The Predicament of Bourgeois Anticapitalism
“FIGHT CAPITALISM. /// BLOW OFF WORK. /// READ A BOOK INSTEAD.” —Local bookstore
These were the words we came across while walking around Woodstock, NY one weekend earlier this year. Written on a sandwich board outside a small, independent bookstore in town, the excited, colorful quip above made us chuckle as it caught our eye. How popular the anticapitalist sentiment has become these days, we thought. It’s everywhere! And, yet how perfectly this message summed up anticapitalism’s most recent, confused, and ultimately bourgeois expression.
From Working Class to Leisure Class
What does a sandwich board say when the independent business who placed it out on the sidewalk is telling its own workers, and the workers of other independent businesses, to screw over those businesses by simply not showing up, calling it "anticapitalist," and doing so at a time when independent businesses are closing at unprecedented rates due to the pandemic? The sign made no distinction between a “good” business and a “bad” one. No distinction between a small, struggling art supply store barely holding on, and a corporate entity receiving millions in PPP loans from the state. No mention of which books might be appropriate for the task. Sean Hannity’s latest, best-selling, Christo-fascist novel? Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare? We could only assume that skipping work to read any book whatsoever was enough to be considered a radical act.
Confused sentiments like the above have become ubiquitous on social media where posting reductionist, pseudo-socialist sound bites are used as a means to convert political hot takes into affirmations of self through Likes and shares. It’s feel-goodery to the tune of revolution. But, telling people to abandon the small businesses they work for isn’t revolutionary anticapitalism at all. It’s just regular ol’ leisurism, covered in a shiny, “red” veneer.
The (Endless) Pursuit of Leisure
Look up “leisurism” online and you’ll find a number of half-attempts at defining a word whose definition we can almost surely intuit. Leisurism is the idea that the pursuit of leisure comes before everything else, that the pleasure of convenience should be a governing principle in one’s life. What these definitions don’t mention is that this leisure often comes at the expense of the working class. That doing whatever you want, whenever you want, requires a labor force to support your lifestyle.
To obscure this fact, lifestyle anticapitalists regularly “redwash” leisurism in an attempt to reinterpret pursuits of pleasure as radical, far-left direct actions, a kind of 2.0 on the yuppie “me generation.” Reading is radical. Napping is radical. Cooking your granny’s favorite cookies is radical. Centering one’s life around a pursuit of subjective pleasures has become the rally cry of left-leaning lifestylists, especially on social media, where the irony seems to be lost that capitalists, not socialists, are the epitome of individualist, pleasure pursuits done at the expense of others. “Work hard. Play hard.” “Nights and weekends.” “The man with the most toys wins.” Taking advantage of every convenience one could ever want is the hallmark goal of those who play the hardest at late-stage capitalism. Taking away the work required to achieve these goals does not make this pursuit any more revolutionary. CEOs spending most of their time far away from the labors of their underlings are not anticapitalists.
The recent reboot of Western socialism, often in the form of Democratic Socialism, a political ideology I mostly ascribe to, believes that the implementation of a robust welfare state, free colleges, and universal basic income (not currently an “official” DSA platform position, as far as I know), would yield a society in which people could be relieved of the need to work jobs they don’t “resonate with,” and instead pursue only those interests that make them happy. I’m, of course, down with this. But, there is an alternate “socialist” expression online whose goal is even more simple: never do anything you don’t want to. It’s a far cry from working class socialist movements from years prior, where in a Marxist sense, worker discontent, or “alienation,” is alleviated through the workers reclaiming the means of production, regardless of the task, so that there was no distinction between a person’s labor and the fruits of that labor. Lifestyle anticapitalists have no interest in finding value in the labors they would otherwise not want to do, but in finding time to simply do whatever they want. It’s about self-interest. It’s about repurposing leisure, not emancipating the working class.
