What is bourgeois culture? It is certainly not the depiction of the factories, trading houses, corporate buildings, and warehouses that make up the bone and blood of the life of capitalism. The monotonous hum of those mechanisms of industry is almost anti-aesthetic. Like in Wilhelm Meister, when Wilhelm turns on his father, the merchant, and pursues a life in the theater instead. A life in the service of capitalism is not a life worth living, says the novel.
Films, like Up in the Air or About Schmidt for example, sometimes depict the middle men and women of capital: the salesmen, the accountants, the claims adjusters, and other assorted office types. But the lives of these people are portrayed as generally grey and empty, a façade or a charade that unravels with retirement, unemployment, or some kind of life emergency. In most films and televisions shows, work is an insignificant aspect of a character’s life, what separates the really important episodes of that life. Unless work is considered heroic, like a firefighter or a detective or something, but those kinds of jobs fit uneasily under the category of capitalist labor. So bourgeois culture, which emerged because of capitalism, depends on capitalism, and is made under the conditions of capitalism, seems to want nothing to do with the basic structures of capitalism.
This is striking. For in this day and age the one freedom we have surely lost is our ability to live outside of the necessity of wage labor, which is another way of saying outside of the demands of capitalism. We must, all of us, engage with the imperatives of capitalism. Capitalism conditions our lives, insinuates itself into every aspect of our existence, and reshapes our desires and emotions. But the economic system that gave rise to the bourgeois class seems to play almost no part in its culture other than as representing the unimportant part of life.
Franco Moretti describes it perfectly: the stronger the social control of the bourgeois classes and of capitalism in general, the weaker seems the identity of its agents. Bourgeois culture, we can say, is almost anti-capitalist, but only in the sense that bourgeois culture allows you to indulge yourself in the belief that the power of capitalism doesn’t affect you because it does not provide any of the categories of your identity. YOU! You are free from economic necessity. You are free from the need for work and the desire to consume. You are free from the regulation and conformity of modern life. You are free from compulsion and control. You are free to choose your own life and define your identity as you see fit. YOU!
X Ambassadors’ “Renegades” is a perfect example of bourgeois culture. It asks you to reject social conventions and expectations. It wants you to “break the rules,” follow your heart, and runaway. It suggests there is a better place out there, away from the demands of society, which it understands as inessential at best and false at worst. It encourages you to determine for yourself what matters. It allows you to identify with the outcasts of society. Laws don’t matter. Work doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. By rejecting the requirements of capitalism, this song makes it easier for us to live with them. We may have to get up every morning to make sure we get to work on time but in our hearts we will always be running wild and running free. And that is what really matters.