Dan Evans’ new book cuts through the nonsense and provides useful working definitions for fractions of the Middle Class and their role in the capitalist system. Building on the work of thinkers such as Poulantzas, Bourdieu and Marx, his analysis challenges syndicalists to learn how to build alliances with those fractions with whom we share common interests.

Estimated reading time: 15mins.

Flatcaps and accents – UK doesn’t understand class

In the UK, we have a pretty appalling understanding of class, even in the workers movement. Class is all too often viewed in solely cultural and aesthetic terms, such as having a regional accent or having a great-grandparent who worked in a mine. You can be a ‘working class’ landlord from Rotherham leasing a flat to a ‘middle class’ tenant who graduated from university five years ago and works behind a till. This mode of thinking tells us nothing about the economic aspects of class. As Evans writes:

“… because ‘working class’ means anyone who eats chips and has an accent (which of course can be anyone), ‘middle class’ has similarly become an almost totally useless term to describe a set of nebulous behaviours and ‘posh’ consumption practices which can include anyone from the petty bourgeoisie, to comfortable professionals, right the way up to the actual Royal family.”

While a solely cultural analysis of class is clearly absurd, all too often the labour movement adopts an equally unhelpful position on class, which only looks at the macro-economic reltationship between who owns the ‘means of production’ and who does not. But this tells us little about the realities of the world of work and how class operates in everyday life.

Evans argues that we should treat class as “active relationships” within capitalism and the “function” that different workers and agents play in the system. For example, the function of a low-paid supervisor is to discipline the workforce, giving them proximity to management and alignment with their interests. This helps to reproduce cultural, social, and ideological positions – such as anti-collectivism, opposition to trade union organising, rugged individualism, promotion-seeking and upward mobility.

This analysis is much more helpful than a purely cultural or a rigidly economic one, as it allows us to get to grips with divisions in the workplace and society and the comlex relationships of power involved. It helps us understand the ‘intermediary classes’ between proletariat and capitalist, with whom this book is primarily concerned. Evans thinks of the middle class or the petit bourgeoisie as a “DNA double helix” with two distinct fractions; the Traditional Petit Bourgeoisie and the New Petit Bourgeoisie, which have arisen due to profound changes to the economy over the last fifty years but have not yet been adequately examined by the Left.

What is the ‘Traditional Petit Bourgeoisie’?

The Traditional Petit Bourgeoisie (TPB) is a diverse class, made up largely of self-employed workers who tend to be clustered in the service economy but comprise a huge range of activty – shopkeepers, tradespeople, small landlords, freelancers, farmers, management consultants, personal trainers, tutors etc. They can range from wealthy entrepreneurs, graduates, or people who left school at sixteen.

“Within this group, people will have different life experiences, be from drastically different social backgrounds, have different educations, social networks, reasons for becoming self- employed and experiences of self-employment.”

The number of self-employed workers in the UK is hard to believe, over five million in 2019! Many self-employed workers came to this situation from unemployment following the 2008 financial crisis. As Evans writes: “Crucially, this rise has been driven almost entirely by ‘solo self-employment’, i.e., own-account workers without employees, who comprise the absolute majority of the total self-employed. This is a huge change: in 1975, nearly half of the self-employed had employees.” One third of all employment growth since 2008 has been in solo self-employment, including over one million gig-economy workers.

This rise of solo self-employment echoes a large shift in the economy of the UK and Europe towards small capital and micro-businesses (companies with 1-9 employees).

“In 2021, in the EU, there were twenty-one million micro-businesses, making up 93% of all companies within the bloc, employing over eighty million people. In the UK, 96% of all businesses are micro-businesses, and 76% of all businesses have no employees … it is small firms that account for the majority of new jobs created in the British economy.”

The TPB has grown in times of economic crisis because it benefits the system to have pools of desperate workers who are fragmented and dependent on big capital, and this accounts for the growth of sub-contracting. “Subcontracting ultimately allows big firms to pass costs and risks down the system to the little men at the bottom, and there’s nothing the small firms can do about it because they are totally dependent on big capital for contracts.” In times of crisis, surplus workers turn to self-employment, which acts as a “shock absorber.” Though there are major disparities between rich and poor within the TPB, the growth in precarious self-employment is a result of the UK becoming a “laboratory for the worst excesses of neoliberalism” which force people into a difficult existance outside wage labour.

The economic conditions of the TPB, the torn position of owning Means of Production whilst being financially dependent on their own labour, influences everything that the TPB does and thinks. The work of a self-employed person is not just their “job”, but an “entire social world whose values, outlook on life and society – thrift, discipline, piety and so on – flowed from their unique working situation.”

