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Embourgeoisement is the process by which bourgeois aspirations, and a bourgeois standard and style of life, become institutionalized among the working class. The phenomenon is said to undermine working-class consciousness and so frustrate the historical mission of the proletariat as an agency of revolutionary social change.

The concept itself has Marxian origins. In the late 1880s, Friedrich Engels attempted to explain the failure of the British working class to exploit the franchise of 1867 in terms of the workers' ‘craving for respectability’, and enjoyment of a standard of living sufficient to encourage bourgeois values, life-styles, and political ideals. Orthodox Marxists since have often deployed this argument as an explanation for working-class quiescence under capitalism.

However, the proposition attained a much wider credibility when it was taken up by (mainly North American) liberals such as S. M. Lipset and Clark Kerr, during the two decades following the Second World War. Proponents formulated the thesis of embourgeoisement in a variety of ways and identified a range of disparate causal mechanisms behind the process itself. In its most general formulation, however, the thesis claimed that the sectoral transformation in the structure of employment—the move from manufacturing to services, and from unskilled labouring to the new knowledge-based occupations—created high levels of class mobility, and led to a shrinkage of the working class, considered as a proportion of the economically active population. Advanced Western societies were therefore literally becoming more middle class, in the demographic sense at least, if none other.

Additionally, however, tendencies intrinsic to production (notably automation) were granting manual workers greater control over their work and undermining their sense of workplace alienation. Urban renewal after the war led to the dissolution of long-established, tightly knit, often occupationally homogeneous working-class communities in the inner cities, as workers spilled out into the less dense, more heterogeneous suburbs of the new commuting areas. Official statistics of this period purported also to show a ‘homogenization’ of incomes and living standards, both because of the high-wage and full-employment-based expansion in Western economies, and the redistributive social policies pursued by welfare-minded social democratic states. This was the era of ‘high mass consumption’ and the ‘affluent society’: ownership of consumer durables became widespread and even manual workers could realistically aspire to car-ownership and purchasing their own home. A mass-market of ‘middle-income’ consumers was created.

These objective changes allegedly prompted, in turn, the homogenization of lifestyles and social values. Increased income facilitated working-class participation in middle-class styles of dress, leisure practices, and styles of décor. Finally, the increase in incomes and integration of rank-and-file workers into their employing organizations as skilled operatives together changed the workers' attitudes and values, fostering a new identification with the objectives of the capitalist enterprise, a weakening of the traditional loyalties to workmates, trade union, and class, and the growth of a typically middle-class concern with status. Workers became family-minded and home-centred rather than neighbourhood-centred and collectivist. Conservative values came to dominate their world-views: manual workers now sought security and respectability, and by individualistic rather than solidaristic means. Ultimately, this translated into voting behaviour, as the old class-based parties of the Left were abandoned in favour of the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois parties of the political Right. British politicians such as Anthony Crosland (The Conservative Enemy, 1962) saw this as explaining Labour's electoral failures during the 1950s.


Subjects: Sociology.

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