Liberal Alienation

Max Scheler began his essay, the Bourgeois, written on the brink of WWI, with these words:

Among the many signs that show us the death throes of the life order under the power and direction of which we still live, I see none as persuasive as the deep alienation in the face of this life order that fills the best heads and strongest hearts of those who inhabit their own particular orders. The history of this alienation is still recent. I find the new attitude that I have in mind firstly – as one might expect – among the scholars and poets – worldly men might say dreams – as for instance Gobineau, Nietzsche, J. Burkhard, Stefan George.”

Scheler was impressed with the work of Sombert, Tonnies and Weber on the “capitalist spirit”, which he took to be a particular social mode of the life order. He sensed something new in the fact that these sober sociologists, surely, if anyone, the inheritors and promoters of liberalism in the German sphere, seemed to have arrived at conclusions that echoed those of the names in the above passage. Although he didn’t use the phrase, what Scheler was talking about was liberal alienation – a dissent, I would say, from the culture of happiness. In January I wrote a post analyzing the dissents, in the nineteenth century, from happiness triumphant, and I tucked them into three classes roughly corresponding to the traditional European tripartite class division – the pessimists who, keenly aware of the irrevocability of the decline of the aristocracy, attacked the ‘decadence’ at the root of that decline; the revolutionaries, who in the name of the working class attacked the bourgeois notion of the consumerist ideal, the salaryman bound in the circle of self-advantage; and then, a much more conflicted group, the bourgeois thinkers themselves – Hazlitt, Mill, Tocqueville, Heine. At the time I wrote that post, I hadn’t read Scheler’s essay, which nicely sets up my point.

So, it is time for me to do a few posts on this essay.


roger said…
PS – I should add this link to Julian Barnes essay on Flaubert’s correspondence. Liberal alienation finds its great narrative form in the work of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola and George Eliot, before it finds its theory.

This story in particular makes me dreamy:

“… in the late autumn of 1877, during the election campaign whereby the reactionary President MacMahon sought to hold on to power, an elderly man travelling in lower Normandy bought two large carpenter’s pencils. He and his travelling companion used them to scrawl scurrilous graffiti about MacMahon on walls and even train seats. These minor jottings of a major novelist (who was researching Bouvard et Pécuchet at the time) were never alluded to in his letters or recorded conversation. Such anti-social behaviour – or freedom of expression – only became known twenty-seven years after his death when his fellow traveller Edmond Laporte mentioned it to a certain Lucien Descaves. And the secret might even have died with the normally discreet Laporte had not Flaubert harshly terminated their friendship two years after that research trip.”