Book review. A Nation of Shopkeepers.

There’s been an absence of serious books about class for some years. In A Nation of Shopkeepers, The Unstoppable Rise of the Petty Bourgeoisie, Dan Evans draws on academic, political sources and his own personal experiences to tackle difficult issues about the ‘middle’ of society. Even if the perspective he adopts is not without controversy.

Though he gives significant attention to writers like Erik Olin Wright who have addressed the continuation of ‘intermediate’ classes, located between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Evans uses the model developed by Nicos Poulantzas, who before his premature death enjoyed cult status amongst sections of Marxist academia in the 1970s. For Poulantzas, citing Marx, the working class could only ever include those who produced ‘commodities’. The growing number of white-collar workers, supervisors and in particular state employees constituted, he argued, a ‘new petty-bourgeoisie (NPB),’ largely because of the political and ideological functions they carried out on behalf of the ruling class. The roles and structures occupied by the NPB in the capitalist system meant that even if they experience ‘proletarianisation’ in terms of pay and working conditions, their ‘individualistic’ orientation and values would always differentiate them from the proletariat below. 

Meanwhile, contrary to what Marx anticipated, Evans also argues that the ‘traditional petty-bourgeoisie’ (TPB) of small business owners and sole traders has expanded. In particular, because of the growing service sector and of the increase in the number. of ‘solo-self-employed’. Though very different to the TPB the two factions are considered to have interests in common.

With the fall in the size of the manufacturing workforce – the basis of Marx’s proletariat but with under 1 in 10 employed in this sector – the combined petty-bourgeoisie constitutes the largest class. While posts on this blog and elsewhere argue the class structure is turning ‘pear-shaped’, with much of the established ‘middle’ being pushed down into a ‘working middle’, for Evans,  by implication, there would appear to be a more diamond shaped structure.

Who produces commodities – and what constitutes ‘surplus value’ continues to be a key debate in Marxist economics.  Arguably, the situation has also changed since Poulantzas. The 20th century sociologists (Evans regularly cites the radical post-war US thinker, C Wright Mills) made much of the distinctiveness and ‘closeness’ to their bosses of post-war white-collar workers in the 1950s? Can the same conclusions be drawn about new call-centres, for example, where staff are herded together in large numbers, subjected to constant monitoring, having to request permission for comfort breaks? 

Marx himself was aware that as a result of advances in science and machine technology, future workers might assume a ‘watchman’ or ‘regulator’ role (on a par with the white coated technicians of today). But what of the highly skilled and highly paid software designers, systems engineers and data scientists who have presided over huge increase in productivity (‘surplus value’). Are they ‘working class’?  In one sense they clearly would be, but elsewhere, Evans, following Poulantzas argues that ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ labour are significantly different and so. in this respect, they’d be part of the NPB.  Though throughout the book Evans also implies that ‘professional and managerial’ workers make up a different class still (?)

For Evans, the NPB is ‘the class of education’. Its pursuit of individual social mobility is contrasted to the collectivity of the working class. This is not to say that aspiring graduates of the NPB are able to depend on education for their futures. Changes in the labour market and in higher education mean that many will be increasingly disappointed and frustrated. But the offspring of the NPB experience a very different educational ‘field’ or enjoy a different ‘habitus’ (terms borrowed from Bourdieu ) to that of the working class who remain largely excluded from, or even disinterested in what education claims to enable. The working class, he argues, don’t need to engage with ‘knowledge’.

This an oversimplification, even slightly patronising. Few people can avoid interacting with the new technologies that make up the ‘knowledge economy’ and there’s universal familiarity with internet technology and social media amongst young people as a whole. What’s more, because of the collapse of traditional routes into the labour market, working class kids, (even using the Evans definition), while not necessarily endorsing education in the way other groups do, realise the necessary instrumental value of qualifications in ensuring they can get any reliable work at all.  More fundamentally, rather than acting as a potential ‘elevator’, that ‘can take you anywhere’. education has become a downwards escalator. Rather than ‘moving up’ students have to run faster just to stand still!

The final chapter deals with the way the NPB dominate politics at the exclusion of the working class. While the TPB have proved to be a base for right wing movements from Trump to the Canadian truckers (though this is not to imply a necessary connection) it was the younger radical members from the NPB whom he argues, provided the nucleus of the ‘Corbynista’ movement.  This was, he maintains a major reason for its failure as the Corbynistas were not able to enlist the working class in their struggles to prevent professional and managerial groups uniting and imposing the Starmer project.

Evans contrasts the pro-European politics of most of the NPB with that of working class and TPB Brexiteers.  Asserting that only the working class that can lead struggles towards socialism, future NPB political programs must recognise this. The book is rather reticent when it comes to providing details. Rather than looking to old style Labour movement politics, I’d suggest looking towards the current generation of young people for a ‘cross-class’ alliance. While there is a stinging attack on petty-bourgeoise ‘identity politics’ there is little about the politics of age and generation.

If Evans judges the Corbyn project harshly, sidestepping the intensity of the brutal offensive against Corbyn by the media and other powerful interests, he provides a valuable criticism of the crude ‘two-class’ model and the simplistic assumptions that many leftists like to cling to. For example, in the current wave of strikes, imagining that the nurses of the RCN are the 21st century equivalent of the miners and the NUM, (their leaders have been reluctant to coordinate action with more established health unions, let alone be part of wider public sector struggles) or assuming that the current militancy amongst school teachers demonstrated in the massive rejection of the government’s ‘offer’,  is  another step towards the  adoption of a ‘working class’ identity or a recognition of the importance of  labour movement solidarity. It could equally represent the opposite; a desire to ensure that, as ‘educational professionals’ teachers are different to the working class.  And what of the junior doctors? More likely it is a combination of the two. Reflecting the ‘contradictory’  position  of intermediate classes described by Olin-Wright.

Though a contentious book, Dan Evans should be congratulated for providing a clear contribution to a difficult subject. Reasonably priced for a general audience, a short analysis even a critical one, can’t really do it justice. It deserves to be read.

2 thoughts on “Book review. A Nation of Shopkeepers.

  1. I really ought to read this book! Could you lend me your copy when we meet at the TUC AI conference on Tuesday? For one thing, I remain unclear on who exactly Evans is talking about – or you when you say ‘the TB’ (= the bourgeoisie?) who ‘have proved to be a base for right-wing movements from Trump to the Canadian truckers (though this is not to imply a necessary connection)’, when surely ‘the base’ of Trumpism is the NPB, or at least a NPBised section of the white working class. However, as Evans argues in your account, the UK NPB – or at least those who became radicalised by their higher education – went left to support Corbyn (also many of them in the USA for Saunders), so they are divided politically against those who reject HE in favour of more traditional PB occupations as self-employed or in at least individualised labour. (There must incidentally be a big gender effect here, given the predominance of young women in HE.) There are also arguments to be made about what has been called ‘the precariat’ that many of those (you and I say) who are ‘running up a down-escalator’ are doing so to avoid falling into – and this applies also to housing as well as employment. Perhaps you can clarify! See you on Tuesday!

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