Primer Red: The Petit (Petty) Bourgeoisie

Primer Red: The Petit (Petty) Bourgeoisie

It has been observed, fairly widely at this point, that “Trumpism,” whatever that means, found its political and social base among small business owners; that small business owners were heavily represented among the people who participated in the January 6 infiltration of the Capitol. This is part of a long tradition of a particular class–the so-called “petit bourgeoisie”–whose radicalism takes the form of hard-right and even fascistic politics. What’s the connection? And what can studying why this tendency exists teach us about class politics and class struggle?

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels describe the historic development of different social classes. They trace the development of human societies from pre-civilization through ancient kingdoms, slave societies, feudalism, through to capitalism. In this latest phase there is a tendency towards two major classes locked in a necessary struggle with one another, the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, who own the means the production–the machines, property, land, and other factors that are necessary to produce and distribute commodities, the things that allow humanity to subsist–and the working class or proletariat, who have to sell their labor to the capitalists in order to survive, and who by applying their labor to those factors of production produce and distribute all the stuff of life. 

But while these are two predominant classes, they are not the only classes. There are subordinate, transitionary, or liminal (“in-between”) classes: Marx and Engels also describe the so-called “lumpenproletariat” and the “petit bourgeoisie” (literally “little” bourgeoisie, sometimes styled as “petty” bourgeoisie). 

One of the most succinct breakdowns of the classes can be found in the literature of the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican revolutionary Marxist-Leninist vanguard organization founded in Chicago. In the definitions section of “The Ideology of the Young Lords Party,” the Party defined the classes this way:

CLASS: The group of persons that an individual belongs to all of whom make their living the same way. For instance, lumpen make their living by surviving–stealing, prostitution, dope, etc. The workers make their living by working for someone. The petty bourgeoisie make their living by working for themselves, the peasants make their living working on the land for themselves or someone else. The bourgeois make their money off the labor of everyone else. They don’t work at all.

As the Young Lords simply point out, the classes of society are determined by the way they “make their living”–that is, by the way they subsist and reproduce themselves. This is an idea that goes back to Marx in the Critique of Political Economy, that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” In other words, a person’s “class position”–their relationship to how they make their living, thrive, and reproduce themselves–determines their ideology and their social and political conduct. 

The petit bourgeoisie, the class (or sub-class) that “works for themselves,” is interesting to socialists and Marxists because of their political and social role particularly during times of social conflict. In more current language, the “petit bourgeoisie” would be made up of some blend of “small business owners” and certain types of professionals and managers. Before we get to why we need to understand their political role, let’s consider who they are and why they are the “petit” bourgeoisie, distinct from the “big” bourgeoisie (or the “haute” bourgeoisie in the traditional terminology). 

From Yeoman to Small Business

“Yeoman” was actually a rank in feudal society as well–a higher-ranking person in noble households and in the military, typically who was in charge of managing some part of provisions and operations. So the yeoman feudal rank was something above the peasant or serf but below the chivalric (military leadership) or noble class. After the collapse of the feudal system but before contemporary capitalism became the dominant form of social and economic organization, in the period around the American and French Revolutions, the analog to the petit bourgeoisie or “small business owner” was the yeoman farmer, someone who owned their own land and produced enough to provide for their own family (often an extended family as well) and a little extra to trade for household goods. This supposedly “self-sufficient” person was the ideal of the Jeffersonian wing of early American democracy; because they were not beholden to anybody else for their living, the Jeffersonians (and later the Jacksonians) considered them the political ideal; they lived off their own gleaning, and therefore would politically advocate for the most freedom for everybody, since they supposedly did not need to oppress any other class of people for their living. 

If this seems like idealistic nonsense to you, that’s because it was (and is). The “yeoman” was a fantasy; they relied on the exploitation of their immediate and extended families, cheap credit from banks, foreign trade for household goods and machinery (and therefore exploitation of wage labor elsewhere) and, in the US most particularly, on the expropriation of land from (and therefore extermination of) indigenous nations. 

This “yeoman” ideal evolved into the “shopkeeper” and “artisan” and eventually the “small business owner,” as a political concept celebrated by parties in capitalist democracies. The reason is obvious; the big capitalists are too widely disliked and small in number to be either the sole political base or public face of parties, but the working class being welded together into a single political force is too dangerous for capitalism. The small business owner, who does have to work to live–but works “for themselves,” is a known and often respected figure in a small town or city neighborhood, and represents an aspiration for people currently working for someone else, has general appeal. 

