Maybe You're Not Working Class ...
My review of "A Nation of Shopkeepers" by Dan Evans
In my soon-to-be released book, Here Be Monsters, I recount visiting my factory-worker father in the NAFTA-ruined remains of a small town in Appalachia. Before that visit, I’d been living in the hip, “gay ghetto” neighborhood of Capitol Hill in Seattle. My life consisted of attending radical book readings, protests, and leftist organizing meetings, and meeting fellow activists for coffee after finishing our shifts at the low-wage jobs we worked.
Returning to the land of my birth after that was quite jarring. No one seemed to have interests similar to mine, nor did it seem we shared the same cultural signifiers or even values. No one seemed to want to “move up” in the world, or to do “something meaningful” with themselves. Those who had jobs were quite happy to have them, especially if those jobs were at one of the few remaining factories. Those who didn’t have jobs wished they did, and they quite resented the (very minimal) monthly welfare payments they needed to rely upon in order to eat.
I’m not proud to admit that I was repulsed by the place and the people there. Their lack of cultural knowledge really appalled me, while it also fed into a sense I was inherently different from everyone there. Whether it was my father’s then-wife thinking a shot of espresso must be some kind of alcohol, or a local library clerk not having heard of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (she thought I was asking for a book on wolves and lighthouses in Virginia), there seemed omnipresent signs that I was part of a fully-different class of people than they were.
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Even when I’d meet old friends, I couldn’t connect with them any longer. They were working “blue collar” jobs, driving trucks, or working in the paper mill, and we seemed to have nothing in common any longer.
To my discredit, I also felt quite superior to them. This sentiment seems quite ironic now in hindsight, especially since many of them were doing much better for themselves than I was then (and now). They owned cars and homes, had reliable paychecks and benefits, and even had enough money left over to support a family without their wife needing to work. I, on the other hand, had been living in a crowded house in the city with five others, didn’t own anything, and had no money to pay for a doctor or a dentist. In fact, the reason for my visit to my father was because I needed my wisdom teeth removed, and he could put me on his insurance if I stayed with him for a few months.
As arrogant as my initial reaction to them had been, that sense that I was unlike them, “above” them, and especially part of a different class isn’t something that I can really be faulted for. In fact, within that sentiment were hints of an actually-existing class divide which has been generally concealed within capitalism and missed by most leftist theorists.
Quite a few of us — in fact probably most of my readers — seem to exist in a strange state where neither “capitalist” nor “working-class” accurately describe our economic or social situations.
Sure, I do a lot of work, but I’ve not been paid a regular wage for many years. I’m “self-employed,” but I don’t own a home, property, or any kind of physical “means of production.” I work often in excess of sixty hours a week for a fraction of the income my salaried husband or wage-earning friends earn. Sure, I have much more control and freedom over how I go about my work than they do, but when asked about what they do “for a living,” they can quickly give you a one-sentence answer. I — along with many, many others like me — can’t really answer that so easily.
I try not to think about this problem too much, as it’s quite a difficult matter to understand. I’m far from alone in this situation, and it seems that the kind of position I’m in is increasingly becoming the default for more and more people. Neither traditional “working class,” but most definitely not part of the capitalist class, we’re stuck somewhere in-between them. Promised at some point we could rise above the drudgery of manual labor through education, we unconsciously traded away class consciousness for the belief we’re smarter, or more cultured, or more enlightened than the “masses.” Yet, our economic positions aren’t any better — and are sometimes much worse — than those who actually have “real” working class jobs.
So, then, what are we?
Dan Evan’s book, A Nation of Shopkeepers, proposes its uncomfortable answer immediately in its subtitle: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petty Bourgeoisie. It’s an answer few orthodox Marxists (if there are any left) will necessarily like, nor will it sit well with US and UK “leftists” still captured by neoliberal identity politics. Also, I didn’t like his answer either, and I still don’t. But I think he’s probably right.
The petite bourgeoisie (sometimes called the petty bourgeoisie) is a strange class in Marxist theory. Meaning literally “the little city-dweller,” they were artisans, small landlords, merchants, shopkeepers, and the early doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other “professionals” during the birth of capitalism. They were not so poor that they needed to work in the factories, but they were also not rich enough that they could open up factories, either.
