In the critical matrix of race, class, gender, and sexuality, class is the category most often quietly left out. Class is an embarrassment from every angle and perspective—to inherit wealth is a crime against meritocracy, but even the working class, Marx’s supposed protagonist of history, has dispersed among the sad strip malls of our postindustrial landscape. We lack a useful political language to describe class hierarchy: liberal centrists view class identity as only a temporary position that exists to be transcended in the glorious process of upward mobility, and Left cultural theorists avoid it because, frankly, class struggle hasn’t been all that glamorous over the last 80 years or so. Class critique lacks the oppositional moral clarity of racial oppression and the civil rights movement, the clear international majority position of the women’s struggle, or the apotheosis of individual desire in the butterfly-emergence of the “coming out” story. Even more confusingly, sometimes the people in the lower classes who might stand to benefit the most from class analysis are the most strongly invested in avoiding the rhetoric of class and worshipping the wealthy (see for example Bruce Robbins’s analysis in Upward Mobility and the Common Good of Carolyn Steedman’s memoir of the Tory working class.)

Given the empty slipperiness of the language of social class, theorists are turning instead to the policy-wonk language of statistics, which offers some distinct advantages. When you compare the privileges of the wealthy 1% to the slow downward mobility of the 99%, the unfairness of capital concentration and the threat to the creed of liberal equality is patently clear. But the language of statistics doesn’t help us understand the character of the new class that is benefitting from the second rise of capitalism. Will it flaunt its wealth or disguise it? Thomas Piketty’s warning in Capital in the Twenty-First Century of a return of the dominance of inherited capital is a cogent economic story, but to express what it means to live in an unequal capitalist society, he has to turn to the past, to the traditional strivers in Austen and Balzac novels.

Many Marxist histories (think of Eric Hobsbawm or E.P. Thompson) approach the problem of class by trying to pin down the shifting identity and allegiances of the working class. In his brief, compelling volume The Bourgeois, by contrast, Franco Moretti focuses on the class that supposedly has come to rule the modern era—the capital-owning bourgeoisie. What he finds is a class that begins by denying its existence as a class, and ends by staging its disappearance into an existential problem of modernity. “Capitalism is more powerful than ever, but its human embodiment seems to have vanished,” he posits.1 (Perhaps this is an overstatement: I suspect there are still plenty of good citizens who consciously subscribe to values of the historical bourgeoisie, especially in Midwestern country clubs.) The term “bourgeois” is both central to social history and oddly evanescent. Unlike the aristocracy with its ranks and hierarchies, the bourgeoisie is distinguished by its social “permeability”2 and openness, its identification with the individual virtues of frugality and hard work, and its uneasy negotiation between the greedy aspects of capitalism and imperialism and the insistence on personal responsibility. When we replace the word “bourgeois” with the term “middle class,” things get even fuzzier. Moretti suggests that the term “middle class” may have arisen because of a desire in Victorian Britain that there be a class to fix the problem of what Disraeli called the “Two nations—the rich and the poor” that threatened to rip the country apart in the 1840s.3 But then the term “middle class” takes on a second, occluding function, “shielding [bourgeois power] from direct criticism” behind a false vision of social balance.4

To this important and yet amorphous task, Moretti brings some unique critical resources. There is no other American critic writing today (with the exception of Fredric Jameson) who can command his breathtaking international range or his willingness to make large theoretical interventions. Moretti is a true member of that vanishing breed, the critic of comparative literature. His methodology is flexible, combining narratology and the history of genre, Marxist historiography, and statistical readings of archives made possible by new digital search techniques. Moretti invented the term “distant reading” and helped build the Stanford Literary Lab, whose members he credits with some of the archival patterns he analyzes. Moretti’s use of the work done by Literary Lab foregrounds a collaboration that’s often left unspoken in critical work—the relation between the critical star and the labor of grad students and researchers. Thus the book is a personal tour de force, a return to Moretti’s own long-standing interests in geography and social class, and a demonstration piece of the kind of humanist inquiry that can be facilitated, at least a little, by historically trained researchers engaging in what he calls “grammatical pars[ing]”5 and others call (somewhat appallingly) “text mining.”

