Poulantzas on the “Petty Bourgeoisie”

August 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Petty bourgeois” is a confusing term that comes up a lot, both because it’s a good insult and because it’s important to any class-based understanding of capitalism, more so the closer one gets to the present. In Fascism and Dictatorship (1970), Nicos Poulantzas defines the petty bourgeoisie as an intermediate “subclass” wedged between the bourgeoisie and the working class, the only two real classes in capitalism. The point of the analysis is to understand the rise of fascism (synthesizing his understanding of German and Italian history), a regime the petty bourgeoisie is often accused of bringing about. In the interests of length and time, I’m only going to excerpt and summarize, censoring my objections. With one exception, the ugliness of the language, which really is exhausting and demoralizing in the manner of all the best/worst Althusserian Marxist theory and makes politics seem unthinkable on that basis alone. Sorry. But I do think it’s worth slogging through.

“Marx and Engels emphasized the tendency for the petty bourgeoisie to be undermined and eleiminated in a capitalist formation: Lenin described it as a ‘transitional class’. When the capitalist mode of production becomes dominant and generalized, a minority of its members are integrated into the bourgeoisie, in a variety of ways, while the great mass are ‘proletarianized.'” (238)

This description of the subclass’s basic fears and motivations most directly applies to the “traditional” petty bourgeoisie, which is composed out of small-scale production and small-scale ownership. Today its members are called ‘small business owners,’ although in Poulantzas’s formulation they by definition employ few or no wage workers.

He then adds another type: the ‘new’ petty bourgeoise, a.k.a. “non-productive salaried employees” whose tasks are supplementary to the circulation and realization of surplus value: “salaried employees in commerce, banking, insurance, sales departments, advertising, etc., as well as ‘service’ employees,” along with “civil servants.” Traditional and salaried petty bourgeois occupy different economic positions. However:

“What makes it possible for the two groups to be considered as part of the same class, the ‘petty bourgeoisie’, is that their different economic positions generally have the same effects at the political and ideological level. The relevant criteria for explaining this identity of effects at these levels are, in the first case, small-scale production and above all the small-scale ownership involved in it, and in the second case, exploitation experienced in the ‘juridical’ form of ‘salary’, and not directly in production.” (239-40).

Petty bourgeois ideology constantly shifts due to the ungroundedness of the class itself. There are, however, a few recurring elements, common to both the ‘new’ salaried petty bourgeoisie and the more traditional kind. Most are pretty obvious and revolve around ‘meritocratic’ themes. Less intuitively, Poulantzas argues the petty bourgeoisie share a kind of naive anticapitalism:

Status-quo anti-capitalism. Effective exploitation is hidden here, because it is experienced mainly in the form of the salary. This group therefore aspires to ‘social justice’, through State redistribution of income. They make declarations against ‘big money’, mainly in the form of demands about taxation. There is an ‘egalitarian’ aspect to the demand for equalization of ‘income’, and often parliamentary cretinism comes in too. They fear proletarianization, but above all they fear a revolutionary transformation of society, because of the insecurity they experience through their salaried position. They fear an upheaval which could affect the earnings of non-productive employees, and they often fail to take into account the mechanisms of production, and the exploitative role of ownership of the means of production. One expression of this is the particular corporatist forms assumed by the trade-union struggle of this group (242)

Some conclusions vis-à-vis political organization and electoral politics:

…they are neither part of the bourgeosie nor of the working class, the two basic classes whose political interests are totally irreconcilable. This means that in the field of class struggle, the different groups making up the petty bourgeoisie can have no long-term political interests ‘of their own’. This criterion, together with their isolation and their ideological similarity, generally produces the following common effects at the political level:

(a) It is very difficult for them to organize politically into a specific party of their own.

(b) They are often organized politically directly through other apparatuses of the State, which these groups see as their own political representative. The petty bourgeoisie often constitutes a supporting class for the State. Its alliance with the bourgeoisie is not direct, but mediated through support for the State forms which the petty bourgeoisie sees as opposed to the bourgeoisie’s interests and in agreement with its own.

