Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear:
From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism
Oxford University Press
Few scholarly works of history approach the scale and scope of Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear. In 300 pages, Marc Mulholland covers the politics of Europe, the United States, and occasionally China and Japan from the 17th to the 21st centuries. That he does so without ever revealing his brushstrokes raises a question not only about what kind of a book this is, but about what kinds of history books might be possible. Bourgeois Liberty is grand narrative, certainly—but is it also grand theory?
Mulholland declares his intention to “survey a fundamental debate structuring politics in numerous societies since the early 19th-century. At its centre is a single proposition: that the middle classes, while abstractly attached to civic and political liberty, tend to become more illiberal in reaction to the rise of the working class.” The paradigmatic example of this dynamic is the wave of liberal revolutions that “swept away” Europe’s absolutist states in 1848, only to baulk at the egalitarian and democratic demands of the urban working classes. In France, the “insurrectionary crowd” of armed Parisian workers “that had actually made the revolution” was “provoked and bloodily suppressed” by the bourgeois Republic, while in Germany the Frankfurt Parliament ended up calling on “Bavarian, Prussian, and Austrian royal troops” to crush a republican mass demonstration, ending in the parliament’s dissolution.
Although it occurs only one third of the way through the book, 1848 structures the narrative of Bourgeois Liberty by providing a “turning point” after which the logic of Mulholland’s bourgeois revolution appears to play out again and again. Russia’s abortive 1905 Revolution “began in many ways as a classic ‘bourgeois revolution’” and “the drama” of 1917 likewise “opened as a classically bourgeois revolution”. Hitler was initially the beneficiary, in Germany, of “a conservative strategy designed to liberate bourgeois civil society from the menace of ‘proletarian democracy’”. During the Cold War, bourgeois fear took on global dimensions. Monetarism in Pinochet’s Chile was less the strategy of the native bourgeoisie than of American capitalism. The 21st century, finally, saw the “export of bourgeois revolution on the point of US and allied bayonets”.
Unfolding his narrative in this way, Mulholland seems to take the vantage point of the “proposition” he set out to “survey”. Is his object of study the “fundamental debate” he outlines or the political history of the societies in which it took place? In fact it’s both. Indeed, as formulated in his introduction, Mulholland’s contention is that the history is structured by the debate. But only occasionally does the narrative in Bourgeois Liberty take seriously the constitutive role of political discourse. Marx and Engels receive due consideration in the context of contemporary 19th century movements, but even these thinkers are treated largely as reflecting on rather than generating objective conditions. Without ever discussing the problem directly, Mulholland gives his readers little opportunity to engage with the ways it might shape his story.
Even in its preface, introduction, and conclusion, Bourgeois Liberty is consistently elusive about its nature and goals. Acknowledging the lack of interest which recent historiography has shown in the genre of narrative political history, Mulholland writes that “defence for my approach inheres, I hope, in the account I give.” He offers a variety of summaries of the “bourgeois fear” thesis, explicitly in both “left-wing” and “right-wing” idioms. This leaves us none the wiser about why exactly this thesis is worth reconstructing and pursuing.
One benefit that may be more or less incidental is the opportunity to interrogate the categories of “bourgeois” and “liberal,” and their historical relationship to one another. Mulholland’s liberalism does not simply reflect bourgeois interests. Rather, it is a commitment to a mutually reinforcing trio of private property, constitutionalism, and parliamentary power. It’s the last of these three which, as the 1848 model indicates, presents the key weakness: representative parliamentary democracy holds the door ajar for “proletarian” democratic demands. At the same time, Mulholland ascribes to the bourgeoisie “a complex but real commonality of class interests,” predicated on the elaboration and defence of “civil society”. Civil society, including education and the family, and a corresponding ideology combining meritocracy and the right of inheritance, provide the conditions and the “alibi” for reproducing bourgeois power. When these are under threat, the thesis proposes, fear and reaction kick in.
In its detailed narrative, Bourgeois Liberty suggests at least one major difficulty in analysing the bourgeoisie’s historical role. Contrary to the traditional liberal story of naturally commercialising society, the book’s opening sections emphasise the importance of state power to the development of European capitalism. The bourgeoisie became vital to the Early Modern fiscal-military state by providing access to finance: “the state became implicated in bourgeois civil society through the threads of fiscal policy.” But the financial sector was only ever a minority of the bourgeoisie. The First World War “tightened the bonds between state and capital,” but “at the expense of parliamentary power” as “capitalists and state bureaucrats were short-circuiting bourgeois civil society.” Money was key to bourgeois political leverage, but that lever might easily break: the financial sector need not be coupled to larger bourgeois interests.
The same point, of course, can be applied to more recent circumstances. Mulholland points out that “for all that the Great Recession [of 2008 onwards] was an almost unalloyed crisis of capitalism, it did little to constrain the power of the markets over society.” He cites the Conservatives’ “Big Society” as well as moves towards NHS privatisation as signs that any “restoration of civil society” will mean “spreading further and wider the supremacy of commercialism and the markets.” The continuing power of financial markets and the detached elites that derive profit and power from their fluctuation is the prognosis and overarching narrative of Bourgeois Liberty.
Is this, then, a theory of history? Inasmuch as Mulholland’s position can be identified with the thesis that structures his account, he has transformed some observations which Heinrich Heine, Marx, and Engels made of European politics between 1789 and 1848 into an abstract model of historical development. This reading would place Bourgeois Liberty in the tradition of Francis Fukuyama’s capitalist dialectical materialism, what Perry Anderson called his “inverted Marxism”. Each step towards universalist liberal goals also provokes the reactionary entrenchment of commercial power and private property. Any “balance struck between bourgeois liberty and democracy can only be considered partial and provisional.”
Mulholland suggests an application of this analytical model to the Arab Spring and its continuing aftermath, concluding that “Islamic democracy based around bourgeois civil society seem[s] quite viable.” Subsequent developments, like President Morsi’s authoritarian lurch in Egypt, might appear to confirm the role of bourgeois fear as privileged establishments turn against the revolutionary potential of the movements that brought them to power. But this actually means very little. As Mulholland acknowledges, his account is “constructed” and “selective”—he employs concepts and examples with reference to his “analytical narrative”. All historians do. It’s easy enough to fit more examples into a more or less flexible framework. Understanding the endemic nature of this problem—whether we refer to the post-modern, the linguistic, or the epistemological turn—is just what killed grand historical theory in the second half of the 20th century.
What’s interesting about Bourgeois Liberty, then, is that despite its ambitious scale it refuses to offer any methodological or theoretical commentary on itself. Instead, it offers only evasions and negations. “I have employed my particular models because I find them useful and interesting,” Mulholland writes; “they do not imply moral judgements one way or another.” One might reply, interesting why? Useful for what? After the death of grand theory and the promise of sociological prediction, what kinds of uses does history have? It would be unreasonable to expect Mulholland to answer this question. But that he evades it so deliberately in regard to his own book is a troubling indictment of the directionless drift in bourgeois establishment historiography.
Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is executive editor at the Oxonian Review.