Where did all the gravediggers go?

Dan Evans’ recent book A Nation of Shopkeepers has got much media attention as a new examination of complex class structures in Britain. rs21 members Jonas Marvin and Gus Woody take issue with some of his analysis and argue for the continuing relevance of Marx’s understanding of class.

The back and front covers of the book 'Nation of Shopkeepers'

In A Nation of Shopkeepers: the Unstoppable Rise of the Petty Bourgeoisie, Welsh academic, researcher socialist Dan Evans seeks to set right Britain’s scrambled conversation on class. Taking issue with the idea that class can be neatly captured by slogans such as the Occupy movement’s ‘we are the 99%’, or the tendency to claim that intermediary layers of the class structure are undergoing a process of ‘proletarianisation’, he wants to complicate the contemporary picture of class composition.

Drawing upon his own varied experiences as a self-identified member of this middling stratum, Evans makes the case that we underestimate this class’ size, cultural predominance and political power. Despite some of Marx’s pronouncements that the petty bourgeoisie would be eradicated as capitalist society polarises between worker and boss, this class still persists. On Evans’ terms, the bourgeoisie doesn’t simply produce its own ‘grave-diggers’ in the working class, but also a petty bourgeoisie which, in Britain, ‘constitutes at least a third of the working population’.

Given how little theoretical attention has been paid to the petty bourgeoisie outside of its relationship to right-wing populism or fascism, this should be a welcome initiative. Evans transcends the contemporary left’s focus on generation and asset-ownership as determinative of social class (best read through the work of Keir Milburn), and opens up a new line of enquiry, investigating the blurry line that separates proletarian from petty bourgeoisie. However, if A Nation of Shopkeepers is Evans arriving at the right ballpark, he has turned up armed with only a snooker cue. It is our contention that his conceptual slipperiness and overgeneralisations from personal experience, lead to both an erasure of the complexities of working-class life, and limited insight into petty bourgeois existence.

Underpinning his analysis are two theoretical frameworks developed by radical theorists of social class: on the one hand is Nicos Poulantzas’ analysis of class structure in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1974) and his designation of a ‘new’ and ‘old’ petty bourgeoisie; on the other hand, just above these middling strata, are the ‘professional managerial classes’ (PMC), a term coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich. Evans argues that the ‘old petty bourgeoisie’ is ‘comprised largely of solo, self-employed people’ from shopkeepers and small landlords, to tradesmen and freelancers. Much of the book’s approach to this traditional petty bourgeoisie makes a lot of sense, recognising that there are a substantial number of people who through ownership of some limited means of production both attempt to produce and sell commodities, whilst also expending their own labour-power directly in the process.

Traditional petty bourgeoisie

That old petty bourgeoisie has continued to grow in recent years, peaking in 2019 at 5.1 million self-employed people. Today, of the 5.5 million UK private sector businesses, 4.1 million have no employees. Enabled by Thatcher’s assault on the labour movement, fuelled by the growth of bogus solo self-employment and the growth of subcontracting, and inordinately expanded since 2008 by the formation of the gig economy, these old petty bourgeoisie have enormously benefitted capital as it ‘ultimately allows big firms to pass costs and risks down the system to the little men at the bottom’.

However, instead of exploring the complicated world of the old petty-bourgeoisie more deeply, Evans is over-reliant on the formal category of ‘self-employment’ as a prime indicator of their class location. The problems with this are clearest when he discusses gig economy workers. As trade unions have rightly highlighted, the legal category of ‘self-employment’ has been used in the gig economy to weaken worker power and limit employer responsibilities. Whilst he recognises the existence of such bogus ‘self-employment’, Evans persists in arguing that such workers occupy a ‘grey area at the boundaries between the working class and petty bourgeoise’.

