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)


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