Whatever Happened to the Middle Class? Bad Faith and the Culture Industry


‘Indeed, it may be feared that recourse to private patronage in order to finance art, literature and science will gradually place artists and scholars in a relationship of material and mental dependence on economic powers and market constraints. In any case, private patronage may justify the abdication of public authorities, who use the pretext of the existence of private patrons to withdraw and suspend their assistance, with the extraordinary result the citizens still finance the arts and sciences through tax exemptions. Furthermore, they finance the symbolic effect brought to bear on them to the extent that the funding appears as an example of the disinterested generosity of the corporations. There is, in this, an extremely perverse mechanism which operates in such a way that we contribute to our own mystification . . .

– Hans Haacke and Pierre Bourdieu, Free Exchange (1995)

1. Class Consciousness

For the philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘bad faith’ (in French mauvaise foi) is primarily a moral failing to embrace our freedom arising from the conditions of the consciousness of self. However, this concept is from his early ‘existentialist’ philosophical work, before Sartre engaged with Marx and his proposition that consciousness is determined by class relations within the economic structure of a given society. For me, Sartre’s concept of bad faith comes to mind again and again when confronted with class consciousness, and in particular the consciousness of the middle classes.

The middle classes live a contradiction inherent to their position within capitalism. On the one hand, they define themselves as the moral yardstick by which every member of society, and not just the middle classes, is measured: economically (aspirational), legally (rule of law), politically (democratic), culturally (free expression); but at the same time they benefit from the vast and growing inequality that capitalism produces, which contrary to this morality creates not competition but monopoly, not free expression but censorship, not democracy but media manipulation, not transparency but corruption, and not distribution of wealth but its accumulation in the the fewest hands possible. Thus, the middle classes must, simultaneously, denounce that inequality, censorship, manipulation, corruption and accumulation as incompatible with their moral code, while at the same time refusing to denounce their systemic causes. From this comes the uniquely middle-class myth that capitalism can, if sufficiently and properly calibrated, produce ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

This bad faith, or self-deception, in which the middle classes are doomed to live by their position within capitalism, is perhaps nowhere more manifest than in the current housing crisis. On the one hand, the middle classes denounce the rise in homelessness, the demolition of social housing, the purchase of right-to-buy properties by professional landlords, and the investment in residential property purely as a commodity; while at the same time they benefit from the escalation in house prices as owner, investor and landlord, to the point where their investments are now earning them more money than their salaries, and refuse to vote, for instance, for any party or policy that threatens that investment. The same can be said about middle-class commitment to environmentalism. One the one hand, middle-class liberals want to reduce carbon emissions and attribute a moral fervour to the act of recycling; but, on the other, as the middle-class opposition to Brexit has demonstrated, they won’t countenance the fall in their standard of living consequent upon de-growth and the loss of GDP this would mean. This contradiction – which is unknown to the ruling class, which has no such moral scruples about the inequality that produces their wealth, or the working class, which is exploited by capitalism in order to produce that wealth – can only be lived by the middle classes through bad faith.

ASH has been confronted with examples of this recently among middle-class functionaries in the art and architecture worlds who believe themselves – I imagine sincerely – to be ‘activists’, ‘radicals’, ‘liberals’ (etc), struggling on the side of the poor, at least, if not exactly the working class (since the defining characteristic of middle-class consciousness is to deny the existence of class), while at the same time acting as the obedient flunkies of corporate interests. When not angrily denying this outright (‘how dare you accuse us of censoring you!’), the way they have justified this contradiction is with phrases about ‘building platforms for dialogue’, ‘working to make change from within’, and, of course, that old chestnut ‘speaking truth to power’. But the inconvenient truth is that you never speak truth to power – which is an idiotic phrase: power speaks to you; and to quote Bob Dylan: it doesn’t speak, it swears. And however much you deceive yourself into believing that you do, you don’t change the system from within: it changes you.

The evidence of this is the nonsense of these justifications, which refuse to confront the reality of their speakers’ functions within the great pyramidal hierarchy of the art and architecture worlds. Like all cultural institutions under capitalism, these lead all the way up to the billionaires and corporations that finance them, who in return use these worlds of ‘free expression’ and ‘creativity’ to clean up their public image, manipulate public opinion, influence public policy, and deter investigation of their criminal activities, and who have absolutely no interest whatsoever in listening to middle-class employees who imagine they have anything but a relation of servile dependence to them.

From this relation of dependence, which is an economic relation – which is to say, a relationship of one class to another – arises the bad faith of believing there is no other choice than that constrained by capitalist relations of ownership and production. But this belief, like those associated with the great religions that capitalism has largely supplanted as the moral guide to living the contradictions of our lives, is founded on the denial to confront those contradictions and act on them. This is a paraphrase of what Sartre writes about this choice, and the lies we tell ourselves to excuse ourselves from taking a moral stance and with it practical action.

