Thursday, May 26, 2016

McCloskey Again: Why Not Call The Book "Bourgeois Rhetoric?"

Deirdre McCloskey has finished her magnum opus Bourgeois Trilogy with Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World. And now I've finished the book, all 787 pages.

Start over: Conservatism's Big Problem.

I'm afraid I have a problem. What was the point of the third volume? McCloskey has said it all already. Here is how I understood her message five years ago after Volume Two hit the stores, in answer to the question What did it? What made the Bourgeois Era?
The key thing that changed, according to McCloskey, was not technological change, but a cultural, rhetorical change. About three hundred years ago, around the North Sea, societies started to respect the commercial bourgeoisie and the things that it did. It allowed, for the first time, the bourgeoisie to do what comes naturally, to innovate and change things.
I already went through saying that I didn't think she had anything new to say a couple of days ago. But I hadn't quite finished the book, all 787 pages, back then.

So when I got to the end of the book, I read that the Bourgeois Revaluation "came out of a rhetoric that would, and will, enrich the world." You mean, just like she said back in 2010 in Bourgeois Dignity?

OK. So why not call the book "Bourgeois Rhetoric: How I am right and the Guys That Say It Was Capital or Institutions are Wrong." Because that's what the book is all about, picking fights with other academics and going into the long grass with the Oxford English Dictionary to show when "innovation" ceased being a pejorative.

I tell you what I am looking forward to. I am looking forward to the day when racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe is no longer a liberal pejorative, but a pathetic joke.

McCloskey invokes Edmund Burke as an enemy of innovation, which I regard as a bit of a low blow, perhaps intended to hit the nostaglic Russell Kirk. Burke wasn't opposed to innovation so much as opposed to "sophisters, economists, and calculators," the Newtonian mechanics of materialism. As an opponent of mechanism and materialism he was on McCloskey's side. And his life centered around four great campaigns that fit right into the Bourgeois culture: for Catholic emancipation in Ireland for which he lost his seat in Parliament representing the slave port of Bristol; for the anathematization of the plundering imperialist Warren Hastings; for letting the North American colonies go their own way; and for predicting that the French Revolution would end in the gallows. Nothing very innovative there, of course, just Russell Kirk presiding as a loving lord over his neo-feudal estate at Piety Hill.

Throughout the book McCloskey is likes to equate right wing with left wing opposition to her "trade-tested betterment." I suppose there are righties down the last two centuries that have pushed against the Great Enrichment, chaps like Carlyle and, in the last century, Russell Kirk of Mecosta, Michigan. But their influence has been minuscule compared with the influence of McCloskey's "post 1848 clerisy," the Left. To keep asserting "balance" by hitting the right and left equally is distracting, and pandering to the New York Times set ("My people" in The Bourgeois Virtues).

And here are some more problems that I have with McCloskey. She represents Zola's Germinal as anti-capitalist. So it is, perhaps, in a superficial reading. But in Germinal Zola humanizes the bourgeois owners of the coal mine who know and hate that they are hurting the miners. But prices are down, so what can they do? And √Čtienne, the community organizer that leads the miners in the strike that destroys their livelihood, leaves the miners at the end of the book and sets off for his next community organizing gig in another town. Did Zola nail the nascent left-wing "activism" culture or what? Maybe I am reading too much into it, for after all, Zola must know that bashing the bosses sells books.

In The Ladies Paradise (now a BBC TV series) McCloskey is equivocal, quoting a bit of anti-Semitism that may or may not come from Zola himself. The hero, M. Mouret, is a counter-jumper brimming with innovative ideas for bringing retailing into the 19th century and inventing that ladies' paradise, the big department store. Among other things, Mouret learns how to use the haute bourgeoisie, including a a rich-bitch mistress and a financier, to grow his business. The heroine, Denise, is the compleat bourgeoise, utterly principled and virtuous in the full seven virtues celebrated by McCloskey in The Bourgeois Virtues. McCloskey equivocates, but I experience The Ladies Paradise as a celebration of innovation and everything bourgeois even as it does not shrink from showing the miseries of the small shopkeepers, that Mouret sees as fools, driven to bankruptcy by the innovations of the big department store.

Another thing. The aristocracy 500 years ago was starting to move away from Hegel's pure Herrschaft. In England, once the Tudors had stripped them of their castles and their private armies, the aristocrats got interested in "improvement," making money by improving their agricultural estates and advancing the agricultural revolution that "hurled" the peasants off the land. So, by 1600 at the latest the landed warriors started to compete in the market economy for the wealth they needed to win at competitive social events in the courts of the absolute monarchs. So the rise of the bourgeoisie did not take place in a vacuum. The king's monopoly on armies meant that the warrior class had to diversify away from war-only. And it did.

But enough of cavil and calumny.

Even though Bourgeois Equality is heavy reading, and does not advance the narrative beyond the first two books, it does not subtract from McCloskey's overall achievement. The Great Enrichment of the last 200 years, that has brought each individual from $3 per day to $100 per day and more, is a stunning achievement, never seen before in history, and the bourgeoisie did it. This astonishing and unique event rests on bourgeois virtues and the culture of the bourgeoisie, that people should have a go at innovation and improvement, and that the established interests should not stand in their way, at least not much. That is something that needs to be said, over and over again, and McCloskey is not too shy to do it.

But what I was hoping for, as I read Bourgeois Equality and its occasional swipe at the lefty "post 1848 clerisy," was an analysis of the clerisy, some theory or depth of understanding that could help us all make sense of the left's negativism and its war on "trade tested betterment." I didn't find that, so I am still pushing my Three Peoples theory, with the People of the Creative Self descending into violence and compulsion to exercise their taste for creativity.

You see, if you have a yen to be creative you have two options. You can innovate and submit your innovation to the trade-testing of the market. Or you can declare war on society and force it to bend to your brilliant ideas. There are two ways to get to Scotland, the high road and the low road. The "post-1848 clerisy," the People of the Creative Self, chose the low road, and for sure, they got to Scotland before ye. But millions of people have suffered and died for their sins by the bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Cantrell,

    Well, you said it "cavil and calumny"! As to vol. 3 making no advances, perhaps you missed the 450 pages asking and answering how attitudes towards innovation and the bourgeoisie changed, 1500-1800. And you seem to have missed the main point of the book, and the main revision from the first two, namely, that it is in attitudes towards, not so much the behavior of, the bourgeoisie that the world was enriched.

    Our disappointments in each other are mutual. I expected a better reading from you!


    Deirdre McCloskey