In the Grip of the Bourgeois Press

Bourgeois press?  Nobody says “bourgeois” anymore; it’s so pre-1989 (or 1981 or mid-70s).  Another problem is that, decades ago, the word suffered from Stalinist and then Maoist overuse.  It designated any object of animosity, and therefore became essentially meaningless.

Nowadays, most media critics are too historically illiterate, and too tied into the political culture of the moment, to raise that objection; it is enough for them that the term seems hopelessly dated.  “Press” seems archaic too; it suggests print media, a species said to be on its way to extinction.

However we do hear a lot about “mainstream media.”  The term is now so mainstream that even Sarah Palin picked up on it, though only to exercise her wit.  “Lamestream media” doesn’t exactly make sense — not much she says does — but we get the general idea.  Not  bad either for somebody who couldn’t even name a newspaper she read when Katie Couric, the lamestream media’s girl next door, fixed her in her withering gaze.

We also hear about “corporate media.”  That term has the advantage of calling attention to how concentrated ownership of media outlets has become and to the connection between our media and the corporations that dominate the American (and world) economy.  It also forces us to focus on an issue that might otherwise pass unnoticed: the interests media serve.

Still, in at least one respect, “mainstream media” is better; it speaks to how media deal with challenges to the status quo.  Media validate and therefore legitimize; what they do not validate they cast into the margins, outside the mainstream.

What is marginalized is still out there; anybody can still say or write pretty much anything they want.  But if their views are not validated, then, regardless of their merits, they have little chance of being taken seriously in the “marketplace of ideas.”

This works well for those who benefit from keeping things as they are.  Overt repression is not only base and demeaning; it is also ineffective, at least in the long run.  Better to let dissent out in dribs and drabs than to allow it to build to a point where it might explode the status quo.

But “mainstream media” says nothing about the conditions within which ideas are legitimated or marginalized, and it is mute on the question of underlying interests.  “Corporate media” deals with these issues better.

It is worth noting that these terms don’t always designate the same thing.  The Public Broadcasting System  (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) get corporate money but, strictly speaking, they are public, not corporate, media.  Nevertheless, they are both painfully mainstream.  Indeed, NPR is probably the best source out there for (articulate) conventional wisdom and pro-regime (as distinct from pro-government) propaganda; better even than The New York Times.

Still, for the most part, the two terms currently in use substantially overlap, and are rightly used interchangeably.  How much better it would be, though, if there were a term that combines what is best in each of them, and that also explains the affinities linking commercial and public media.  Better yet if it also connected media criticism with more general understandings of our social order and its possible futures.

We did have such an expression once – “bourgeois press.”  It conveyed everything conveyed by the words media activists and social critics nowadays use, and more.  The more that it conveys is precisely what we need to bring back on board.

Should we therefore revive the expression?  Maybe, for want of a better alternative.  But the old term is problematic too.    Part of the problem, again, is that its constituent parts – “bourgeois” and “press” – seem dated.  But we should not let changing fashions or technologies distract us.  What “bourgeois press” forces critics to confront, and what the terms that have replaced it do not, is the connection between media and the class struggles that shape modern societies.

That a class perspective is indispensable for making sense of media today is not exactly news to anyone familiar with the core tenets of classical Marxism.  But to appreciate the importance of the point, it is not necessary to think of human history as a history of class struggles or to construe today’s media as an element of a “superstructure” that reproduces existing class relations.

These positions accorded well with the lived experience of peoples in industrializing societies throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before capitalism changed in ways that render class divisions and struggles less salient, though no less fundamental, than they formerly were.

The general idea is therefore hardly unique to intellectual currents that draw on Marx’s account of “the laws of motion” of capitalist society.  Indeed, it is only in recent decades that the point has passed out of general awareness.  Before that, it was part of the common sense of our political and intellectual culture.

Great Britain was for a very long time home to the world’s leading capitalist economy.  But it was in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France that the emerging capitalist order took on its most definitive political expressions.

There, the foundations of an old regime, organized by and for the benefit of a landed aristocracy and the Catholic Church, gave way to a new kind of society in which formerly subaltern urban-dwellers, a “bourgeoisie,” became the new leading class.

As the nineteenth century unfolded, the bourgeoisie consolidated its political role as a ruling class.  More importantly, it established itself as a hegemonic class, a basis for a new form of civilization.

