The notion that there exists a growing middle class whose livelihood rests neither on wage labour nor manufacturing or industrial profits has long been used to challenge Marx’s revolutionary perspective that ultimately the future of capitalism will be decided by a struggle between the two great contending classes in modern society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or if you prefer, the bosses and the workers.
The following article is translated from the current edition of Prometeo, the political magazine published by our ICT affiliate in Italy. As well as a valuable investigation in itself, it gives us an opportunity to add a few comments on the vexed question of the middle class from, as it were, an Anglo-Saxon perspective. Here, the notion that there exists a growing middle class whose livelihood rests neither on wage labour nor manufacturing or industrial profits has long been used to challenge Marx’s revolutionary perspective that ultimately the future of capitalism will be decided by a struggle between the two great contending classes in modern society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or if you prefer, the bosses and the workers. The issue has always been conflated with the fate of the small capitalist, the petty bourgeois who either works solely for himself or else employs a handful of employees. But if, at the start of the nineteenth century, Napoleon could stereotype England as a nation of shopkeepers (by incorrectly paraphrasing Adam Smith) by mid-century there was no question that Britain’s empire of goods based on commercial capitalism had given way to industrial capitalism and a society of sharpening class conflict where (wage) labourers, not vagrants (much less, shopkeepers and tradesmen) were now the biggest social group on the census returns. Most lived in towns and growing cities in the appalling conditions meticulously described by Engels in his Condition of the Working Class in England, first published in German in 1845 (though not in English until 1892!). In the same year Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil was published, a landmark in the history of one nation Toryism and the Conservatives’ subsequent wooing of the angels in marble: members of the working class who vote Tory. Disraeli wanted to bridge the unbridgeable, the maximising profit interests of the capitalist (the master) and the workers (the hands) who would never be paid the full value of their work since this was the source of the master’s profit. Of course he didn’t write in those terms. His idea was that the division between the rich and the poor should be bridged by getting to know each other better and a coming together of lifestyles:
“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws. “You speak of … “THE RICH AND THE POOR.””
It was a powerful force for propaganda, not just in novels, but more broadly. It lives with us today.
But propaganda alone is not enough to disguise the material reality of conflicting class interests. For about half a century, from the 1860s, the situation of the working class in Britain gradually improved; not in a blanket manner and certainly not without class struggle. In Europe it was the heyday of social democracy. The biggest social democratic party was in Germany. It had always been more reformist than revolutionary, as Marx and Engels had made clear in their comments on the Gotha Programme. Until 1890 the biggest Social Democratic Party was still hamstrung by Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws, and the SDP’s attempts to work within the law encouraged the growing revisionist movement which argued that the working class should forget about revolution and concentrate instead on winning the battle for democracy, and in so doing, achieve emancipation. The foremost proponent of revisionism was, of course, Eduard Bernstein, whose book, Evolutionary Socialism, was written whilst he was exiled in England. What he chose to concentrate on was not so much the increasing affluence of the working class, much less the concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands, but the expansion of the middle class which he defined, not as a group between capital and labour but as part of the possessing classes, the “increasing number of capitalists of all degrees”. For him the middle class were not limited to fee-charging professionals, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and the like whose independence was being eroded. Bernstein’s middle classes were changing their character and expanding, in line with the changing needs of capital, but ultimately he defined them as belonging to the capitalist class.
In this respect Bernstein’s vision is remarkably like the Thatcher/Blair doctrine of a property owning democracy and shareholder capitalism peddled to mollify working class resistance to the mass unemployment caused by industrial restructuring in the last decades of the 20th century. The majority of wage workers in the UK are now service workers. This does not mean they are middle class. Most do not have an independent source of income to live on, day in day out. For many of the sons and daughters of the UK’s self-styled middle class, the myth of a property-owning democracy has given way to the reality of generation rent. The myth that getting up to your ears in debt to pay for a university degree will lead to a worthwhile, secure career is being challenged by the growing number of ‘over-qualified’ precarious, increasingly unemployed university graduates.