They worked for themselves, and occupied a rather precarious and strained position between the poor and the rich. They were often reliant upon the new waged class (the “working class” or proletariat) because those people were their customers. At the same time, though, the anger and revolutionary urges of those workers (along with “anti-social” behavior) threatened the security of the shopkeepers and artisans, and they often felt their Protestantism especially made them feel “above” the unwashed lower classes.
On the other hand, this petite bourgeoisie weren’t so keen on the capitalists, either. In fact, they were often quite threatened by them, especially as their factories destroyed many of their trades and crafts. Yet, paradoxically, they also needed to rely upon the capitalists for their own work (especially accountants, lawyers, and other “educated” professions) and benefited from the spent wages the capitalists paid the lower classes.
As Dan Evans points out, Marx initially predicted the petite bourgeoisie would be fully subsumed into the proletariat as capitalism progressed. Later, though, Marx changed his mind about this, and the question of why the petite bourgeoisie seemed not only to persist but to constantly re-create itself perplexed Marx and later theorists. Especially difficult to explain has been how, at many times since the birth of capitalism, this intermediary class actually seems to expand (at least temporarily) beyond the size of the traditional working class itself.
Though focused primarily on the United Kingdom with only occasional asides about the situation elsewhere, A Nation of Shopkeepers presents a rather robust explanation as to why the petite bourgeoisie persist and expand. Dan Evans is able to do this by using the work of Marxist sociologists (most notably Nicos Poulantzas, but also Pierre Bourdieu and Erik Olin Wright) showing how class is reproduced not just economically but socially.
For instance, Evans highlights how that sense I mentioned earlier — that I was unlike and perhaps even superior to those workers in Ohio — is part of the social reproduction of the petite bourgeoisie. That’s because, as Bourdieu has shown, class (or any other category) is “instituted” not just by a sense of who you are, but also by a sense of who you are not. In other words, we all compare ourselves to others and ultimately develop kinds of repulsions or preferences, including aesthetic ones. Consider a few that you might recognize:
They work with their hands / I work with my mind
They live in trailer parks / I live in a city
They shop at Walmart / I shop at co-ops
They drive trucks / I take public transit
They use fast food drive-thru / I order from UberEats
They drink Budweiser / I drink craft beer
Of course, class is not merely about aesthetic preference or lifestyle choices. Instead, at its core, it’s a social relationship based on function and material conditions. The capitalist is a capitalist because he or she owns the means of production and exploits the labor of others to increase their capital. The proletarian is proletariat because he or she does neither of those things and has no choice but to sell labor to survive.
Where things get complicated, however, is what the function and material conditions of the petite bourgeoisie actually are.
To make this less complicated, Dan Evans talks of two fractions (sections) of the petite bourgeoisie: the old and the new. The old fraction — which is also growing — is significantly made up of the manual laborers who aren’t working for others. That is, they are tradesmen and craftsmen who are self-employed or who own small businesses. Think of a mechanic who owns his own garage, or the subcontractors who help build houses, and other similar situations. They’re the “small business owners” that both Democrats and Republicans in the US are always claiming they will help when elected (and never do), and they technically own their own “means of production.”
Importantly, this “old” fraction tends to identify much more with the working class than the newer fraction, but this doesn’t mean they consider themselves leftist by any means. In fact, they tend to be small-c conservative, and they distrust corporations and government equally. They also have no interest in university, because degrees don’t actually help their lives at all. Evans sees them as the primary force in the gilets jaunes movement in France, as well as the Freedom Convoy in Canada.
The “new” petite bourgeoisie, on the other hand, don’t engage in traditional production or own the means of production, yet they are often either “self-employed” — often in “gig” or independent contractor work — or work multiple jobs. Also, they are highly educated (often graduate level), and it is this aspect which leads to the sense that they are destined for better things than they currently have. In other words, they are obsessed with upward mobility and wish, more than anything, never to be stuck in a dead-end job. After all, what was that university degree for?
For Evans, this newer group differs from the older one in another important way: they are closer to the Professional-Managerial Class in their ideas, politics, and cultural forms than they are to both the working-class and the old petite bourgeoisie. This fact is what explains why so many tend to consider themselves “leftist” yet only ever seem to care about social issues, rather than economic ones. Both of these classes were raised to believe they were a kind of “elite” intellectual or creative person, deserving more influence and power over how society is run because of their unique insight and education.
In fact, Dan Evans suggests that, at least in the United Kingdom, there is only a leftism of the PMC and of the new petite bourgeoisie. This seems to be true also for the United States, and very well explains why social justice identitarianism has replaced all discussion of class and material conditions in American “leftist” discourse.
