The Betrayal of the Western Middle Classes

The middle classes, together with the intellectuals, could be said to epitomize Western Civilization.  Both are uniquely Western phenomena, not only because they embody the strengths of the West -- creativity, rationality, and individualism -- but also the weaknesses of our culture. This last point has never been sufficiently explored on the right, and certainly not in the movements that want to bring the expansion of Islam and all kinds of progressivism to a halt.  But if we really want to understand the predicament of our civilization, we must first understand the sociology of the middle classes and the intelligentsia, and that sociology's connection to history and current developments.

The middle classes constitute the greatest strength of the West, since they are the productive class. We have all heard or read about the laudable characteristics of the “mercantile spirit”: thrift, calculation, rationality, and so forth. But throughout history these very assets of the middle classes have often put them at a disadvantage.  The bourgeoisie and “moneyed interest” flourished in Europe under the tutelage of absolutist monarchy, and in continental Europe took power in sudden and often brutal upheavals like the French revolution.  This is no coincidence: the first business of the middle classes was always business, not government or the moral underpinning of government.  However, the problem was that the middle classes felt that their wealth and growing significance in society entitled them to occupy the seat of power. This claim was certainly justified in itself, but the result was that -- at least in continental Europe -- a bourgeoisie came to power that essentially saw government in terms of the account book, and not in the proper terms of legitimacy, morality, and realism.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the deficiencies of middle class rule became all too clear. Or rather, it became clear the middle classes did not have any moral defense against all kinds of adversaries, like socialism and nationalism. Worse still, the middle classes were always eager to follow the intellectual lead of the leftist intelligentsia, and dreaded being considered unfashionable or “petit bourgeois” for not kowtowing to “progressive” writers, social critics, and artists. In fact, the historical episode that saw the birth and fashioning of the modern political landscape foreshadowed this evolution. The French revolution was brought about by two classes: the bourgeoisie, who wanted to seize the state from the absolute monarchy and aristocracy, and the intellectuals, who saw power as a vehicle for their Utopian schemes. Since merely craving power for yourself has never been an argument to convince others to support your revolution, the bourgeoisie depended on the Utopian moral message of the intellectuals to attain its goals. When the moneyed interest sensed that the Utopians were going too far, and were trying to establish a totalitarian state, the intellectuals were thrown out at the coup of Thermidor. The condition of France since that event has also been the condition of the West. Nobody doubts that capitalism and the “mercantile spirit” are the only viable options for our economies, but nobody tried to provide a moral underpinning for this practical insight. On the moral plain, there has never been any coherent answer to progressive morality for the last two hundred years.

Thus was born the typical mindset that still characterizes the middle classes: the heart to the left, the wallet to the right.  Marx made no distinction between capitalism and cronyism, and one of the reasons he did not do so was because the bourgeoisie themselves never saw the difference. The mercantile spirit is dedicated to the pursuit material profit, and since this attitude does not have a real moral component, the bourgeoisie seldom distinguishes between legitimate and ill-gotten gains. The result was the familiar condition of Western countries today. Ayn Rand said that the pair that most characterized the twentieth century were “Attila and the Witch doctor”. This is not mere hyperbole. When government became more centralized at the end of the nineteenth century, and progressive ideologies began to challenge the free market, the most powerful business and banking interests made the most of the new order. They aligned themselves with politicians and intellectuals. The implicit deal, as Rand made clear, was that the intellectuals (“Witch doctors”) could impose their Utopian schemes on the people, while the moneyed interest and professional politicians (Attila's) could tax them at heart's desire.

The consequences have not only been internally disastrous, but have also inflicted irrevocable damage to our culture's capacity for self-defense.  In the face of Islamic and other non-Western aggression, the only thing the business interests can do is meekly follow the fashionable lead of the progressives, which is often easy because immigration and trade bring them short-term material gains. The middle classes in general have the same problem. In a certain sense, they have never grown out of the nineteenth century. They keep on believing that all international questions can be solved by the panacea of “peace through free trade”. Since their only goal in life is having a good job and living in a decent neighborhood, they imagine the whole world shares these goals.  Ideology and culture do not exist in this universe of purely rational actors: if communists or Muslims try to establish their rule over the world, that must be because we oppress them or because they are poor. Of course, under the surface of this middle class smugness the uncomfortable truth always lurks that perhaps the world does not at all conform to this handy scheme. But the thing to understand about the middle classes is that they want peace and quiet; they want to get on with their lives. From time to time, they enjoy moral posturing by adopting the false causes of the left: hatred of Israel, of “American imperialism” and so on. For a brief moment, they can fancy themselves real crusaders, although in reality they are crusaders without opponents.  But acknowledging the real injustices perpetrated in the world today, such as persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the anti-Semitic incidents committed by Muslims in Western Europe, would never enter their minds.  Because admitting that these problems exist, would mean that the comfortable middle classes actually have to do something about it, and, ultimately, that they have to change their image of the world and of human nature itself. To people who covet security and material comfort above else, this will never be possible.

