Home: Analysis

‘Mortgage man’: Why the petty bourgeoisie is the UK’s most influential class

Labour’s new target demographic is an oft-invoked but poorly understood social class. Can Starmer appeal?

Dan Evans
20 January 2023, 12.45pm
Home ownership gives the petty bourgeoisie a stake in the system

AntipasM / Alamy Stock Photo

In December, the Labour Party announced a new demographic that it would appeal to: “Middle-aged mortgage man.” This was met with understandable derision from some on the left. Middle-aged males with mortgages don’t need any help, surely? Not, at least, in comparison to the young people who have been the most vocal part of the left in the last few years: graduates who rent their homes, struggle with debt and precarious jobs, and live in big cities.

Yet middle-aged mortgage man is merely the latest in a long line of focus-grouped terms that try to capture the condition of the silent majority of supposedly ‘normal people’ in the UK. There have been many over the years. Thatcher had Essex man, Blair had Mondeo man. Since then we’ve also had motorway man, Duncan Weldon’s excellent Barratt Britain, and Deano.

All these terms are vague proxies for describing a specific, elusive class that is essential to understanding British politics today: the petty bourgeoisie. Historically defined as small artisans, shopkeepers and small farmers, today they make up a sprawling class of self-employed traders, small business owners, salespeople and others.

It’s the old school friends who, when I moved back to my small hometown in Wales after being made redundant from yet another fixed-term academic contract, seemed to be far more successful than me. Many of them were self-employed brickies, cops, soldiers, or salespeople in one of the many enormous call centres that have replaced heavy industry in my area. They were married to nurses, beauticians and hairdressers. They had nice cars and almost always owned their own houses.

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The petty bourgeoisie occupy a unique position in the class structure. Like the worker, they have to work or starve. But they also either own their own means of production – a shop, tools, a workshop – or a small amount of capital, like a house, that gives them a stake in the system. They are both worker and capitalist and this torn position influences everything the petty bourgeoisie does or thinks.

Despite the warmth and love in my hometown, whenever “politics” came up I noticed there was often a hardness to people’s views: I work my bollocks off – true – and I have done OK, so if someone is poor, it’s because they are lazy. They often seemed to dislike anyone they saw as idle, anyone who was perceived having something for nothing: students, immigrants, people on the dole.

The petty bourgeoisie are frequently appealed to by politicians – they’re often the ‘authentic’ people deemed to be living in the ‘red wall’ – but they are almost never named as such. Because of where they live and the fact that they sound working class (to the London commentariat, at least) they are generally treated as ‘working class conservatives’.

That’s partly to do with how class is understood in the UK. Overwhelmingly we think of class as a purely cultural phenomenon – not about what job you do or how much wealth you possess, but about what you eat or buy, or your affectations or accent. (This is why almost everyone thinks they are working class, despite all the evidence to the contrary.)

Far from dying out, the petty bourgeoisie survived, and played a major role in every revolution and counter-revolution throughout the last few centuries

This focus on culture, consumption, accent and identity has rendered the petty bourgeoisie, who sit in the grey area between the working class and middle class, invisible. But their lives are anything but a niche, minority experience.

Marx and Engels famously predicted that the petty bourgeoisie would disappear and sink into the ranks of the proletariat as the rise of monopoly capitalism and industrialisation destroyed the power of small artisans. This did not happen. Far from dying out, the petty bourgeoisie survived, and played a major role in every revolution and counter-revolution throughout the last few centuries. It was central to the creation of both social democracy (among the leadership of the Chartists, for instance) and fascism.

As the class structure in advanced capitalist democracies has evolved following deindustrialisation, this class has actually grown. There are now nearly as many self-employed people as those who work in the entire public sector. The petty bourgeoisie now constitute at least a full third of the population.

The working class has largely abandoned politics, making the entirely rational decision to simply stop participating in political systems that don’t represent them. So the petty bourgeoisie are the driving force behind the major political movements of our time – on both left and right.

Because despite the culture clash between the middle-aged mortgage holders and the young, urban leftists, they’re actually two different parts of the petty bourgeoisie. City-dwelling graduates with declining economic prospects are a new petty bourgeoisie. Although new and old often look and sound different, they both have a stake in the capitalist system. For the new petty bourgeoisie it’s the fixation on social mobility, rather than tangible ownership – the feeling that they’ve been prevented from obtaining the careers and homes they deserve.

Although the working class is often blamed for the growth of the far right, it is not the working class but the traditional petty bourgeoisie of the self-employed who have formed the social base of populist right politics in the US, UK and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the new petty bourgeoisie formed the core of support for Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos and Syriza, as well as driving the Arab Spring.

The main thing that has split these groups politically is their varying experiences of social mobility. The old petty bourgeoisie have often done relatively well, gained modest assets and achieved a degree of stability. Their politics are based on clinging onto this status and staving off downward mobility at whatever cost. The new, often highly educated petty bourgeoisie have only experienced downward mobility. In left-wing politics they see a chance to democratise society, level the property market, and finally begin to move upwards.

The fear of falling down the social scale can easily be turned into reactionary politics

We are living through a period of acute capitalist crisis, and it is during such crises that the petty bourgeoisie has historically moved from politically dormant to playing a decisive, kingmaker role. There is an assumption on the left that positive social change will inevitably come after a tipping point. At some point, after another needless death because of a delayed ambulance, or another instance of brazen corruption, people will just rise up.

Yet ‘proletarianisation’ – people becoming poorer and moving towards the working class economically – does not automatically lead people to adopt left-wing or progressive political positions. Indeed, the fear of falling down the social scale can easily be turned into reactionary politics.

The current government’s narrative of ‘hard-working people versus the unions’ parroted by the media, is designed to split the lower middle classes from the organised working class. The narrative of thrift, of tightening our belts as inflation hits, is designed to appeal to traditional petty bourgeois values.

Yet it is unclear whether Sunak – the personification of big capital – will be able to carry this off. Since Thatcher, who made the ‘shopkeeper’ values of thrift, discipline and rugged individualism hegemonic in the UK, no political leader has had such a keen understanding of the petty bourgeoisie and their potency. Crucially, since Thatcher offered council house tenants the right to buy 50 years ago, the petty bourgeoisie have not been handed any concessions in return for supporting the status quo.

The old petty bourgeoisie’s allegiance to the status quo now hangs by a thread. As soon as it looked like Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng had tanked the value of their houses, the only thing staving off poverty, their support for the Tories collapsed. Meanwhile the new petty bourgeoisie are similarly unmoored, left leaderless following the departure of Corbyn.

This is no longer a class whose loyalty to the system can be assumed.

Starmer, despite Labour’s stated focus on “mortgage man”, also has little idea about the petty bourgeoisie. The Labour leader personifies the professional managerial class and many of the values that the petty bourgeois detest: bureaucracy, rules, globalisation. Indeed, opposition to these values is precisely why Boris Johnson and Trump became so popular.

The only positive way out of the crisis would be a broad alliance between both parts of the petty bourgeoisie and the working class. The brutal experience of Covid lockdowns took a huge toll on the self-employed as well as key workers, while endless examples of corruption and authoritarianism unmasked the Tory Party as the party of big capital. There is unprecedented potential for class unity here, evidenced by the persistently high levels of support for the current strikes, despite relentless media attacks.

If this alliance does not materialise, if union militancy is tamed and inflation continues to rise, then the petty bourgeoisie are likely to become disillusioned. Shorn of a patron and alienated from politics, they may turn once again – as they have done elsewhere in the world – towards the far right.

Dan Evans’ book on the petty bourgeoisie, ‘A Nation Of Shopkeepers’, is out now with Repeater Books.

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