The Right Doesn’t Know What the Word “Bourgeois” Means

by Benjamin Studebaker

A friend of mine sent me a link to a bizarre opinion piece by Robert Woodson published in The Wall Street Journal. In the piece, Woodson claims that “black Americans need bourgeois norms”. He echoes and cites an earlier piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, which argues:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.

This argument is instructively bad for many reasons. (Are bourgeois values even something we want?) But today I want to focus on the fact that the right seems to have forgotten what the word “bourgeois” means and where “bourgeois values” come from.

The word “bourgeois” generally means “belonging to or characteristic of the middle class”. Marxist theorists have often used it more specifically, to refer to those things which are characteristic of the “bourgeoisie,” the class which owns the means of production. But whether you use the term broadly or specifically, it’s a class-centred term. People become “bourgeois” because they are part of a particular socioeconomic class. The bourgeois are materially comfortable. They tend to be conservative because they don’t have large economic problems to deal with. They don’t need big, bold solutions because their problems are mundane and small. Conservatism doesn’t make people comfortable–comfort makes people conservative.

So when these conservative writers claim that “bourgeois values” are slipping, the explanation for why ought to be intuitive–if there are fewer people in the middle class and if more people are experiencing serious economic hardship, then there are fewer bourgeois people and weaker bourgeois values. You can’t have strong bourgeois values without a large bourgeoisie, you can’t have strong middle class values without a middle class. If you’re concerned about bourgeois values, the sensible thing is to investigate which economic and political forces are pushing people out of the middle class. For instance, we might notice that real (inflation-adjusted) median household income has been largely stagnant since the turn of the century:


We might think of all sorts of economic factors that could contribute to this–the weakening of the unions, the erosion of the welfare state, cuts to public services, outsourcing and disadvantageous trading arrangements, automation, there are lots of things at work.

But these people don’t think about that stuff. Instead they assume that bourgeois values somehow disappeared first, and that it was the loss of these values which brought economic and sociological ruin to the American middle class. Say Wax and Alexander:

This cultural script began to break down in the late 1960s. A combination of factors — prosperity, the Pill, the expansion of higher education, and the doubts surrounding the Vietnam War — encouraged an antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment ideal — sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll — that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society. This era saw the beginnings of an identity politics that inverted the color-blind aspirations of civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into an obsession with race, ethnicity, gender, and now sexual preference.

And those adults with influence over the culture, for a variety of reasons, abandoned their role as advocates for respectability, civility, and adult values. As a consequence, the counterculture made great headway, particularly among the chattering classes — academics, writers, artists, actors, and journalists — who relished liberation from conventional constraints and turned condemning America and reviewing its crimes into a class marker of virtue and sophistication.

In their story, bourgeois values are lost not because people fall out of the middle class but because of four factors:

  1. Excess prosperity
  2. Access to the pill
  3. Excess university education
  4. Vietnam

The story doesn’t make sense–bourgeois values are the values you tend to have if you’re upper middle class. The upper middle class is prosperous and it tends to value university education. More prosperity and more university education would bring more people into the upper middle class, not less. Access to the pill and Vietnam did not in themselves impact in any obvious way decrease the number of middle class people. If anything, access to the pill helps more low income families avoid having children they can’t afford. That ought to make it easier for them to become middle class, not harder.

The right is putting the cart before the horse. The truth is that insofar as bourgeois values have eroded, they have eroded because the middle class has eroded, and it’s the right that has eroded the middle class by destroying the complex economic systems which helped many Americans to succeed in the 50s and 60s–the unions, the public education system, the minimum wage and labor laws, the welfare state, and so on. The bottom 50% of Americans have seen their share of national income decrease by almost half since the 1970s and the middle 40% of Americans have seen their share of national income decrease by 5 points:

All the while, the top 10% and top 1% have seen their shares rise. When people see themselves falling behind, they’re likely to problematize their economic situations, and that means they’ll be looking for grand solutions. People who are looking for grand solutions are not going to embody the conservative bourgeois values of the comfortable class. If the right is wondering “who killed bourgeois values?” they need to look in the mirror, because it’s the same people who deprived millions of Americans of the comfort and security they needed to accommodate themselves to the prevailing social order in the first place.

When people become rebellious and anti-establishment, it’s because they’re not getting something they need. Instead of looking for unmet needs, the right wants to scold victims, to run into a wall, to scream into the void. You can’t bring back middle class values without bringing back the middle class. Values are produced by conditions–and not the other way around.