The middle classes, together with the intellectuals, could be said to epitomize Western Civilization.  Both are uniquely Western phenomena, not only because they embody the strengths of the West -- creativity, rationality, and individualism -- but also the weaknesses of our culture. This last point has never been sufficiently explored on the right, and certainly not in the movements that want to bring the expansion of Islam and all kinds of progressivism to a halt.  But if we really want to understand the predicament of our civilization, we must first understand the sociology of the middle classes and the intelligentsia, and that sociology's connection to history and current developments.

The middle classes constitute the greatest strength of the West, since they are the productive class. We have all heard or read about the laudable characteristics of the “mercantile spirit”: thrift, calculation, rationality, and so forth. But throughout history these very assets of the middle classes have often put them at a disadvantage.  The bourgeoisie and “moneyed interest” flourished in Europe under the tutelage of absolutist monarchy, and in continental Europe took power in sudden and often brutal upheavals like the French revolution.  This is no coincidence: the first business of the middle classes was always business, not government or the moral underpinning of government.  However, the problem was that the middle classes felt that their wealth and growing significance in society entitled them to occupy the seat of power. This claim was certainly justified in itself, but the result was that -- at least in continental Europe -- a bourgeoisie came to power that essentially saw government in terms of the account book, and not in the proper terms of legitimacy, morality, and realism.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the deficiencies of middle class rule became all too clear. Or rather, it became clear the middle classes did not have any moral defense against all kinds of adversaries, like socialism and nationalism. Worse still, the middle classes were always eager to follow the intellectual lead of the leftist intelligentsia, and dreaded being considered unfashionable or “petit bourgeois” for not kowtowing to “progressive” writers, social critics, and artists. In fact, the historical episode that saw the birth and fashioning of the modern political landscape foreshadowed this evolution. The French revolution was brought about by two classes: the bourgeoisie, who wanted to seize the state from the absolute monarchy and aristocracy, and the intellectuals, who saw power as a vehicle for their Utopian schemes. Since merely craving power for yourself has never been an argument to convince others to support your revolution, the bourgeoisie depended on the Utopian moral message of the intellectuals to attain its goals. When the moneyed interest sensed that the Utopians were going too far, and were trying to establish a totalitarian state, the intellectuals were thrown out at the coup of Thermidor. The condition of France since that event has also been the condition of the West. Nobody doubts that capitalism and the “mercantile spirit” are the only viable options for our economies, but nobody tried to provide a moral underpinning for this practical insight. On the moral plain, there has never been any coherent answer to progressive morality for the last two hundred years.

Thus was born the typical mindset that still characterizes the middle classes: the heart to the left, the wallet to the right.  Marx made no distinction between capitalism and cronyism, and one of the reasons he did not do so was because the bourgeoisie themselves never saw the difference. The mercantile spirit is dedicated to the pursuit material profit, and since this attitude does not have a real moral component, the bourgeoisie seldom distinguishes between legitimate and ill-gotten gains. The result was the familiar condition of Western countries today. Ayn Rand said that the pair that most characterized the twentieth century were “Attila and the Witch doctor”. This is not mere hyperbole. When government became more centralized at the end of the nineteenth century, and progressive ideologies began to challenge the free market, the most powerful business and banking interests made the most of the new order. They aligned themselves with politicians and intellectuals. The implicit deal, as Rand made clear, was that the intellectuals (“Witch doctors”) could impose their Utopian schemes on the people, while the moneyed interest and professional politicians (Attila's) could tax them at heart's desire.

The consequences have not only been internally disastrous, but have also inflicted irrevocable damage to our culture's capacity for self-defense.  In the face of Islamic and other non-Western aggression, the only thing the business interests can do is meekly follow the fashionable lead of the progressives, which is often easy because immigration and trade bring them short-term material gains. The middle classes in general have the same problem. In a certain sense, they have never grown out of the nineteenth century. They keep on believing that all international questions can be solved by the panacea of “peace through free trade”. Since their only goal in life is having a good job and living in a decent neighborhood, they imagine the whole world shares these goals.  Ideology and culture do not exist in this universe of purely rational actors: if communists or Muslims try to establish their rule over the world, that must be because we oppress them or because they are poor. Of course, under the surface of this middle class smugness the uncomfortable truth always lurks that perhaps the world does not at all conform to this handy scheme. But the thing to understand about the middle classes is that they want peace and quiet; they want to get on with their lives. From time to time, they enjoy moral posturing by adopting the false causes of the left: hatred of Israel, of “American imperialism” and so on. For a brief moment, they can fancy themselves real crusaders, although in reality they are crusaders without opponents.  But acknowledging the real injustices perpetrated in the world today, such as persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the anti-Semitic incidents committed by Muslims in Western Europe, would never enter their minds.  Because admitting that these problems exist, would mean that the comfortable middle classes actually have to do something about it, and, ultimately, that they have to change their image of the world and of human nature itself. To people who covet security and material comfort above else, this will never be possible.

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