Thursday 17 August 2023

The Petit Bourgeoisie and Politics

Dan Evans's A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petite-Bourgeoisie yet (copies here) sounds fascinating. As is this long form interview with Aaron Bastani. As someone who has written a lot about the changing nature of class and its impact on politics, and the Conservative Party's mass support, a careful and fruitful read is on the cards.

Feel free to follow Dan on X/Twitter here.


Blissex said...

I listened through the entire conversation and it is quite interesting, as of course the main marker of the political attitudes of the petty bourgeoisie is property based (and more generally) based voting.

But looking at my notes there are some points, the first is that it is very typically british to confuse functional class and social class (which I call "caste"), I guess because for a very long time in Great Britain they largely coincided, including for example white collar work being middle class and manual work being working class. For example the idea that a downwardly mobile recent teacher is middle class in a functional, never mind part of the petty bourgeoisie, seems not just wrong but absurd to me. That the "new" petty bourgeoisie is made of downwardly mobile graduates seems to me a very big mistake, especially as to building electoral coalitions etc.

Class in a proper sense is set by the function in the production process, and that way of looking at things matters a lot because functional class largely determines the material interests of its members which in turn largely determine their politics, even if caste sometimes does influence political choices.

Class is about being being master (upper class), trustie (middle class), servant (working class), beggar (under class, "lumpenproletariat") in systems of production.
Caste is usually still about the very ancient distinction between rulers, clerics (scribes or priests), merchants, peasants, beggars.

So for example a company lawyer may have the social and cultural attributes of the middle *caste*, but she is not middle *class* unless she is a manager and is not petty bourgeoisie unless she owns significant property. A call centre worker is not even remotely middle class, while "Sierra man" or the owner of a cleaning business or a plastering business with half a dozen part timers is upper class, even if socially and culturally she is lower caste.

There are of course cases of degree of belonging to classes, and multiple class memberships, while I think it is much more difficult to change caste (a poor lawyer is still cleric, not peasant, caste, even if his work and income are peasant-like).

The difference between grand and petty bourgeoisie is in the degree of the income and wealth they have as owners of business or real estate or other properties, not in their deriving the vast majority of their income from those assets, whether it is a bank or a taxi or a sole trader business.

The difference between upper-middle and lower-middle class is that the upper-middle class also have significant income (not necessarily cash flow) from ownership, not just from work as a trustie for the upper class. That could also have been the past the ownership of a university degree as an asset for professionals, as their income would be a function of both their work and the rent from degree.
But at least in the past most people who entered the lower-middle class would eventually rise to the upper-middle class by having a good income allowing them to buy a property and a significant amount of shares, while in general a working class job did not allow that.

Working class jobs did afford buying a house and getting a pension in the 1950s-1970s and this created a large number of people who became small rentiers in later life, and here we are.

Blissex said...

The second main difference I have with Dan Evans is that actual social mobility in practice has come not from education but from property for lower middle class people and from tax evasion and lower wages for the self-employed and small businessmen, running largely cash-in hand businesses or employing immigrants. Education has been largely a gateway into white collar/office working class jobs, which are better but not that much from blue collar/manual working class ones, even if many blue collar/manual working class people have regarded any white collar/office job as middle class (instead of middle income).

Education's role has been mostly to take people off the job market and to make them pay to create more jobs in education. It is not a mystery why John Major tripled places in postgraduate studies during a recession, and why Tony Blair wanted to push so many young people into "whetever" degrees, and why students were considered unemployed during the summer vacations but not anymore even if they don't get jobs.

But to be the biggest issue is that the basic premise or promise of education, education, education is that everybody could join the professional or managerial middle class, nobody (that is immigrants...) had to work into low status working class jobs, whether manual or office, actually making things or performing services. Nobody (that is immigrants...) has to be cleaners or call centre operators, everybody would be accountants or dentists or professors.

