Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Bourgeoisification of Childhood, or the Infantility of the Bourgeoisie

All children start life as baby bourgeois, in a relation of magical power over others and, through them, over the world, but they grow out of it sooner or later.
-Pierre Bourdieu[1]

I want to explore a simple yet powerful analogy between the temporary state of childhood and the permanent (but not ever-lasting) state of the bourgeoisie[2], drawing throughout on bits of scientific expertise in the form of child developmental theory.  I think this analogy can, at the very least, be made in two domains of life: a social cosmology (the way one imagines or constructs the surrounding social world) and behavior. [3]  I aim to reveal both the middle-class values and assumptions that inform child developmental theory, and, more importantly, to draw some conclusions on the bourgeoisie as a permanently child-like class.  

As Bourdieu notes, baby and bourgeois social cosmologies are very similar.  At 9 months, a baby begins to develop ‘favorite toys’; at 1 year, has ‘favorite things’; and at 4 years, ‘often can’t tell what’s real from what’s make-believe’, and ‘talks about what she likes and what she is interested in’. [4]  In psychologist-philosopher Jean Piaget’s theory of child development, children from age 2-7 remain in the preoperational stage, in which ‘magical thinking’ and egocentrism are the norm.  Not only do children think less logically and more fantastically, but they are unable to understand situations from any viewpoints but their own.  In Marxist terms, the bourgeoisie share similar ways of thinking about the social world around them.  They too have favorite toys and things (which, in child development theory, become naturalized as appropriate ways for children to relate to the world around them), and – in the form of commodity fetishism – often think about these things magically.  Things – the Droid Bionic phone with its supposedly futuristic, fighter robotic origins[5] comes to mind – appear as just that: things or toys with no sense of the social labor of production of the various components, etc.  What’s ‘real’ – where the Droid is made, by whom, under what conditions of labor, for what wages, for whom, who can afford it, who uses it, what connects who uses it to who makes it, and so forth – is ignored (indeed, almost impossible to know unless one is an inside expert) in favor of what’s ‘make-believe’ – that these phones really are magical: they download data from outer-space in microseconds, they tell you exactly where you are and where you need to go (one only needs to think of the relatively new ‘Siri’ – a piece of software acting as a human personal assistant – released by Apple: ‘Ask Siri to help you get things done.’).  The phones of course do all these things, but we tend to marvel at these technological effects rather than its production (in all its forms).  This commodity fetishism is only part of a generalized ideology whereby the bourgeoisie – focused primarily on themselves and things – cannot imagine how others live, who/what brings them their morning omelette, or why one might object to wage labor, the stock market, and all the other games of capital.  All this is to say that, on the whole, their imaginations of the social world are indeed child-like. 

