Anyone else read Lauren Collins’ excellent essay in The New Yorker about Gerard Depardieu giving up his French citizenship in order to steer his ship to clearer, tax-free waters? It’s wonderful, and not only because of the accompanying picture (above).
On the one hand, her essay is about Depardieu’s career and how his upbringing and celebrity represents, in a sense, the bourgeois fantasy of the man who grows up poor but ends up making something out of himself. Depardieu is, indeed, a self-made man; not just an actor, but a pretty successful entrepreneur as well. On the other hand, the essay reveals quite a bit about the current state of French socialism about which I was admittedly ignorant.
The issue here is that Depardieu refused to accept the tax rate of 75% on the superrich and has renounced his citizenship. He is now—if I’m not mistaken— living in Belgium or Russia. (He was recently given Russian citizenship and counts Vladimir Putin as one of his pals). A few interesting points here are 1) the 75% tax rate is a temporary measure (3 years) to dig out of a huge national debt, 2) the tax rate affects only about 3,000 people in France, as the divide between the superrich and the lower classes is not as drastic as it is in the United States (for example), and 3) the majority of the French people support this tax hike and it is one of the many reasons the Socialists were able to get back in power after 17 years or so in the wilderness.
Depardieu, an international celebrity who is, in a way, a symbol of modern French cinema, is now a figure of derision. It seems that many French people believe that paying taxes is their patriotic duty and that capitalist success stories, like Depardieu, should give back to the country who made them a success. But Depardieu believes that it is he who has given so much to France, and so why is everyone trying to punish his success?
Depardieu would have scores of people—and an entire political party, even— who would agree with his stance in the United States, but what’s fascinating to me is that Depardieu’s outlook has been discredited, ridiculed, and derided in France. The consensus is quite simply: Pay up asshole. The debate rages on here, but it seems to be quite settled back in France, where there is a mix of both capitalist and anti-austerity measures in order to bring that country back from financial insolvency.
Paraphrased from Marx’s famous dictum, this little cartoon draws attention to the wonderful, little bourgeois toys that Marx could have never even dreamed would be available for proletarian consumption (and entertainment!): iPods, computers, televisions…
In fact, Marx probably would have never gotten around to composing the Communist Manifesto. He would have been too busy posting on tumblr.
I’m trying to unpack the meaning of this.
On the one hand, it is a statement of fact. People who shop at Forever 21 — young, middle-class women (including yours truly, except for the young part) — tend to be bourgeois. But there are probably poorer (read: working class) women who shop there, too; the rock-bottom prices allow anyone to look chic and fashionable. Young. Pretty. Forever 21. Isn’t that what everyone wants, regardless of how much money you have in your purse?
If one were to apply a more academic reading to this piece of clothing, one could say that it’s a tacit acknowledgment that class warfare exists. Forever 21 is a mega clothing store chain that has reaped the benefits of the worst tendencies in global capitalism. In order to open up these thousands of stores across America, Asia, and Europe, and sell fashionable clothing at cheap prices, they have to staff these stores with cheap labor and, most importantly of all, sell clothes at (probably) ridiculous markups because they can draw upon the cheap labor of (usually female) workers in sweatshops.
This sweater is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of one’s privilege, but it draws attention not just to the economic circumstances (or, the status) of the wearer, but also the cultural and economic divide that exists between girls and women who enjoy the profits of a capitalistic system and those who suffer under it.
I found this here at Today in Social Sciences. It simplifies some things, of course. You have at first the “feudal lords” who fight with the “serfs and peasants.” That conflict gives you a winner: “city life.”
Then those who enjoy “city life” clash with the “guilds.” That results in a new group of victors: “entrepreneurs” who in turn then end up fighting with the “proletariat” and then we finally get the final outcome: “communism.”
That’s a whole lot of simplification of Marx even accounting for the fact that the image was made for an undergraduate course called “Cultural and Institutional History of Modern Europe.” I’m not criticizing a professor’s choices, but merely pointing out that there are multiple ways to communicate the essence of Marx’s ideas about history to a somewhat apathetic young student population. And that it’s easy to fudge things.
To wit: what is interesting here is the way two of the categories are chronologically positioned: the “City life” people come first, and then the “Entrepreneurs.” Yet, as should be obvious, there’s (a) a lot of overlap between the two and (b) there’s nary a mention of the bourgeoisie here. As my esteemed colleague has been ably chronicling here and here, it is almost impossible to separate the notion of “City life” from definitions of the “bourgeoisie.” In fact, conceiving one is impossible without the other.
My point here? Teaching Marx (even to apathetic teenagers) demands some care in definitions.
