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Nicolas Hausdorf reads Mia Hansen-Løve’s new movie Things to Come as an allegory for a disintegrating Europe and a happy eulogy for the death of the bourgeoisie. With three pieces of art from Tarron Ruiz-Avila.

The European Union is a political model in decline. Europe’s growing populist movements,  divergent in project, composition and intention, and aesthetically unpleasant to the commentariat, are a devastating verdict against the universally unpopular[1], centralised, illegitimate, and big business-friendly Brussels bureaucracy which today appears a more anachronistic[2] political organisation than ever. Like vultures, the EU’s enemies have assembled both on its outside (the new US, UK, and Turkish administrations) – as well as on its inside (with the right-wing governments in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere).

The success of these so-called populist movements-cum nationalist governments has been analysed ad nauseam, usually by critics obsessed with an alleged intellectual proletarisation of the ravaging masses. By this logic, does the success of populism not also point towards a certain political void that has been left up for grabs by the cultured classes? It seems as if current media and political elites appear less and less capable of imposing a convincing vision of a globalised liberal future. Perhaps this impotence finds its origin in a general decline of the European bourgeoisie, a class that has been critical in the ideological and material emergence and support of liberal capitalism and has decisively determined the fate of the European continent at least ever since the English and French Revolutions.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s film Things to Come (L’avenir), out late last year, is an interesting object of study in this regard. The Paris-bred film maker (whose parents are both philosophy teachers) as a sociologically clearly overdetermined director and writer, is well placed to make an accurate observation of a class that appears to be in full decline, or at least recomposition. Her latest movie is the story of Nathalie, an ageing albeit vibrant school philosophy teacher[3] who sees the pillars of her life disintegrating. Nathalie is confronted with her husband leaving her for a younger woman, her mother’s hysteria, decent into Alzheimers and subsequent death, the non-renewing of her contract for a philosophical standard work, and finally with Fabien, her talented student and protegé, turning away from her. Her personal story is an allegory for its political moment, making the film a valuable reading of the current European crisis.

tyrant 072

Tarron Ruiz-Avila,  White Gods of the North – 26 x 22cm – 2011

Collaboration and Liquidation of the Cultured Classes

From the beginning of the movie, the viewer gets to know Nathalie as the incarnation of the pragmatist and cynic bourgeois academic; she shares a light-flooded and carefully ornamented Paris appartment, equipped with an enormously proliferating library, with her pipe-smoking philosophy teacher husband, and only listens to “Brahms and Schumann”. Meanwhile, when confronted with her intra-muros[4] students’ nagging striking against the government’s attempt at extending the pension age – featuring a blockade of the school’s entrance – she disregardingly forces her way through, while only spitefully dismissing her students’ endeavors to discuss. Nathalie’s political trajectory, we sense as viewers, is something of a representation of the average European “social democrat”. Having passed through a period of communist activity “for two years when it was fashionable”, Nathalie later renounced radical political activism while continuing to publish essays of leftwing Frankfurt School intellectuals. As with most “grown-up” left-wing politics, her commitment appears to be more formal and aesthetic than grounded in action.

Nathalie’s comfortable life is soon subjected to a series of shocks. A meeting at her publishing house becomes an embarassment. As if to highlight that the development of the “New Left”[5] has passed her by, she is told that her Adorno essays do not sell well in comparison to essays on Michel Foucault[6]. The publishers announce their plans to change the appearance of a philosophical standard work introduction she is the editor of – to make it more appealing and to meet market expectations.

Nathalie: “You’re changing my collection?”

Publisher: “Its the most costly and least profitable collection”

Nathalie: “And the most prestigious”
Publisher: “No doubt but we can’t sit back and watch sales plummet”

This moment is significant: The viewer learns that “La Bête Sauvage[7]”, the untamed market, has entered and replaced the very bourgeois domain of prestige, the idea of a reputation due to a superiority of form, idea and content. In a world over-determined by economics, considerations of prestige appear to be a lost cause to be abandoned by the radical democracy[8] of the market. Nathalie makes the painful realization that her cultural capital[9], a traditional marker, safeguard, and reproduction mechanism of her social status cannot protect her anymore.

