Consider the social universe of Ibsen’s twelve-play cycle: shipbuilders, industrialists, financiers, merchants, bankers, developers, administrators, judges, managers, lawyers, doctors, headmasters, professors, engineers, pastors, journalists, photographers, designers, accountants, clerks, printers. No other writer has focused so single-mindedly on the bourgeois world. Mann; but in Mann there is a constant dialectic of bourgeois and artist (Thomas and Hanno, Lübeck and Kröger, Zeitblom and Leverkühn), and in Ibsen not quite, his one great artist—the sculptor Rubek, in When We Dead Awaken, who will ‘work until the day he dies’, and loves to be ‘lord and master over his material’—is just like all the others.footnote1

Now, many historians have doubts about the concept of the bourgeoisie: whether a banker and a photographer, or a shipbuilder and a pastor, are really part of the same class. In Ibsen, they are; or at least, they share the same spaces and speak the same language. None of the English semantic camouflage of the ‘middle’ class, here; this is not a class in the middle, threatened from above and below, and innocent of the course of the world: this is the ruling class, and the world is what it is, because they have made it that way. This is why Ibsen’s ‘settling of accounts’ with the 19th century—one of his favourite metaphors—is so breathtaking: finally, what has the bourgeoisie brought to the world?

I will return to this, of course. For now, let me say how strange it is to have such a broad bourgeois fresco—and almost no workers in it (except for house servants). Pillars of Society, which is the first play of the cycle, opens with a confrontation between a union leader and a manager about safety and profits; and although the theme is never the centre of the plot, it is visible throughout, and is decisive for its ending. But then, the conflict between capital and labour disappears from Ibsen’s world, even though, in general, nothing disappears here: Ghosts is the perfect Ibsen title because so many of his characters are ghosts: the minor figure of one play returns as the protagonist in another, or the other way around; a wife leaves home in one play, and stays to the bitter end in the following one. It’s like a twenty-year-long experiment he is running: changing a variable here and there, to see what happens to the system. But, no workers in the experiment—even though the years of the cycle, 1877–99, are those when trade unions, socialist parties and anarchism are changing the face of European politics.

No workers, because the conflict Ibsen wants to focus on is not that between the bourgeoisie and another class, but that internal to the bourgeoisie itself. Four works make this particularly clear: Pillars of Society; The Wild Duck; The Master Builder; John Gabriel Borkman. All four have the same prehistory, in which two business partners, and/or friends, have engaged in a struggle in the course of which one of them has been financially ruined, and psychically maimed. Intra-bourgeois competition as a mortal combat: and since life is at stake, the conflict easily becomes ruthless, or dishonest; but, and this is important, ruthless, unfair, equivocal, murky—but seldom actually illegal. In a few cases it is also that—the forgeries of A Doll’s House, the water pollution in An Enemy of the People, Borkman’s financial manoeuvres—but in general, what’s characteristic of Ibsen’s wrongdoings is that they inhabit an elusive grey area whose nature is never completely clear.

This grey area is Ibsen’s great intuition about bourgeois life, so let me give you a few examples. In Pillars of Society there are rumours that a theft has occurred in Bernick’s firm; he knows the rumours are false, but he also knows they will save him from bankruptcy, and so, though they ruin a friend’s reputation, he lets them circulate; later, he uses political influence in a barely legal way, to protect investments that are themselves barely legal. In Ghosts, Pastor Manders persuades Mrs Alving not to insure her orphanage, so that public opinion won’t think that ‘neither you nor I have adequate faith in Divine Providence’; divine providence being what it is, the orphanage of course burns down—accident, more probably arson—and all is lost. There is the ‘trap’ that Werle might (or not) have laid for his partner in the prehistory of The Wild Duck, and the unclear business between Solness and his partner in the prehistory of The Master Builder; where there is also a chimney that should be repaired, isn’t, and the house burns down—but, the insurance experts say, for a wholly different reason . . .

This is what the grey area is like: reticence, disloyalty, slander, negligence, half truths. As far as I can tell, there is no general term for these actions, which at first was frustrating; for I have often found the analysis of keywords illuminating for understanding the dynamic of bourgeois values: useful, serious, industry, comfort, earnest. Take ‘efficiency’: a word that had existed for centuries, and had always meant, as the oed puts it, ‘the fact of being an efficient cause’: causality. But then, in the mid-nineteenth century, all of a sudden the meaning changes, and efficiency starts indicating ‘the fitness or power to accomplish . . . the purpose intended; adequate power’. Adequate; fit to the purpose: not the capacity to cause something in general any more, but to do so according to a plan, and without waste: the new meaning is a miniature of capitalist rationalization. ‘Language is the instrument by which the world and society are adjusted’, writes Benveniste, and he’s right; semantic change, triggered by historical change; words catching up with things.footnote2 That’s the beauty of keywords: they’re a bridge between material and intellectual history.

But with the grey area, we have the thing, and not the word. And we really do have the thing: one of the ways in which capital accumulates is by invading ever new spheres of life—or even creating them, as in the parallel world of finance—and in these new spaces laws are more uncertain, and behaviour can quickly become profoundly equivocal. Equivocal: not illegal, but not quite right either. Think of a year ago (or today, for that matter): was it legal for banks to have a preposterous risk-to-asset ratio? Yes. Was it ‘right’, in any conceivable sense of the word? Clearly not. Or think of Enron: in the months that led to its bankruptcy, Kenneth Lay sold stock at prices that grossly overstated its value, as he knew perfectly well: in the criminal case, the government did not charge him; in the civil case it did, because the standard of proof was lower.footnote3 The same act that is and is not prosecuted: this is almost baroque, in its play of light and shadow, but typical: the law itself acknowledging the existence of the grey area. One does something because there is no explicit norm against it; but it doesn’t feel right, and the lurking fear of being held accountable remains, and instigates endless cover-up. Grey on grey: a dubious act, wrapped in equivocations. ‘The substantive conduct may be somewhat ambiguous’, a prosecutor put it a few years ago—ambiguous, because of the ‘fog of financialization’, ‘opaque data’, ‘dark pools’, ‘shadow banking’: fog, opaque, dark, shadows: all images of inextricable black and white. The initial act may be ambiguous, ‘but the obstructive conduct may be clear.’footnote4 The first move may remain forever undecidable: what followed it—the ‘lie’, as Ibsen calls it—that, is unmistakable.