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Decline and Fall

Frank Lee examines the strange death of the bourgeois intellectual.

"The class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie." John Maynard Keynes, Am I a Liberal, 1925

Keynes, brilliant Cambridge graduate and subsequently Fellow of Kings College, successful investor, renowned aesthete and leading member of the Bloomsbury group, bohemian, bi-sexual and celebrated épatant was what we would have once called a bourgeois intellectual. The strange thing was that he was not initially interested in economics. He graduated in mathematics and philosophy and was primarily interested in art, philosophy, literature and general lifestyle issues. However, the first World War followed by the Treaty of Versailles and the ensuing economic and political turbulence of the 20s and 30s, convinced him that political struggle was unavoidable.

This struggle was necessary to establish economic and political stability which was, as Keynes saw it, the absolute precondition for the pursuit, of these higher aims. Keynes saw nothing systemically wrong with capitalism - nothing that could not be solved by the right personnel and the right policies. He firmly believed that as an engine of economic growth capitalism was about the best system on offer. As the (post-Gladstonian) liberals - Keynes, Beveridge, Lloyd George - saw it the problem with capitalism was with its random and unequal distribution (which tended to cause chronic instability), combined with its tendency to wreak social and environmental havoc. He wrote that "decadent but individualistic capitalism ... is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous - and it doesn't deliver the goods." (The Yale Review 1933)

Keynes' view was that capitalism's travails were due to the stupidity of the capitalist class. This ingrained boneheadedness was he thought due to the hereditary principle. He wrote: "The hereditary principle in the transmission of wealth and the control of business is the reason why the leadership of the capitalist cause is weak and stupid ... Nothing will cause a social institution to decay with more certainty than its attachment to the hereditary principle".

Moreover these bovine proclivities were not peculiar to the captains of industry. They were also shared by the Treasury, Bank of England, the City of London and most of economic academia.

Keynes' self-belief was such that he was quite prepared to take on this formidable coalition. His long struggle eventuated in the publication of probably his most important work: The General Theory Employment Interest and Money (1936). The policies outlined in the book as well as during his time in the Treasury, where he was an official until his death in 1946, laid the basis of what was to become known as the 'Keynesian revolution'. After a trial run in Roosevelt's New Deal America during the 1930s, these prescriptions become standard economic policy throughout the capitalist world post-1945. It should be stated at this point, however, that both demand management and fiscal fine tuning which became the standard macroeconomic instruments of western governments during this time fell a long way short of what Keynes actually wanted.

For all of his fulminations against the feeble-mindedness of the bourgeois class, however, he was nonetheless still a member of that class. One is not necessarily damned for being middle-class; after all most great theorists of socialism are drawn from this particular social stratum. But Keynes was consciously striving to protect the capitalist system. As bourgeois intellectual he argued against the prevalent beliefs, worldview and value-system of the middle and upper strata. In so doing he articulated - opposition notwithstanding - the long-term and objective interests of the bourgeois class. His great historical achievement was to save capitalism from itself. Moreover we should also be in no doubt about his hostility to socialism: "How can I adopt a creed (socialism) which preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement." (A Short View of Russia -1925)And again: "Ought I ... to join the Labour Party ? There are great difficulties. To begin with it is a class party, and that class is not my class.' (Am I A Liberal).

In a similar vein other bourgeois intellectuals took a sober and realistic view of the capitalist system and its leaders. The great German social theorist Max Weber argued in a parallel manner. "I am a member of the bourgeois class: I feel myself to be such and have been brought up on its opinions and ideals. But it is the solemn vocation of our science to say things which people will not like to hear ... When I ask myself, (is) the German bourgeoisie at present ready to be the dominant political class ... I cannot at present answer 'Yes'. (The National Interest in Imperial Germany 1895). Weber also opposed Bismarck's anti-socialist laws, not out of any love for socialism, but because he thought that the SPD would be more effectively neutered through incorporation into the bourgeois state. Direct political repression was likely to be counter-productive. The SPD should be unbanned, allowed to participate in Parliament, and allowed participate in the institutions of civil society ..."then it would be shown that social-democracy is not conquering city and state, but on the contrary that city and state is conquering social-democracy." Clever stuff this.

