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"Les Bourgeois, c'est comme les cochons" --Jacques Brel

This page Bourgeoisie is part of the politics series.Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.
This page Bourgeoisie is part of the politics series.
Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Bourgeoisie is a word from the French language, used in the fields of political economy, political philosophy, sociology, and history, which originally denoted the wealthy stratum of the middle class that originated during the latter part of the Middle Ages (AD 500–1500). The utilization and specific application of the word is from the realm of the social sciences.

In sociology and in political science, the noun bourgeoisie and the adjective bourgeois are terms that describe a historical range of socio-economic classes. As such, in the Western world, since the late 18th century, the bourgeoisie describes a social class “characterized by their ownership of capital, and their related culture”; hence, the personal terms bourgeois (masculine) and bourgeoise (feminine) culturally identify the man or woman who is a member of the wealthiest social class of a given society, and their materialistic worldview (Weltanschauung). In Marxist philosophy, the term bourgeoisie denotes the social class who owns the means of production and whose societal concerns are the value of property and the preservation of capital, in order to ensure the perdurance of their economic supremacy in society. Joseph Schumpeter instead saw the creation of new bourgeoisie as the driving force behind the Capitalist engine, particularly entrepreneurs who took risks in order to bring innovation to industries and the economy through the process of Creative Destruction.


Etymology and uses

Bourgeoisie is a French word that was borrowed directly into English in the specific sense described above. In the French feudal order pre-revolution, "bourgeois" was a class of citizens who were wealthier members of the Third Estate. The French word bourgeois evolved from the Old French word burgeis, meaning "an inhabitant of a town" (cf. Middle English burgeis, Middle Dutch burgher and German Bürger). The Old French word burgeis is derived from bourg, meaning a market town or medieval village, itself derived from Old Frankish burg, meaning "town".

The term bourgeoisie has been widely used as an approximate equivalent of upper class under capitalism. The word also evolved to mean merchants and traders, and until the 19th century was mostly synonymous with the middle class (persons in the broad socioeconomic spectrum between nobility and peasants or proletarians).

Academic concepts

Within Marxism and historical materialism

Marxism defines the bourgeoisie as the social class that owns the means of production in a capitalist society. As such, the core of the modern bourgeoisie is industrial bourgeoisie, which obtains income by hiring workers to put in motion their capital, which is to say, their means of production - machines, tools, raw material, etc. Besides that, other bourgeois sectors also exist, notably the commercial bourgeoisie, which earns income from commercial activities such as the buying and selling of commodities, wares and services.

In medieval times, the bourgeois was typically a self-employed proprietor, small employer, entrepreneur, banker or merchant. In industrial capitalism, on the other hand, the bourgeoisie becomes the ruling class - which means it also owns the bulk of the means of production (land, factories, offices, capital, resources - though in some countries land ownership would still be a monopoly of a different class, landed oligarchy) and controls the means of coercion (national armed forces, police, prison systems, court systems). Ownership of the means of production enables it to employ and exploit the work of a large mass of wage workers (the working class), who have no other means of livelihood than to sell their labour to property owners; while control over the means of coercion allows intervention during challenges from below. Marx distinguished between "functioning capitalists" actually managing enterprises, and others merely earning property rents or interest-income from financial assets or real estate (rentiers).

Marxism sees the proletariat (wage labourers) and bourgeoisie as directly waging an ongoing class struggle, in that capitalists exploit workers and workers try to resist exploitation. This exploitation takes place as follows: the workers, who own no means of production of their own, must seek employment in order to make a living. They get hired by a capitalist and work for him, producing some sort of goods or services. These goods or services then become the property of the capitalist, who sells them and gets a certain amount of money in exchange. Part of this money is used to pay workers' wages, another part is used to pay production costs, and a third part is kept by the capitalist in the form of profit (or surplus value in Marxist terms). Thus the capitalist can earn money by selling the surplus (profit) from the work of his employees without actually doing any work, or in excess of his own work. Marxists argue that new wealth is created through work; therefore, if someone gains wealth that he did not work for, then someone else works and does not receive the full wealth created by his work. In other words, that "someone else" is exploited. In this way, the capitalist might turn a large profit by exploiting workers.

