petit bourgeoisie

The petit bourgeoisie consists of small business owners, who are a section of the middle classes. They’re a class who make their livings off exploiting the labour power of workers, but are in turn squeezed by classes more powerful than them – for example, through high rents, the costs charged by suppliers, or just being squeezed out of their markets by larger companies that can afford to price their products more cheaply as their volumes make up for the lower margin.

Quoting from Australian socialist publication Red Flag (and their first paragraph here is quoting American Marxist Hal Draper):

“From above, they are crowded out by the pressure of more efficient capitals and oppressed by the policies of a government interested in the expansion of big industry rather than the tribulations of the local tailor … On the other hand, from below the petty-bourgeois enterprisers may be harassed by the ‘laziness’ of their apprentices, shop assistants or other hired help, who will not share their enthusiasm for self-sweating … [and] the poor mini-capitalist is driven to supersweating in order to extract from the labor of employees that which is needed to balance the advantages of a bigger competitor.”

So they resent the big capitalists who outcompete them (as Coles and Woolworths do the corner shop) and the state that doesn’t care enough about them and their problems. For example, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which mostly represents hundreds of thousands of middle-class business owners, complains: “The Australian workplace health and safety regulatory environment is complex and not appropriately scaled for the reality of our small businesses”.

It is not only workplace safety requirements that cause them grief. The need to compete on an uneven playing field is also why other dodgy practices such as wage theft, forcing their kids to work in the family business, cash in hand payments and avoiding taxes are so identified with small businesses.

This class doesn’t only consist of shop-owners and the like in urban areas, of course – farmers are also members of this class. Red Flag argues that the global peasantry (those still unintegrated into the capitalist economy) are also part of the middle classes, but I think of them more as a holdover class from feudalism, precisely because their lack of integration into the capitalist economy makes it seem a bit pointless, to me, trying to determine what their class interests under capitalism would be. Farmers who are integrated into the capitalist economy, though (which is basically all of them in the West) are definitely petit bourgeois.

Not all small business owners are right-wing fuckheads, but in general this class leans towards right-wing fuckheadery as a result of their class position. Many members of the class exhibit a sense of sneering superiority towards the workers on whose labour they depend, but also a feeling of perpetual victimhood as they feel aggrieved about being constantly squeezed by the bigger bourgeois. They like to accuse the working class of being “lazy” (because it’s surely laziness that makes workers not want to break their back on the job, or work crazy overtime hours for low, or maybe even no, pay!), and simultaneously criticise the ruling class as “parasites”.

This dangerous combination makes the petit bourgeoisie the most fertile ground for fascists to recruit from (indeed, arguably fascism is the truest representation of the petit bourgeoisie’s class interests, in the same way that socialism is for the working class, and liberalism is for the ruling class). If you ever examine the membership and supporter base of far-right groups, it’s noticeable how many of them are members of this class.

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