Saturday, February 11, 2017
"We Are All Bourgeois!" - No Escape Clause, No Exit
The Lessons, therefore, were no different than millions of Americans who have the same fears and aspirations.
Those who have the misfortune to be trapped in one of the lower echelons and who have no choice but to shop at Piggly Wiggly and the Dollar Store have no such concerns or ambitions. There isn’t much air between their rung and the next one below and a step down would be more like tripping rather than falling.
As far as aspirations are concerned, a few dollars more per pay check would help, and move up to Assistant Floor Manager although unlikely, great. ‘Lives of quiet desperation’ is far too poetic for life on the lower rungs; and ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ far to cynical and hopeless.
The point is that for better or worse, those Americans without much hope of achieving the American dream, let alone having a tiny nibble, are at least freed from social vanity.
Classical Hinduism is built around the principle of maya. Life is an illusion, without value or substance. The goal of anyone born into it is to escape its seductive temptations and to strive for spiritual evolution, to a place of universal permanence and spiritual reality.
The Aryans who invaded the subcontinent from the Central Asian steppes may have created the caste system as a way of controlling the subjugated population – introducing a religious system that placed personal salvation above material demands – but most scholars agree that Hinduism went far beyond such secular and political considerations.
The first chapter of the Gospel of John echoes the sentiments of the Vedas enunciated thousands of years before, suggesting being before being, a permanent universal wisdom, logos, or completeness.
In other words, post-modern deconstruction aside, Hinduism offers a sophisticated and complex socio-religious system designed to keep vanity and illusory temptations to a minimum; and ones mind entirely on escaping the perennial enslavement of rebirth.
Many foreign critics disagree. The caste system is still what the Aryan conquerors envisioned – a way of keeping a potentially restive population in its place. There is no dignity in being poor, without economic hope, and living imprisoned within a caste.
Hindus and Eastern philosophers beg to differ. The meaninglessness of an ambitious life – one focused on gain, mobility, attractiveness, and success – will eventually become obvious. Faced with eternity, the dying man has no thoughts of missed opportunities.
The point is not that poverty is a good thing or a necessary state for spiritual evolution; but that it can be. Jesus’ aphorism about the rich man, the camel, and the eye of the needle did not so much condemn wealth and privilege; but advised that the insistent focus on material things would necessarily deflect man from the acquisition of true wealth – that of the Kingdom of God.
The poor man might suffer penury and disease; but these would be short-lived and temporary. His attention to his soul would pay eventual and permanent rewards.
If there is any advantage in poverty say the Bible and the Vedas, it is that one, freed from illusory ambition, has a a better opportunity for spiritual attainment than one whose attention is diverted by it.
Getting back to Margo Lesson, she and her family were as un-Vedic as could possibly be. If they had read Matthew 19:24, they either ignored it or misunderstood it. They had swallowed the American myth of success hook, line, and sinker.
They were attentive to every detail of those who lived on higher rungs and tried to imitate them in every way. Unfortunately they overlooked the sad consequences of breeding. No matter how much those lower down try to mimic those above them, they always fail miserably. No matter how much Margo’s parents may have tried to expunge every trace of bourgeois taste, attitude, and behavior from their family, their house was still over-designed, the living room too much of a parlor, their expensive cars too obvious, and their books middle-brow and common.
The sad part is that the Lessons had no idea that their life was uber-bourgeois. Mrs. Lesson’s fashion was years démodé and yet she paraded it. Mr. Lesson’s savoir-faire jauntiness was a gross caricature of the Great Gatsby, Ronald Colman, and some idea of Philadelphia Main Line sophistication.
The point is, however, not to knock the Lessons or the tens of millions of Americans locked into a culturally mediocre life from which there is no exit nor no escape clause; but to acknowledge it.
The more America has become a multi-cultural, diverse, and culturally crowded nation, the old elite – the Rittenhouse Square, Park Avenue, Georgetown, Beacon Hill, Pacific Heights crowd has diminished in numbers and in influence. The ethos of old wealth – tasteful acquisitions and appointments; unassuming dress; simple, practical meals; and a preference for proven, traditional, and trans-historical works of art, literature, and music – is gone. Dead and buried. Not even imitated anymore.