Most Of Us Are Petite Bourgeois
The term petit bourgeois comes from the French meaning “lower middle class,” but over the past hundred years has come to refer less to an economic class, and more to a class of modest entrepreneurs. Bourgeoisie is where we get the term “bougie,” which signifies something that is “high brow,” “cultured,” removed from mundane society, or as I like to put it: elevated without something to stand on. It’s a general, usually derogatory term. But, according to Marx, the petite bourgeoisie are a specific economic class of people distinct from both the haute bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The proletariat sell their labor to bosses (as well as corporations) in order to make money to buy the things they need and want. The proletariat are the manual laborers. They’re the “working class.”
In contrast to the proletariat are the haute bourgeoisie. These are the bosses and CEOs to whom the proletariat sell their labor. They’re the big business owners absent from the day-to-day of what goes on in their businesses. They own “the means of production,” and can afford to pay the proletariat to do the work for them.
The petite bourgeoisie differ from the haute bourgeoisie in that, although the petite bourgeoisie can often pay the proletariat to perform work for them, the petite bourgeoisie tend to work alongside their employees. Marxists use the term “petite bourgeoisie” to identify small business owners and self-employed artisans, the makers of things, or what my friends and I call the “independent picklers,” people who strike out on their own with a modest idea intending to make a modest income, like artisanal mayo makers and people who pickle things.
Today, if you run your own yoga studio, if you’re a graphic designer, if you make furniture, if you make and sell home goods, if you write a newsletter, if you run a small business of any kind, you are, according to Marxist analysis, part of the petite bourgeoisie class. You are not the proletariat. You are not active “socialists” in the traditional sense of the word. You are the petite bourgeoisie, what Marx called the “smaller capitalists.”
Online, lifestyle anticapitalists rarely talk about Marx and the petite bourgeoisie. And, for good reason. Lifestyle anticapitalists have abandoned Marxism—to the extent that they ever had or knew anything about it to begin with—because Marx was talking about them, and that makes for some awkward stares in the mirror. It’s the same reason that the lifestyle anticapitalism we find on social media has had such a hard time speaking to “regular working class people.” Because the people who promote anticapitalist sound bites the loudest are usually not “regular working class people.” The anticapitalism that struts its stuff on social media was never of the working class, or for the working class. Anticapitalism on social media is a bourgeoisie movement appropriating the language of working class struggle in an effort to redwash its own entrenchment in capitalism.
At times the petite bourgeoisie’s online struggle to identify with the working class can appear disingenuous. In order to hide their bourgeois background, lifestyle anticapitalists often redefine the working class—and socialism in general—to include themselves, to include the “small capitalists.” It’s hard to have solidarity with a social class you’re unable to identify with. It’s easier to simply redefine the social class to include yourself.
And yet, the move to widen the definition of the working class is not entirely unjustified. It is certainly laborious to code websites, make jewelry, sell your art, and copy-edit manuscripts for other people. I easily spend fifteen to twenty hours a week putting together this weekly e-zine. No one’s gonna tell me these activities aren’t labor. To its credit, one of the great innovations of contemporary anticapitalist theory, with the help of the Occupy movement, has been to broaden the definition of “working class” to include anyone who labors within the capitalist system in the hopes of making money, be they a small business owner (petite bourgeoisie) or day laborer (proletariat). But, it doesn’t stop there.
White leftists who talk about paid “emotional labor” take this redefining one step further by equating the emotional stress induced from having to navigate political differences and triggers with manual labor. It is another, stretchier form of working class solidarity that at times warrants a few side-eyes. When a person is triggered by having to engage with a Trump supporter and feels like they deserve a wage for having done so, things start to get weird. But, this is what you get when young, white people steal the narrative and redefine “working class labor” as anything that requires any undesired effort of any kind, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual.
Even if we were to accept white, emotional labor as akin to proletariat labor, would we have gained anything? Does broadening the definition of “working class labor” actually translate into solidarity among economic classes?
Searching For Solidarity
The Occupy movement was an explicit example of this widening of the working class tent. Through its adoption of the 99% vs 1% paradigm, Occupy attempted to show commonality among all people who were not mega rich, showing that the overwhelming majority of people were socio-economically linked. Police, firefighters, activists, rightwing conspiracists, ANTIFA, politicians, as well as day laborers—so long as they weren’t the 1%—were included in the 99%.
