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Context: OnCities

Quora Answer : Why is the term "Bourgeoisie" linked to the existence of cities recognized as such by their urban charters?

Nov 23, 2017

Because the kind of economic activity they have is urban in nature.

If you're not urban, your economic relationship is basically somewhere on a land-owner vs. serf / slave spectrum.

Land is the source of all wealth and power in a rural / agricultural economy. If you own it you are on one side. And if you don't, you're on the other.

There's still plenty of need for skilled craftsmen and craftswomen on farms. But because rural life is low density, the land-owners are an effective oligopsony, so the crafter has little leverage and is just another serf at best.

In cities things become different. The density of people means that a skilled crafter can find multiple clients. And the idea of an independent craftsman or craftswoman, able to live by their skill and wits, becomes viable. This model of independent people successfully thriving by selling their labour in an open market could only exist in high densities.

In fact, it never existed in pure form. In the mediaeval period, independent craftsmen were mediated via guilds. Nevertheless, there was, indeed, much more freedom and good living associated with this, than with being a serf on the farm.

What happened next is somewhat ironic. The industrial revolution and the need for factories, recreated the farm model within the city. A factory needs a huge dollop of capital investment to build in the first place, so only a few rich people can afford to build and run one. Once work got reorganized into mass-production within factories in the industrial revolution, it returned to an economic model much closer to rural serfdom. Again there was oligopsony, and the leverage (and "economic rent") went back into the hands of the factory owner.

There's a lot of irony in the use of the word "bourgeoisie", because in fact, the pain of the urban working class was largely about losing the previous independence of skilled workers in cities. And finding yourself forced back into being an unskilled serf; just in an uglier, more polluted environment. Factory owners did, indeed, spring from the class of bourgeois craftsmen, but it was exactly bourgeoisie life that they ended up destroying.

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