Aelita (1924) was not the first science fiction movie set in space (that honor generally goes to Le voyage dans la lune [A Trip to the Moon] made in 1902). But it was probably one of the most influential early films in the genre. Aelita was based on a novel of the same name published a year earlier written by Russian novelist Aleksey Tolstoy. The movie was a sensation in Soviet Russia, and one of the first true “blockbusters” in the history of cinema. The man behind the movie was Yakov Protazanov, who had gained a modicum of fame already in pre-Revolutionary times, but whose Aelita elevated him to iconic status in the world of newly emerging Soviet cinema. Much like modern Hollywood movies, weeks of intense advertising preceded the release of the movie; airplanes dropped thousands of leaflets announcing the opening over several cities. Tickets for the premiere were sold out, and the size of crowd on opening night was so overwhelming that Protazanov himself was unable to attend.
Protazanov completely reimagined Tol’stoy’s original novel, which was about a Soviet soldier who travels to Mars and incites a proletarian revolution among the bourgeois Martians. In the book, Aelita, the queen of Mars, falls in love with the soldier, and shenanigans ensue. In Protazanov’s hands, the story becomes much more sophisticated. The protagonist, Los, is a soldier whose background is bourgeois and is married to sweet Natasha. He receives a radio message from Mars and becomes distracted from his marriage. Turns out that on Mars, Queen Aelita rules over a brutal state that exploits its workers. But the Queen herself becomes obsessed with Los who she can see through a telescope. She begins to reject the exploitation endemic in her state. Soon, Los and a fellow proletariat go to Mars on a rocket and help the Queen dismantle the totalitarian state, but it turns out that the Queen was simply making a grab or power; she had never intended to end exploitation. The revolution fails. In the end, Los wakes up and realizes it was all a dream.
In the movie, the revolution in Mars is riddled with ambiguities that don’t demarcate along binary poles such as capitalist vs. communist or bourgeois vs. proletarian. Even the outcome is ambiguous. Some have argued that such an approach was Protazanov’s commentary about the complexities of the New Economic Policy (NEP) initiated by Lenin in the early 1920s when there was a mixed economy (with limited private enterprise). Enabled by looser censorship restrictions, this was a time of rich and experimental artistic expression in film, literature, art, and pretty much everything under the Sun. Soviet society was complicated and driven by conflicting impulses.
Unsurprisingly, Protazanov’s ambiguous take on socialism rankled Soviet officials who wanted the soldier to overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a new proletarian culture on Mars. As late as 1928, Soviet newspapers were still complaining of the “petty bourgeois ending” of the movie where Los returns to the domesticities of marriage, and not the task at hand: socialist revolution.
Aelita was important for many reasons, but often forgotten is how much it influenced real people to do real things. It influenced a generation of Soviet space enthusiasts, many of whom later went on to create the actual rockets and spaceships that opened the Space Age in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the major Soviet projects in the 1960s to send humans to Mars (never finished, unfortunately) was affectionately named “Aelita” by its designer, Vladimir Chelomey, who remembered watching the movie as a kid.
The picture above is a composite of four different scenes. On the top left, we see Queen Aelita (played by Yuliya Solntseva). The two shots of sets evoke the sets of Fritz Lang’s more famous Metropolis, which Aelita influenced.
For the complete movie, go here. For more on the culture of space enthusiasm in the 1920s, a good place to start is here or here.
Sketch by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath (1791), which marked the emancipation of the French bourgeoisie, or the Third Estate, from the Estates-General.
Urban charters had grown out of collective efforts to sustain collective responsibility in the medieval town. Even though urban administrators were elected to their positions, medieval towns were not centers for democracy or equality. Quite the opposite, in fact. The medieval town was ruled by an urban oligarchy. A burgher was “elected,” or chosen, by his fellow burghers to serve at his administrative post. Prosperous merchants had the most to gain from charters, as it was they who controlled their towns’ governments. Generation after generation they looked out for themselves and their economic interests.
Did the development of urban charters and laws contribute to the bourgeoisie’s achieving class consciousness in the Middle Ages?
I would argue that establishing the customs of the towns—which emphasized the rights, privileges, and liberties of the medieval bourgeoisie— was a crucial process that set the bourgeoisie apart from both their seigniorial lords and the rural peasantry.
Sheila Delany provides a succinct overview of the reasons for which the medieval bourgeoisie began to claim for themselves specific legal freedoms and privileges, which she rather brilliantly connects to the bourgeois revolutions that marked the end of a bloody 18th century:
From the start the medieval bourgeoisie were in competition with feudal lords. They competed first for labour-power, for they required a pool of free workers and artisans to produce what they would sell. Free, that is, from feudal ties, free to move where they were needed, free to work when they were needed, and free from property. To this end most town charters guaranteed freedom to any serf who lived peacefully in the town for a year and a day…But the bourgeois himself, whether merchant, employer or financier, also required freedom from domination by lay and ecclesiastical lords. He wanted freedom to trade unimpeded and travel safely, freedom to hire and release employees, to raise or lower prices, wages or interest, to accumulate a fortune, marry a noblewoman or purchase an estate. The political privileges granted to the urban bourgeoisie were known as ‘liberties.’ Indeed the notion of ‘liberty’ was the distinctive contribution to European thought of the bourgeoisie breaking free of feudal bonds; it culminated in the slogans of French and American bourgeois revolutionaries of the 18th century.
