Plumb Lines

March 26, 2009

RE: The Stability of the Middle Classes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 11:55 am

David says that Lukacs (for whom I’ve gained a lot of respect and affection) gives the bourgeois too much credit for creating a stable social order:

There is a distinction between experienced instability and actual instability, and another distinction between personal instability and structural instability. The bourgeois order doesn’t care much about experienced and personal instability, but it systematically minimizes actual and structural instability. People worry when they personally experience instability, which they do when they see their most basic cultural suppositions (that marriage is the union of complementary sexes, say) undermined and destroyed over the course of a decade, or even more quickly. Fortunately, defenders of the bourgeois order can rush to their rescue by posing as agents of reaction, promising to deliver them from the vertigo of personal instability by delivering our society more wholly up to the mercilessly stable, mercilessly disciplined economic system that created their personal instability in the first place.

What I’ve read of Lukacs suggests that he is very anti-liberal. He would probably agree that there is a lot of truth to David’s structural critiques. I don’t know how a naive “good old-fashioned” liberal could have the reverence for Wendell Berry Lukacs displays. But two crucial aspects of Lukacs’ thought are anti-reductionism and the determination to treat persons and ideas with a sympathetic regard for their complexity. I quote from one of the last paragraphs in Last Rites: “One last remark: The bourgeois: their hypocrisies, their materialism, their shallowness, the mental wasteland of the hollow men–all true, but altogether not true enough.”

That is, if you immerse yourself in the study of the lives and writings of so many of these people, like Orwell or the Pennsylvania Impressionists, you will often find a deeply attractive and honorable human ideal that one could not plausibly dismiss as mere rationalization of an economic order.

Elements of that ideal are worth preserving when we are deciding how to live our lives in the present mess. That a man should aim to settle down on his own house with a domestic, soft-spoken, but strong and intelligent woman and have many children and grandchildren; that he should be proud to be good at his job and kind and helpful to his neighbors; that he should make time to paint, pick up a new language, read some Livy, plant a vegetable garden, take tea at four, visit his parents in the country one Sunday a month; that at the end of the day he should recline with a pipe, a stiff drink, and the nightly news on the radio; that at the end of the week he should worship his God in his community using old, sonorous phrases; that at the end of his life he should be buried in his family plot, and that at the end of her life his wife should be buried next to him–perhaps many details of this distinctly bourgeois, English idyll are unthinkable without a capitalist order that undermines it in the long run, but one should give the ideal, and the people who held it, their due.

The stability of prevailing ideas of gender, family life, personal virtue, etc., was the taken-for-granted background of this vision of human flourishing. To attack these things was not, as many bourgeois (rightly or wrongly) saw it, to initiate a new stage in the inevitable development of their social order towards perfect rationalization, but to attack a prime pillar of their social order.

-Keith Staples

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