Sunday, March 17, 2013

Petty Bourgeois

A comment on Louis Proyect's blog reads like this:
No shame in being attracted to the hallowed halls of bourgeois academia Louis, since those are your origins. Be a proud petty bourgeois dilettante! It helps worker-militants avoid the trap of middle class reformism wrapped in a red flag and should encourage them to become trolls like me living in their parents’ basement, masturbating with Playboy pin-up pictures when they aren’t playing keyboard proletarian revolutionaries.
Leave aside the gratuitous, adolescent attempt at humor (arguably more typical from Leftists), and consider only the beef against Mr. Proyect. He is a dilettante, a reformist, and a keyboard revolutionary, doomed to his fate because of "his origins." Mr. Proyect, unlike his semi-literate correspondent, is not a "worker-militant," but instead a member of the dreaded petty bourgeoisie. Horrors!

In the Marxist pantheon, the petty bourgeoisie are the lowest scum of humanity. Unlike the proletariat, they don't consistently contribute their labor, and unlike the true bourgeoisie, they possess no large amount of capital. Instead, they are to one degree or another declassed, i.e., not part of the productive economy except on the margin. The ultimate petty bougeois losers are the misnamed lumpen proletariat, otherwise known as bums. They are people who contribute nothing, and hence lack proletarian sensibilities like showing up for work on time. Likewise, students, who may rejoin the proletariat after graduation, in college are not "worker-militants," but instead are petty bourgeois wannabes who think they can improve their lot by studying hard. What fools!

The archetypal petty bourgeois is the small businessman--restaurateur, storekeeper, doctor, lawyer--who provides some small amount of capital and his own labor, and so excludes himself from the class struggle. The petty bourgeoisie don't work for The Man.

Neither Mr. Proyect nor I fit into any of those categories. I'm a college professor, which means I live off a paycheck. And Mr. Proyect--whatever his academic rank--has also been a salaried employee, despite leading a very scholarly and professorial life. We both work for The Man. Yet not only will Mr. Proyect's ignorant friend accuse him of being petty bourgeois, so will comrades in both the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action. What gives?

Marxists consider only two factors of production--capital and labor. The former is provided by the capitalist, and the latter is contributed by the worker. Apart from the supposedly few in number petty bourgeoisie, never the twain shall meet. Proletarian attitudes are formed as a supplier of labor, and the worker who realizes that all he provides is labor is a worker possessed of class consciousness. The problem is that most people are not class conscious--that is, they believe that some virtue in their personality--skill, intelligence, diligence, good looks--renders them more qualified for a job than just any old shlub.

College professors are particularly prone to this disease. After all, by definition a professor must be expert in a scholarly discipline, and therefore must have made some investment in his future. Likewise, Marxists acknowledge the existence of a so-called "professional class"--engineers, accountants, etc.--who clearly have their jobs because of some acquired skill. These people have petty bourgeois tendencies. In other words, their positions really do depend on something they bring to the table, and not just their labor.

That "something" is, in fact, a form of capital. In the case of professors it would be called educational capital, and even Marxists have to acknowledge that educational capital is important. But I'd like to broaden the category--let's use the name social capital to refer to any form of non-financial investment. Almost everybody accumulates some social capital. It includes simple things like common courtesy and an ability to show up for work on time. Being attractive and well-groomed is social capital.

The biggest capital investment is having children and then leaving them with some marketable benefit. My parents paid for my college education. I paid it forward by doing the same for my daughter. Married couples are better at accumulating social capital than are single mothers. Similarly, tight-knit ethnic communities generally preserve capital. Mormons, Amish, Chinese, and orthodox Jews are good examples. Libertines are generally not good at retaining and passing along assets; ascetics are much better.

Marxists discount the whole notion of social capital, allowing only a slight exception for certain skilled trades. The Marxist dogma is that individual solutions to the capitalist crisis are impossible, and that efforts to secure and preserve resources is doomed to failure. To be truly proletarian is to forswear any effort at self-investment. True proletarian jobs are the mindless assembly line workers in factories. Of course these jobs are disappearing if only because machines can do them better than any person.

No real person wants to be a proletarian. Everybody wants to be able to invest in themselves, their families, and in their future. Most people do so successfully--some are not capable of doing that. The latter are the homeless bums, the non-immigrant day-laborers (immigrants are investing in their families), the single mothers in low-paying jobs, or (so it seems to me) members of various "vanguard" Parties. The latter use their status as comrades as an excuse for failure.

And so people like Mr. Proyect inspire envy. Mr. Proyect's Bard College pedigree shows he inherited something from his family, but he's substantially built on top of that as well. His lifelong dedication to scholarship and leadership is apparent. The continued existence of Marxmail is an accomplishment. He has taught himself how to read critically and to write well. His silly critic accuses him of being a "keyboard revolutionary." I can't vouch for Mr. Proyect's revolutionary credentials--that's above my pay grade--but I can say that his influence far surpasses that of his critics. I'm proof of that: I spend as much time commenting on his articles as I do on those I'm tasked to remark upon, in The Militant and Socialist Action. That's because Mr. Proyect actually has something to say.

There are people who are forced to be proletarians. I've linked to this picture of Cuban delegates before, but it is relevant here. These are a bunch of bored proletarians, forced to vote unanimously for political correctness. No independent thought here. No new ideas. No investment in anything. I accuse Marxists of being pro-poverty. That's certainly true, but it's worse than that. Marxism impoverishes the spirit.

I could never fit in with such a crowd. And neither could Mr. Proyect.

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