2. Bad Faith

Bad faith is a philosophical concept coined by Sartre in his 1943 philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness to describe the phenomenon in which human beings, under pressure from social forces, disown their innate freedom by lying to themselves. A critical claim in this work is that, as individuals, we are always free to make choices and guide our lives towards our own chosen goal or ‘project’. Sartre argues that we cannot escape this freedom, even in overwhelming circumstances. For instance, even the colonised victims of the U.S.A. possess choices: to submit to rule, to negotiate, to commit suicide, to resist non-violently, or to fight back.

Although external circumstances may limit individuals, they cannot force us to follow one of the remaining courses over another. In this sense, the individual still has some freedom of choice. Because of this, individuals always choose in a state of anguish: we know that we must make a choice, and that it will have consequences for us. But for Sartre, to claim that one amongst many conscious possibilities takes undeniable precedence (for instance: ‘I cannot refuse to collaborate with power because if I do I’ll lose my job’) is to assume the role of an object in the world, not a free agent, but merely at the mercy of circumstance. For Sartre, this attitude is manifestly self-deceiving.

As an example, Sartre cites a café waiter whose movements and conversation are a little too ‘waiter-esque’. His speech affects an eagerness to please; he carries food ostentatiously; his bonhomie with his customers is exaggerated, ‘his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid’. His exaggerated behaviour illustrates that he is play-acting as a waiter, as an object in the world, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. But that he is obviously acting betrays the fact that he is aware that he is not merely a waiter, but is rather consciously deceiving himself that he is by projecting himself into a role.

My own example would be the art curator who surrounds herself with books by famous French intellectuals, works on shows about power and inequality, posts on Twitter about how cultural institutions can be a forum for social justice, signs petitions supporting reductions in carbon emissions, identifies herself as an activist fighting the oppression of the ‘other’, yet at the behest of the gallery is complicit in the censorship of anything that exposes the function of the gallery as a PR machine for the corporate practices of its sponsors, arguing that she has no choice but to obey if she is to continue doing her ‘important work’. At the same time as this display of liberal ethics, she enjoys the financial perks consequent upon her collaboration: the glitzy exhibition openings, the after-parties in exclusive bars, the plane trips around the world ‘to share ideas with other cities’, the press reviews put on by corporate sponsors, and all the other little luxuries with which she compensates her conscience.

Sartre suggests that, by acting in bad faith, the waiter and the woman – and by extension the curator – are denying their own freedom, but doing so by actively using this freedom itself. They know they are free, but refuse to acknowledge it. In this respect, bad faith is paradoxical: when acting in bad faith we are actively denying our own freedom of choice, yet we rely on that freedom to perform this denial. For Sartre, we only convince ourselves to be bound to act by external circumstance in order to escape the anguish of freedom. Sartre captures some of this anguish with his famous statement that ‘man is condemned to be free’. Whether we adopt an apparently objective moral system to do this choosing for us, or whether we follow our own purely pragmatic concerns, we cannot help but be aware that these are not part of us but imposed from outside. Sartre argues that we cannot escape responsibility by adopting an external moral system – such as a religion, a political party, our cultural ‘heritage’ or any other form of ideological control – as the adoption of such a system is in itself a choice that we endorse, implicitly or explicitly, and for which we must take full responsibility. Sartre argues that we cannot escape this responsibility, as each attempt to part ourselves from the freedom of choice is in itself a demonstration of choice, and choice is dependent on our wills and desires.

As a human, one cannot claim one’s actions are determined by external forces, however much those external forces constrain our actions. One is ‘condemned’ to this eternal freedom, since human beings exist before the definition of our adopted human identities (female, black, middle-class, British, professional, liberal, etc). One cannot define oneself as a ‘thing’ in the world, as one has the freedom to be otherwise. One is not, for example, ‘a curator’, as at some point one must and will cease the activities that define the self as ‘a curator’. Any role that one might adopt does not define one, as there is an eventual end to one’s adoption of the role; that is, other roles will be assigned to us: for example, ‘a woman of colour’, ‘an environmentalist’, ‘a Labour-voter’. The self is not constant, so it cannot be a thing in the world. And although one cannot assign a positive value to definitions that may apply to oneself (‘a corporate publicist’, ‘a censor of free speech’, ‘a collaborator in social cleansing’), one remains able to determine what one is not.

Sartre argues that the inner anguish one supposedly feels over this moral ambiguity is evidence of a personal feeling of responsibility for the choices one makes throughout life. I’d question whether this anguish is not part of the human condition but rather a product of the contradictions of class consciousness – of, for example, the complicity of the middle-class curator in the ideology of capitalism, or the working-class waiter who allows himself to be used as a thing by capitalist labour relations (with the ruling class, again, suffering no such anguish). But without this assumption of personal choice, one may make use of an external moral system (such as Christianity or Islam or Judaism) as a tool to moralise otherwise immoral acts (such as imperialist wars, religious laws or apartheid oppression), leading to the negation of the self.