Earlier still John Stuart Mill had also expressed strong misgivings about the rapacious nature of undiluted Manchester capitalism: "I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each others heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or any but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress." (Principles of Political Economy).

The message seems clear enough. Free-market capitalism lacked moral legitimacy and undermined social stability; it subverted everything it touched and created conditions which if left unchecked will result in some sort of social, political, or more recently, environmental crisis. In such a crisis the bourgeoisie and their system may be deposed. Therefore, argue the reformers, capitalism, must for its own good, be controlled. Turning again to Keynes:

"I would like to warn the gentlemen of the City and High Finance, that if they do not listen in time to the voice of reason their days may be numbered. I prophesy that unless they embrace wisdom in good time, the system on which they live will work so very ill that they will be overwhelmed by irresistible things that they hate much more than the mild and limited remedies offered them now." (Collected Works xix).

The Thatcher counter-revolution of 1979 gave short-shrift to these sentiments and was directed as much against such liberal reformers as it was against socialism. Mrs. T was herself the archetypal provincial petty-bourgeois. Her project was underpinned with a belief-system - it is much too crude to merit the description of 'ideology' - which might best be described as a re-envenomed Poujadism of the most reactionary type. Also included were the archaic postulates of 18/19th century political economy plus the nonsensical monetarist nostrums of Milton Friedman. This mish-mash of half-truths, middle-class folklore and outright prejudices was then promoted by right-wing think tanks, politicians, businessmen and media moguls.

Amazingly this balderdash became ascendant and consolidated itself as the conventional wisdom. This was only made possible, however, by the craven capitulation of people who ought to have known better. The sight of University Chancellors, Heads of Nationalised Industries and Public Coroporations, heads of the Civil Service, public broadcasting luminaries, those with responsibility for the arts, journals and journalists, and above all the leaders of the Labour Party - vast swathes of late capitalism's middle and upper strata - falling into line and extolling the virtues of free-market has been one of the most abject betrayals and desolate spectacles of the post-war period.

We are presently confronted by a system of market totalitarianism that tolerates no opposition and which has seeped into every corner of political and civil society. This market fundamentalism can be heard in its unreconstructed form from spokespersons such as Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors, or in the bar at the Purley Oaks Rotary Club.

In the public sector the language and ethos of the private sector are similarly all the rage; here there are business plans, arbitrarily imposed targets, performance indicators, audits, appraisals and assessments of various kinds. Fuddy-duddy notions of public service, duty, and the public good have all but disappeared from public discourse. The leadership of New Labour is unquestionably convinced that in essentials Lady Thatcher was right. This explains their enthusiasm for free-markets, privatisation, PPP, deregulation and the rest of the neo-liberal package. To be sure the focus is slightly softer, but the difference is essentially one of degree. Both the far-right and the centre-right (New Labour) continue to live in the shadow of the handbag.

In an age like ours when the cultural and political agenda is set to the lowest common denominator we might ask where are the great and the good? Keynes' 'educated bourgeoisie' seem noticeably absent. The truth is that the great social-democratic and liberal reform movement of the 20th century has disintegrated. Lunchtime O'Booze (of Private Eye fame) aka Murdoch, Berlusconi, Bertelesmann, Turner et al. now determine, both the style and parameters of the debate. These are the soi-disant Guardians of Newspeak and globcap. Given this hegemony of what John Stuart Mill once called 'the stupid party' the global crisis, in all its multidimensional aspects, will surely accelerate.

Bertrand Russell once wrote of the bourgeoisie and capitalism that "The present holders of power are evil men, and the present manner of life is doomed." (The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920). This is truer now than it was then. It is axiomatic that contemporary capitalism is unable to produce any critical thinkers, or if it does then it is unprepared to listen to them. This is surely an indication that the system is both morally and intellectually bankrupt, and historically obsolete. It seems clear from the contemporary situation that if humanity is to have future then the present dispensation can have none.


January/February 2001