Sunday, 29 March 2009

Something that has been lost

Maybe business was never was as altruistic as set out in the exchange between Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in the 1954 film Sabrina, but the great captains of early 20th century industry were driven by a lot more than the bottom line.

When companies state "our aim is to deliver the bast shareholder value" they betray their customers who contribute to that wealth.

The articulation of capitalism from the old film is worth revisiting:

Linus Larrabee is talking to his brother David, with enthusiasm, about a new plastic.

Daivd: . . . you’ve got all the money in the world.

Linus: What’s money got to do with it? If making money was all there was to business, it wouldn't be worth going to the office. Making money isn't the main point of business. Money is a by-product.

David: What's the main objective? Power?

Linus: Ah! That's become a dirty word.

David: What's the urge? You're going into plastics. What will that prove?

Linus: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. So a new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in a harbor is dug, and you're in business. It's coincidental, of course, that people who've never seen a dime before now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes, have their teeth fixed and their faces washed. What's wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

It's bourgeois

In Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time (volume 3, The Acceptance World, the literary man, Mark Members (who favors psychological literary criticism) is displaced as secretary to the aging novelist, St. John Clarke, by the Marxist J. G. Quiggin.

After St. John Clarke falls under Quiggins's influence, Members relates:

"Then I noticed St. J. was beginning to describe everything as 'bourgeois'," he said. "Wearing a hat was 'bourgeois', eating pudding with a fork was 'bourgeois', Lady Huntercombe was 'bourgeois' - he meant long suits. Then one morning at breakfast he said Cézanne was 'bourgeois'. At first I thought he meant that only middle-class people put too much emphasis on such things - that a true aristocrat could ignore them. It was a favourite theme of St. J.'s that 'natural aristocrats' were the only true ones. He regarded himself as a 'natural aristocrat'. At the same time he felt that a 'natural aristocrat' had a right to mix with the ordinary kind, and latterly he had spent more and more of his time in rather grand circles - and in fact had come almost to hate people who were not rather smart, or at least very rich. For example, I remember him describing - well, I won't say whom, but he is a novelist who sells very well and you can probably guess the name - as 'the kind of man who knows about as much about placement as to send the wife of a younger son of marquess in to dinner before the daughter of an earl married to a commoner'. He though a lot about such things. That was why I had been at first afraid of introducing him to Quiggin. And then - when we began discussing Cézanne - it turned out that he had been using the word 'bourgeois' all the time in the Marxist sense. I didn't know he had even heard of Marx, much less was familiar at all with his theories."

Now, according, to Members, "everything is 'bourgeois'."

To the superficial, unthinking Marxist - and even liberals of a certain squint - 'bourgeois' is one of the most damning of adjectives.

Its use in Britain has virtually destroyed the desire for upward social mobility among the working classes. The fear of becoming 'bourgeois' over-rides all else, and many remain content with the possession of mere money.

The roots of this go further back than one may suspect.

Alfred P. Doolittle probably didn't know the word 'bourgeois', but he knows he doesn't want to be part of it. He laments the effects that the affluence accidentally contrived for him by Henry Higgins have had on him: "Ruined me. Destroyed my happiness. Tied me up and delivered me into the hands of middle class morality."

Oh heavy burden, for the once-free spirit!

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Why "bourgeois"?

Few words embody such comprehensive disdain and judgmental force as 'bourgeois.' Why this is so is not readily clear, since at is basic level it simply means "middle class" or "conventionally middle-class."

Why, then, does this term, which is a simple objective description, provoke such vehement condescension?

One reason is that it describes a population in the middle and therefore an easy target for the classes above and below. Secondly, the values of that middle class can be regarded, simultaneously, as both pretentious and shallow. Thirdly, the bourgeoisie itself is often ill at ease with itself, requiring more emotional buttressing than the lower/working class, or the aristocracy, or "establishment."

Whether the bourgeoisie in America is in the tradition described by Whit Stillman's character, "responsible for everything good that has happened in our civilization," or simply carries out a societal function akin to ballast on a ship, we will explore.

In the course of these ramblings will be a look at some of the "business novels" of American literature, being a unique contribution to English language literature and without a counterpart in Britain.

Since few would describe themselves as bourgeois, analyzing this state of being is problematic, but a few objective criteria might be found.