And so, in fits and starts, both state and society became “bourgeois.”  This was by no means just a French phenomenon.  It occurred throughout Europe, though, as in Great Britain, the ascendance of this newly empowered class in most countries was generally not as abrupt or complete.

From the beginning, the United States was organized along commercial and therefore incipiently capitalist lines, but the English colonies in North America had no feudal past and therefore no aristocracy against which merchants and farmers, and later, owners of manufacturing enterprises, could define a new identity.

Southern planters came closest to adopting aristocratic lifestyles, but their economic role was quite different from that of true aristocrats.  Their plantations were not landed estates.  They were commercial enterprises worked by slaves, not peasants or tenant farmers, and they were anything but self-sustaining in the way the manors of the Old Country were.  Southern plantations were integrated into a market system linking the Americas with Europe and Africa.  No matter how atypical they seem, they were, in other words, part of bourgeois society.

At most, then, we once had a quasi- or pseudo-aristocracy, and that only in the South, the least developed region of the country.  That was well done with, in any case, long before America’s emergence as the world’s leading capitalist economy.  The plantation system suffered an historic defeat in the War Between the States and never subsequently revived.

Just as we never had real aristocrats, neither did we have a real bourgeoisie.  The adjective “bourgeois” has therefore never fit comfortably into the American context.  But as a term of art for connecting our economic and social structure with that of other capitalist countries, and for laying bare the class character of the institutions that shape our lives, it is still the best available term.

The historical differences between the United States and the leading capitalist powers of Europe fed a longstanding, largely mythological, conceit: that ours is a classless society.  Ironically, a similar view is characteristic of “bourgeois” social science and philosophy.

In this respect, our intellectual culture is indeed bourgeois.  Not only do we go out of our way to deny the obvious, when the obvious suggests the centrality or even the relevance of class divisions and struggles; we go so far as to depoliticize issues that are plainly political in nature.

This happens across the “mainstream” spectrum; it is a particular affliction of the “left,” evident in the well-meaning disposition of those whom Hegel would have called “beautiful souls” to ethicize political questions.

This is why, all too often, debates about, say, abortion, focus on what personhood is and implies, or on the rights of fetuses, or the moral relevance of choice — or anything except what the issue is ultimately about: patriarchy and the subordination of women.  Similarly, debates about punishment, capital and otherwise, typically have to do with everything but social control.  To the extent that questions of political import are engaged, they are discussed mainly in ethical, not political, terms.

Ethical issues connected to real world politics can be intellectually engaging, and they can be of philosophical interest in their own right.   But as dispositive treatments of issues of on-going concern, they miss the mark – in a way that reinforces existing practices and constraints.

Political philosophy nowadays is especially depoliticized.

When the bourgeoisie was a rising, even a revolutionary, class, some of the best minds in Europe and America devised justifying theories for the emerging capitalist order and for the kinds of institutions suitable for sustaining it.

John Locke (1632-1704) was only the best known of a group of thinkers whose accounts of (private) property and the right to accumulate it without limitation have returned, along with a panoply of related doctrines, in the form of contemporary libertarianism.  In this guise, seventeenth and eighteenth century ideas have become the focus of some of the most trenchant philosophical discussions of the past several decades.

But unlike the original libertarianism (or classical liberalism) of Locke and his co-thinkers, the neo-Lockean variety is mum on the class interests it represents.  What was once an aggressive ideology, a weapon in the bourgeoisie’s struggle against remnants of pre-capitalist modes of thought, has become a magnet for philosophical conundrums that, though rife with political implications, seem as timeless and ahistorical as any of the perennial problems of philosophy.

This is “bourgeois” through and through.  It is the class struggle, waged at a theoretical level, but in a form that masks what it is ultimately about.  This is why, no matter how fascinating some of its positions may be to practitioners of abstract thought, libertarianism reeks of inauthenticity, and why, no matter how politically otiose it may seem, it is an inherently conservative ideology with untoward consequences.

Our mainstream or corporate media are similarly “bourgeois.”  NPR and Fox News, The New York Times and The New York Post seem worlds apart.  Superficially they are, and the differences can be important.  But in the final analysis, they are all of a piece – and all on the wrong side of the principal struggle of our time.

“Bourgeois press” may indeed be unsatisfactory, even if there is no better alternative at hand.  But it’s the idea that counts, and even if the term is dated, the idea behind it is not.  This is one of those many instances in which the more things change (or seem to change), the more they stay the same.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).