“We are all bourgeois!” Democracy has indeed worked to level the playing field; and American-style enterprise and ambition has served the Republic well. We are more of a classless society than ever before; and despite laments over divisiveness, we have never been more cohesive.
The consumer culture, always a feature in America, has no become all-inclusive. Capitalism has always encouraged the middle-of-the road, the commonly-believed, universal aspirations, and uniform ambition. It is far easier to understand and sell to those of common background and purpose than it is to segment and niche-sell.
Of course on the surface specialized marketing is the new mantra of business. Cookies and the Internet have enabled marketers to know how we behave by city, by zip code and by neighborhood. Yet because we are all so subsumed within a bourgeois, aspirational society; and because we have all so willingly bought into the value of bourgeois behavior, there is no competition – the hippie movement came and went; religious fundamentalism is wealth-based; and asceticism and hermitage things of the past. America is the least diverse nation on earth.
Given the rise of the bourgeoisie in India, it is clear that the old tenets of the Upanishads for caste-defined spiritual evolution have finally gone by the wayside. No culture has managed to keep bourgeois capitalism at bay. China is still Communist, but as maniacally bourgeois as any. Russia may be an autocracy, but the bourgeois tastes of the oligarchs rule the culture.
A capitalist’s dream – selling bourgeois taste all over the world to hundreds of millions of like-minded consumers.
A serviceable description of the bourgeoisie is that of a large group of people, regardless of country or national origin who like things, material wealth, and observable expressions of it; are neither stupid nor particularly bright; neither spiritually moved nor indifferent to religion; family-oriented but known to stray; drinkers but not alcoholics….The list could go on; but the most telling characteristic of the bourgeoisie is not what its members do or acquire; but how they think.
Thornton Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class over 125 years ago and in it he exposited his theory of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – that materialistic desire to imitate those of a higher socio-economic and cultural class. The fact that his theory is obvious and still valid is not the issue. The fact that we have become a universally bourgeois society, all grappling upwards for the same rewards, is news.
Marketers have been geniuses at understanding the weaknesses of the American consumer – particular the herd instincts of socio-cultural subgroups within the bourgeoisie. It is no coincidence that a few years ago there were nothing but Volvo station wagons in Upper Northwest Washington, an upper-middle class enclave of the capital. Nor is it surprising now that hybrids have replaced them en masse.
It is no surprise that this quadrant of the District voted 99.99 percent for Hillary Clinton in the last election. A vote for her was as much a signifier of wealth and sophisticated insight as the purchase of energy-efficient vehicles.
No matter where one sits on the traditional socio-economic spectrum, and no matter what one’s individual preferences might be, the pressure to conform to the group is as strong now as it was in Veblen’s time.
To aspire, to conform, to march with the herd, to be ‘a regular guy’, to color within the lines, to march to the same drummer is what the bourgeoisie is all about.
Intemperance is only temporary. Gay men protested for decades to be respected and included in American society are now subscribing to the most bourgeois institution on the planet – marriage. The most marginalized if not alienated group in America – African Americans – have once again emptied into the streets ostensibly to demand the justice and equality which still eludes them but really to be able to do what the rest of us do – buy cool things on credit, have marble floors, heated pools, palm trees, and home entertainment centers.
A friend of mine recently told me of a restaurant ‘find’. This place, he said, was still undiscovered, tucked away in one of the still sketchy neighborhoods of Washington, half-safe but worth the risk. The chef was apparently a genius, the food innovative and remarkable, and the atmosphere real.
A few days later he reported his disappointment. Not only had the restaurant been ‘found’, everyone in there looked like him.
We are all bourgeois and now have a quintessentially bourgeois President in the White House. He is all we could ever want – billions of dollars, homes all over the world, a trophy wife, popularity, glitz, and realized dreams. Gripers should go home. They, after all, are no different than Donald Trump.