Can a bourgeois be progressive?

I grew up bourgeois. Skiing, horseback riding, private school, vacations in France. My grandfather even died while fox hunting on horseback! In the Middle Ages a bourgeois was someone who lived in a village center (as opposed to a peasant farmer) and had certain privileges. In contrast to aristocrats, who lived entirely off the backs of others, bourgeois had “earned” their position through hard work and commerce. Today, a bourgeois may be defined as “a person with social behaviour and political views held to be influenced by private-property interest” (Webster).

The consequence of this framework is that you prioritize actions and activities that are based on a view of society as being organized through the control of capital – rather than through social or a collective decision making process. For better or worse, the framework we grow up in is very hard to escape. It is exceedingly rare for a person to fundamentally change who they are. A change of that depth can require a renunciation of religion, family, values and cultural identity. My case is no different.

To make our society function better we need to set realistic and achievable ways of living together in relative harmony. Asking people to give up their identities rarely works well. It was tried in totalitarian states (USSR, North Korea, Mao China,…) – the results were not pretty. In my opinion, the challenge is not so much to change our fundamental self, but rather to better understand realities that not our own. To facilitate day to day life we typically assume other people have a similar DNA, thought process and underlying skill-set. Said in a different way, we presume that we have a similar set of circumstances and are starting from the same point in the race of life. We therefore reason that another person can accomplish the same thing as us if only they were disciplined as us. The video below summarizes the fallacy.

If there is one common philosophy in the professionally successful upper middle class is that with hard work, discipline and education anyone can achieve success. This way of thinking is encapsulated in interviews with titans such as billionaire Charles Koch and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In both cases, there is a clear presumption that anyone can follow their lead. Koch and Schwarzenneger fail to acknowledge that they are unique in some way or had any sort of advantage. Koch was born into a wealthy family and received high levels of education. Arnold had a certain attitude an DNA that drove him to insane levels of work and motivation. As the hilarious Australian comic Tim Minchin said, even if you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps in a difficult situation, you still did not create the DNA that led you to succeed in a difficult situation and overcome obstacles nor did you create the social conditions that enabled success (rule of law, invention of money,… etc.). One simple example of luck is our health and the health of our families. Numerous studies show that to escape poverty in countries like the United States that does not have goo health care, you need to stay healthy and have your family stay healthy for decades. One illness can kill your chances to get an education or retain stable employment. We should all take a moment to pause and think about what it genuinely takes to be successful and I think we quickly realize that only part of it is attributable to the individual choices we make.

On the recommendation of Jordan Peterson (with whom I have serious disagreements with), I read The Road to Wigam Pier by George Orwell. It is perhaps one of the most impactful books I have read in a long time. The book is part reportage, part political commentary. Orwell tears apart the 1920s British left wing society that claims to be in solidarity with the working class, but in fact despises most of their habits. Orwell goes into the coal mines of Northern England and lives with the workers, to say the least, it was not a fun job and the living conditions were abominable. He goes on to skewer the righteous “progressive” liberal English society who has a clear disdain for the working class habits even though they claim to be in solidarity with the coal miners. Not much has changed.

This cleavage in the left is still present today. Well meaning progressives talk about social change (sometimes radical), helping the less fortunate and affecting meaningful improvement in society. Yet, these left wing progressives fail to reach out to the working poor and more importantly, they do not really respect them. The number of self proclaimed progressives who buy from Amazon, use Uber or wear clothes made in sweatshops in Bangladesh is astounding. All while proselytizing, the progressive left remains in its safe jobs and take nice vacations around the world.

Solidarity requires sacrifice. Words and actions will not make a meaningful dent unless you can demonstrate true devotion to a cause. The only way to show your true devotion is to knowingly, willingly and happily sacrifice pleasure for something you believe in. We sacrifice all the time for our children and family. We sacrifice for success in sports. We sacrifice for our businesses and careers. But, we often fail to sacrifice for the causes we claim to believe in.

By definition, liberal progressives believe that a well governed and democratic state can bring prosperity and justice. But, it is very easy to slip into a mindset of criticizing the state and criticizing taxes. Paying taxes is a form of sacrifice. You are giving up money that you could use for pleasure in exchange for security and social infrastructure services, in some countries, taxes also go to helping your fellow citizens lift themselves up. Of course, the very wealthy always find they pay too much taxes and that they can be both progressive and not sacrifice. This contradiction and fact that many progressives are lying to themselves was shoved in their faces by Rutger Bergman at Davos this year.

Too often, progressives seem to think we can have our cake and eat it too. They seem to think we can make society progress without substantial taxes or without change that will affect their lifestyle. Yet, countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland offer high qualities of life to the majority of their citizens because they pay very high taxes and their governments can therefore provide education, infrastructure and high quality services. The only other option for decent distribution of wealth is for the wealthy to voluntarily take modest salaries, as done in Japan. The latter option is possible, but only within an extremely strong culture. For western liberal countries, it seems the only path to progress is through higher taxation and forced sacrifice by the upper middle class and upper classes.

Published on February 2, 2019