Bourgeois values and modern capitalism

September’s History Today magazine has a very bad article by someone called Deirdre McCloskey ‘The Discreet Virtue of the Bourgeoisie’ ( (not free). Bad not so much because it was a right-wing view of the wonders of capitalism and the wrongheadness of the ‘clerisy’ in opposing it, as because it is incoherent. For one thing, it keeps on blurring capitalism, liberalism and the bourgeoisie, as if those concepts are interchangeable. For another, it doesn’t distinguish who the bourgeoisie are and whether this group has changed over the last 400 years. Are these people independent entrepreneurs or are they white collar employees? Finally, she doesn’t even make entirely clear what she thinks the bourgeois virtues are. On the other hand, based on her article and some of the other stuff I know on early modern Europe, here’s a brief list of what I would say the ‘Protestant’ capitalist virtues involved:

1) A positive valuation of the activities of trade, commerce and other money making activities
2) Respect for private property and the rule of law more generally
3) Hard work seen as a positive virtue
4) Prudent stewardship of wealth and thrift more generally (not wasting money, but reinvesting it or using it for charitable purposes)
5) Honest behaviour in commercial transactions and elsewhere in life
6) A good reputation. (This is something that went far beyond what we would now consider commercial virtues. A good bourgeois should be well-behaved himself and have a well-behaved family and wider household. The women should be chaste, modest and thrifty, the men should be polite and not prone to disorderly conduct (violence, abuse, drunkenness, gambling, deviant sexual behaviour). These became commercial virtues because decisions about credit-worthiness, for example, were significantly affected by a more general evaluation of a man’s moral standing.

The interesting question for me is to what extent this historic set of virtues is still significant in modern capitalism. If you had to draw up a list of the desirable character attributes for a modern businessperson or entrepreneur, for example, I think you would probably come up with a very different list, that would start like this:

1) Boldness
2) Innovative or flexible outlook
3) Skills of persuasion/salesmanship
4) Customer-focused
(There are probably more things to add, but this gives a flavour).

Most of the older virtues are if not completely irrelevant, at least of far lesser importance (The exception being hard work). For example, positive views of trade (at least in the Protestant tradition) always involved it being the right kind of trade. You couldn’t rightly invest in enterprises intended to undermine the moral status of others (see e.g. the Quakers not getting involved in the arms trade, restrictions on involvement in industries such as the drinks trade). Even in more recent times, bourgeois societies have been very disapproving of commercial sectors such as pornography or gambling. Capitalism in its modern form, however, sees those prohibitions as stifling. If you can make money from porn, tobacco, people drinking until they’re sick etc, that is perfectly acceptable.

Modern forms of capitalism also have a limited respect for the rule of law and private property. If there is sufficient commercial value to breaching the law even ‘legitimate’ companies will either do so or at least lobby hard to get the law changed. For example, British companies undermined the Sunday trading laws, in the grounds that that was what their customers wanted. Recent eminent domain (compulsory purchase) decisions in the US have put the interests of property developers before private householders.

Prudent stewardship has also been downgraded in two ways. One is that the most admired entrepreneurs are those who have taken considerable risks with both their firm’s assets and their own. To go into bankruptcy is no longer an extreme social stigma. Cautiousness in a firm, a desire to expand slowly so as to avoid potential problems, is regarded with hostility by investors. Those managing businesses expect to take large salaries from them, almost regardless of the profits the company is making. Similarly, thrift is no longer a virtue. Much of the modern economy is sustained by conspicuous consumption and consumer spending booms and a genuinely thrifty population would probably wreck a nations’ economy.

There is probably still more of a role for honest behaviour in modern business, although accounting and tax dodges have become widespread. A reputation for dishonesty is a handicap (although not an insuperable one) for a company or a business leader. But those who are successful are no longer lauded primarily for their honesty.

Capitalism nowadays has also largely removed the significance of wider social reputation. If it came out that Bill Gates (or Melinda Gates) was partial to bestiality, would it undermine Microsoft? Business practice (as in many other spheres) increasingly decouples public and private virtue: a bad man may still be doing a good job.

All this suggests that capitalism is doing a far better job of undermining bourgeois values than socialism ever did. I think one of the key ethical questions for today is how the essentially amoral (but economically effective) force of capitalism can be harnessed within an externally provided ethical framework. Simply bleating that capitalism is wonderful and blaming the intellectuals, as McCloskey does, is no help.


One thought on “Bourgeois values and modern capitalism

  1. Not too surprising. History Today can be so hit-or-miss. One issue might have something brilliant by someone like Judith Herrin , the next …

    I think a related issue is how contemporary definitions of liberalism and conservatism fit in, something to which you allude, but which I think need more emphasis. A also sometimes wonder how much of this is simply the fact that media reports on such things are often framed by writers educated in a world where Marx and Weber were both standard interpretations, and so we fall back on filtered views of theories that have been heavily revised at the academic level.


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