Just as Bernstein was arguing that the Communist Manifesto was outdated — that the scenario of a clash between the two fundamental classes of capitalist society shows “a real residue of Utopianism in the Marxist system”; “that the number of the wealthy increases and does not diminish is not an invention of bourgeois harmony economists”; that capitalism has no inbuilt tendency to economic crisis and “there is no urgent reason for concluding that such a crisis will come to pass for purely economic reasons” — the illusion that capitalism was gradually evolving into socialism came to a sudden halt. Within a couple of years of Bernstein’s book appearing in Britain there came the Great Unrest: a series of massive and intense struggles against capital in which workers fought against declining real wages and came up against the fire-power of the bosses’ state (see our article: leftcom.org) Only the outbreak of the First World War — for Bernstein “an unforeseen external event” and nothing to do with the inner contradictions of capitalism — put a stop to this.
Over a century on there is no question that the structure of the working class has changed but to doubt that it still exists flies against the fact that in the world today most work is done by wage workers. There has been no great new dawn of post-industrial capitalism but a grinding out of a crisis which has lasted for decades and where the working class is paying the price. The swelling of the ranks of the self-employed is partly, if not mainly, due to a growing number of workers who are unable to find a proper job being obliged to fall back on their wits. Even before the pandemic, average weekly earnings in the UK were 15% less than wage workers in general and in any case the vast majority are ‘solo businesses’ and employ nobody but themselves! Then suddenly there came Covid-19. In less than a year the number of self-employed has plummeted. (From nearly 12% of the workforce, or around 5 million people, to less than 1% within a year!). For many small businesses lockdowns which prevent them trading really are an existential threat. There are bound to be explosions of anger at the constant assault on livelihoods and conditions of existence. But the attacks are not limited to the self-employed. As the Covid crisis exacerbates capitalism’s existing profitability crisis, more and more boardrooms are deciding it’s time to restructure and cut the cost of their wages’ bill. Will there be an outburst of combined protests of wage workers and the precarious self-employed? We must wait and see. There is a world of difference between the small business owner who has been refused a Sunak support payment because their annual income is above the £50,000 threshold and a solo self-employed person who is already claiming universal credit to supplement their earnings. There is growing evidence that these layers are susceptible to all sorts of irrational opinions, from denying the existence of the virus to blaming its existence on 5G internet networks. Clearly a mindset like this is ready to blame anything but capitalism itself.
Yet, behind Covid-19, behind climate change and the wider environmental crisis is global capitalism, in the throes of an even more fundamental threat: its profitability. Even without the current pandemic, even without the urgent need to combat global warming, for decades now capitalism has been making the working class pay for its declining profit rates: work harder and longer for less money. Just as wages’ share of national income fell in Britain and elsewhere in the run-up to the First World War, total wages today are falling as a share of global GDP (from 53.7% in 2004 to 51.4% in 2017). As in the early years of the 20th century we are facing a crossroads: either capitalism will be allowed to run its disastrous course towards economic and political ruin or the working class will join forces across local and national boundaries to impose a revolutionary reconstitution of society. But capitalism cannot be overthrown until wage workers in general recognise their common interests and can see the prospect of a better alternative to it. If the capitalist myth that we are all middle class is wearing a bit thin, there are always other smokescreens being raised to divide and rule; not least the rainbow of identity politics where now the latest campaign to be taken up is … the right not to be discriminated against because of your local accent! The onus is on the tiny, but growing, political forces for proletarian internationalism to extend their influence inside the working class. As the article here concludes,
“In this sense, the problem is not the middle class, but a question of the political recomposition of the working class.”
Last October’s much-publicised protests by some business concerns against government measures to contain the epidemic,(1) offer us an opportunity to return to a perennial question for the working class and its revolutionary political off-shoots. In short, how theoretically, and therefore politically, to explain the existence of the petty bourgeoisie and its role in the conflict between the two fundamental classes of society: bourgeoisie and proletariat. It is well known that the protests were animated by restaurateurs, bartenders, managers of various jobs and services, who have been hit hard by the new lockdown and some of whom will probably not survive. This is even more likely if so-called smart working (working from home) becomes permanent for many employees in clerical-type jobs. For a start, breakfasts and lunch breaks at home will have a serious impact on the balance sheets of retail businesses who depend on such custom for survival. On the other hand, smart working could be a big deal for some firms who would save on rent, electricity and employee insurance. Meanwhile for the latter, working at home would end up accentuating their isolation as individuals and emphasise which social group they really belong to: that of wage workers.
