In Honoré de Balzac’s Old Goriot, the time and place is restoration-era France; a place confusing to many because, if you believe the Marxist interpretation of the 1789 revolution, the class struggle should’ve demolished, both, the monarchy and the gentry, however, now both exist in conflict with the peasants— something which, decidedly, did not happen. One could, indeed, be of the gentry, with all the access that entails socially, without also having what that confers economically, which is the situation for student, Eugène de Rastignac.
The core conflict Rastignac faces is that he is of nobility, but now lives in a boarding house, among others, but notably a working-class agitator, Vautrin, who seeks to embroil him in various plots to acquire the wealth of the remaining nobles, while also seeking the patronage of Goriot— a “legitimate” avenue back into the upper class. Both of these goals are, basically, the same, but only one reads to Rastignac as ethical/moral while the other is only unseemly if you consider the legitimacy of a monarchy, or that of the nobility that sought to displace it in the revolution, with both sides playing the working class as their advocates, as ethical, in and of itself.
The Marxist interpretation of the revolution is, indeed, correct in that one regard; class consciousness is integral to understanding the revolution (and those to follow) itself, but not crucial to understanding the causes and effects of (at least, the 1789) revolution, and Goriot is a testament to that delineation; you can carry a class prerogative of a class you don’t belong to, and one that neither will have you, nor share your interests, but also that legality/authority is not the measure of legitimacy or ethicality.
This is, ironically, a useful framing for this story being told from the opposite vantage point in Whit Stillman’s 1990 film, Metropolitan; this is the story of Princeton-educated Fourierist, Tom Townsend, who falls into a group of Manhattanites during the winter debutante ball season in the last decade of the Cold War. Tom spends the film lamenting the display of vulgarity of such a practice in the modern era, while expounding on utopian socialist ideals (and specifically identifies that he is not a Marxist), yet the entire film obsesses over class struggle, at least as it pertains to the rich, and that they, indeed, do have the most to lose from a class war; they lose their claim to write the rule book.
Nick Smith, one of the socialites in the film and the only one aware he is aboard a sinking ship of the old-monied elite, is aware of, and enjoys the vulgarity in the way only someone with an advanced understanding of this concept could; rather than joining a class struggle to topple this, he prefers to ride it out to its demolition. He expects the revolution, and to be toppled, at the end of the day, it will have been worth it; something Tom Townsend struggles to understand while he sinks further and further into this scene while insisting he is not of this class. Tom correctly identifies the vulgarity of the proceedings, but fails to see that by acknowleding they have class prerogratives, and he does not (in refusing to identify with Marxism, but participating in the debutante culture), he is emboldening this culture he is abhoring without proposing an alternative. For all of Nick’s fatalism in instructing Tom in tapping his latent privilege in his access to this society (Tom’s father having cut him off financially, but not socially), Tom brings only apathy, and feigned reluctance for joining in. This is classic revisionist behavior on Tom’s part, which cedes nothing to the goals of his proferred political ideology, but identifies the relative ease of upward social mobility for someone like himself, while ignoring that for those actually in the class struggle in a fight for literal existence, abhorrence is rarely enough.
At one point in the film, Tom is forced to acknowledge this; Nick asks him, “Have you considered that you are the less fortunate?” as a segue to his role in the rest of the film, down this path back into this discourse about whether or not this bourgeoisie class is, indeed, as another character would lament, “doomed”. This is where we are left in Goriot; Rastignac and Vautrin debating to engage in forced wealth redistribution from a wealthy man who could never hope to spend all of it (while having earned none of it— wealth, in this period, more than most, is simply a fact of having remained visibly noble), while so many have nothing, with Rastignac believing marrying into wealth is, apparently, more ethical a path back to nobility. The conflict between combatting an oppressive class structure and system which enables it, or embracing revisionist ideal of reforming the oppressive classes into something more equitable.
The problem with the latter, in both the case of Rastignac and Tom Townsend, is that these lapsed nobles, toying with ideas of justice-minded disruptive thinking, are only doomed to one thing: from the moment each embraces reformist ideals as a justification for remaining true to their nominative class prerogative (that of nobility), they become doomed to fail ethically. Consider that we’re, potentially, living through our own version of the restoration; of course the US does not have a monarchy, but the fear of the waning influence of this Bourgeoisie class of the film are no less omnipresent than they were 30 years ago— we still have Bushes and Kennedys exercising outsized influence over our elections, economics, etc. over the interests of the working class, while insisting that their views that, indeed, seem counterinuitive are actually good (the idea, for example, that George W. Bush encouraging voters to support Joe Biden is somehow a good thing, or that Joe Kennedy implying the real privileged party in the Senate primary is a progressive former ice cream man, and not the descendent of an obscenely wealthy crime family, and that he has your best interests in mind). We even still have elites creating media, cosplaying as radicals (in the mold of Tom and the historical utopian socialists), run by “personalities” and not actual workers, who choose to identify with the colonial/class stratified history of the cities in which they operate, rather than that with the people with which they coexist; this is the problem with taking your cues on social justice from the elites with no stake in seeing their own class prerogatives challenged.
The question really being asked by Nick—“Have you considered that you are the less fortunate?”- isn’t intended to give you an avenue to self-victimize, but it is one for self-reflection; are the things you’re doing and being asked to do really in the best interests of the image you have of the “greater good” in your mind? In the case of Townsend, and indeed, the contemporary neoliberal, there’s reason to be sceptical of the notion that you’re being an iconoclastic warrior for the social good by, “hear me out!”, cowering before authority and establishment order, despite decades of evidence that they are, decidedly, not on your side. Nick’s question is whether or not Tom is actually fighting the class war he thinks he is, or is he merely ameliorating the guilt of having refused to do so— a step further than the question posed to Rastignac, not a revolutionary, confronted with the same proverbial fork-in-the-road, that there’s value in questioning the constancy of the things we consider intrinsic to our social fabric in weighing what is, actually, right and wrong.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
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