Who are (and were) the bourgeoisie?

The term “bourgeoisie” has evolved over the last three centuries, leading me to wonder how to correctly use the term. Wikipedia rather opaquely (and perhaps oxymoronically) refers to the bourgeoisie as “the middle class nobility,” a group distinct from persons of “aristocratic origin.” I suppose Wikipedia’s authors are referencing the “landed gentry” of olden days, but that’s unclear.

Wikipedia further notes that in the French feudal order, “bourgeois” evolved to mean “merchants and traders,” although Marx later identified this group as the “petite bourgeoisie.” In the early 19th century, bourgeoisie was mostly synonymous with the middle class, Wiki allows, but just a few decades later, meant “the new ruling class,” perhaps owing to Marx’s usage of the descriptor for factory owners and other owners of the means of production. That said, I thought Marx differentiated between “capitalists” and the (petty) bourgeoisie, leaving me wonder where the categories break.

In the U.S., I’ve heard people use the term bourgeoisie to identify members of the middle class and upper-middle class and upper class. I suppose the definition has evolved, but what is the currently accepted definition?

I felt like this was covered pretty well in a class I took on the history of Spain, where they are called “los burgeses.” The aristocracy were those who lived off the economic rents of their land and did no work themselves. For a long time there were just aristrocrats and serfs. Then a merchant/trader class evolved that had some capital to run a business, but did also actively work in running the business. This was a significant cultural development, the emergence of a new social class with new norms and mores. I would still use the term the same way today: someone who earns both from his labor and from profit or investment. By having a stock portfolio or appreciated real estate, a person is no longer reliant only on his labor, and is invested in “the system.” However, by still having to work the person is not a pure capitalist.

I don’t believe the use common in rap music to denote “rich” is actually a standard usage. Rap adopts a lot of words. Maybe there is some sense in which someone who owns *anything * looks rich from the depths of the 'hood.

OK, you’ve got your feudal system. Aristocrats, churchmen, and peasants. The aristocrats are rich, but their wealth consists almost entirely of land and the things produced by the land, agricultural products.

But some of the “peasants” start to accumulate wealth. They are craftsmen who make valuable objects. Or traders who accumulate wealth. Note that transporting goods during the middle ages was very difficult, what with the bandits, no roads, and the aristocrats confiscating everything that comes through their territory.

So these traders and craftsmen are the bourgeoisie, the town people. They aren’t subsistance farmers, they aren’t aristocrats…they must be parasites! Aristocrats know that the only real wealth is made from land and taxing the farmers. Actually WORKING is anathema, workers are peasants, and peasants are for stealing from. If you work, or engage in trade, you’re a peasant. The manly way to make money is to steal it. The parallel between medeival aristocrats and Tony Soprano is pretty much exact.

But the bourgeoisie become even MORE rich. And money is power. Aristocrats borrow money from them, and while individual moneylenders can just be chopped in half, as a class money-men, traders and craftsmen become very powerful. And then we have Marx’s differentiation between the petit bourgeois and the grand. A petit bourgeois is a shopkeeper, or a teacher, or a clerk, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or an artisan. This is opposed to the peasant farmers and the urban laborers. And the grand bourgeois is the capitalist…one who makes money from money. Trade, manufacture, and so on.

So the industrial revolution rolls around and suddenly the capitalist is much more powerful than the aristocrat. Aristocrats are bankrupted…because to WORK makes you a sucker and a peasant. And the former peasants who used to work the fields for the lords and ladies pour into the cities and become industrial laborers, the proletariat.

And according to Marx, the proletariat and the peasantry would become absolutely impoverished by the capitalist, the petit bourgeois would become the running dogs of the capitalist, and the workers of the world had nothing to lose but their chains, yadda, yadda, yadda, capitalists get strung up and a utopia ensues.

The bourgeoisie were the ones who owned the means of production. Prior to industrialization, you made whatever it was you made (shoes or clothes or tables or whatever) and had complete control over the process and the final product.
With industrialization, people were relegated to factory jobs and lost all control over the process and final product. They just put on the headlights so to speak. They could only sell their labor to factory owners, since the market didn’t have room for handmade items anymore. So they were alienated (left out or powerless) from 1) the process of production 2) the product and 3) the means of production.

The bourgeoisie were the factory owners who maintained the power over the process, product, and their workers.

I hope this makes sense.

One more thing.

“Bourgeiois attitudes”, meaning, stuffy, small-minded, uptight, moralistic, hypocritical, status-obsessed, money-obsessed…this refers to the petit bourgeois of shopkeepers and townsmen. These are people who have to work, although perhaps not with their hands.

So the kids in the 60s complaining about the bourgeois weren’t complaining about the ultra-rich capitalists and industrialists, but rather to their parents who worked and scrimped and saved and conformed and fought Hitler–rather than run barefoot through fields of daisies.

Hence the lyric by Country Joe McDonald:

If you’re broke and you need some cash
Rip it off from the ruling class,
The best things in life are free
If you steal 'em from the bourgeoisie.

In modern American usage, I would say, “bourgeois” refers more to attitude than to social or economic class – especially since the original sense of “townsman” has been basically lost to us, as have Marx’s class distinctions. Someone who’s bourgeois is rigidly conventional in their social attitudes – a square, in other words. In a way, this usage is consistent with the development of the word in the 19th century, where the bourgeoisie, particularly the haute bourgeoisie in France, was reactionary in its politics and Victorian in its mores.