For the most part the recent clashes with the forces of law and order,(2) were not animated by the petty bourgeoisie, but by a variegated set of proletarians and sub-proletarians whose instinctive rebelliousness, the product of a life marginalised by the way capitalist society excludes them, has been mixed with anger and desperation at the prospect of losing earnings which, although part of the black economy and precarious, are their only source of income. It is no surprise that fascists and their near relatives (populists), perhaps even organised crime, tried to join the protests: if muddy waters can be created to fish in, those people are second to none.
For the time being the demonstrations have died down (because Prime Minister Conte approved the decree to reinstate previous Covid support measures.) However, there is undoubtedly widespread fear and resentment among the ranks of a social stratum whose boundaries are not always easy to define, especially towards its lower end.
The age-old question of the middle class
Middle class, middle classes, intermediate classes, essentially they are all terms to describe a social stratum which neither belongs to the bourgeoisie (who really have power) nor to the proletariat, on whose exploitation capitalist production depends. This is a (semi) class which encompasses the self-employed, tradesmen, the petty bourgeoisie:
“They are not a class, but if anything classes, which would be more accurately called strata, because they do not have an unequivocal position, a defined social existence. The only connective element in them is the fact that they are averages.”(3)
This concept of a social aggregate was used — and still is used — against revolutionaries who recognised wage workers as a class. No sooner had Marx died than the idea became part of the proof of the alleged errors in his analysis of the evolution of bourgeois society. The underlying aim was to impose a policy of collaboration with the bourgeoisie on the workers’ movement. In other words, a hidden agenda of acquiescence to the status quo. The method? Always the same. Portray capitalism as having taken a different direction from the one predicted by Marx, a path where class distinctions were being systematically reduced as a gradual expansion of well-being encompassed wider and wider sectors of the working class itself (or wage labour in general). The working class should then renounce impossible revolutionary dreams and realistically accept the reformist policy of progressive improvements within bourgeois society. The expansion of the middle classes, not their extinction, as indicated in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, was supposed to be the proof that Marx and Engels were wrong — especially their insistence on revolution. Yet today, only those who read the pages of the Manifesto in bad faith or superficially cannot understand (or do not want to understand) that the founding document of communism refers to a middle class — small agricultural property holders, crafts, etc. — of the pre-capitalist era, who disappeared long ago due to the evolution of capitalism. Where remnants survive,(4) they lead a very stunted existence and in any case are subject to the laws of capital, so much so that even with the best of good will one cannot truly speak of a middle class. The supposed short-sightedness of the two German revolutionaries is simply an invention of prejudiced critics, or else of disciples who understood little of the masters. (Those who did partially understand pretended nothing had changed, because their arguments in favour of reformism would have been demolished from the start.) At the end of the nineteenth century, Rosa Luxemburg’s sharp criticism of Bernstein, father of all reformist movements, also touched on the middle class question, framing it in terms of the development of capitalism.(5)
Nonetheless, the methodological tools and the conceptual approach towards the emerging middle class are already there, in Marx’s works where he dismantles bourgeois political economy piece by piece. Certain mass phenomena of the twentieth century are already grasped on their first appearance, when they did not yet constitute, as it were, a theoretical and therefore political problem for proletarian revolutionary organisations. Whole pages of Capital could be quoted, but here we can only limit ourselves to a few passages. Speaking of what will come to be called the new white-collar middle class, Marx observes that,
“The commercial worker proper belongs to the class of the better-paid class of wage labourer; [but] The expansion of popular education allows the recruitment of this variety of labour from classes who were previously excluded and who were used to a lower standard of living. In this way it increases the supply, and with it competition […] with few exceptions the labour power of these people is devalued with the advance of capitalist production: their wages fall while their productivity increases. The capitalist increases the number of these workers when there is more value and profit to be made. The increase in this work is always the consequence, never the cause, of the increase in surplus value.”(6)
Incidentally, Marx also broaches the role of the mass education of the future, destined to churn out technicians and graduate employees in quantities and at costs appropriate to the accumulation process. At the same time he emphasises that the growth of the new unproductive middle classes depends on the growth of surplus value extorted in the production process, not the other way around. Yet Marx does not refer directly to the proletariat in this context, even if the meaning and direction is clear. But Engels, thirty years later, when the phenomenon has already taken shape, describes the commercial proletariat as those,