Behavior is the other domain where babies and bourgeoisie find much in common.  When children do something ‘wrong’, we often fall on the recourse that they ‘don’t know any better’.  At 4 months, they might cry when you stop playing with them; from 9 months, they may begin to be ‘afraid’ of strangers; at 18 months, they ‘may have temper tantrums’; at 3 years, they ‘may get upset with major changes in routine’; and at 5 years, they are ‘sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative’.  That these developmental milestones or expectations are socially constructed in the image of bourgeois life should be immediately evident – severely malnourished children lack the energy to have tantrums; nomadic children are unlikely to expect the tedious routine of a ‘nine-to-five’, ‘weekday-weekend’ conception of time; etc.  More importantly, however, is that these behaviors characterize bourgeois attitudes and beliefs.  The question of ‘not knowing any better’ is the question of ideology.  Temper tantrums and crying are egocentric considerations of self-need without the ability to rationalize the absurdity of these needs or to consider those of others.  Being upset with ‘major changes in routine’ is an excellent naturalization of counter-revolutionary sentiment, an assurance that what is normal is natural and should not be resisted or changed.  And being ‘sometimes demanding and sometimes very cooperative’ is characteristic not only of babies but of shift managers or any type of boss.[6]
So perhaps children and bourgeoisie think and act more similarly than we think.[7]  To extend this argument, we should think about the contradictions posed to bourgeois development stages and their corresponding materio-moral sentiments by certain categories of people and actions – child soldiers and child criminals tried as adults, for example.   Certainly, there are plenty of cases in which children are ‘brainwashed’ or forced into serving as combatants.  Yet those children who fully understand what they are fighting for (usually a peasant or proletarian cause) – as politically informed and selfless soldiers – go unacknowledged, in part because they appear as abnormal or unnatural, defying the codes of bourgeois child development.  Their distance is usually sanctified, and their ‘innocence’ constructed, through Orientalist humanitarian eyes, mainly because images of African child soldiers circulated in US media.  On the other hand, at home in the criminal justice system, members of the public (white or Black) may be more likely to favor trying Black children than white children as adults[8], suggesting that these codes of child development are not ‘appropriately scaled’ to poor Black kids who are so deeply Othered, hated, and feared. 
What are the implications of this whole thought-exercise?  First, of course, child developmental stages, along with so many other biomedical ‘norms’, are social constructions of a consumerist society calibrated towards or with bourgeois values and codes of conduct.  But also, these codes re-create the values and expectations of bourgeois life.  Second and more philosophically, one might come to conceive of the bourgeoisie as not fully human – that is, they exist in a child-like form of social life, incompletely developed (even according to their own standards).  This is, in a roundabout manner, precisely a historical Marxist treatment of the bourgeoisie; Georg Luk√°cs’ History and Class Consciousness posits the proletariat as the subject-object of history, where (in teleological Marxism), capitalism is said to be a temporary phase of history to be replaced by communism (and with it, the disappearance of the ‘primitive’ bourgeoisie, as with the disappearance of feudal lords before them).  Third, if the bourgeoisie are to be considered in this way – let’s put in their own developmental terms –as suffering from a ‘developmental disorder’, we might do better than Dr. Frederic Jameson[9] in diagnosing the condition of the bourgeoisie.  They are not, in today’s ‘postmodern’ consumer society, condemned to schizophrenia (a condition which, clinically speaking, onsets in late adolescence or early adulthood).  Rather, they are developmentally disabled from birth, condemned, as Bourdieu suggests, to live perpetually with childish thoughts and behaviors out of which, unlike children, they are unable to grow. 
I close with one final conclusion on children and the bourgeoisie in relation to Immanuel Kant’s notion of ‘perpetual peace’.  In a recent essay[10], anthropologist Liisa Malkki suggests that the proliferation of cultural artefacts linking children with peace depoliticizes and infantilizes the very notion of peace in favor of ‘the adult world of real politics, real history’.  I think we can fruitfully extend her analysis by recognizing the very notion of ‘world peace’, at least in its Kantian origin and in today’s culturally dominant form, as bourgeois.  Kant, in his remarkable late 18th century essay suggesting some conditions and forms of government for the assurance of international peace among states, suggests that commerce and money could play important roles:

The spirit of commerce, which is incompatible with war, sooner or later gains the upper hand in every state. As the power of money is perhaps the most dependable of all the powers (means) included under the state power, states see themselves forced, without any moral urge, to promote honorable peace and by mediation to prevent war wherever it threatens to break out. They do so exactly as if they stood in perpetual alliances, for great offensive alliances are in the nature of the case rare and even less often successful. (From First Supplement, ‘Of the Guarantee of Perpetual Peace’; emphasis added) 

As today’s US imperial wars have best taught us, commerce and war often go hand-in-hand: Halliburton and Iraqi oil, Lockheed Martin missiles in Pakistan, and so on.  Kant’s argument – to the effect (elaborated by economist Joseph Schumpeter, among others) that capitalism guarantees peace – should thus strike us as not only bourgeois, but also childish.    

[1] Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  Pg. 54.
[2] I intentionally use ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’ here because these although these class categories sound outdated, they are today more relevant than one might suspect reading recent social theory (even Marxist work).  The Occupy’s 99% vs. 1% discourse could be read as a euphemism of this set of terms. 
[3] Language and language development is another important area, but I leave this for linguists to elaborate. 
[4] These developmental milestones come from the CDC:
[5] See the advertisement here:  The slogan “Made from machines to rule all machines” is fetishistic in the extreme.
[6] One might point out that these particular observations could equally be ascribed (by the bourgeoisie) to the proletariat: as being prone to tantrums (strikes, revolutions, etc.); as ‘not knowing any better’ (‘uneducated’); as being sometimes demanding and sometimes cooperative (management’s characterization of workers); and so on.  These characterizations have historically been and continue to be instruments of class control, infantilizing workers for the purposes of union-busting, stifling class consciousness, etc.  The recent banning of Paulo Freire’s ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ in a Tucson school district – affecting working-class children – is an important example that suggests that child development theory functions to naturalize class oppression more directly than it might appear. 
[7] This, of course, gives us another, perhaps unexpected explanation for why bourgeois children find it easy to become bourgeois adults.  In addition to the material continuity of ease, there is a continuity of thought and behavior! 
[8] For example, see Feiler, S. and J. Sheley. 1999. Legal and racial elements of public willingness to transfer juvenile offenders to adult court. J Crim Justice, 27: 55–64.
[9] Jameson, F. 1991. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. New York: Verso. 
[10] Malkki, L. 2010. Children, Humanity, and the Infantilization of Peace. In In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin, eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

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