It's Time Mr Wolfe

Tarron Ruiz-Avila,  Its Time, Mr Wolfe – 14 x 11cm – 2010

Academia, Censorship, Power Structure

The theme of academia as a pillar of power for the system becomes a topic again with the appearance of the character Fabien, a dialectical counterpart to Nathalie. Fabien is Nathalie’s protegé and former student. He also represents a much more active, if perhaps only more youthful political engagement than Nathalie. In addition to being a brilliant essayist, Fabien is also an anarchist activist, who, we learn as viewers, protests against evictions, criticises Nathalie’s inocuous Enzensbeger texts, and finally departs from Paris to move to his friends on the countryside to become an independent farmer while pursueing his writing. After being left by her husband and the death of her mother, Nathalie visits Fabien at his country retreat and browses through his library. The camera zooms in on books by Solzhenitsyn, Bakounin, Proudhon[10], but also by Raymond Aron, Slavoj Zizek, and even the Unabomber Manifesto.

Nathalie: I didnt know Zizek was amongst your references. Isn’t he fishy?
Fabien: I have lots of books. I don’t agree with all of them.

Nathalie: And the Unabomber wrote a book? I hope you place more value on human life.

Fabien: I want action to be compatible with thought. It isnt what you teach.

Nathalie as the academic and state employee is bound by certain limits to her thinking: Slavoj Zizek, for example, might not merit being discussed as he is “fishy[11]”. A rather drole term, however, those familiar with academic culture might easily recognise that it barely conceals the contempt, implicit violence, and disregard for free thinking more often than not the norm in the often highly ideological and sectarian academic circles. Meanwhile, Fabien, who has become independent as a small producer, can engage in intellectual eclecticism and freely entertain and selectively appropriate ideas ranging from right-wing Raymond Aron to the extremist Unabomber. Fabien refuses Nathalie’s attempt to shame him with her “guilt by association” technique, by explaining that he is willing to entertain thoughts that he does not necessarily agree with instead of her approach of a blanket shunning of authors as a result of their general ideological disposition based on hearsay and collective judgement.  Nathalie’s rapport to thinking becomes apparent in another scene where she is discussing with her students whether truth can be debated.

Nathalie: “Can the truth be debated?”

Student: “I dont see why it could not be debated”

Nathalie: “Really? what about areas where it is established”
Student: “Its always contestable”

Nathalie: “No one still says the sun revolves round the earth. In science there are established truths. Are there other domains”
Student: “History as well”
Nathalie: “Excactly. The storming of the Bastille on July 14th. 1789 or Nazi extermination of Jews leave no room for debate. Attention. Debating truth is one thing, contesting it another.

Student: “When can we say truth is established?”

Nathalie “That’s the question. In the end, the problem is less the existence of truth than criteria for establishing it”

It is at least remarkable that Nathalie speaks of established truths, while remarking that there are criteria for establishing it, which she apparently deems outside of the shady and subtle operations of power. Hence, she not only excludes the classical hard sciences, which in itself is questionable, but also naively puts them on the same level as the human sciences of history and politics[12] that are in their very essence political and subject to alteration, challenge and revision.

 

Social Liberalism and its Collaterals

“My kids are gone, my husband left me, my mom died. I’ve found my freedom. Total freedom. I’ve never experienced it.”

Nathalie’s conclusion is interesting. The philosopher’s transformation of private loss to freedom appears to be consubstatial to liberalism, the reign of the individual and Cartesian subject; where attachments and sociality are often rather perceived as negative and potentially threatening features. In the same way, Western modern thought – from socialism to late liberalism – has increasingly focused away from the family, while subsequent increases of the standard of living and state-pension and protection systems made possible the disintegration of the family as support system. Nathalie’s perception, although it is clearly an ambigous assessment containing aspects of bitter lamentation, is also determined by her material ease as a member of the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, even this status appears to be under threat.