Who Are the Petit Bourgeoisie Today?

So what characterizes the contemporary “petit bourgeoisie”? Starting from the Young Lords’ helpful definition, it is someone who works for themselves–someone who does not sell their labor directly to someone else in order to survive. They do have to work, but they are not necessarily enriching someone else by doing so, at least not directly. Because they are small business owners, they own the output of their labor. In Marxist terms what this means is that they are not “alienated” from their labor. They get out what they themselves put in, plus a little extra.  But today’s capitalism is a little more complex than in the days of Marx, or even of the post-World War II period. Certain types of professionals and bureaucrats can move into this petit bourgeois class, because they have a degree of autonomy and credentials that allows them to move easily and without disruption between jobs (or allows them to create their own jobs within or adjacent to other organizations). These would be e.g., consultants, licensed professionals, and non-profit executives who don’t necessarily “own” a small business themselves.

There is a thread that connects these petit bourgeoisie of today back through the shopkeeps and artisans of classic capitalism and to the yeoman of yore. And that is that they are sandwiched between the high bourgeoisie, particularly landlords and financiers (banks and creditors) above them and the working class below them. And this is where the petit bourgeoisie become an interesting subject of study for socialists. 

A Rock and a Hard Place

Going back to the yeoman, constant and looming debt was the most obvious fact of petit bourgeoisie existence that made the Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman liberty a lie. Owning a business or maintaining a license to work for oneself is still capital-intensive, it requires money or property: an office or facility, goods to resell, equipment to use, money to advertise or pay to a small group of workers. The small businessperson secures these things through a variety of types of debts or liabilities, including leases, lines of credit, long-term contracts, and straight-up loans whether student loans or business loans. This debt is generally held by the big bourgeoisie above them. 

On top of that, or maybe beside that, is the fact that the small businessperson is at the whim of the big businessperson who sells or leases them their inputs (raw goods and supplies, land, equipment) and just as importantly often buys their outputs–particularly in the contemporary economy, it is big business that buys up the goods and particularly the services of small businesses. This puts the small businessperson at a perpetual bargaining disadvantage, and at the whim of the overall strategy of the class above him. And, critically, it means he is also perpetually and inherently in competition with others in his class. 

Meanwhile, beneath him, are workers who either work for him directly in small numbers, or work for other businesses he relies on in larger numbers. Because he employs a small number of people (if any) they have a high capacity to disrupt his income. He is disproportionately reliant on each one of them. And his workers’ direct interest is in organizing together to bargain together for better wages and conditions that impair his ability to earn as much as possible. Growing his business will mean hiring more workers, with whom he will increasingly be in conflict.

And this is an important distinction between his class and the working class. He can certainly try to economically organize together with other small businesses, but the way this looks would be to merge their enterprises, and every merger represents a loss of his individual power: he is becoming just one of several owners; it is only when these mergers reach such a scale that he can afford to no longer work but just live off the work of others that he moves out of the petit into the haute bourgeoisie, where his wealth gives him immense social power. For members of the working class, banding together means an incremental increase in their individual power: the more workers that join together to act in concert (i.e. through a union) the stronger they become as individuals. This puts him at a potential disadvantage vis a vis the working class.

The Base of the Right Wing 

When the contradictions of capitalism flare up–times of crisis–each class’s politics tend to assert themselves in more pure forms. This reflects the idea above, that consciousness is determined by means of existence. A crisis in capitalism’s operation creates insecurity in people, insecurity over their ability to subsist in their class position. That type of insecurity strips away mystified beliefs and pure interest is forced to the front. Understanding how that happens for the petit bourgeoisie helps us understand the nature of “class politics” in general.

You may have heard that the petit bourgeoisie are the social base of fascism: that the historical fascist movements particularly of Europe were based in the petit bourgeoisie before large numbers of workers and the rich joined in; and that throughout the world these petit bourgeoisie often for the basis for right-wing or reactionary movements. The above explains why.

This is because the haute bourgeoisie has the wealth and social position to shape society to his advantage. He can pay off segments of the working class, warp the institutions of the state (like the law) to favor him both with cash and his control of the means of production, fund and support ideological institutions like universities and media, etc. The haute bourgeoisie congregate and form social connections in these elite institutions that allows for their self-organization. They sit on corporate and charitable boards together, move money back and forth to one anothers’ enterprises, live (and vacation) in exclusive enclaves, attend private schools and universities together, belong to social clubs, and tend to intermarry, maintaining a cohesion that despite the myth of meritocracy keeps them a stable social class. The combination of immense resources and stability gives them immense capacity for self-protection and reproduction.