Marx himself primarily used the term "bourgeois", with or without sarcasm, as an objective description of a social class and of a lifestyle based on ownership of private capital, not as a pejorative. He commended the industriousness of the bourgeoisie, but criticised it for its moral hypocrisy. This attitude is shown most clearly in the Communist Manifesto. He also used it to describe the ideology of this class; for example, he called its conception of freedom "bourgeois freedom" and opposed it to what he considered more substantive forms of freedom. He also wrote of bourgeois independence, individuality, property, family, etc.; in each case he referred to conceptions of these ideals which are compatible with condoning the existence of a class society.

Marxist and Anarchist perspectives

In the view of some 20th century Marxist currents, the nomenklatura or lower state bureaucrats in "communist states" were or are a state bourgeoisie presiding over a system of state capitalism. To some schools of anarchists, all prominent members, functionaries and leaders of any kind of state are part of this state bourgeoisie. According to these interpretations, the bourgeoisie is composed of any individuals who have exclusive control over the means of production, regardless of whether this control comes in the form of private ownership or state power.

Social history


During the 17th and 18th centuries, merchants, businessmen, lawyers, jurists, and physicians were the protagonists of political and economic change. Defining the uniform character of middle class in this period is difficult. The very term "middle class" was not used in all countries (not in England for example) and could indicate different subjects, referring variously to family origin, residence, or profession. In Geneva, a distinction existed between "citizens", who formed a closed hereditary caste and "bourgeois", the least enfranchised of the enfranchised classes.

In France, citizenship often depended on the period of residence in the city and not by social rank. Sometimes account was also taken of the wealth and property in the city itself. In other cases the word bourgeois indicates who lived in town and had substantial income.

In Venice, the citizens were a different order from the nobles and commoners, divided internally into three grades, based on origin, ownership and occupation.

During the 19th century and, more generally, with the development of Capitalist society, the word acquires a further sense, going to state, according to the teaching of Marxist doctrine, a particular social class, formed by the owners of the means of production.

Rise in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages and Early modern period

In the late Middle Ages, as cities were emerging, artisans and tradesmen began to emerge as both a physical and economic force. They formed guilds, associations and received charters for companies to conduct business and promote their own interests. These were the early bourgeoisie. In the late Middle Ages (the 14th and 15th centuries), they were the highest guildsmen and artisans, as evidenced in their ability to pay the fines for breaking sumptuary laws, and by paying to be called citizens of the city in which they lived. In fact the King of France granted nobility to all of the bourgeoisie of Paris in the late fourteenth century. They eventually allied with the kings in centralising power and uprooting feudal barriers against trade.

In the 17th and 18th century, the bourgeois supported the English revolution, American revolution and French revolution in overthrowing the laws and privileges of feudal order. These changes in property law cleared the way for the rapid expansion of commerce and the establishment of capitalist societies. With the expansion of commerce, trade, and the market economy, the bourgeoisie grew in size, influence, and power. In many countries, the aristocracy either transformed into essentially bourgeoisie rentiers, or found itself overthrown by a bourgeois revolution.

The bourgeoisie was never without critics. It was first accused of narrow-mindedness, materialism, hypocrisy, and lack of culture, among other things, by persons such as the playwright Truldière and the novelist Flaubert, who denounced its supposed banality and mercenary aspirations. The earliest recorded pejorative uses of the term "bourgeois" are associated with aristocratic contempt for the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. Successful embourgeoisement typically meant being able to retire and live on invested income.

Political triumph and "the end of history"

Success of bourgeois parliamentary institutions, and pro-bourgeois fascism, decline as proportion of population

Fascist Italy

The Italian fascist regime regarded the bourgeois as an obstacle of modernism because of its purported par excellence. The bourgeoisie and the bourgeois spirit were exploited, with the latter being used to manipulate the public. For example, Benito Mussolini, in a 1938 speech, voiced the clear distinction between capitalism and the bourgeoisie, in which case he described the bourgeoisie as a moral category, a state of mind. He possessed the articulateness to singlehandedly isolate the bourgeoisie as a parasitic entity of the state that is draining the state of potentiality because of its materialistic, hedonistic approach to life. This principle was condensed in the slogan "The Fascist man disdains the «comfortable» life". In the final years of the regime, interests of Catholic circles and that of Benito Mussolini merged. During this period, one priest who founded the journal Frontespizio, Giuseppe De Luca, declared that:

"Christianity is essentially anti-bourgeois .... A Christian, a true Christian and thus a Catholic, is the opposite of a bourgeois."

