Sam Young reviews A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petty Bourgeoisie, a fascinating new study by Dan Evans.
I remember going to my first socialist meeting as an undergraduate. Halfway through, an audience member raised their hand and asked the panel to define the ‘working class’. One speaker, true to his Marxist principles, responded: ‘everyone who doesn’t own the means of production.’
This confused me. I remember thinking that there must be plenty of people who didn’t ‘own the means of production’, but who also wouldn’t qualify as ‘working class’. My parents were teachers with no power over the curriculum, but they were hardly proletarian. I flipped the problem round. Tradespeople controlled their own ‘production’, but I wouldn’t have called a plasterer or electrician ‘bourgeois’. Well-meaning though the speaker had been, I felt like his simplistic interpretation of class made little sense.
In A Nation of Shopkeepers, Dan Evans takes on the challenge of updating class boundaries for modern life. Fresh off the back of his 2021 co-edited volume, The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution, he now explores how the triumph of neoliberal capitalism in the 1980s obliterated the old working/middle class divide, replacing it with a new and unclear in-between class. Inspired by the work of Marxist thinkers such as Nicos Poulantzas, Evans terms this emergent class the ‘petty bourgeoisie’.
So, who are these petty bourgeois? Evans splits them into two camps. The first is the ‘traditional’ or ‘old’ petty bourgeoisie – tradespeople, small businessowners, shopkeepers. They tend to be self-employed or work for relatives or friends. They stick close to home, work hard, marry and buy houses in their twenties. They may well vote Tory. The second is the ‘new’ petty bourgeoisie. These are the ‘downwardly mobile graduates’ concentrated in cities. They can’t settle down early because they’re busy chasing ‘knowledge economy’ jobs, and because urban housing is so expensive. They’re culturally sophisticated, politically conscious and generally lean to the Left.
Dan Evans examines these two parallel sub-classes in forensic detail. Drawing on a mixture of political theory and personal experiences from his hometown of Porthcawl, he carefully traces their historical development since the Industrial Revolution, discusses their key features and behaviours, and finally compares their differing positions with regards to the case study areas of education and housing. Over the course of the book, he gradually reveals that – despite some major differences – the two petty bourgeoisies are in fact remarkably similar.
The key point is that both are inherently precarious. The petty bourgeoisie is the product of a capitalist system that stokes competition among its middle orders, dangling social mobility alongside the threat of demotion down the hierarchy. Evans sees this precarity in the aspirational behaviour of the petty bourgeoisie, both fractions of which reject working-class life while desperately seeking to climb the social ladder. For the old petty bourgeoisie, aspiration is manifested in the accumulation of economic capital – Evans conjures the figure of the South Walian ‘superstar tradesman’ who, with his flash car and multiple properties, has finally ‘made it’. Aspiration among the new petty bourgeois is more cultural, characterised by the acquisition of academic qualifications and progressive references. This hoarding of cultural capital betrays a desire to reach the safety of the white-collar ‘professional-managerial’ class, which perches a few steps up the social hierarchy.
However, this book is more than just an essay on class identity. Those familiar with Desolation Radio podcast will know Evans as a firm critic of the established Left (i.e., the Labour Party) in Wales and the UK. In A Nation of Shopkeepers, he argues convincingly that Labour has given up on serious class analysis. The party has become one of professional-managerial types, flogging the same old neoliberal capitalism dressed up in flimsy cultural progressivism. Its attempts at class discourse have been reduced to embarrassing faux-proletarian dress-up, typified by ex-Pontypridd MP (and pharma lobbyist) Owen Smith’s claim to be unfamiliar with the concept of a cappuccino.
This is a problem, Evans argues, because recent years have seen the emergence of the petty bourgeoisie (old and new) as a powerful and highly volatile political actor, willing to back both ends of the spectrum to address their increasingly strained situation. It was overwhelmingly members of this precarious middle who supported Brexit and Boris Johnson, but also petit bourgeois who backed Jeremy Corbyn. The Left could thus benefit massively from harnessing petty bourgeois support, Evans maintains, but Labour has become too mired in managerialism and naff authenticity politics to even recognise this new and increasingly vocal class.
Dan Evans knows his readers are probably members of the ‘new’ petty bourgeoisie (he remarks that he has spent most of his adult life among them). As such, the book’s political message feels directed at them. Evans exhorts his young, left-wing readers to stop playing to Labour’s culture of ‘moralizing and careerism’ and instead to seize the initiative. He calls on them to begin building political alliances with their ‘traditional’ petty bourgeois counterparts, based on a shared interest in redrawing economic structures to end precarity. Criticising the new petty bourgeoisie’s preoccupation with US-imported identity politics and cultural snobbery (the book’s garish cover makes a wonderful guilt trap for judgemental hipsters, as I discovered…), Evans insists that embracing structural politics is the only way to unite the fractured petty bourgeoisie – and the working class – behind a progressive vision.
This will mean leftists tackling with the complexities of the modern class system, rather than hiding behind liberal self-referencing, as in the social media trend of dismissing Britain as ‘rainy fascist island’ whenever things don’t suit their worldview. As such, A Nation of Shopkeepers does not shy away from complexity, and Evans’s writing is commendable for how much it avoids the kind of reductive thinking that often creeps into modern political discourse. The opening pages to the housing chapter are a good example. Through a series of characters drawn from his own life in South Wales – the Porthcawl plasterer who was ‘culturally working-class’ but loved Thatcher, or the ‘incidental’ Cardiff landlord who was also a trade unionist – Evans skilfully demonstrates that class boundaries are far more complicated than you’d imagine. Understanding this, he argues, is key to breaking them down.
That is not to say that Evans’s reimagining of class is always perfect. I’m sure some readers will be able to think of people they know who don’t fit neatly into the class descriptors that Evans offers (and helpfully condenses into a table in the appendix), though it’s worth setting aside this temptation to nit-pick in order to fully engage with the book’s ideas. The flow of writing can also feel a little uneven at times, jumping sharply between hefty Marxist theory and light-hearted anecdote. All the same, this should not detract from the fact that Evans has done a pretty good job of writing critically about class in a way that is both serious and accessible.
It’s perhaps best to read A Nation of Shopkeepers introspectively at first, especially if you’re one of many readers who probably belongs to the ‘new’ petty bourgeoisie. In the preface, Evans admits to having always been confused by his own class position, which lay somewhere between ‘working’ and ‘middle’. Here, he has managed to create something new – a functional definition of all those stuck in the ‘fractured middle’, the petty bourgeoisie both old and new. Read it, and you may well find the class position of yourself and everyone you know being explained with startling clarity.
But reading the book is just the beginning. Evans ends with a heartfelt plea for the new petty bourgeoisie to abandon their careerist aspirations and instead:
…to embrace and accept downward social mobility, to realise one can have an identity and meaning without a “career”, and that there is nothing wrong with staying rooted and not leaving your small town.
This is the real point to A Nation of Shopkeepers. Petty bourgeois existence may define us, but it also props up an exploitative system. This will only end when the petty bourgeoisie – old and new – realises its position and chooses to break free from the toxic cycle of aspiration and precarity.
It sounds like a terrifying leap to make. But then, as Dan Evans would argue, there is so much to gain.
A Nation of Shopkeepers is available now from Repeater Books.
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