Définir le bourgeois? Nous ne serions pas d’accord.

Ernest Labrousse (1955)

In the mythology of the modern world, the quintessential protagonist is the bourgeois. footnote Hero for some, villain for others, the inspiration or lure for most, he has been the shaper of the present and the destroyer of the past. In English, we tend to avoid the term ‘bourgeois’, preferring in general the locution ‘middle class’ (or classes). It is a small irony that despite the vaunted individualism of Anglo-Saxon thought, there is no convenient singular form for ‘middle class(es)’. We are told by the linguists that the term appeared for the first time in Latin form, burgensis, in 1007 and is recorded in French as burgeis as of 1100. It originally designated the inhabitant of a bourg, an urban area, but an inhabitant who was ‘free’. footnote1 Free, however, from what? Free from the obligations that were the social cement and the economic nexus of a feudal system. The bourgeois was not a peasant or serf, but he was also not a noble.

Thus, from the start there was both an anomaly and an ambiguity. The anomaly was that there was no logical place for the bourgeois in the hierarchical structure and value-system of feudalism with its classical three orders, themselves only becoming crystallized at the very moment that the concept of ‘bourgeois’ was being born. footnote2 And the ambiguity was that bourgeois was then (as it remains today) both a term of honour and a term of scorn, a compliment and a reproach. Louis xi, it is said, took pride in the honorific ‘bourgeois of Berne’. footnote3 But Molière wrote his scathing satire on ‘le bourgeois gentilhomme’, and Flaubert said: ‘J’appelle bourgeois quiconque pense bassement.’

Because this medieval bourgeois was neither lord nor peasant, he came eventually to be thought of as a member of an intermediary class, that is, a middle class. And thereby commenced another ambiguity. Were all urban-dwellers bourgeois, or only some? Was the artisan a bourgeois, or only a petty bourgeois, or not a bourgeois at all? As the term came to be used, it was in practice identified with a certain level of income—that of being well off—which implied both the possibilities of consumption (style of life) and the possibilities of investment (capital).

It is along these two axes—consumption and capital—that the usage developed. On the one hand, the style of life of a bourgeois could be contrasted with that of either the noble or the peasant/artisan. Vis-`-vis the peasant/artisan, a bourgeois style of life implied comfort, manners, cleanliness. But vis-`-vis the noble, it implied a certain absence of true luxury and a certain awkwardness of social behaviour (viz. the idea of the nouveau riche). Much later, when urban life became richer and more complex, the style of life of a bourgeois could also be set against that of an artist or an intellectual, representing order, social convention, sobriety and dullness in contrast to all that was seen as spontaneous, freer, gayer, more intelligent, eventually what we today call ‘countercultural’. Finally, capitalist development made possible the adoption of a pseudo-bourgeois style of life by a proletarian, without the latter simultaneously adopting the economic role as capitalist, and it is to this that we have given the label ‘embourgeoisement’.

But if the bourgeois as Babbitt has been the centrepiece of modern cultural discourse, it is the bourgeois as capitalist that has been the centrepiece of modern politico–economic discourse. The bourgeois has meant the one who has capitalized means of production, hiring workers for wages who in turn have made things to be sold on a market. To the extent that the revenue from sales is greater than costs of production including wages, we speak of there being profit, presumably the objective of the bourgeois capitalist. There have been those who have celebrated the virtues of this social role—the bourgeois as creative entrepreneur. And there have been those who have denounced the vices of this social role—the bourgeois as parasitical exploiter. But admirers and critics have generally combined to agree that the bourgeois, this bourgeois the capitalist, has been the central dynamic force of modern economic life, for all since the nineteenth century, for many since the sixteenth century, for a few even longer than that.