Discuss how the concept of “bourgeois individualism/bourgeois property rights” has influenced notions of freedom in U.S. history, from the colonial period until the end of the nineteenth century (from the start of the semester through the class meeting of March 11). How did this concept originate, and how did it change previous understandings of how society should be organized? How have different groups (defined by gender, race, and socio-economic class) experienced this concept? How have these groups been excluded from, and gained access to, this concept, and what major changes in U.S society allowed these previously excluded groups to gain such access?
The term ‘bourgeois’ originally meant ‘middle class.’ In the Middle Ages there were primarily two classes: the aristocracy (including the hierarchy of the Church) and the peasant class. To work with one’s hands was considered crass. Inherited wealth acquired by war and plunder were considered superior to wealth which one created.
But after the Renaissance, more of the underclass began to find opportunities to better themselves by ingenuity, hard work and perseverance. Such people were scoffed at by their ‘betters’—the aristocracy, scorned by the clergy for their materialism and envied by those who were content with their poverty. So ‘bourgeois’ became a term of derision.
Then, in the nineteenth century Karl Marx developed his “Labor Theory of Value’ and his ‘Exploitation Theory’ in which both the aristocracy and the ‘capitalists’ stole the value of labor from those who produced it (the ‘workers’). Marx did not consider the use of one’s reason as constituting work. If one invented a useful device and managed to attract investors and manufacture the device in large quantities and find buyers wanting the device, Marx discounted all such matters and did not consider such things to be productive. Only the physical labor done in the assembly of the device counted as production in Marx’s view and all others involved, the inventor, the investors, the marketers, etc. were, in Marx’s view parasites robbing the workers of their rightful remuneration. The bourgeois class were seen as exploiters of the working class.
Given the popularity of the Marxist view even today by allegedly intelligent people, the term ‘bourgeois’ remains a term of derision.
Individualism is the concept that each individual has a right to live for his own sake, not as a means to the ends of others; that each capable individual is morally responsible for producing the values required to sustain his life; that the purpose of each individual’s life is achieving personal happiness. Such ideas are almost universally scorned by privileged elites as ‘selfish’, crass, exploitative (in the Marxist sense) and, ‘bourgois.’