After the death of her mother, Nathalie inherits her mother’s cat, thus becoming the archetype of the abandoned single and “emancipated” woman in late capitalist societies – the cat lady (which is certainly also why she wants to get rid of the animal.) Nathalie, at this point, gets a taste of the medicine of the social liberalism, she, as the incarnation of the unconcscious of her class and generation, has helped instigate: the absolute freedom, which for the lower social stratums much more definitely translates into isolation and poverty due to a lack of social and financial capital. Nathalie appears to be conscious of this, her age and bourgeois materialism leave no room in her imagination that her mother’s isolated death in a retirement home, as a hysteric and abandoned cat lady craving for the affection of her family members, is also her own destiny.

Nathalie: “Anyway, after 40 women are fit for trash.”
Fabien: “How can you say that? Especially you!”

Nathalie: “Do many women my age leave their husbands”
Fabien: “There are tons of them”

Nathalie: “In movies”

Fabien: “you’ll obviously find someone” (…)
Nathalie: “I suddenly find you naive. Who will I start ovver with? An old man?

Fabien: “Try young if you don’t like old”

Nathalie: “As if I’d settle down with a young guy. Not my style.

Interestingly, the brilliant Isabelle Huppert playing Nathalie in Things to Come appears relatively stoic in relation to the pillars of her life disappearing before her. Rather than spiritual enlightenment and detachment, Huppert masterfully incarnates the cool nihilism of the class she is tasked to represent. As viewers, we feel as if Nathalie already knows the drill: the very logic of the ideology of her class, the increasingly untamed market entering into all areas of life dissolving all attachments, bonds and traditions, appears to be unwaveringly proceeding, to finally turn against her. All that is left for her is to watch and clean after the trail of destruction: Nathalie moves on to empty her husband’s property in Brittany, that she had cared and gardened her entire life, while her husband empties half of the magnificent library ornamenting the house: The liquidation touches the very symbols of bourgeois power.

Loosing Sleep.jpg

Tarron Ruiz-Avila, Losing Sleep – 23 x 11 cm – 2012

A requiem for Europe’s bourgeoisie- Decline or Recomposition?

Hansen-Løve’s film and its themes are representative of a wider trend: the decline of (at least) the traditional model of the cultured classes. It is almost universally lamented today that the Western middle classes are in decline. However, it is usually solely remarked as an inevitable progession of things in the world of global capitalism, rather than assuming that power is always well deserved and the result of political struggle, while the absence of a basis of power, unfailingly also leads to its loss.

Things to Come reviews the themes of why the European or even Western bourgeoisie is bound to lose its power: its steady spirit of collaboration and concessions to a ruthless financial and political elite, and its lack of defense for those more vulnerable classes from which it often emanates but which it continuously fails to take responsibility for and has become largely disinterested in.

In late capitalism, the bourgeoisie’s original humanist culture, an immune system against perverse excesses of the market, becomes merely a hindrance to the latter’s unlimited expansion. Its weapons – prestige, aesthetics, moderation – are becoming almost subversive values that risk inspiring the defense mechanisms of traditional elites and nation states against the vulgarity of the new consumerist and nomadic global financial oligarchy. Although, these values and aesthetics have been substantial in building the current system, in its advanced stage, they become fair game for the predatory classes. Successfully: With the disappearance of bourgeois libraries, and their humanist values- and historical consciousness- inspiring reading culture, the material foundations of the class’ own power become mythologised, unconscious and ultimately lost.

Meanwhile, bourgeois culture is also in crisis because it struggles to retain its supremacy in rational debate. Today, academic discourse appears to be hopelessly surpassed by the internet as a place for the truly free exchange of information and the reemergence of new forms of previously surpressed, wild and untamed intelligence which has taken the increasingly sterile and morbid exchange of bourgeois culture by surprise. The bourgeoisie appears to have already lost the battle: its monopolisation of aesthetic and form, while successful in the institutional world, becomes easily subverted and appears stale and hopeless in a world of flat online hierarchies of argument.

