Petite bourgeois resentment: a sketch

It’s a truism among socialists that capitalism creates many losers and comparatively few winners. Put another way, capitalism dominates nearly every aspect of life but very few people actually become capitalists.

The great majority of us are working class, whether we identify as such or not. We sell our labour and are compelled to commit a more than negligible share of what we earn to the basic necessities of life: in effect, expending many of the most precious hours and years of our lives so that the free time we do have includes a roof over our heads and at least three square meals a day.

This gets at the great paradox lying at the heart of human society since the Industrial Revolution: if most people are working class and enjoy a less than equitable deal under capitalism, how and why does capitalism persist?

There are several answers to this question, and at least one of them is obvious. Thanks to more than a century of organizing by workers’ movements and others on every continent, some of the harshest aspects of capitalism have been, at least partially, reigned in. The 8-hour work day; the five day week; laws banning child labour; public pension plans – all meaningful improvements on the atavistic industrial capitalism that prevailed in Victorian Britain and was spread (or imposed) throughout the world. It’s because of reforms like these that many (though increasingly fewer) people in modern liberal democracies consider themselves middle class and reflexively associate “the workers” exclusively with manual labour and toil on the factory floor.

The more complicated answer, though, is that while there are very few actual capitalists there remain many partisans for capitalism: people ideologically committed to its core premises, myths, and romanticisms despite living limited, or in some cases, extremely limited, versions of them. The fiercest ideologues of Thatcherism, including its namesake herself, hailed from the middle class, rather than the aristocracy. Theirs (rhetorically at least) was a philosophy of martial struggle, radical individualism, and Promethean self-creation – not of class solidarity or traditional noblesse oblige.

Or course, partisanship for capitalism needn’t practically be so conscious of itself. Your average member of the petite bourgeoisie probably isn’t going to attend lectures organized by the Adam Smith Institute or consult The Road to Serfdom before starting a business. But they probably will be invested in bourgeois totems like free enterprise, meritocracy, and the familiar rags to riches fable.

Consequently, many of them will look down with contempt upon anyone less invested in capitalism’s self-perpetuating myths. (In my experience, socialism’s greatest nemeses have often fit this description. If Big Capital is ultimately the adversary, small time capitalists tend to be its most zealous shock troops and most loyal guardians.)

Oddly enough, these thoughts came to me because of some recent career developments experienced by a friend of mine. After a year or so working as a temp (though nevertheless in the full-time employ of a company) with no benefits or perks save a bit of scheduling flexibility at a small startup, said friend recently accepted a superior gig at a larger, more successful company that offers a better salary and an actual benefits package. Upon informing their boss of the impending departure, they came face-to-face with what I think can only be described as petite bourgeois resentment: a reflexive contempt towards people less invested in their adopted narrative of bourgeois self-fulfillment: “You’re making a big mistake and you’ll regret it”, said the founder of a small, nameless, floundering company that reflexively employs temps and pays peanuts to a young worker wanting stability and security. “We’re gonna do great things and you’ll be missing out” (or something to that effect).

These remarks, in a sense quite bland and commonplace, stuck with me because I think they so effectively illustrate one of the mindsets that most keeps capitalism afloat.

And they weren’t being uttered by some great viceroy of Capital but by a small time businessman who doesn’t see himself as a loser in the system – but rather as a winner who just hasn’t won yet.

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