According to Sartre, dedicated professionals of their respective moral codes – priests interpreting sacred scriptures, judges interpreting legislation, doctors interpreting the Hippocratic oath (and, I would add, architects interpreting the ARB code of conduct, lecturers interpreting government legislation on their security duties, and curators interpreting the restrictions imposed by corporate sponsors) – should, instead of relieving the self of responsibility in the discharge of their professional duties, be aware of their own agency in the process. This recognition involves the questioning of the morality of all choices, and taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s own choice. In other words, we must not exercise bad faith by denying the self’s freedom of choice and responsibility for those choices.

By insisting on the unalienable freedom of the individual, Sartre demonstrates that the social roles and moral systems we adopt – whether we call them capitalist, liberal, democratic or pragmatic – in practice merely protect us from being accountable for our actions.

3. The Culture Industry

As the middle-class has expanded and diverged far beyond the minor functionary role it played in the time of Marx as the clerks and administrators of capitalism, so much of its occupation has become devoted to the production, circulation and consumption of the myths through which we live our economic relationship to the great capitalist gang-bang: in marketing, advertising, promotions, graphic design, television, radio, the press and media, books, theatre, music, the arts, the internet – everything that constitutes what has come to be called the ‘culture industry’. It’s not by chance that the middle classes dominate the role of ‘the creatives’ – as we now rather ludicrously call these peddlers in myths. The contradictions of middle-class consciousness ensure its members are born to the life-long invention of the penumbral cloud of ideology without which capitalism couldn’t function, and which constitutes an increasing portion of its economy.

In doing so, the middle classes have expanded on their original role as the priests of the ruling class, convincing their working-class ‘flock’ that the inequalities of the present will be compensated for in some indeterminate future, when everyone will live in a virtual paradise that will come true if we can just make enough money to buy it. The difference is that now the middle classes are both priest and slave, clergy and congregation, seller and customer, dealer and consumer, believers in the myths they themselves have invented, glued to the screen of their own content, ceaselessly inventing the myriad reasons why they and everyone else can’t do anything but exactly what they are already.

My motivation in writing this text was to try and understand how, for example, the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019 represents itself with Twitter posts about partnering with housing-rights collectives ‘to explore how social movements, architectural practitioners, activists and indigenous communities situate space as a means of advocacy for social justice’, while at the same time blatantly censoring ASH’s project to map London’s estate regeneration programme; or how the Serpentine Sackler can describe itself as ‘a gallery that supports artists and their right to express their views’ while simultaneously doing everything it can to shut down ASH’s talk about the financial causes of London’s housing crisis simply because we named two of its sponsors.

Of course, the CEOs and directors at the top of such organisations are cynical opportunists who will do anything necessary to advance their careers, and there’s nothing surprising about cultural institutions that depend on sponsorship from British Petroleum, Lendlease, Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg and AECOM censoring criticism of their practices. But there’s a whole army of middle-men – or in the art world more often middle-women – whom I think aren’t cynical, but genuinely believe they are working to do as much good as they can under the given institutional and financial conditions, and are horrified when some incident, such as their collusion in the censorship of ASH, reveals to them not only that they are not, but that they are actively working for the corporate world. One curator even insisted to us that the curatorial team has ‘absolute autonomy’, which is so absurd a statement it requires some explanation beyond the rationalisations of the careerist. As in every hierarchy of power, the art and architectural worlds rely on every administrator, at least, if not every worker, to have bought into the same lie; and like any good saleswoman the first lie these functionaries tell is to themselves. This is the bad faith of middle-class consciousness in the service of the culture industry.

But as the grip the corporate world has on every aspect of our lives, and not only on the culture industry, grows stronger, and the costs of such collaboration becomes more and more difficult to deny, the bad faith of its functionaries is increasingly finding compensation in the collective breast-beating and assumption of victimhood that has come to characterise contemporary forms of activism. The art world, always alert to the latest trends in youth culture, is playing catch-up with the appropriation of such activism to its marketing strategies, even as its own subsumption into the public relations machine of the corporate world becomes almost total. I guess, by collaborating with the Serpentine Galleries and the Chicago Architecture Biennial, ASH wanted to test the limits of that totality, and we got our answer.

‘Art institutions, a bit like schools, are places of education. They influence the way we look at ourselves and how we view our social relations. As is the case in other branches of the consciousness industry, so here, in a subtle way, our values are being negotiated. In fact, art institutions are political institutions. One could say that they are part of the battlefield where the conflicting ideological currents of a society clash. The art world, contrary to what is generally assumed, is not a world apart. What happens there is an expression of the world at large and has repercussions outside its confines.’

– Hans Haacke and Pierre Bourdieu, Free Exchange (1995)

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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