In effect, Occupy did away with distinctions of petite bourgeoisie, haute bourgeoisie, proletariat, even capitalist and anticapitalist in order to provide the masses with a singular enemy: the 1%.
In a way this widening of the definition of “working class” was necessary to keep up with the times. The most active people you know on social media are probably not working in a factory or mine. But, they’re probably working somewhere on something. Those who aren’t working for a boss or living on unemployment (like myself) are probably working for themselves, running their own business, being a homemaker, hustling in some way or another. Anyone who’s been involved in these efforts knows how hard this work is. The concept of the 99% establishes a shared experience among seemingly disparate social and economic groups, allowing them to find commonality in an effort to expand the revolutionary base. But, underneath the umbrella of the 99% socio-economic class distinctions still remain.
White privilege, access to trips upstate, starting a small business are often at odds with the intersecting ways racism, sexism, white supremacy, and capitalism uniquely affect the daily lives of historically marginalized communities. Not recognizing how these experiences and forces intersect leads to acidic leftist in-fighting, distrust among racial groups and economic classes, and knee jerk accusations against people deemed politically impure. None of which is new, of course. Historically, the petite bourgeoisie have been ridiculed by socialists and the working class as being ambiguous in their solidarity, unreliable in their politics. The thought was that regardless of a person’s professed politics, if a person was still a member of the capitalist class, as the petite bourgeoisie are, where would their political allegiance lie?
This animosity carries through to today, and attempts are constantly being made by those most emotionally affected to deflect the jabs. Today’s online petite bourgeoisie mask their economic allegiance through left-signaling, solidarity posting, and redwashing social media content so that the content providers appear farther left, more socialist than they probably are. There is an attempt to correct the legacy of political ambiguity by trying to out-left one another by visually aligning oneself with leftist politics, antiracist theory, and anti-TERF feminism. But, as members of the petite bourgeoisie, very much embedded within the capitalist class structure, the accusations of disloyalty still come fast and hard: Are you an ally or an accomplice?
So, after all that, WTF’s to do, right? Is it all just a mess of classes, distinctions, and dissonance locked up in a traffic jam of distrust? Is there a way through all this?
And, I absolutely don’t have even a fraction of the answers on how we get there. But, I do believe it starts with some radical honesty.
In my forever attempt to live out Huey P. Newton’s suggestion to the White Panthers to work within “your own community” I think it’s necessary for the petite bourgeoisie—for you and me—to come to terms with where we find ourselves in the economic strata. We the small business owners, the self-employed, the makers of things would do ourselves a boon to recognize that, regardless of our political views, we are still functioning as “little capitalists.” And, personally, I’m kiiiinda ok with this. Regardless of what they tell you on social media, being a self-employed soap maker with a few staff members is not the same as being the head of a tech corporation expecting their workers to be on-call 24-7. Left-signalling does no one any good.
Posturing as the proletariat has the adverse effect of objectifying the working class, as well as deflating the inherent strength of this well-defined economic bloc. We need to put a moratorium on elevating our every daily act to the level of some romanticized version of proletariat revolution. Naps are not anticapitalist. Nor is writing a newsletter about anticapitalism. We all have a role to play. We just gotta figure out what exactly that role is. Time and again. Revising as we go.
Leftgram may disagree, but I still believe that being a good person, and showing kindness to those who labor on your company’s behalf goes a long way. You can show solidarity with your workers in the form of competitive, humane pay; clear job descriptions and requirements; being generous with personal time; and understanding that those who work for you are often not intending to do so forever, and therefore should not be expected to internalize your business the way you do (again, Holly). These are good starts.
Socially speaking, solidarity among economic classes should be based in real-world interactions, led by those who would most likely benefit economically from them. We all benefit from acknowledging our shared experiences, but rather than redefining the experiences of the proletariat to make us feel good, the petite bourgeoisie should instead attempt to build on the common experiences already shared between the economic classes, while at the same time appreciating the differences. I do believe that, with an increased appreciation of how experiences differ among communities, the message of commonality expressed by the Occupy movement will make itself clear. And, if we’re willing to drop the fakery, and get a little more honest about how we take up space in this society, I think we might even be able to actualize this common ground for the common good.