The bourgeois was perceived by some as unmanly, effeminate, and infantile, as shown in the following quote:

"Middle class, middle man, incapable of great virtue or great vice: and there would be nothing wrong with that if only he would be willing to remain as such; but when his childlike or feminine tendency to camouflage pushes him to dream of grandeur, honours, and thus riches, which he cannot achieve honestly with his own 'second-rate' powers, then the average man compensates with cunning, schemes, and mischief; he kicks out ethics and becomes a bourgeois. The bourgeois is the average man who does not accept to remain such and who, lacking the strength sufficient for the conquest of essential values - those of the spirit - opts for material ones, for appearances."

The economic freedom and mobility as exemplified by the bourgeois posed a direct threat to the integrity of the fascist regime. If and when the bourgeois gain power, there is the potential loss of control and unity as maintained by the state, so this is seen as threatening by Mussolini and his followers. To become bourgeois was still a fault pertaining to the masculine mystique: not by change, shortly after, the bourgeois was scornfully defined as someone who was "spiritually castrated".

Bourgeois culture

Schnitzler's Century, Some common misconceptions on Victorian morality, Bourgeoisophobe

Marxism describes human culture as being subject to a dominant ruling-class culture, in this sense all modern industrial cultures are currently bourgeois cultures. However, in a more precise manner, a set of shared cultural mores have been attributed internationally to the bourgeois, many having their apparent origins in the shop culture of early modern France. This was ridiculed at length in the Emile Zola novel series, Les Rougon-Macquart. Most noted features of domestic bourgeois culture focus on the central cultural space of the sitting room, and English bourgeois culture is often attacked as a sitting-room culture. Bourgeois material culture has focused on mass-produced, high-quality luxury items, though the material content of this has varied over time. The painted porcelain, machine-printed wallpaper and cotton fabrics, and Sheffield steel of the early nineteenth century have given way to luxury consumer items and contemporary conspicuous consumption. These items are often displayed wealth, rather than used wealth as in nineteenth-century working-class homes. In the past, display of wealth involved cluttered small rooms. However, in the contemporary era this display involves large expanses of open space in the domestic setting.

Bourgeois mentality

Much of the earlier mentality can be viewed through the two key spatial constructs: the shop display, and the sitting room. (Walter Benjamin. Arcades Project) In English, the term "sitting-room culture" is a synonym for bourgeois mentality. This cultural view is associated with Victorianism, in particular the repression of emotional and sexual desires, and the construction of an intensely regulated social space where the key desirable personal trait is propriety.

Sociologists such as Paula LeMasters have identified progressive values such as respect for non-conformity, self-direction, autonomy, gender equality and openness to innovation as middle class values in child-raising. Many values identified as belonging to the middle classes may be related to the needs of middle-class professions. Self-control, advanced expertise, as well as innovation are commonly important to succeeding in middle-class occupations.

Representation in literature and film

A famous early satire of certain aspects of the bourgeois personality is Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Molière. The bourgeois is a recurring subject matter for Buñuel especially evident in the films Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie and the surrealist masterpiece L'Âge d'Or.

Use as a pejorative

Within the socialist movement

In the rhetoric of some Communist parties, "bourgeois" is sometimes used as a pejorative, and those who are perceived to collaborate with the bourgeoisie are called its lackeys. Socialists, especially Marxists, have multiple uses for the term: the original meaning, the social class of capitalists, and the pejorative. Something or someone described as bourgeois means that something or someone is superficial, pedestrian, banal and concerned with only the material.

Within the United States

In the United States—outside of Marxism and anarchism —the word bourgeois often refers to the social stereotype of the high classes, particularly stock traders. It was associated with consumerist lifestyles often emphasising conspicuous consumption and material status.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Bourgeoisie" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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