What’s missing in this account is an understanding of the platform as a central component of the gig economy. As Dalia Gebrial has charted, the platform economy is constituted of a racialised process of worker (mis)classification and algorithmic management in order to reorganise and exploit surplus urban labour-power.  An Uber driver, whilst they may own their car, differs from a regular black cab driver, precisely because the app system places the firm in the position of effective management. Some would say that this story is even more in line with Marx’s own predictions. The deployment of app-based technology proletarianises the driver, with part of their surplus labour being extracted as a result of the platform’s ownership of the app. Whilst formally self-employed, the introduction of a new technology creates a situation where solo-operation becomes impossible, with the buying-power of the platform firm reproducing the wage-relation.

Whilst Evans’ endorses Poulantzas’ claim that the ‘concept of domination is central to the boundaries between the working class and the new petty bourgeoisie’, he pays almost no attention to the centrality of domination to the production of the capital-labour relation itself. Marx, in Capital, insisted on defining the proletarian’s domination by the capitalist as one of double freedom: the worker is free to ‘dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity’, whilst having ‘no other commodity for sale.’ Or, as Søren Mau has recently reiterated in Mute Compulsion, the proletariat is subjected to the economic power of capital primarily because it has no access, bar waged labour, to the means of its own social reproduction. Evans’ analysis misses out the crucial fact that the relationship between labour and capital isn’t simply about the production of surplus value but also about the reproduction of a power relationship.

The Uber driver who owns their own car, like the vast majority of self-employed construction workers who possess their own tools and employ no-one else, do not own a means of production beyond their own labour power. Instead, the car or the tools, rather than providing these individuals a subsistence independent of capital, are utilised as an extension of their labour-power, making them only enough money to reproduce their existence. The fact that both are or have been self-employed speaks only to the neoliberal dismantling of workers’ legal protections. For large parts of the self-employed, this isn’t so much a class relation as it is a labour market categorisation fundamental to an almost 50-year long process of class decomposition.

Evans further argues that individual competition between workers in the gig economy is definitive; the gig economy ‘essentially relies on inter-worker competition’ as workers upgrade their bikes, taxis or the like to get extra jobs and get ahead. Consequently, he argues for the inclusion of many gig economy workers in the petty bourgeoisie. However, this is to ignore decades of classed processes.

For example, the effects of piecework on workers in the nineteenth-century British textile industry offer parallels to the predicament of today’s gig economy workers. We should note that in Marx’s original discussion of piece-wages in Capital he points out the existence of ‘sweating’ and other inter-worker practices as creating a situation whereby ‘the exploitation of the labourer by capital is here effected through the exploitation of the labourer by the labourer.’ The existence of competition amongst workers is not a new feature of work under capitalism, but rather one of the principal conditions of working-class life.

Yet, as Simon Joyce has detailed for the gig economy, the ‘relations between worker and platform take the form of a cash nexus.’ Characterised by Marx as having a dual nature, ‘the cash nexus ties workers to a condition of dependency upon capital’, whilst also reducing the worker-boss dynamic to ‘a relationship of sale and purchase, a purely financial relationship’. In the cash nexus, the worker is reduced to their dependency on capital and prone to vertical forms of competition on the one hand, but also fundamentally concerned with the matter of ‘how much work for how much pay’, introducing a ‘key driver of worker resistance and contestation’. Out of this dynamic, the platform worker appears far less historically exceptional, let alone a part of the old petty bourgeoisie.

New petty bourgeoisie and Professional Managerial Classes

In Evans’ discussion of the new petty bourgeoisie, any attempt to analyse this stratum through their relationship the means of production is abandoned at the outset, replaced by an amalgamation of social, ideological and disciplinary factors. The effect of these factors is to provide the new petty bourgeoisie with ‘mobility – and hence precarity – within the class structure’ ensuring ‘the same individualism, status anxiety and need for distinction as the petty bourgeoisie of old.’ This new petty bourgeoisie, constituted by ‘Teachers, nurses, call centre workers, salesmen, hospitality workers and academics on precarious contracts’ are the lower rung of the nominal ‘middle classes’, whose ‘mobility’ is capable of embourgeoisement but also proletarianisation. The myriad ways in which this mobility is achieved allows Evans to repeatedly move the goalposts when diagnosing this class fraction. However, what becomes quite clear is a conception of both the proletariat and the new petty bourgeoisie as ‘immobile’.