The working class meanwhile has the numbers and capacity to organize together to form trade and industrial unions and mass political formations to do the same in the long term. In the short term, they can at least disrupt orderly business and the operation of the bourgeois state and institutions. They lack the cohesion and resources of the big bourgeoisie, but their concentration and strategic location in the mode of production gives them immense disruptive power when they do choose to act, whether spontaneously in moments of crisis or more persistently through formal organization. Trade unions in particular, and mass organizations (in theory, though they are absent in practice) afford the working class a form of stable institutions that let the working class intervene and act at scale. 

So the capitalists have stable, cohering institutions and immense resources; the working class have organization and immense disruptive capacity. 

The petit bourgeoisie lack both of these. They do not have the disruptive capacity of the working class; they don’t have the numbers or the strategic position. They cannot go on strike; were they to do so they’d return to work only to find a competitor, or richer business owners, sitting in their chair. Their small numbers (and lack of cohesive institutions) make mass action impossible to sustain or truly disrupt. They don’t have the resources nor capture of elite institutions to protect themselves or conform the state to their desires like the haute bourgeoisie. Being locked out of the stabilizing institutions of the truly rich, they lack the social interconnection that lets them act in concern reliably. 

In times of plenty, they are fairly satisfied: they align with big business to protect property rights and they align with the working class to secure the public infrastructure and the goosing of aggregate demand they rely on. 

But what do they do at times of acute crisis? In other words, at times when capitalism hits a crisis point and the working class begins to foment and take to the streets to protect itself, to become politically awakened and assert itself?

The petit bourgeoisie can’t rely solely on themselves, they lack the organization and the resources. They need coercive power to intervene on their behalf both to scuttle the power of elite institutions and suppress worker organization. It is an irrational, Frankenstein’s monster politics that fuses a powerful police state to a libertarian ethos of free enterprise. Unable to simply spend the money to turn segments of the working class against each other, they need the resources of the state; unable to disrupt the production of the haute bourgeoisie, they need regulation to reign in the worst of capitalist excess, particularly finance.

 They want to discipline capital to the state, but not to democratically control it, rather to harness it to crush the disruptive power of the working class. But of course the problem is that this is all very erratic; how does one discipline capital while protecting the kinds of property rights and “liberty” that allow business owners to flourish. 

Because the petit bourgeoisie are such an erratic and particularly unstable class, the politics of “right wing populism” and even fascism or proto-fascism are erratic and unstable, and hard to pinpoint ideologically. In the end what defines them best is a lust for coercive power both to crush the working class and discipline social elites. They want to quell social disorder on the streets and root out “dangerous” ideologies in universities. 

In the end, as plenty of social observers have pointed out, the petit bourgeoisie acts as a social support for the haute bourgeoisie. Their means of subsistence are too similar–and too opposed to the working class–to ever have a full break. While they may want to “reign in” the capitalists, they can’t seek their extinction without weakening and destroying themselves. That their fates are tied together however does not mean there is no conflict between them; in his essay on fascism, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky observed how in Germany in particular, the petit bourgeoisie “regards the bourgeoisie with envy and often with hatred. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, while utilizing the support of the petty bourgeoisie, distrusts the latter, for it very correctly fears its tendency to break down the barriers set up for it from above.” These are the barriers that take the form of elite social and political institutions to which access is denied but for the very wealthiest: in other words, they fear the willingness of the petit bourgeoisie to attack the elite institutions and enclaves that enclose and protect the truly rich. 

But that is the danger of the radicalism of the petit bourgeoisie, it is the weapon of the truly rich against working class organization: “the big bourgeoisie likes fascism as little as a man with aching molars likes having his teeth pulled.” In other words, it understands the pain and danger that accompanies hard right-wing politics, but sees the need and value of extracting the problem. 

Usually the ruling class has enough resources and social dominance to protect itself on its own. When crises become acute enough, and the petit bourgeoisie starts to feel the impact, it can rely on the viciousness of fascism, or right-wing populism, to crush working class uprising. 

That is the particular danger and unique position of the petit bourgeoisie.