The TPB possesses a radical individualism which is often hostile to collectivism, rooted in their isolated conditions of work. This individualism is also influenced by the relative autonomy in their labour that many TPB workers exercise, and perhaps even those who do not, such as modern gig-economy workers who are tethered to an algorithm instead of a looming supervisor. The TPB hates stifling bureaucracy and State meddling, it hates the Welfare State because it rewards idleness. The TPB hates students for being lazy, feckless wastebags (can’t blame them!) and they are fixated with ‘grafiting,’ working insane hours and earing as much money as possible. Crucially, it is class anxiety that often drives the TPB towards far-right politics because their economic situation is precarious and they fear downward mobility into the working class.

However, a significant amount of the TPB has actually done okay in recent years; successful tradespeople buy the new-build house, get the nice car and flash the money about after their 70-hour work week – Evans even has a section named ‘In Defence of Deano’, about the infamous meme satirising ‘vulgar’ nouveau-riche petit bourgeois comsumer tastes. The TPB is, to a significant extent, upwardly mobile, though this is certainly not a permanent or universal feature of this class.

What is the New Petite Bourgeoisie?

The bulk of the book looks at how neoliberalism has produced a New Petite Bourgeoisie (NPB) in the ‘developed’ world. The earlier era of a large working class with a small middle and small ruling class has been transformed into one with a burgeoning middle, whose borders are blurred with the ruling class at the top and working class at the bottom. The upper boundary can be described as the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), and the lower boundary is the NPB.

The growth of this new class is a part of the process of deindustrialisation and the dominance of the services economy. In the early twentieth century, the petit bourgeoisie was supplemented by new “clerical white collar” workers, created to manage the increasingly globalised capitalism and to work in the State bureaucracy. In the neoliberal era, this class has grown significantly and replenished by “deskilled, proletarianised white collar service workers.” The growth of supervisory positions is related to this. The 2011 census recorded over three million people in lower technical or supervisory roles. Corporations are complicated, elaborate hierarchical systems which give more and more people – regardless of their salary or autonomy – forms of control over others. The function of these workers, like the TPB site foreman, is to dominate the workers into working faster and more efficiently for capital. This process leads them to ideologically side with capital and management, distinguishing them “socially, politically and ideologically from workers,” though they may not be any better off financially. It is the function and the “social mobility and hence precarity” of the NPB that distinguishes them from the working class below them and the PMC above them.

The New Petite Bourgeoisie outside of white collar work

But it is not just those employed as white collar serivce workers or supervisors that encompasses the NPB, which is probably the more controversial claim of Evans’ text. One of the great cons of the New Labour era was the promise of a white collar, “knowledge economy” career for everyone who earned a degree. In his chapter on the role of education, Evans lays out the changes to education as a conveyor belt to train the next generation of deskilled service workers. Education is a mark of distinction, the key “social mobility elevator” where relations of competition and individual superiority are bred into children throughout their time at school, and the drive to get young people into university sealed their ideology to that of the petit bourgeoisie. ‘We worked hard at school so we deserve good careers, a nice home and fancy car; we do not deserve crappy jobs like the lazier working class kids.’

BUT… upward social mobility is a lie. Many of us who graduated into the decade of austerity know too well that there simply are not enough “knowledge economy” jobs for everyone with degrees. It is in this way that the NPB is characterised by downward social mobility. They were promised not to have to work that crappy supermarket job and they are angry and disappointed that, actually, they have to after-all. They were promised the new-build house but their minimum wage job, that they do not deserve, has blocked access to it. It is through this anger and envy that the NPB is clearly distinct from the working class – poor kids never expected to own a house or have a fancy job, but the NPB was told they would get the comfortable life, but now they will have to wait until their parents die to inherit the house.

Relevance for the IWW

So, why is all this important for us? The contemporary UK Left is dominated by the NPB. As Evans puts it:

“… most of the far-left activists and new union members are made up of elements of the new petty bourgeoisie – downwardly mobile graduates, often with humanities or arts degrees, often based in cities or university towns, stuck in dead-end jobs despite being the ‘smart kids’ from school.”

As someone with a masters degree in history from St Andrews who now works two cleaning jobs in my small hometown in Devon, I feel very seen! These frustrations have been at the backbone of much of the turn to social democratic politics in the past decade. The social base of Corbynism was the young, down-and-out graduates whose social mobility towards the PMC they they were promised during the Blair bubble had been popped and then terminated by austerity.

