The Corner

Deirdre McCloskey & Rhetoric

I attended a lecture at George Mason University last night by Deirdre McCloskey. I was at GMU for my own talk to a graduate seminar about my book, but the professor who invited me suggested I go to the McCloskey talk first. I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it. I agreed with her overarching points almost completely (they track many of the points in my book).

But I thought there was an interesting disconnect between what she said she was talking about and what she actually said. McCloskey believes that rhetoric helps shape institutions. The way we talk, and therefore think, about society affects the sort of society we live in. In particular, she’s concentrating on the role of the bourgeois and how we think about it. She says she is a grand defender of the bourgeois. I think she’s right, though in her talk she didn’t do much to demonstrate that rhetoric drives social change. Just going from her talk, it could very easily be that rhetoric changes with society rather than the other way around. But as she is working on a six-book series on an intellectual history and defense of the bourgeois in which she says she demonstrates that the rhetoric precedes the change, I’m assuming she’s got plenty of evidence.

Regardless, what I thought was ironic, to say the least, about her talk is that she again and again criticized the vulgar Marxist rhetoric which says that individuals’ ideas are derived from their class status or material conditions. She insisted repeatedly about how important ideas are, how vital language is, how ideas are embedded in language and so on. And yet, over and over again, she used phrases like “middle class” and “bourgeois” in almost entirely conventional leftist ways.

She told the audience that they are all middle class and bourgeois as if that said an enormous amount about everyone in the room. But middle class is ultimately a Marxist construct, at least the way she employed it. The idea that you can draw the most meaningful insights about people from their paychecks is, if not total nonsense, damn close to it. Just look at the people in your office. Are you just like the person across the hall because of your salary? People who go to Church socials on Saturday night may make exactly the same amount of money as people who go to raves. They might even have the same jobs. But that doesn’t mean they have the same values. Are your friends organized by income or by more meaningful bonds?

There are lots of reasons why we’re stuck using the phrase middle class. I use it. Everyone at NR uses it. It’s a useful shorthand when talking about macroeconomics. Politicians use it because pretty much all voters think they’re middle class, including most rich people and most poor people. So it sounds like they’re singling “folks like me” out for special helped and consideration, when in reality they’re talking about nearly everyone. Many academics like it because they actually believe that material circumstances define ideology (that is many academics retain a lot of Marxist ideas). Bohemians like it because they like to think they’re rebels from middle class values, even though economically speaking, a great many self-styled Bohemians are middle class too.

My point is that questions of identity and association are so much richer and more profound than the epistemological gillnet we call “middle class.” I have no doubt that McCloskey understands this, particularly given her own background. But I thought it was very weird that someone could give a lecture about the importance of language and the insufficiencies of materialism and yet still use classically materialist language to summarize identity and culture.

I wish I could have stayed for the Q&A.

Update: From a reader:

Jonah, I think you could make an argument that “middle class” and the older term Bourgeois are both referring to people who share values, not incomes. The Bourgeois were the townsfolk who adopted trade and a money economy. This gave them interests that they shared, such as education, concerns with security, legal contracts and the rest that we call capitalism. Paul Johnson says that the Jews invented capitalism because they needed a means to transport their possessions when the ability to move on short notice was important and they were barred from owning land. The result was the corporation, or at least the anonymous share company. The land-owning class was of higher social status but often money poor. They hated the bourgeois and the Jews both because they had liquid assets and were growing in power as trades and the money economy gained.

Middle class may be a Marxist concept but it preceded Marx by a couple of centuries.

Me: Without opening a whole new discussion on Jews and capitalism, I agree with the readers point in general: you can use phrases like bourgeois and middle class to describe values. But if you’re a professional rhetorician and champion of the idea that words matter, you’d think you might try harder to deal with the very loaded connotations of the words you use. It wouldn’t bother very much at all, if a sociologist or pollsters was using the phrase “middle class.” But McCloskey is talking about how words shape reality, while using words that shape reality in ways she doesn’t like. That was my point.

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