Do you feel put-upon to stay productive at work, and at home, and in friendships? It’s exhausting when you think about it. Everywhere you look there is a new tip to make your relationships super authentic, to make your career deeply meaningful, and for your morning routine to run like a seamless assembly line. If you feel boxed-in by unreasonable, self-imposed expectations, you are not alone. That is because we are universally immersed in values that are the rational extension of the passing whims of merchants.
Bourgeois Values and the Bourgeois Era
In an article in Quartz entitled Life hacks are part of a 200-year-old movement to destroy your humanity, Andrew Taggart puts our current middle-class lives into an historical context. There is constant speculation that we’re entering a different historic era. If we look at how we entered our current era we might learn how we will move onward.
Taggart cites economic historian Diedre McCloskey who describes the present as the “Bourgeois Era.” The Bourgeois Era was created 200 years ago when the industrial revolution took hold, merchants bloomed, and those merchants promptly overpowered aristocrats and religious leaders. Your ancestors were controlled by lord and cleric, but you have broken these chains and are now controlled by your boss, your clients, and advertisers. There has been progression, but you are not entirely free.
You are not free because your thinking is enveloped by prevailing values. I would note this is something that typically happens under hegemony: not only does the economic and political dominance of the elite control your life, but the values of the elite permeate the thinking of those under their sway. Long ago, aristocrats cherished the values of honour, leisureliness, and pride. Christian peasants valued charity and reverence. These are rare values today, to the point where you almost have to look them up.
When the Bourgeois Era came along, it came with “the bourgeois virtues of prudence, temperance, trustworthiness, and pride in fair dealing.” We now look up to visionary entrepreneurs who embody these values, abandoning wars of aristocratic honour, or the self-flagellation required to seek salvation. And the new(ish) bourgeois values bring their own problems, creating diseases of the soul and existential heartbreak. When you email that final-final draft at 3 p.m. on a Friday and imagine the weekend ahead of you, is your life truly more complete than those who have confessed their sins?
What Happens to Old Values When We Make Progress?
Taggart does not entirely suggest that we go back to the older values. The way I think of it is, there are places on this earth where the biggest problem is inadequate plumbing. If those regions achieved adequate plumbing that would be great, however, it would be foolish for them to continue to obsess about plumbing as their highest goal. You’re supposed to move on. Perhaps their next goals would be fair elections, clear title on land ownership, and universal K-12 education. And after that, their goals might be togetherness of communities, greater self-expression, and nicer clothing. But when the community comes together you don’t abandon plumbing. Rather, it fades into the background as important-yet-forgettable.
As such, we may hold onto a variant of aristocratic honour when we defend our prestige in the workplace. And we may still be advancing the Christian-peasant virtue of charity when we support social change movements by contributing time, money, or simply our voices. But we remain completely shackled to the bourgeois values of temperance and prudence when we count our calories, declutter our wardrobes, and try to get a better telco package. You cannot go home from work and adopt the aristocratic value of leisureliness because temperance and prudence have penetrated our homes. Look busy!
I don’t think the solution is to seek the opposite of bourgeois dominance. I get triggered by the word bourgeois because of my past exposure to the labour movement. I’ll always be in remission from polarizing Marxist patter. I always get that I-know-where-this-is-going feeling. If I allow tomorrow’s next Lenin to keep talking I’m going to have to eat rice and beans at a banquet hall where I am sucked into a bottomless pit of volunteerism and bad taste. But it’s not just the left who can lead you astray. You also can’t let clerics and aristocrats join in on the bourgeois-bashing, as they don’t even want you to have plumbing.
The mainstream has done an exceptional job at offering meaningful careers to those who are intelligent and hard-working. There used to be a crowd of people who were alienated from the mainstream, some of whom were intelligent leadership-types who could create a meaningful rebel resistance. But now that corporations are adopting corporate social responsibility, advancing transformational leadership styles, and increasingly promoting a diverse population into the professions and leadership, there’s not as much appeal to heckling from the margins. Who is going to lead the resistance? Not always the best people. Fifteen per cent of the population has a personality disorder, but in political crowds (on either side of the fence) it seems more like one-half. The negation of the current dominant class might not be a viable path forward.
What Values Will Take Us Forward?
If I were to name the cherished values of our next era, I would go with humility, introspection, and empathy. The reason why is that the data keeps revealing cognitive fallacies and implicit bias that make it clear that our brains only have the power of a 40-watt light bulb. In order to do well, we have to get over ourselves and ask us why we think the things we think. And this is done best by looking at the evidence and working with a team. We need to figure ourselves out while we help others do the same. This task is impossible if you think you have everything figured out, so humility is your first task.
As artificial intelligence and robots take over the productivity race, those who pull ahead will do something human that artificial intelligence just can’t do. This kind of holistic thinking is deeply incompatible with the conformity and profit-maximizing focus of the promotable class of agreeable bourgeois leaders. Instead, the new leaders are those who look inside of themselves, build their story, and enmesh their own story with those of others. It’s not something that can be written by a public relations professional or a ghostwriter. You must become yourself, make it real, and show up as authentically human.
There’s no eye contact with any app anywhere that will give you a sense that your humanity resonates with your colleagues, friends, and family. Rather, you start with that which is human and tell the market and the technology what is required.
So when you get home on Friday and look at those dishes that need loading, try going deep on why you care. Are you allowed to do nothing? Is the person who loads the dishwasher committing a benevolent act? Or are you, in all honesty, trying to keep everything running smoothly? If you meditate long enough, you might just decide that it’s really about the ick factor. Then you’re in the future.