 

Like most Straussians, Smith scorns bourgeois liberalism because, they insist, it lacks the human excellence, the heroic nobility, and the transcendent longings of life in the premodern world.  As is characteristic of the Straussians, Smith presents his argument through textual interpretations of some books.  As is also characteristic of the Straussians, he almost never looks at any of the empirical evidence that might sustain or deny the claims of the authors he interprets. 

The thesis of his book is "that modernity has created within itself a rhetoric of antimodernity that has taken philosophical, literary, and political forms" in denouncing the bourgeois life as "a kind of low-minded materialism, moral cowardice, and philistinism" (xi).  He thinks that he proves this thesis by restating what some of the antibourgeois writers have asserted in their attacks on bourgeois liberalism.  This proves the existence of an antibourgeois rhetoric.  But this does not prove the truth of this rhetoric as confirmed by empirical evidence of what life is like in the Bourgeois Era.

Smith says that the goals of bourgeois liberalism are no longer credible, because "leading opinion has increasingly lost confidence in these goals" (4).  But then he never wonders whether "leading opinion" might be wrong.

For example, one of the goals of bourgeois liberalism is to promote declining violence both within and between societies through the liberal values of peaceful cooperation.  Smith dismisses this as a "utopian belief" that has been refuted by the two world wars, by the 9/11 attack on the United States, and by the resurgence of ethnic tribalism in recent decades (5-6, 149-53).  He is confusing on this point, however, because he first says that Kant's world of "perpetual peace" is impossible, but then he says that we have already achieved such a world, and it's a "world without nobility" (152).

Smith is completely silent about the evidence surveyed by Steven Pinker (in The Better Angels of Our Nature) and others that suggests that there really has been a decline in violence due to the spread of liberal values.  The extraordinary violence of the first half of the 20th century was provoked largely by illiberal regimes like those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  When viewed in the context of world history, Pinker has argued, World War Two can be seen as an isolated peak in a declining sawtooth of violence.  Since World War Two, all kinds of violence have been in decline.  Even terrorist violence has declined since the peak of the 1970s and 1980s.  Smith says that "the narrative of progress is no longer sustainable," because the liberal "faith in infinite progress" as inevitable and inexorable has been refuted by the violent episodes of recent history.  But he says nothing about the evidence presented by Pinker and others that there has been real progress towards a peaceful life, although it is not inevitable or inexorable.  Smith is silent about this debate over the empirical evidence for declining violence promoted by liberal values.

Smith is also silent about Deirdre McCloskey's argument that far from being morally degrading, the liberal social order has promoted the "bourgeois virtues," as displayed in the Aristotelian virtue ethics of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and in the bourgeois life of Benjamin Franklin.  Smith says nothing about The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  But he does devote a chapter to Franklin, which is the only fully sketched historical example of a bourgeois man. 

Smith quotes all of the antibourgeois criticisms of Franklin as the model of the American bourgeois.  Charles Austine Sainte-Beuve, Max Weber, and D. H. Lawrence have all scorned Franklin as a morally degraded human being who cared only about making money.  If the bourgeois man is "dull, flat, and conformist" (xii), then Franklin is the supreme American example of such a man.

But Smith recognizes that "this completely misunderstands Franklin."  Smith writes:
"Both Weber and Lawrence completely fail to see the irony, the humor, and the sheer joie de vivre that permeates Franklin's Autobiography. As is now common knowledge, Franklin's life was anything but ascetic; he had a powerful sexual appetite and had, on the whole, far fewer hang-ups than either Weber or Lawrence, who were tortured by their own sexuality.  There is little dry or 'colorless' Puritanism in Franklin.  The book itself is testimony to one of the most remarkable public and private lives ever. How can any serious reader of Franklin fail to see his immense playfulness and enjoyment of life's pleasures?" (113)
Moreover, Smith observes, Franklin's promotion of philosophic clubs for conversation and debate and his scientific research in natural philosophy show that he was an "American Socrates" living "a life uniquely devoted to the pleasures of the mind."  "Franklin offered his story not as the example of a singular genius that could not be replicated," Smith writes, "but as that of a modern man who, from unlikely beginnings, achieved not just great things but also everyday comfortable things that make life enjoyable" (129-30).  Smith concludes his chapter on Franklin's life by declaring that this is "a story worth remembering."  But then, oddly, Smith forgets about Franklin's remarkable story for the rest of his book (except for two passing references at 179 and 261).

He repeats the claims of the antibourgeois writers that the bourgeois is "too boring to satisfy the deeper longings of the human spirit," and thus shows the "drabness, conformity, and philistinism of the new bourgeois order" (172), and that the "ethic of the bourgeois" denies the "ethic of citizenship" (196).  But he never points out that the life of Franklin contradicts this.

If Franklin's life really does show how a bourgeois man can display the moral and intellectual virtues, as Smith suggests, then why shouldn't he conclude that McCloskey was right in presenting Franklin as evidence for the bourgeois virtues as manifesting human excellence, and therefore there is no justification for the clerisy's scorn for the bourgeois?

My next post will be on Smith's account of Strauss's assessment of bourgeois liberalism and the philosophic life.


Anonymous said...

>Smith scorns bourgeois liberalism because, they insist, it lacks the human excellence, the heroic nobility, and the transcendent longings of life in the premodern world.

These are not premodern values as such, but rather the values of the classic Greek aristocracy.

One problem with the Straussians, as I understand them, is they believe human nature lacks a basis for universal values, so they must be created in a Nietzschean manner, and the Greek aristocracy are their favorite models here.

Strauss also took the ancient Hebrews as another model, and of course they had a considerably different set of supreme values.

Anonymous said...

Oops, forgot my signature

--Les Brunswick

W. Bond said...

I am reminded of the conclusion to an Allan Bloom essay on Rousseau: "This confrontation between Rousseau and the great liberals will enhance our self-awareness and make us recognize the profundity of the antagonists and the richness of Rousseau's influence. He may be a charm to be overcome, but to do that, his charm must first be experienced."

Perhaps Smith has never overcome the charm?