This is clearest in Evans’ writings on education and its role in class formation. Drawing upon sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the ‘habitus’, he is keen to denote the ways in which the social world humans inhabit shape their idea of themselves, the ways they interact with the world and one another, and their life prospects. In this vein, education is ‘where the new petty bourgeoisie is created and where it is split off from the working class’. This emergent class stratum attends school in order to learn various necessary skills needed for a future life of ‘mental labour’. Children are not simply funnelled into ‘new petty bourgeois’ forms of economic reproduction, they are socialised into individualistic ideologies from a school age which reinforce their future class and geographic mobilities.

The new petty bourgeoisie is characterised by its love of education, and its desire for a good, post-GCSE education for its own children. In Evans’ view however, the working class does not share this aspiration. Evans rightly points to the class oppression running through the British school system, from academies to the financialisation of higher education. However, he goes one further, in arguing that the working class itself internalises an anti-education attitude. This leads to statements such as ‘school simply isn’t seen as relevant for many of the roles that working-class kids will eventually take up in society’ or ‘the institutional habitus of the school generally clashes with the habitus and culture of the working class’. Young Declan, age seven, might not just struggle in his school because there isn’t enough food at home – he may also be held back as an authentic, immobile proletarian, culturally unsuited to Mr Howe’s year three art class.

Evans’ retreat into attitudes towards education as signifiers of class not only makes it difficult to discern who he thinks is and isn’t a member of the petty bourgeoisie, it also seems to present the working class as a monocultural two-dimensional archetype dreamed up by Jeremy Kyle, incapable of anything but staying in its lane. Whilst education is key to dividing fractions of the working class, Evans attempts to universalise experiences of all levels of education. This relies on an image of the working-class as both hostile to education and incapable of receiving anything from it, rather than dealing with the complexities that capitalist education poses to working-class unity.

Evans’ treatment of the ‘Professional Managerial Classes’ – a stratum formally distinct from and senior to the new petty bourgeoisie – is even vaguer. Evans places the PMC’s birth within the development of large state bureaucracies, the mass deskilling of work and the expansion of a new layer of supervisory labour orientated towards eliminating worker autonomy. Evans, following the original Ehrenreichs’ analysis, sees this PMC as a stratum produced for the purpose of ‘the pacification of the working class’. Fundamentally, this class dominates the proletariat and reproduces capitalism at the level of ideology, statecraft, culture and the capitalist firm.

Whilst the distinctions between the PMC and the new petty bourgeoisie are often slippery in Evans’ work, let’s think about a member of society who in this analysis may start as a member of the new petty bourgeoisie and hope to be promoted into the PMC: a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) job coach. Neither of this article’s authors – as working-class individuals who have vacillated between spells of work and unemployment – could claim to have had particularly enjoyable experiences of work coaches in the job centre, making a living, as they do, off disciplining poorly paid and unemployed proletarians into the labour force. Despite this, it is important to take a step back. The average work coach, or wider DWP employee, is compelled to do so by both the labour process and the ‘mute compulsion’ which forces them into work in the first place. Of course, they may accept the ideological architecture central to their function in the social division of labour, but this is not the same as belonging to a PMC or new petty bourgeoisie.

Over the past forty years, large fractions of this PMC have, contrary to Evans’ argument, undergone a process of ‘proletarianisation’, seeing their wages, power and autonomy decline. For example, an entry-level wage for a DWP employee now sits below the national average, and many public sector workers have recently been involved in national disputes with the government. Whilst the PMC does contain some descriptive usefulness for understanding a layer of the intermediary strata involved in the function of direction (a senior level manager in a firm, or a senior civil servant perhaps), it is a theory that has been grossly overgeneralised.