“German clerks who, despite their knowing thoroughly all commercial operations and three or four languages, offer their services in vain in the City of London at the rate of 25 shillings per week —well below the salary of a skilled mechanic.”(7)
Finally, just to give one more of the many examples of Marx’s extraordinary critical-analytical skills, in the same period that he was writing the passage quoted earlier, he noted:
“… the continuous growth of the middle classes who find themselves in the middle, between the workers on the one hand and the capitalists and landlords on the other, largely maintained directly by revenues, and who weigh like a burden on the underlying working base and increase the security and social power of the ten thousand above.”(8)
In short, not only has the Marxian criticism not ignored the formation of a new or renewed middle class (autonomous or dependent), but it has framed it as a necessary element of the laws of development and process of the capital accumulation process. The more it expands, the more the increase in social strata who, as Braverman says when referring to Marx, help it “in the realisation or appropriation of surplus value”.(9)
Depending on the level of maturity of capitalism, certain characteristics of these strata resemble the traditional middle class, but these are destined to be lost and superseded by more and more aspects of wage labour. For example, in the US large-scale distribution established itself by sweeping away thousands of small businesses, whilst in Italy department stores were a rarity, a cinematographic curiosity. Today, one of the largest companies in the world is WalMart, while in Italy the large supermarket chains dominate entire sectors of commerce; not to mention Amazon and e-commerce.
Okay, it will be said, shops and shopkeepers of various sizes are declining and the voice of the petty bourgeoisie is fading, but the fact remains that the majority of occupations no longer belong to the working class because the workforce is largely clerical. Thus, reading between the lines, they are petty bourgeois — and have grown continuously for over a century, outnumbering manual workers, hence their political weight.
As mentioned earlier, bourgeois ideologues, not least those in the world of reformism,(10) used the expansion of white collar jobs to announce the end of the class struggle and the advent of a society, if not completely harmonious, at least freed from irreconcilable social clashes. Having been neutralised by the broad mass of the new middle classes, the ugly, dirty and bad proletariat would become a minority, objectively unable to do any (political) harm. Legend, of course, but like every legend it contains a grain of truth since, in fact, the number of jobs regarded as non-working class, it is trivial to say, has gone up a lot since the end of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the point is, as Marx and Engels had glimpsed, that clerks began to more and more resemble workers, not because of their dirty and calloused hands, but because of their relationship to the employer, to capital. Ultimately, most office workers are in the same position as every other worker. Even if the role of some of them is to act as officer and non-commissioned officer of the exploitation process, most of them are not supervisors, foremen, managers, or even directors, i.e. figures who, to a greater or lesser extent, benefit from the surplus value extorted in production. It was not only revolutionary militants who detected this, who recognised in the new middle class of white-collar workers — at least in large sectors of it — a new form of proletariat and not of the petty bourgeoisie, a proletariat in black coats or starched collars,(11) the most lucid minds of bourgeois sociology also saw what was happening. Their sharp analyses of the white collar worker resembled, we do not know how consciously, part of the Marxian analytical toolbox.(12) Of course, the reduction of the employee, indeed, very often female employee, to a mechanism in the valorisation of capital does not automatically turn them into a revolutionary. On the contrary, the specific working conditions and family ties of the petty bourgeois often made him a kind of bodyguard(13) of the bourgeoisie, although this is much less the case today. Working side by side with company officers and non-commissioned officers, their different and often physically better working conditions, a slightly higher salary (although this is far from an iron rule), such conditions have always nurtured illusions in the likes of office workers: illusions that their status is a few steps higher — much higher than it was or really is — than the working class narrowly understood. Thus they did not join its struggles even when they were not sabotaging them: capital’s bodyguards, in fact. Historically, the middle class — even if several individuals thus classified have slipped down the social ladder — has always been the most solid prop of the bourgeois system and the mass base of fascism. This, it goes without saying, has never saved them from the knock-on effects of the capital accumulation process. At the most it may have temporarily slowed down their downgrading or reduction, for purely political reasons, but in the end they are inevitably sacrificed to the needs of profit.