I emphasize the last point of this passage to highlight the continuing relevance of the medieval bourgeoisie to our modern political discourse. Our modern conceptions of liberty and freedoms were derived, at least partly, from definitions that the medieval bourgeoisie had begun to codify in urban charters so that they could adequately protect and defend their economic interests.
upthejunctionigotajobwithstanley asked: I like you blog very much. Just wanted to check if it is okay to follow you - I'm a queer soft-cock anarchist so there's lots of porn on my tumblr blog. Cool if you prefer I didn't.
I don’t have you on my list of followers. If you would like to follow my blog then you should probably do that. I must say, though, that a “queer soft-cock anarchist” sounds suspiciously bourgeois rather than anarchist. You betray an alarming concern for lofty titles and weak members.
“Bourgeoisie you have understood nothing.” A poster made during the May 1968 student riots in Paris.
Before WWII, higher education had been only for Europe’s wealthier classes, but in the postwar era there was greater equality in higher education, and a whole host of middle-class kids—baby boomers— were now able to get a university education. Reducing and eliminating tuition, government subsidies, and scholarships also helped bring about higher enrollments.And enrollments did grow dramatically as a result of these new policies; in France, for example, 4.5% of youth attended university in 1950, but this number jumped to 14.5% in 1965.
The May 1968 student riots began with middle-class youth (they were later joined by the working class, who went on strike, almost crippling the French economy). The generation that revolted in the ‘68 riots were relatively affluent and had been the targets of mass advertising and consumerism. Popular culture was primarily consumed by the middle classes and reflected middle-class interests. The products of postwar popular culture—music, television, films, Coca-Cola— were advertised as lifestyle choices; buying and consuming such products not only communicated to the outside world the socio-economic privileges that you enjoyed, but also were indicative of who you were as a person.
The ‘68 riots was, in effect, a bourgeois response to bourgeois consumerism. Students demanded a greater voice in administration of their universities in May ‘68; they took over buildings, invited industrial workers to support them, and were keen on starting a revolution. As these protests spread all over Europe and abroad to America (most notably at Columbia University), it became clear that the students were protesting against the authoritarian nature of university administrations and harbored anti-war, anti-imperialist attitudes. Most striking, however, was that these movements were really about the narcotic of mass consumerism— the fundamental rejection of bourgeois values that had become increasingly identified with the ownership of products that were massively produced, advertised, and consumed in the postwar era.
With the assistance of Gustave Eiffel, Le Bon Marché boasted the first metal roof structure in the world, making it a monument of architectural innovation.
New industries in the late 19th century helped expand the market for consumer goods, which brought the economy out of stagnation by the end of the century. Overseas imperialism also opened new markets for European consumer goods. New forms of retailing and marketing appeared—department stores, chain stores, packaging techniques, mail-order catalogs, and advertising—which simultaneously stimulated and fed consumer demand.
A new way in which goods were being consumed was through the development and construction of department stores in the mid-19th century. Department stores, such as Le Bon Marché in Paris (apparently the first department store ever) sold a wide selections of consumer goods under one roof. These modern stores increased the economic pressure on small traditional merchants who specialized in selling only one kind of product. In a traditional shop, the retailer (who was also the producer) offered a single product—gloves, for example—in limited quantity at a fairly high price. Oftentimes, this price was not set and the customer would haggle with the shopkeeper until a price was agreed upon. “Browsing” was virtually unheard of— an individual who entered a shop was expected to make a purchase.
Department stores, however, made profits from a quick turnover of a very large volume of goods set at low prices. In order to stimulate sales, department stores sought to make shopping a very pleasant experience by offering well-lit expanses filled with alluring items, well-trained and friendly clerks, in-store reading rooms, and restaurants.
Middle-class women especially were encouraged to patronize these stores even though critics had charged that these stores turned sober housewives into irrational shoppers, who were wasteful of family resources and let their consumer fantasies run wild in a store like Le Bon Marché. Indeed, women were the ones who primarily participated in the vast expansion of consumerism and domestic comfort that marked the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Women filled their homes with manufactured items such as clothing, china, furniture, carpets, drapery, wallpaper, and prints. In these decades, women’s pursuit of fashion in their home furnishings seemed to lean towards imperial motifs as Empire began to increasingly invade the domestic spaces of the bourgeois household: Persian-inspired designs were seen on textiles, oriental carpets were laid across floors, wicker furniture was placed in drawing rooms, and Chinese porcelain was used at mealtimes.