The mission of the left at the very minimum is instead to be realistic and to know that most people must continue to have manual or office working class jobs, someone has got to wait tables or deliver packages or fix cars, but to ensure that even those jobs have got good pay, good pensions, enable a comfortable lifestyle.
«Sweden has long been admired for its blend of prosperity and social cohesion. Its model combines high taxes, generous welfare, collective bargaining, high educational standards and a reasonably free-market economy. The result is high living standards: the lowest wages, for example in hotels or restaurants, are far higher than minimum wages elsewhere in Europe says Marten Blix, a Swedish economist. Relative to other countries that have comparable data, Swedish men in manufacturing earn the highest minimum wage. [...] For decades Sweden consciously tried to get rid of low-skilled service jobs, says Karin Svanborg-Sjovall, of Timbro, a free-market think-tank. “We are fanatics about equality here,” she says.»

The left does not even need to “get rid of low-skilled service jobs” as long as they provide a good income, pensions, social insurance.

Blissex said...

«Class is about [...] in systems of production. Caste is usually still about [... role in pre-modern society ,,,]»

Of course these can overlap and coexist especially during transitions.
Another categorization that often matters and is often also confused with (social) class is that between "high brow", "middle brow" and "low brow":
“Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow by Russell Lynes”

Blissex said...

The reason why I am so keen on what I think is the proper understanding of class vs. caste and in particular property is the political effect: most voters vote their wallets, that is the material interests deriving from their class, despite the efforts by Conservatives, LibDems and New Labour to make at least some of them vote on caste or values or whatever else. So I reckon that most people are very keenly aware of their class interests, and it is very difficult to get them to vote against them.

A commenter on "The Guardian" wrote: “I will put it bluntly I don't want to see my home lose £100 000 in value just so someone else can afford to have a home and neither will most other people if they are honest with themselves”.

Therefore the argument of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson is to pander to those changed interests and turned New Labour into a “quasi-Conservative party” because “we all thatcherites now”.

The main option for the left is instead to *change their class* and thus the interests they vote for, which was the purpose embedded in the "property owning democracy" slogan. The thatcherites, whether New Labour, LibDem or Conservatives, have been very focused on social engineering to achieve that. For the left is to ensure that those who want economic safety and a good living from extracting from the lower classes ever higher rents and prices via property, they can instead rely on good, secure wages, pensions, social insurance.

Boffy said...

The petty-bourgeoisie, is historically fucked for the reasons Marx set out. It is also economically and socially impotent for the reasons Trotsky described in his analysis of it in relation to fascism. It is numerically strong, which is why its strength is overstated in elections, as shown by Brexit.

It had an anomalous growth from the 1980's. During that period of long wave stagnation, deindustrialisation in developed economies, and conservative governments facilitated its growth at the expense of large-scale industrial capital, and, thereby, the working-class. The same deindustrialisation, and globalisation significantly speeded up economic growth in developing economies. The global working-class doubled in size from the 1980's, mostly in those developing economies. As Marx describes in Capital, should rapid expansion also sees a sharp numerical growth of the small business class, in numbers not economic significance. They get drawn in to the economic expansion at a faster rate than the process of concentration and centralisation destroys them.

But, that historically anomalous period ended with the start of the new long wave uptrend in 1999, along with all of the other aspects of that period, such as an excess supply of money-capital over the demand for it, which had led to interest rates falling, and asset prices rising globally. The reversal of that, and the start of global interest rates rising was the basis of the 2008 GFC, and the idiocies of the period since then, of governments deliberately slowing growth to prevent rates rising, of causing huge oceans of liquidity driven into asset markets via QE to buy up and so inflate asset prices, also hit the buffers around 2020, disguised by its use of lockdowns instead to slow economic growth.

The laws of capital set out by Marx are still in place, and as the industrial struggles fuelled by labour shortages, the high inflation as all of that previous liquidity surges into the economy, not assets, and the rising interest rates causing asset prices to fall sharply demonstrates, it is the petty-bourgeoisie that are again fucked. They don't have the economic pricing power of big capital, they are hit hardest by rising wages, and they don't have the ability of organised labour to respond to inflation.

The conditions are set for workers to be on the front foot. They should use the opportunity.