The same generation of Leftists constitute the backbone of the current IWW. It is not a surprise that education is the largest industrial section of the union, encompassing many Higher Education workers and students. In many ways we already recognise this NPB membership base; we often talk about the problem of us ‘recruiting our mates’ instead of talking to other workers and proactively trying to form unions in our workplaces. We are somewhat (though certainly awkwardly) aware that loud Leftists, despite all the tough talk, do not tend to be good workplace organisers. These failures may be a consequence of us having built an organisation on a social base of people who aspired and failed to enter the PMC, and are frustrated with their lot.

This is a problem not only because the NPB has different (and perhaps jarring) aesthetic and cultural signifiers to the working class that inhibit us from forming the relationships needed to organise. It could also be a problem if our class interests themselves are different. How dedicated to the slow building of a workplace union would a NPB member be if they really believe they will only be working at that cafe temporarily, that a better job (that they are qualified for) is awaiting them? Will these members be willing to knuckle-down and get rooted in working class communities if they are planning to leave their regional town for London or Manchester at the nearest oppertunity? The subconscious commitment to upward social mobility could be holding many members back from committing themselves to organising in their own workplaces right now.

On the right track

Dan Evans’ book is good for theorising the various conundrums we have been witnessing on the ground. The storming final chapter of the book is worth the price of admission itself, and it strongly argues for the Left to find ways to build alliances among the downtrodden classes. Thankfully, there are aspects of the IWW’s organising model that are suited to some of the issues raised.

Our Organiser Training puts into practice the theory of seeing class as ‘functions’ in the system. A vital part of social mapping is to understand the workplace and its constituent parts, including how all the various roles work together and what their purposes are. From this we figure out who we need to talk to in order to build a strong organisation at work. Which roles “function” as part of management? How should we engage with an admin in the HR office? Even if the supervisor is a bit of a Lefty, they might be very low down the list of contacts, perhaps even someone we would steer clear from entirely, because their function in the workplace is to discipline workers below them.

The “Network” model of Industrial Unionism was developed during the IWW’s foray into organising Deliveroo and JustEat riders in 2017-2018, through the IWW Couriers Network. These gig-economy workers were technically “self-employed” and thus had no trade union rights and competed against one another for work. The Network was a way to bring these atomised workers together into an Industrial Union to develop common demands that would make work-life better for them all. It had lots of local successes in various cities (particularly Cardiff and Glasgow) and culminated in the large #FFS410 strike in October 2018. Though the project unfortunately derailed, for reasons that can be found in this piece by FW Pete Davies, it is a model that could be adapted and practiced in different circumstances.The North America-based IWW Freelance Journalists Union is a similar project aiming to unite isolated workers, and there are conversations in UK and Ireland to form an organisation by and for freelance artists.

However, a lot of work needs to be done to spread our relevance to other sectors, partcularly those dominated by the TPB and those that combine self-employed workers with wage-labourers, such as in construction, where historic projects such as the Australian Builders Labourers Federation could provide inspiration.

Conclusion: neither nationalisation nor small businesses, but Industrial Unionism and workers control!

Everyone who has an investment in the labour movement or is interested in class in the UK should read this book. It brings clarity to the muddled and chaotic ‘middle classes’ and allows us to conceptualise them in ways that can be utilised practically when organising. The final chapter takes a swing at the failed political strategy of Labourism and paternalistic, top-down electoralism, and reiterates the need to return to the workplace as a site of struggle. The IWW model of workplace organising, where all workers are given the responsibility and power to run their own union and direct their own struggle, directly opposes the managerialism and bureaucracy that all workers despise.

Those of us on the far-left need to be clearer on the kind of future we want to build, and we should work to convince and organise those who would benefit. We want labour to be a place where we engage in meaningful work that is socially useful and makes us happy, where we have agency and autonomy in how we carry out tasks, where we make decisions collectively about what we do and where it goes. We also want them to be areas of relationships, friendships, collaboration and cooperation, where we can all flourish together. In this way, top-down nationalisation of industries is not satisfactory, and neither is a retreat to isolated self-employment. A society where bottom-up democratic Industrial Unions govern production and distribution could be a way of meeting our basic creative human needs in a way that follows the maxim, from each according to ability to each according to need.

By FW Bruce, IWW North Devon.

Dan Evans, A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petty Bourgeoisie, Repeater Books 2023. Buy a copy here.

Dan Evans is a Welsh sociologist and hosts Desolation Radio podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.