Two cheers for the petite bourgeoisie

It's a class with few friends in Britain: dismissed by the left, and sidelined by liberals and conservatives chasing big business. But with the surge in self-employment, the state needs to recognise that the needs and demands of the petite bourgeoisie may be growing.

Nick Pearce
21 January 2013
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In his recent collection of pieces, Two Cheers for Anarchism, James Scott has a nice essay on the petit bourgeoisie and its virtues. He argues that it is ‘impossible to write the history of struggles for equality without artisans and small peasants, and their passion for the independence of small property, near the centre of attention’.

But he also notes how the petite bourgeoisie has only appeared under its own banner on the stage of history on one occasion, at the 1901 First International Congress of the Petite Bourgeoisie in Brussels. There was no Second Congress.

The petit bourgeoisie has few friends, as Scott notes. The left has historically treated it with suspicion, if not contempt, as a class that is prey to reactionary populism and cannot be relied upon to support organised collective struggles. Big business looks to sweep it away entirely in the drive for economies of scale and profit maximisation. Liberals and conservatives are more solicitous of the small property holder and the self-employed, but rarely place their demands at the front rank of their programmes, and have often proved willing to sacrifice them to dominant vested interests.

The structural source of this distaste, says Scott, is the state, since small property eludes the state’s control. It is hard to tax, regulate or police. ‘As a general rule,’ he argues, ‘states of virtually all descriptions have always favoured units of production from which it is easier to appropriate grain and taxes.’ That is why they favour big corporations and large financial institutions.

Of course, you would expect a libertarian to make such claims against the state and political parties. But it is noticeable that in our current political discourse, scant attention is paid to the self-employed, freelance operators, small property holders and sole traders, particularly when you consider that their ranks have been growing in recent decades. There are now 4.2 million self-employed people in Britain, up 10 per cent over the last four years. A large part of that is due to the recession, as people have lost their jobs and reinvented themselves as self-employed. Companies have also outsourced work and shifted certain categories of labour away from permanent staff and onto freelance consultants and suppliers. But self-employment has also risen because people value the flexibility, autonomy and control it can provide. It stands as a claim to recognition for those who want to assert an autonomous identity and the value of their own work. It remains a very popular form of employment, one to which many workers aspire. That is why the self-employed no longer fit the stereotypes of shopkeeper or white van man.

What, then, if you take a contrary view to Scott and ask whether the state could do more, not less, for the self-employed? To begin with, instead of cutting programmes, like the child trust fund, that were designed to endow all young people with assets, governments might once again promote the idea of widespread asset ownership. They might offer fairer incentives for saving and asset accumulation, using match funding for low-income families rather than tax reliefs for the better off.

Critically, governments could take a hard look at how badly served the self-employed are by the welfare state. The self-employed can’t claim contributory job seekers’ allowance if their businesses go bankrupt or their work dries up. They are not entitled to childcare vouchers. The self-employed can’t share with their partner any maternity or paternity leave rights because they don’t have any. They don’t accrue rights to the second state pension. On some big social protections, the welfare state looks pretty threadbare to those in self-employment.

That is one reason why the government’s announcement of a single-tier state pension this week – first advocated by IPPR back in 2002 – was unalloyed good news for the self-employed. It will give them better state pensions even if they end up paying a bit more national insurance in future.

We should consider how a similar deal can be offered to them if they suffer income loss through bankruptcy or limited work, and we should create childcare services and parental leave entitlements for their partners that are not contingent on work status, much as they currently enjoy from the NHS. Welfare states that offer protections from the big risks in life can support enterprise and risk taking, not diminish it.

The petit bourgeoisie might even offer two cheers to that.

This article was originally published on Nick Pearce's IPPR blog

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