I keep running into the term “bourgeois society” in many of my courses, and it seems to have a different meaning and a different connotation each time- so I did what I always do when I don’t understand a term that everyone else is using- I googled it. Besides finding out it is pronounced completely different than I was saying it in my head, I found it can mean:
bour·geois (br-zhwä, brzhwä)
n. pl. bourgeois
1. A person belonging to the middle class.
2. A person whose attitudes and behavior are marked by conformity to the standards and conventions of the middle class.
3. In Marxist theory, a member of the property-owning class; a capitalist.
1. Of, relating to, or typical of the middle class.
2. Held to be preoccupied with respectability and material values.
Wikipedia also had some useful information on the connotations I’d been encountering and having trouble understanding:
Within the socialist movement:
In the rhetoric of some Communist parties, “bourgeois” is sometimes used as a pejorative, and those who are perceived to collaborate with the bourgeoisie are called its lackeys. Socialists, especially Marxists, have multiple uses for the term: the original meaning, the social class of capitalists, and the pejorative.
Within the United States:
In the United States—outside of Marxism and anarchism—the word bourgeois often refers to the social stereotype of the middle and often aspiring classes. It was associated with consumerist lifestyles often emphasising conspicuous consumption and material status.
In the Cohn-Bendit interview on the French Student Revolt, Daniel Cohn-Bendit remarks that he believes the only way to advance is within the framework of a bourgeois society. He says that “At best we can hope to bring down the government. We must not dream of destroying the bourgeois society”.
It seems to me that although many capitalist societies across the globe are disgusted by their own wastefulness, consumerism, and exploitative division of labour, the economic system of capitalism is so much a part of how we understand the world, so much a part of our culture, that the only “action” we end up taking is to make empty gestures of discontent: strikes, “demonstrations”, a lot of speeches and talking about everything that is unjust and ugly about our culture…but at the end of the day, do we really want to change our culture, or do we just want to change our own position within our “bourgeoisie society”? Because although I theoretically am opposed to the division of labor capitalism creates, I continue to shop at stores that can only maintain low prices through exploitation of workers somewhere overseas; although I theoretically am opposed to pollution and degradation of the environment I buy disposable containers and drive a car with the fuel efficiency of a charter boat. If the working class truly is “the historical agent of revolution”, then what happens if the working class is content chasing after some proverbial carrot it can never obtain? Can the working class man “satisfy his needs without hurting himself, without reproducing, through his aspirations and satisfactions, his dependence on an exploitative apparatus which, in satisfying his needs, perpetuates his servitude”? The bourgeois society which considers itself so affluent ends up creating more dissatisfaction through the very material wealth that it strives to acquire. As Sahlins depicts in his work “The Original Affluent Society” for every purchase that we make, we also realize that there are countless other purchases we cannot afford. Acquiring one thing, instead of satisfying a person’s desires, instead generates new desires- and so the capitalist system quickly becomes “the affluent monster”. It seems to me that no revolution against a government will remedy the problems in our culture. The government isn’t responsible for the way we see the world, for the desire we all have to accumulate wealth, or for bourgeois society that makes the working class just as culpable for the wastefulness, consumerism, and exploitative division of labour as the government it rebels against.