Evans’ use of the concept is fundamentally driven by an optimism that workers couldn’t possibly be enmeshed with the reproduction of capitalist social relations but, as David Camfield has convincingly argued, ‘the working class is both broader and more internally-divided by workplace hierarchies, educational credentials, and other cleavages than many socialists realise’. Workers can and do participate in the perpetuation of forms of capitalist domination, and the chance of this reality changing has become more unlikely since the eighties.

What may also be useful is Erik Olin Wright’s ‘contradictory class location’ concept, which designates social cohorts that ‘represent positions which are torn between the basic contradictory class relations of capitalist society’. Although this theory appears too easy for explaining broader swathes of the class structure, it may pose some limited usefulness for understanding those social layers, like line managers and foremen, sandwiched between boss and worker, involved in ensuring the function of direction occurs, but with little say over the strategic parameters of management.

Ultimately however, underlying Evans’ analysis is a fundamental methodological issue concerning class. He is correct to resist a purely economistic reading, reducing class composition down to one’s direct relation to the means of production. But he is wrong to flirt with the notion that the working class either produces value or ceases to exist, dismissing today’s service workers as the new petty bourgeoisie because Marx labelled the domestic service worker of his age ‘unproductive’, without any attention to how the checkout worker at Lidl is fundamentally ensconced into global value chains.

He is right to insist that there are complex social, ideological and political elements which shape class formation, but undermines his own analysis when he scoffs at those on the left who take seriously the ways in which race, gender and culture mediate the creation of proletarians. He is also correct that many problems of class analysis stem from a lack of clarity over precisely what level of abstraction is being used. However, he repeatedly redefines his terrain, shifting from one conceptual inconsistency to another, in an attempt to argue for one’s inclusion or exclusion from the shopkeeper class. Evans’ wants to have his cake and eat it too, yet it’s never quite clear what he is or isn’t throwing in the mixing bowl.

The Problem of Class Unity

This brings us to the major weaknesses of A Nation of Shopkeepers: the absence of a notion of class as power and process, alongside an anaemic conception of how class dynamics have been borne out during the neoliberal counterrevolution. As a result of these absences, Evans ends up with a shopkeeper class much larger than it should be, and a grave-digger class much smaller than it actually is.

In order to grasp this, we need an account of how class was recomposed throughout the neoliberal period. Robert Brenner’s account of manufacturing overcapacity and deindustrialisation also had British manifestations. The late 1970s saw the former ‘workshop of the world’ torn asunder by a capitalist class determined to curtail the power of the labour movement. The confluence of recession and economic restructuring hit the most militant parts of the working class, predominantly based in manufacturing, disproportionately hard. Thatcher took advantage of this context to wage a class war against key battalions of the labour movement, whilst undergirding these disputes with anti-trade union legislation and assaults on the social wage.

These transformations had seismic effects on the make-up of the British working class. Communities organised around industries such as mining and steel were left to rot as the geography of Britain’s political economy became consciously geared towards London and European economic space. Concurrently, Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policy decimated council housing as a key foundation of the social wage, and enabled new layers of landlords to emerge though Evans is right to highlight the prevalence of pre-existing working-class owner-occupancy, which casts doubt on the common assumption that Thatcher created a ‘property-owning democracy’.

The working class which has emerged throughout neoliberalism’s glory years is the product of a stagnant and flailing capitalist fantasy incapable of its own realisation. In destroying the organised working class as it once was, successive governments have had to expand, and accordingly marketise, the health and care sector to cope with the physical traumas caused by that destruction. This process, as Matteo Tiratelli has argued, created a ‘feedback loop in which brutal industrial working conditions created demand for care, leading to newly exploitative conditions for care workers, and to further demand for care in turn.’ In Britain, we have what Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant have termed a ‘sick proletariat’, mostly located in the state, health and education sector, alongside an array of nebulously-defined services,

As Evans demonstrates, the proletariat of Marx’s world is not the one of our own. In fact, the very notion of a propertyless proletarian is challenged by the fact that today workers do have something to lose other than their chains. In some instances, such as over pensions, this has been a spur for increased trade union militancy. In other respects, such as homeownership and debt, these have clearly had an impact on the class subjectivity of workers, given the extent of class defeat and the increased commodification of public infrastructure.