(c) These common ideological and political effects apply primarily in what we may call ‘normal’ circumstances. Because of their electoralist illusions, the two component petty-bourgeois groups are often in effect the ‘peaceful’ pillars of the ‘democratic republican order’. But the community of effects also functions in the case of crises, as the two groups revolt in quite similar ways against the existing order.

(d) Both groups share a politically unstable nature. It is they who ‘swing’ most often, either to the side of the bourgeoisie or to that of the working class, according to the conjuncture, since they are polarized around these two classes.

Dangerously for Poulantzas, the petty bourgeoisie as an intermediate class can strongly influence working class ideology, and in periods of crisis (pre-fascist Italy and Germany), its penetration supersedes that of the bourgeoisie:

The most revealing phenomenon is not so much the direct influence of bourgeois ideology on the working class, expressed in trade unionism and reformism, as the influence of petty-bourgeois ideology.

In fact, bourgeois ideology was itself in crisis during the rise of fascism. This was what allowed petty-bourgeois ideology to spread in the social formation, and to penetrate the working class much more thoroughly than could an uncontested dominant ideology. The petty bourgeoisie was itself going through a deep crisis. In this context, the ideology of the ‘enraged petty bourgeoisie,’ as Engels put it, took quite specific forms: forms in which it penetrated into the working class more easily than before, as the working class was itself in ideological crisis. To clarify these ideas, I would suggest that the ‘anti-capitalist’ aspect always inherent in petty-bourgeois ideology is strengthened and becomes relatively more important in this situation where the petty bourgeoisie is in revolt. This is how such ideology gains entry into the working class.

The influence of petty-bourgeois ideology on the working class takes specific forms, adapted to the ‘actual conditions,’ that is the ‘lived experience’ (le vécu), of the working class. Certain of these forms were particularly strong in the working class during the rise of fascism:

(a) Anarchism, in the form specific to the working class: especially as anarcho-syndicalism (akin to revolutionary syndicalism), which combines contempt for organization and political objectives with ignorance, under the pretext of the ‘lived experience’ of factory life, of the role of the mechanisms of political oppression, of the State, in the maintenance of the capitalist system;

(b) Spontaneism, i.e. contempt for organization, and the abstract cult of direct and ‘spontaneous’ action, no matter where or how — the expression par excellence of petty-bourgeois ‘individualism’;

(c) ‘Putschist jacquerie’, which rejects Marxist-Leninist ideology and mass political struggle: together with spontaneism and anarchism, it is based on a totally abstract cult of the exemplary ‘violence’ of ‘active minorities’, which is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the rebel petty bourgeoisie, and of ‘petty-bourgeois jacquerie’ (145).

And finally, the role played by the petty bourgeoisie in the rise of fascism, in rough sequence:

The petty bourgeoisie, the ‘intermediate’ class, is always affected by a major crisis involving the basic forces of the capitalist social formation. As a general rule, the crisis of the ruling classes affects the petty bourgeoisie directly. Before stabilization and during the first period of open crisis between the bourgeoisie and the working class, a large part of the petty bourgeoisie clearly swings over to the side of the working class. Without being able to trace a clear line of demarcation between the two fractions of the petty bourgeoisie, we can say that this is mainly the case with the salaried employees. In the face of working-class defeat, and the lack of a specific communist policy of alliance with the petty bourgeoisie, this situation changes, but only by steps. After its open swing to the working-class side, this part of the petty bourgeoisie seems to stick to social democracy during the stabilization step. Subsequently it becomes disillusioned with social democracy, which fails to defend its interests. Turning away from social democracy, the petty bourgeoisie as a whole finds itself faced, at the beginning of the rise of fascism, with that instability and lack of hegemony among the dominant classes and fractions which characterizes the bourgeois parties’ crisis of representation. These parties, while they are directly tied to the class interests of the power bloc, are at the same time the ‘representatives’ of the petty bourgeoisie, because of its inability to form its own party.

