Journal of Emancipation | Spanish

Petty bourgeoisie

Marxist Dictionary

Intermediate strata of capitalist society that participate in the exploitation of labor but permanently face the effects of capital concentration, trying to avoid its own proletarianization.

The precarious nature of the petty bourgeoisie

The role of small capital in the great framework of capitalist accumulation is more subtle and complex than is usually considered, but nevertheless precarious and unsustainable in the medium term. With each technological change, small and medium sized capitals will take advantage of the reduction in scale produced by the increase in labor productivity to assert themselves. In doing so, they will open up a new branch, a new world of placements for large capital that will end up displacing or swallowing the smaller pioneer capitals.

According to Marx, the mission of small capital in the general march of capitalist development is to be the pioneers of technical advance, and this in two ways: by introducing new methods of production in already established branches of production and by creating new branches not yet exploited by big capital. It is completely false to believe that the history of the medium-sized capitalist enterprise is a straight line towards its gradual disappearance. On the contrary, the actual course of its development is purely dialectical and constantly moving between contradictions. The capitalist middle strata, like the working class, are under the influence of two opposing tendencies, one that tends to elevate it and the other that tends to sink it. The downward trend is the continuous increase in the scale of production, which periodically exceeds the dimensions of medium-sized capitals, repeatedly expelling them from the arena of world competition. The upward trend is the periodic devaluation of existing capitals, which for a certain time lowers the scale of production, in proportion to the value of the minimum amount of capital required, and furthermore temporarily paralyses the penetration of capitalist production into new spheres. The struggle between medium-size enterprises and big capital should not be imagined as a periodic battle in which the weaker party sees the number of its troops diminish directly more and more, but rather as a periodic mowing of small enterprises, which quickly reappear only to be reaped again by the scythe of big industry. Both tendencies play ball with the capitalist middle strata, but in the end the downward trend triumphs, unlike what happens with the proletariat.

Rosa Luxemburg. Reform or Revolution, 1901

The more precarious the situation of small and medium capital in its competition against the capacities of large-scale production, the greater the force with which the petty bourgeoisie must compensate for the advantage of big capital in the only possible way: by increasing absolute surplus value.

The reactionary aspirations of the petty bourgeoisie

The “dual” confrontation of the petty bourgeoisie, at the same time against big capital (“those at the top”, the “financial aristocracy”, the “1%”, etc.) and for framing the workers in the people and increasing their exploitation, is part of the everyday life of social conflict. Shopkeepers fight against the opening of supermarkets and department stores and against the fact that the existing ones can open on weekends because capital concentration in them takes small businesses out of price competition. They fight against their own proletarianization while denying their employees the basic conditions of the proletarian in any large-scale retail chain. Just like the taxi license owners claim protection from Uber while they pay piecework to their employees, or the farmers demand guaranteed prices and protest against their dependence of the seed and fertilizer companies, while they exploit in the worst conditions immigrant workers with and without papers.

It is this dual relationship, at the same time confronted to “its own” proletariat and to big capital, that leads the petty bourgeoisie to repeatedly backtrack and demand the return of the previous conditions, that capital accumulation should respect and preserve the petty bourgeoisie’s status and that society should return to a supposed class harmony in the undifferentiated magma of the “people”.

This is a phenomenon that has been present in capitalism since its very beginnings. While from the now really non-existent craft industry there was hope that it would adopt “not its present interests, but its future interests, inasmuch as it abandons its own views to adopt those of the proletariat”, what politically defines the industrial, commercial or rural petty bourgeoisie is that its dread of proletarianization ends up translating into a necessarily reactionary position even under rising capitalism.

The middle strata -the small industrialist, the small trader, the craftsman, the peasant- all fight against the bourgeoisie to save their existence as middle strata from ruin. They are not, therefore, revolutionaries, but conservatives. Even more so, they are reactionaries, since they intend to turn back the wheel of history.

Manifesto of the Communist Party. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 1848

The petty bourgeoisie under state capitalism

When the extra-capitalist markets started to be insufficient for the realization of all the surplus value produced, capitalism entered its imperialist phase, which, among other things, brutally accelerated the downward trend of the rate of profit, proportionally accelerating the concentration of capital until the individual capitalist itself was socialized… It was a real Armageddon for the petty bourgeoisie, which was expelled from areas of production and sectors that until then had constituted an apparently unquestionable base for it.

The triumph of the downward trend will not necessarily appear as an absolute numerical decrease of the medium sized companies. It must appear, firstly, as a progressive increase in the minimum capital indispensable to the functioning of the enterprises of the old branches of production; secondly, in the constant decrease of the interval of time during which the small capitalists have the opportunity to exploit the new branches of production. The result, as far as the small capitalist is concerned, is the shorter and shorter duration of his stay in the new industry and a progressively faster change in the methods of production as a field for investment. For the middle capitalist strata as a whole there is an increasingly rapid process of social assimilation and disassimilation.

Rosa Luxemburg. Reform or Revolution, 1901

The socialization of the figure of the capitalist that starts with the society by shares and becomes a reality under imperialism reaches paroxysm with the universalization of state capitalism, true socialization of the bourgeoisie as a whole around the state. This concentration, which starts with the 20th century, also transforms a good part of the petty bourgeoisie. A not insignificant part will be absorbed by the big companies by organising workshops or administration. Another will have to be reconverted into a “management class”, a “professional class”… and a civil service class, taking advantage of the next step forward in the socialization of capitalism as a class, which is state capitalism.

But even this one has suffered and is suffering brutally from proletarianization with every advance in the concentration of capital and the kind of technological innovation it feeds. You don’t need legions of “managers” to run a robotic factory. The irruption of financial businesses like Uber into marginal sectors in volume like the taxi is scratching and threatening the apparently sturdier strongholds of the petty bourgeoisie.

Even in its marketplace version, the petty bourgeoisie will be ripped out of its most characteristic grounds -such as proximity trading- furiously by over-accumulated capitals in need of profitable occupations, even if only in “niche sectors”. Although it will be reborn with every technological innovation time and time again… it will be irremediably cut down like weeds by the scythe of big capital. More importantly, it will be increasingly close to the root. This is the meaning of the institutionalization of “venture capital” and the “start up” industry. The point at which the “entrepreneur” turns from an owner-producer of his own company to an officer-manager of a placement for surplus financial capital, ready to speculate with the company as a whole, is already placed in what the “entrepreneurship” manuals call the passage “from the business idea to reality”.

The petty bourgeoisie will become an increasingly active centrifugal element in the state. Thus, the reactionary character of their ideologies will skyrocket under capitalist decadence until they become even dysfunctional for the bourgeoisie itself as a whole.

Let us not forget that beyond merchants and petty industrialists, the petty bourgeoisie is the “intellectual class” par excellence, manufacturer of à la carte ideologies, the sauce and spirit of all cultural movements.

The images it portrays itself as a class express its resistance, but also its inability to overcome capitalism. The petty bourgeoisie expresses itself in ways that are as sophisticated as they are sometimes eccentric. In all of them there appears again and again the idea of the impossible backward step, the “return” to an impossible conciliation of classes -under more or less popular nationalism or the imagination of a commodified world where accumulation would have never existed. In other words, it will oscillate between the thousand flavors of a national liberation that can only be reactionary nowadays, and propose to “degrow” towards a society that, instead of liberating the gigantic productive forces and knowledge that capitalism has bequeathed to us, appeases them… through immense sacrifices by the immense majority.