The linguistic “distant reading” patterns Moretti focuses on in this book are not just long historical trends. They are also visible on the level of single words in texts—especially, in this book, the use of gerunds and adjectives in literary sources. While Moretti mostly draws on traditional intellectual histories in his readings, he also cites the Literary Lab’s number-crunching to suggest, for instance, that Defoe’sRobinson Crusoe uses an “extremely rare verb form”,6 the past gerund (“having secured…”) more than other novels;7 and that Pilgrim’s Progress uses the word “things” as much as 10 times more than other books in his corpus.8 Yet his arguments ultimately rely more on stylistic analysis than on quantitative data. In that ur-text of bourgeois individualism, Robinson Crusoe, he posits the persistence of the verb structure “past gerund; past tense; infinitive” (as in “having stowed my boat very safe, I went on shore to look about me…”) creates a “rhythm of continuity”9 that reinscribes daily activity without examining the ultimate goal of that activity. The goal here is to show how a literary style—even a style that resolves itself apparently into a lack of style, into pure efficiency or usefulness, can create a whole mindset that has the power to resolve or suspend social contradictions. Out of this prose style comes the habit of a bourgeois “culture”—an equally ephemeral word, to describe an ephemeral concept, and yet one that, in conjuring up the illusion of self-evident solidity, has real social effects. Moretti’s analysis of class through the vector of literary style is thus not primarily a sociological or economic inquiry, or even a history of a single national culture—and thus it captures something those methods cannot.

Moretti’s further chapters analyze moments in nineteenth-century prose that he sees as signs of a typically-bourgeois struggle between celebrating individual acquisition and wanting to soften or veil social conflict. He reads Goethe and Flaubert in terms of what he calls “fillers”—those long passages in which nothing seems to happen, which he calls “the only narrative invention of the entire century”, through which the world is rationalized and cleansed of miracles.10 He addresses the controversy about the rise of free indirect discourse—is it a sign of amoral freedom from the conventional, or the spread of panoptic surveillance?—and suggests that the evolution of the novel away from didacticism might have the paradoxical effect of leaving it “impoten[t]” and paralyzed as it drifts toward entropy.11 “The bourgeois vanishing at the moment of capitalism’s triumph”12—might both the novel and the bourgeois class have outlived the social conditions that gave rise to them? Moretti sees the British Victorian stress on “earnestness” and “honesty” as the first modern moment of cultural hegemony, a “specifically British answer to a common European problematic”.13 Stressing earnestness (rather than, say, fairness) is a way of asserting that “the objective results of an action are less important than the spirit with which it is done,” thus “preserving the fundamental tonality of bourgeois existence … while endowing it with a sentimental-ethical significance.”14 The ultimate end is the construction of a concept of “Useful knowledge, or: knowledge without freedom”15—a goal that will be instantly recognizable to anyone wondering why, for instance, Scott Walker would put so much energy into undermining the University of Wisconsin.

The volume ends suggestively with two alternate teleologies. One depicts uneven developments in novels from Italy, Spain, Poland, and Russia, in which the new bourgeois spirit is not victorious, but rather crushed by the persistence of the old regime. And in the final chapter, an analysis of Ibsen’s plays, the bourgeoisie destroys itself. Ibsen’s capitalist strivers inhabit a world so full of gray zones and ambiguity that it is not “morally legible.”16 In Ibsen’s plays, Moretti argues, the realistic hard-working bourgeois epitomized by Robinson Crusoe is symbolically displaced by a Nietzschean “creative destroyer.”17

Moretti’s story of the rise and fall of this dominant culture of prose and striving honesty unsurprisingly leaves many questions unanswered. Since capitalism appears still to be intact, was bourgeois culture merely a birth stage that has been superseded by shameless exploitation, and is capitalism now doomed to collapse without that regulatory desire for social harmony? Economically, was there really a stage in which “honest” accumulation preceded creative destruction, or did a predatory primitive accumulation give rise to a more stable financialization (as in Arrighi’s “systemic cycles of accumulation” shifting over centuries from the Netherlands to England and then the United States) or are both moments still going on simultaneously? From our own perspective, will the bourgeois “creation of a culture of work”—“the greatest symbolic achievement of the bourgeoisie as a class”18 become increasingly irrelevant in an age of automation that threatens mass structural unemployment? Moretti’s work is a superb and provocative reflection on these problems: while its historical conclusions may or may not prepare us for the analysis of new class structures in the 21st century, its recognition of the elusive nature of bourgeois culture is surely a warning of how difficult that next task will be.

  1. Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (London: Verso, 2013), p. 1. 

  2. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 2. 

  3. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or the two nations (1845). 

  4. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 12. 

  5. Moretti The Bourgeois, 125 

  6. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 52. 

  7. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 52 n80. 

  8. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 59 n93. 

  9. Moretti The Bourgeois, 53. 

  10. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 79. 

  11. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 100. 

  12. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 113. 

  13. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 134. 

  14. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 132-3; emphasis in original. 

  15. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 137. 

  16. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 178. 

  17. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 185. 

  18. Moretti The Bourgeois, p. 43.