The bourgeois parties split away from their own classes and fractions in the power bloc. This directly affects their representational tie to the petty bourgeoisie itself, which understands that from now on such parties are no more than parliamentary cliques. The loss of these parties’ real influence on the political scene, which they obtained as a result of their ties with fractions and classes other than the petty bourgeoisie, leads the petty bourgeoisie for its part to turn away from them. The way is therefore open to the fascist parties. (248-9)


August 2, 2011 § 7 Comments

The Populist revolt — the most elaborate example of mass insurgency we have in American history — provides an abundance of evidence that can be applied in answering this question. The sequential process of democratic movement-building will be seen to involve four stages: (1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority — a development which, for the sake of simplicity, we may describe as “the movement forming”; (2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people — “the movement recruiting”; (3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis — “the movement educating”; and (4) the creation of an institutional means whereby the new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way — “the movement politicized.”

Within this broad framework, it seems helpful to specify certain subsidiary components. Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect. They are not resigned; they are not intimidated. To put it another way, they are not culturally organized to conform to established hierarchical forms. Their sense of autonomy permits them to dare to try to change things by seeking to influence others. The subsequent stages of recruitment and of internal economic and political education (steps two, three, and four) turn on the ability of the democratic organizers to develop widespread methods of internal communication within the mass movement. Such democratic facilities provide the only way the movement can defend itself to its own adherents in the face of the adverse interpretations certain to emanate from the received culture. If the movement is able to achieve this level of internal communication and democracy, and the ranks accordingly grow in numbers and in political consciousness, a new plateau of social possibility comes within reach of all participants. In intellectual terms, the generating force of this new mass mode of behavior may be rather simply described as “a new way of looking at things.” It constitutes a new and heretofore unsanctioned mass folkway of autonomy. In psychological terms, its appearance reflects the development within the movement of a new kind of collective self-confidence. “Individual self-respect” and “collective self-confidence” constitute, then, the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics. Their development permits people to conceive of the idea of acting in self-generated democratic ways — as distinct from passively participating in various hierarchical modes bequeathed by the received culture. In this study of Populism, I have given a name to this plateau of cooperative and democratic conduct. I have called it “the movement culture.” Once attained, it opens up new vistas of social possibility, vistas that are less clouded by inherited assumptions. I suggest that all significant mass democratic movements in human history have generated this autonomous capacity. Indeed, had they not done so, one cannot visualize how they could have developed into significant mass democratic movements.

Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978)

Just a bit of common sense, perhaps, and from a historian whose views on the present are not the most clear-eyed, but worth remembering when considering political ‘alternatives’ at a time when the mainstream seems to have no other content than denying their existence.

Countless alternatives have been offered, of course, to the USA’s long string of disasters over the past decade — from Afghanistan to Katrina to TARP right down to this debt ceiling farce. In spite of the seriousness of their content — plans for bank nationalization, single-payer health care, economic stimulus, green infrastructure development plans, financial reform, demilitarized borders, troop drawdown, torture bans, etc. — they’re almost never discussed on their practical merits. Instead they’re dismissed for being ‘not politically possible,’ ‘unrealistic,’ and for that reason, ‘unserious.’ That’s because the apologists, and let’s just concentrate on the outwardly sympathetic ones for now, aren’t asking for alternatives, exactly. They want An Alternative. That is, they want an alternative center of power, something that could force Real Change through our Broken Institutions. This center doesn’t already exist, so with a few little noises of protest, the critics submit to what they say they hate, over and over again, until they learn to take pride in their prostration, otherwise known as ‘professionalism.’ When a careerist like Yglesias says he wants An Alternative to save him from his bean counting ways, he is smirkingly asking for someone else to pay his bills and invite him to Washington dinners. No offers are forthcoming, so back to exegesis.

