Free to be Bourgeois

Just finished reading Steven Hahn’s review of David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation in the New Republic. I don’t have the resources right now to buy books, but I have been reading as many long “think pieces” and booker reviews as I could find, and this one was fascinating.

There’s a lot to comment about, but short of reading Davis’ book, I won’t do that right now. But something Hahn writes about as he considers Davis’ reflections on the “failure” of emancipation to create “egalitarian and prosperous” societies (as slavery was ended in the British Empire, and across the Western Hemisphere):

Why was this? How could such a great triumph of “moral progress” end up with results so dismal that some could wonder if there had been any moral progress at all? In The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Davis offered some important clues. Abolitionism, he argued, had special appeal to members of a developing class of manufacturers and merchants who had simultaneously been touched by evangelicalism and come to depend on a growing class of free laborers for their livelihoods. Increasingly they viewed the “external” authority of slave masters as tyranny and sin, and the “internal” authority of individuals as the true basis of freedom and independence. The sin of slavery, as they saw it, resided in denying slaves the opportunities to establish a direct relationship with God, to form families, and to improve themselves in the ways that they chose, in denying them the personal dignity and integrity to which all humans were entitled. The sin in freedom resided in the rejection of those opportunities on the part of those who could choose.

Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, expressed this distinction with great power during a trip to Britain in 1846, when he dismissed any similarity between slave and wage labor, and thereby withdrew a hand of solidarity from the very working people who were supporting abolitionism. American slavery was unique, he maintained, not because of its greater physical abuse but because of its dehumanizing domination. Douglass understood the forms of personal and political power that would compromise emancipation when it came in the United States, and so he, together with radical members of the Republican Party, pressed for the extension of full civil and political rights to the freedpeople. But more than a few abolitionists, [William Lloyd] Garrison in particular, thought that their job was done when slavery was abolished, and they could be quick to blame the former slaves for failing to seize the opportunities that freedom appeared to provide.

What this suggests is that the freedom at stake, at least from the standpoint of most of the radical abolitionists, was to make good and moral choices, to engage in self-improvement and uplift. In short, to be pious bourgeois. Slavery’s great sin was denying that choice, and even preventing it. But free men and women make the kinds of choices that lead to bourgeois piety of their own accord.

(This very American understanding of freedom would echo a century later, as preachers of the American civic faith would encourage support for the Second World War and then the Cold War by noting that while unfree people are compelled to sacrifice for the state, free men make that sacrifice willingly.)

This has become, I think, the moral template for viewing the purpose of freedom. Among conservatives, the ability to make good choices — indeed, the right choice — is not dependent on prior circumstances, experience, or mindset, but is merely an act of will. Free the will, and a truly free choice is possible. Thus, the responsibility for making bad choices rests solely on the person or persons making the choice. This is still the conservative mindset today, whether spoken elegantly or crudely. Those who are free in effect justify their freedom by making the “right” choices and living in the correct way.

If they make the wrong choices, they suffer the consequences for those choices, and have no business with special pleadings.

The American left does not get a pass on this, because bourgeois values and virtues are as central to American progressivism and liberalism as they are to American conservatism. And I think those differences focus on how one becomes bourgeois. Of course, anyone can choose, and many have. Conservatives, however, are more willing to exclude the non-bourgeois (“you choose to become one of us”), while progressives are more willing to extend special efforts to “educate” and inculcate the making of bourgeois choices (“you become one of us by being accepted by us”). It’s a toss up, in my mind, which is less tolerant, since progressive “toleration” uses the tools of state and social power to compel bourgeois choices and stigmatize those who can’t or don’t by making them wards of the state, while the conservative version generally criminalizes and marginalizes.

In many ways, we live with the worst of both, in which a ferocious bourgeois piety seeks to brutalize all of those who, for whatever reason, fail to choose to be good, pious bourgeois.