Whilst Evans is certainly right that the social atomisation of the petty bourgeoisie has become predominant throughout working-class life, his mourning of the loss of the proletariat’s ‘distinct intellectual and civic life, institutions and social organisations’, is understandable but misplaced. The cultures of class which flourished throughout the 20th century were not natural outgrowths of proletarian existence, but the conscious exercises of a politically expanding working-class movement, located around spatially-congealed forms of production, and unevenly but undeniably wedded to a notion that a socialist horizon was imminent. Often, in describing working class cultures and collectivism, Evans confuses a ‘class-in-itself’ with a ‘class-for-itself’.

For a version of those working class ‘lifeworlds’ to be recreated in today’s radically different environment, the socialist movement must seek out the spheres of struggle already emerging. One obvious place to look is the recent strike wave which, in a break with thirty years of industrial dormancy, recently saw the highest number of days lost (843,000) since Thatcher’s era. The past few years have also seen a huge outpouring of unity against the violently racist and reactionary politics of the British state, with hundreds of thousands protesting in support of Black Lives Matter, and numerous surveys locating the British population as among the most ‘woke’ in the world.

Evans’ common-sense contention that the left has become ‘subsumed wholesale not just by identity politics, but by the infantile liberal view of the world’ is an obstacle to a radical class politics. The socialist movement has, particularly throughout the Corbyn years, regularly accepted the prescriptions of political warfare as defined by the liberal establishment, but it did so whilst often conceding on anti-racist and internationalist fundamentals. The formation of the contemporary working class is fundamentally mediated by gender, race and sexuality. In Greater London, easily one of the most formally proletarian cities in the country, 37% of the population was born outside of Britain. Nationally, women account for over 50% of the trade union movement, and the largest share of workers in the country’s largest industries: health, social care and services.

This is before one even begins to ponder the still-central role played by the family institution in the reproduction of relations of class domination. If an ‘historic bloc’, to use Gramsci’s term, can be constructed in this country, it will be through a confluence of movements of the home-owning working class and rebellions of the inner-city urban proletariat, united by forms of cross-sector industrial militancy which can demonstrate a political articulation capable of unifying broad layers of a multicultural, politically and socially fractured grave-digger class against a sclerotic, disorganised but brutally violent British state.

This historic bloc, if it’s to be successful, will also require the support, inclusion and agency of the petty bourgeoisie. In a place like Stoke-on-Trent, which one of the authors calls home, the high street is in decline as small businesses have been crushed under the weight of the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, high interest rates, and an economically inhospitable environment. In an era that has seen sections of the traditional petty bourgeoisie – as well as workers – gravitate towards an anti-politics marked by Covid-scepticism, hostility to climate reforms such as ULEZ and the 15-minute city, broader conspiracy theories and racism, the pressure is on for socialists to take this class seriously.

One strength of A Nation of Shopkeepers is its insistence that the socialist movement should understand this class, recognise its plight, and insist on its right to live a better life than it is currently afforded, and Evans’ insistence on the complexity of contemporary class structures is absolutely right. Its weakness lies in the lack of clarity offered about who this petty bourgeoisie is, or how socialists can build alliances alongside it. The memed image of Deano which Evans finds so striking for the ire it provokes, of a man stacked with a fistful of cash, content with his new-build home, also inhabits a world traversed by class. Unfortunately, the promise of A Nation of Shopkeepers is never quite realised and we end up with an image of the complicated world we live in little different from the outdated models of pollsters and pundits.

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