This is the time to cite Chris Hedges’s “phantom left,” his observation, not made often enough, that the fantasy of a communist shadow nation just waiting to take power is as useful for liberals as it is for conservatives. Its degree of actual existence depends on its intended use — even the ‘desire’ for a Global Communist Superstate can serve as an alibi in the right hands. At its worst, ‘calling for’ a united left can be a way of undermining actual attempts to build one — pitting class politics against identity politics is a case in point. At another extreme it can lead to messianism.

This specious desire is for an already-constructed Outside of political conflict, equally present in Obama’s fantasy of reasoned, “bipartisan” centrism and Badiou-via-Zizek’s calls for revolutionary terror mathematically derived from the prophetic lineage of Robespierre and Mao. A secular outside is just the acknowledgement of many outsides, gaps in structure to be more precise, which are simultaneously points of agency. Refusing to realize this and assuming politicians are ‘forced’ to do the things they do is part of the same logic that absolves us from responsibility – we too start to think of ourselves as ‘forced’ to ‘be realistic’ about what we’re willing to demand from them, as if we were literal rather than metaphorical cogs in a machine. I hate to call what I’m trying to outline here ‘micropolitics’ because of all the baggage, but since we aren’t in a moment of powerful oppositional parties, what ‘the left’ means depends a great deal on what individuals who identify as ‘left’ do. There’s no need to be ‘against’ potential third parties, but the movement’s strength is not currently centralized enough to insist on them. There are, however, many autonomous institutions, many struggles, that need stronger connections (a piece of evidence often cited to justify this claim is the attendance of the last U.S. Social Forum and the relative lack of media attention) . The condition for realizing them is not a super-state or the dream of one, but commitment to politics outside the veal pen, outside mainstream terms of debate and independent of official power.

It hasn’t proved very reliable, but sometimes ‘serious people’ choose to risk their careers and official legitimacy by taking the many alternative ideas and organizations more seriously. For whom would it be a victory if Elizabeth Warren became a Senator? Should it be considered a loss for the left that Cenk Uygur was pushed out of MSNBC? These aren’t particularly consequential examples, but that’s the point: the political, media, corporate, and financial classes are not going to be the basis of anyone’s revolution. There are many theoretical and historical arguments for why, but a good shorthand is simply that the desire of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois — aka the “middle class” and “business class” — to retain and reproduce their privileges, while often sympathetic and sometimes linked to working class struggles (in, for example, the politics of access to higher education), is just not fundamental enough in a world system flimsily upheld by deep, multiple layers of oppression, violence, and ecological devastation. All that said, the halls of official power are open to (occasional, local, partial) dissent, and the most important rule for initiating it can perhaps be put like this: changing things from inside a system only works if non-rhetorical ties to its outside are maintained. As the state, the corporate media, even the university become more insular, as they isolate themselves ever further from their constituents, they may simply have to be abandoned — not as targets, of public pressure, criticism, and demands, but as subjects of identification and of investment of time and energy. Some are closer to this point than others.

[Note: this is a good documentary on the current sorry state of institutional left-liberal politics, and this on Gramsci (which I linked to in the comments to the last post) is some good forward thinking.]

So I end up with my own defense of “opting out.” Enough evaluating the appropriate distribution of praise and blame to Democrats, enough treating them like protagonists. Enough hoping for transcendence.

Somewhat whimsically, I’ll end with this piece of historical reflection from professional weirdo Alan Moore. Not very ambitious, but it almost seems that way in the political dark age we’re living through:

This is why I split from the comics industry. The way it had handled The Black Dossier certainly propelled me into other directions away from comics, to the point where the League is my only expression in the comics field and is likely to remain to so for the foreseeable future. When that happened, the nearest we got to supportive comments from the rest of the industry was along the lines of useful advice like, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” I’m not expecting the writers and artists of the industry to go out and struggle with Galactus, should he turn up suddenly and threaten to eat the world. Of course I’m not. I’m just asking them to show a little bit of ordinary human courage. I think that if they had done that, then the industry would probably not be in the state that it is.

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