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Being Middle Class–Or an Introduction to the Pursuit of Happiness

Before talking more about happiness, I need to say something about the middle-class way of life we almost all live.  To be middle class is to be a free being who works.  An unfriendly way of describing “being in the middle” might come from some Marxist:  We’re free like aristocrats to work like slaves.  But that extreme claim would hardly be true to our experiences, which aren’t so bad. 

I’m a proudly middle-class guy.  Every way of life has its limitations, though.  And that’s why every society–especially every modern society–needs a counterculture.  (This post, obviously, is also an elaboration on the theme of the transition from natural to personal evolution.)

We Americans do talk a lot about the need for a counterculture. That talk comes from both the left and the right, from anyone who thinks that our freedom and dignity depends on understanding ourselves as more than middle-class or “bourgeois” beings, more than free beings who work. 

The middle-class being—the being with interests and nothing more—can’t sustain his freedom indefinitely, much less display the most sublime or soulful or deeply erotic dimensions of human longing.

Being middle class–and nothing more–seems to generate two understandings of our freedom. The first we typically call “autonomy.” We are free and dignified insofar as we don’t live according to nature, but according to the law or standards we make for ourselves. Nature provides no guidance for particular persons because nature is indifferent to personal existence.

A world that does justice to ME is not a natural one, and I have the duty to see the dignity in all beings–like me–who live personally or not merely naturally. We free beings transform our natural environment with personal significance or dignity in mind. In a certain sense, each of us is born free. In another, each of us has to work to make him- or herself free.

Persons don’t quite make themselves out of nothing; the fact of personal freedom is, in truth, a mysterious gift. But we’re on our own to secure ourselves against the forces—beginning with natural forces—out to obliterate each of us. Our natural gift, in truth, is quite an ambiguous one; the other animals seem happy with their merely natural existences.

Meanwhile, we are more about the pursuit of happiness than happiness or enjoyment themselves. Our lives, insofar as they are free or not natural, are all about a restless seeking or searching that ends only in death.  To be free is not to be happy.  Happiness, as the philosopher Kant explains, is for mere animals, not dignified beings like ourselves.

The second understanding of our freedom we find in our power or “productivity.” It’s in our ability to be productive that we find our most measurable or secure evidence of our freedom.

Autonomy is unempirical, uncertain, too much an empty self-assertion or merely “identity politics.” Productivity is the most reliable source of middle-class dignity. It’s evidence that I really work—or not just fool around. Nobody, we think, has the right not to work. Productivity provides the best evidence that our claims for freedom aren’t merely vanity. 

Autonomy and productivity are both standards based on the view that freedom is personal or anti-natural. They’re both opposed to the animal in us, and so the necessities connected with birth, sex, and death. An autonomous woman, as our Supreme Court has explained, is one who refuses to be defined by the natural, social, species-based necessity (and, of course, tribal necessity) of reproduction.

So autonomy and producitivity are both unerotic and opposed to the limits to our freedom generated by erotic longing. Bourgeois sex, for example, is safe sex—or highly calculated sex. And bourgeois sex is the one-night stand, which doesn’t compromise either autonomy or productivity or turn the pursuit of happiness into happiness itself.

As Tocqueville pointed out, of course, bourgeois sex (which used to be relaxed enough to at least reliably generate children) at least used to be at the foundation of the domestic tranquility of the American family, on which middle-class men ungratefully relied to maximize their productivity.

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But that view of the family, we now know, unjustly privileged the productivity of men and compromised the autonomy of women and, to a lesser extent, men. Middle-class sex, the good news might be, is emphatically not what the other mammals do on the Discovery Channel. Free beings aren’t simply doing what comes naturally.

The uncertainty of autonomy causes it to be subordinated to productivity. The autonomous woman free (against the letter of the Hippocratic Oath) to subject herself to cosmetic surgery—or turn herself into a patient for reasons having nothing to do with health—to improve her appearance (especially to look younger) usually does so to enhance her productivity, to turn herself into a more marketable commodity. She aims to avoid the undignified loneliness that so readily suffered by the unproductive (especially the unproductive elderly) in a middle-class society.

And the professor, we will increasingly find, also will find it harder and harder not to do what’s required to maximize his productivity—measured both in scholarly output and indices of student satisfaction. He soon, we can speculate, won’t even be able to say that he, as an autonomous being, has a right to bad (and so unproductive) moods as clues to the truth about his very being. There’s no reason a middle-class administrator will acknowledge that he (or she, of course) can’t call his most productive (because good) moods his true ones, even if they are artificially or pharmacologically generated.

I could say more:  But are you up for the possibility that middle-class autonomy is unsustainable?  If  not, I will say more later.


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