While it appears natural that this contesting and untamed intelligence becomes the bourgeoisie’s main obsession and object of attacks to preserve its status (hence the corporate and state funded generation of information verification media like Decodex in France or Correctiv in Germany), such action will ultimately only accelerate its loss of credibility.  Attempts at outlawing parts of the debate in today’s environment only reveals the censors as docile state employees whose loss of authority is justified because its main concern is rather with attacking the freedom of expression than with revealing the elite’s carefully PR-ornamented abuses of power.

Meanwhile, the possibility should also be considered that the middle classes have been substantially weakened by the aftermath of the societal liberalism of the 1968 movement[13], where the desire for social change has been canalised into a continuous destruction of the traditional value system and thus an erosion of the family structure. In the torn social networks of individualism, left vulnerable by the retreat of centralised state power, political systems become easy prey to tribal communautarianism which today has sustainably subverted the politics Europe’s republics.  Against a class thus weakened and oblivious to the foundations of its own power, the market moves ruthlessly, efficiently and well deservedly.

However, Things to Come also provides us with a signal of (albeit nostalgic) hope in the persona of Fabien, who moves to the country, willing to endure austerity and hard manual labour to cut out the middle men of urban economic activity and seeking to renurish the bonds of community with that truly revolutionary class of small independent producers and property owners. Things to Come provides us with a warning note, and a signal of hope. While the decline of the European bourgeoisie is as logical as it is self-inflicted and deserved, it is not inevitable and must be seen as the result of power and political struggle. It therefore at least has the potential to give rise to more resilient, decentralised and legitimate forms of power.

 


[1]     Except of course for the class of highly mobile university students willing to trade in the serious of economic affairs for ERASMUS programmes which they have been told are inextricably linked with a centralised superstate.

[2]     Anachronistic as technology allows for the multiple forms of decentralisation. Hence the invention of “global” problems.

[3]     Despite the film’s references to its protagonists material ease, bourgeoisie in this context cannot mean the haute bourgeoisie of elite financial and business executives but rather the moyen bourgeoisie or the cultured classes usually occupying the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, academics) most intimately linked to a certain bourgeois habitus. It is explicitely this sociological stratum that shall interest us.

[4]     = living and being schooled in “intra-muros” Paris – the 20 inner city arrondissements which is not only a geographical but also a sociological designation

[5]     The film is even situated in the high period of early millenium European post-politics: in France under the Presidency of “Bling-Bling” Sarkozy

[6]     As, for example, Francois Bousquet pointed out, Foucault, often appropriated by the left, is much rather a thinker situated between the ultralibertarian Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Hayek. Only recently Gabriel Rockhill pointed out that the promotion of the “French Theory” thinkers in the US was also the result of the CIA’s support of politically inoccuous alternatives to socialism.

[7]     The “Wild Beast” –  Hegel’s description of the market that enters into all domains of human activity and needs to be tamed.

[8]     This statement is not meant to denigrate radical democracy, as in modern capitalist systems the unconscious citizens is first created as resentful and unconscious subject.

[9]     See Bourdieu’s “Distinction”

[10]   All three more or less representing a critique of “scientific” Marxism, with its sterile distinction between the owner of means of production and workers, and its emanations as historical forms of statehood

[11]   In France, the notion of “infréquentable” exists in this regards, which literally means that the person cannot be visited. Associating with such a social pariah makes one subject to the possibility of also being shunned.

[12]   Interestingly, Nathalie mentions the extermination of Jews as an unequestionable historical event whose extent has in fact been vividly debated in France in the controversies surrounding Robert Faurrisson (whose freedom of expression at the time was defended by Noam Chomsky) until the Loi Gayssot was installed in 1990 to establish the content of the Nuremberg Trials as unquestionable historical fact under the threat of severe punishment.

[13]   For an elaboration of this thesis see also the works of Christopher Lasch, Michel Clouscard, Jean-Claude Michéa


Nicolas Hausdorf is an editor, analyst, and essayist. His essay “Superstructural Berlin”, an experimental sociology of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books.

Tarron Ruiz-Avila is a multidisciplinary artist working in the fields of drawing, collage, found object and mechanised assemblage.

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3 thoughts on “HKRB Essays: A Requiem for the European Bourgeoisie

  1. Pingback: The Death of the European Union? – VIRTUAL BORSCHT

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