Importantly, Evans insists — along with Marx — that the only class that could actually affect any real revolution is the proletariat. When the petite bourgeoisie agitate for change, they always stop short of revolution because they have too much to lose. The proletariat, on the other hand, by definition has nothing to lose and everything to gain. However, since the only class allied with them currently is a generally conservative class (the old petite bourgeoisie), any revolution that would happen would not be a leftist one.
What’s to be done, then? First of all, Evans makes clear in his book that it’s only an initial attempt at sketching out the political force of the petite bourgeoisie. It’s a really good start, but it doesn’t try to give all the answers. In fact, I find my mind spinning now with many more questions now than before I read it, which is of course the sign of a very good book.
Especially needed will be an attempt to analyze the situation in the United States through this framework. One useful place where it seems to apply quite well is over the matter of student debt, which is a “new” petite bourgeoisie issue. Workers in traditional proletarian situations won’t benefit from debt forgiveness, because they never went to university and are constantly told through the education system that university isn’t for them, anyway.
Therefore, student debt forgiveness is not at all a working-class issue, but rather a “new” petite bourgeoisie issue. On the other hand, a leftist platform that included the working class might also argue for forgiveness on car and house loans, but it’s hard to imagine the urban barista with $80,000 in forgiven student debt not resenting those who get actual things of value from such deals instead.
The title itself is a reference to Napoleon’s complaint about the British, that they were a “nation of shopkeepers,” and this leads to what else is needed from this analysis. Capitalist transformation of the economies outside of Europe has been “uneven,” to say the least, and the specific cultural situations of colonized/post-colonial countries has meant that the petite bourgeoisie sometimes functions as a much more revolutionary class than it did in Europe.
Also, in general, the “old” petite bourgeoisie has been very antagonistic towards capitalist disruption of social norms, even in England and Europe. The Luddite rebellion, for example, was a movement of artisans and newly-proletarianized peasants trying to stop the capitalists from industrializing their livelihoods. In France, artisan guilds and small shop owners sided often with workers in disputes with their bosses during the transition to capitalism, and incidents like this remind that there’s an important aspect of social relations that always resists class or any other category: friendship.
In historical situations where the “old” petite bourgeoisie sided with the workers, it was because they were both embedded in social relations that superseded economic concerns. Such relations, however, can only occur when people of different classes are in physical proximity with each other (drinking at the same bars, living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same churches, etc).
Unfortunately, as Evans points out, one of the primary features of the new petite bourgeoisie is that, though they are not necessarily physically isolated from the working class, they are socially isolated from them and also from each other. Part of this is the competition required to maintain their position (both in actual workplaces and also in “self-employment” —think of all the Instagram influencers here). I think just as much — if not more — of this isolation is a feature of their sense that they are different and even superior to the traditional proletariat.
That’s maybe the most important key to undermining the counter-revolutionary “leftism” of the “new” petite bourgeoisie. Only if they can give up their belief they’re “above” other kinds of workers (and work) will they ever be able to align with those workers. Getting rid of social justice identitarianism — the ideological framework which helps them see those others as not just inferior but also “evil” — will also be necessary.
Can that happen? Maybe.
Another possibility — and one that seems much more likely — is that the next few inevitable economic crises will shunt large parts of the “new” petite bourgeoisie back into the proletariat or into a kind of peasant existence. This possibility isn’t actually something to be feared, nor is it so strange.
Reality — especially the “real” of material conditions and the inescapable need to eat — has a funny habit of crashing through all our fantasies that we are “better” than others. Consider how, after the economic crisis in Greece, many of the “upwardly mobile” new petite bourgeoisie suddenly found themselves facing extreme poverty. Many who thought they’d escaped the “backwards” agrarianism of their ancestors fled the cities and returned to their families’ derelict farms. The dazzling promise of Capital turned to dust, and they turned back to the earth.
This is also what I’ve seen happen to lesser degrees for many others I’ve known, those who’ve tired of this kind of precarious existence and realized that social capital can’t put a roof over your head or food on your table. Growing one’s own food and not being reliant on capitalist exchange are exactly the conditions peasants were in before being forced off the land and into the factories. Of course, not everyone’s got a family farm to return to (I don’t), but a revolutionary politics urging for land return and redistribution is exactly what resistance to capitalism initially looked like. Maybe it can again.
You can order Dan Evans’ book (currently on sale!) here.