From their teachings, the word ‘bourgeois’ came to carry connotations of decadence and conservatism, conjuring up images of fat, wealthy owners of big businesses, with gold chains around their necks and a disdain for anything ‘below them’ in society. This image was a handy tool used by socialist demagogues1 in the Cold War, to demonise the capitalists on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
But Marx was actually quite an admirer of the bourgeoisie. They were the first people to discover their political identity and significance, demanding of the aristocracy the power to rule that was rightfully theirs.
Evading the Lord
In the days before democracy and capitalism, the Old World (Europe) was ruled by the aristocracy. This class consisted of kings, queens and noblemen, who generally lived in castles and led lives of opulence while the rest of the people served them as subjects, slaving away night and day in the fields to please their lord. We roughly refer to this age as Medieval, and it lasted from around 500 to 1500 AD. Simplified here, this state of affairs is called feudalism.
Around the end of these Middle Ages, something began to stir. People were travelling the countryside, selling objects, from tools and trinkets to information about faraway places. These people were merchants, and because of their travelling life and their value as tradesmen, they were largely left alone by the lords and kings.
In a sense, they grew quite powerful because of this, but because of their constant travels they could not really take root in society to exert much influence on it. It wasn’t until the invention of city walls and the safety they provided, that the aristocracy had any real reason to feel threatened.
Born Within the Walls
Walled cities were like castles, only with a much larger number of people in them, and no lord. City walls kept out the local lords, and after a while the significance of some cities grew so large, they were granted ‘city rights’ – the most important one being the right to self-governance. Lords in whose territory such cities arose had little option in this.
In a city, people did things that had nothing to do with working for the nobility. Cities were basically large protected market places, catering to the travelling merchants who came to sell, and to those in the region who came to town to buy.
Eventually, people who came to buy stayed in the city, and started making things to sell as well. Craftsmen, blacksmiths, keepers of inns and taverns, they stuck around and didn’t go back to the fields to slave for the lord. The walls around the city protected them from any lord who would try to get at them, leaving the noblemen no choice but to let them govern themselves.
This was actually democracy in a primitive form. On the one hand, there were citizens with a say in how their city was governed, yet on the other, there was still a large tribute to be paid to the lords. The grip of the latter was, however, was weakening.
The people who lived in these cities, protected from the lords, made money. Not only that, but they also officially owned what they bought or used to work with, or the houses they lived in. This was a tremendous change, since before that, everything belonged to the local lord, even the people themselves. But people who went to live in cities became free – free to buy and sell and own. What they earned and owned, they could re-invest in their livelihood2, and so they came to possess and earn more and more.
Eventually, cities became home to people who owned more than the lords around them, and they were becoming a force to be reckoned with. They were people with political significance, but not of the nobility. They were citizens in England, burghers in Holland, or bourgeois in France3.
Private Lives, Public Power
These citizens, with their growing wealth, came to be in a situation where they no longer had to slave many hours of every day to survive. They began to develop a private life, which was nobody’s business but their own. They began to enjoy freedom and spare time, the time to have fun, read, write, and think about what was going on; how they were governed, how they should be governed, who should govern them, or whether it would be better if perhaps they were the ones who governed. These are what we now call public issues and they were discussed in the public sphere.
This, too, was a change, since before, there had been no question about who was to rule – that was the Divine Right of the King and the nobility. You were either born a ruler, or you weren’t. That idée fixe changed, and suddenly Divine Right was no longer so logical anymore. There were people who were thinking about public issues, writing about them convincing others, and they were developing public lives apart from their private ones.
This meant more change. The lives of the aristocracy were always in the public arena, from waking up to going to bed. Waking up involved a ritual called the ‘lever’ during which a number of lesser noblemen would take turns at the ruler’s bedside, to plead various public issues (when going to bed, the ritual was called ‘coucher’). The role of the aristocracy was to rule and this meant to continuously pass judgment on public issues. This is in contrast to their subjects, who had nothing to do with public matters and thus can be said to have lived all-private lives.
What is the Bourgeoisie?
The bourgeoisie was a class of people who were not of the nobility, but did come to have a significance where public issues were involved. They were the people who brought about democracy.
Today, there are ongoing procedures in the world which are not only limiting the time and opportunity normal people have to think about public issues, but are also restricting the public sphere in which people voice their opinions. Other people are starting to live lives again that can be considered all-public, like movie stars, or the presidents of large countries.
These developments are causing democracy to decline. If they are to be reversed, then surely we should acknowledge their presence and understand their importance to the democracy Westerners like to enjoy.
1 A demagogue is someone who uses strong images and words to incite crowds of people.
2 The basic process of capitalism, by the way: reinvesting what you earn into your business.
3 In France, the word citoyen also exists, this simply means ‘someone who lives in a city’.