To give an example, the Forty Thousand (in reality they were less than half that number) who exactly forty years ago marched in Turin against embattled Fiat workers, did not escape industrial restructuring and little by little many of them were laid off and ultimately dismissed, just like the blue collars they had demonstrated against.(14) It must be said that the impact of the strikebreakers hired by Romiti, then CEO of the company, was inconsequential compared to the role of the union. Strictly speaking this cannot be defined as treason since the union’s role is precisely to contain the struggle and prevent it from breaking out of capitalism’s infamous framework, even at the cost of leading the working class to defeat through the usual deleterious agreements. But in the case of Turin in 1980 there was an epochal catastrophe.(15) For anyone who understood the anti-worker, counter-revolutionary role of trade unions and the parties of the capitalist left this came as a largely predictable defeat. So it is today, with the difference that the counter-revolutionary role of the unions has adapted somewhat to new situations, turning itself into trade unionist radicalism whilst always remaining within the confines of the system. Witness the whole Cobas archipelago which, beyond the anti-capitalist verbiage, ends up only dividing those relatively few proletarians who are ready to organise — usually the most combative — into self-referential churches.
The tenacious mythology of the middle class
Bourgeois intellectuals have written a lot on the middle class (real or presumed), almost always, as we have said, in a mystifying way, to envelop the structure of society in ideological smoke and justify its division into classes. The fact that today many bourgeois analysts fear that a possible weakening of the middle class will have negative repercussions on institutions, giving way to nationalism and confused rebellion, shows that the thinking bourgeoisie are worried about the situation: the result of the structural crisis which, with alternating trends, has been dragging on since the 70s of the last century. To use a metaphor, the petty bourgeoisie, the praetorian guard of the bourgeois order, could turn against a particular emperor of the moment, could destabilise the political situation and complicate the life of the good bourgeoisie — the so-called establishment — even if, of course, it leaves the capitalist mode of production intact. Moreover, they are not aiming to subvert the empire itself. If anything, they help to prolong it by trying to improve their position within this society. (With variable success, depending on the state of the economy, especially the phase of the accumulation cycle and, it goes without saying, on the state of the struggle between the two fundamental classes.) The genetic make-up of the petty bourgeoisie, identified by Marx in his very acute analysis of an improbable character like Louis Bonaparte,(16) remains essentially the same and, we still find it in action today. Its voice appears all the louder, the weaker that of the proletariat, which at present has almost disappeared.
But what does the infamous middle class consist of, and what is its state of health? It is difficult or, rather, complex to answer the first question, a little less so to answer the second, precisely for the reasons already mentioned.
Bourgeois sociology produces a mountain of data. Yet, instead of illuminating the picture, it becomes more confused, partly because of the inconsistent criteria for collecting data but, above all, because the information itself is distorted by the perspective of the researcher. In any case, sociologists basically refer to income, never to the relationship with the means of production which the individuals classified as middle class find themselves in. According to the OECD, the middle class comprises all those whose income lies between 75% and 200% of the median. Now, aside from the fact that this range is far too wide, even if we accept this criterion it is clear that a significant (or very significant) part of the working class (in a broad sense) falls into the middle class. But it is also clear that many of the middle class, the real middle class, are close to the lower end of the range or even below it, due to tax evasion/avoidance. Just to give a widely known example, according to the tax return for 2018,
“… the average income declared by entrepreneurs who are sole proprietors is €20,940. About €120 more than the average income declared to the tax authorities by employees [who, together with retirees] represent 82% of declared income.”(17)
An OECD dossier of 2019(18) sets the boundaries of the middle class in Italy from a minimum of €12,206 to a maximum of €32,549 per year; even if a different study (Il Sole 24 Ore [Italian equivalent of the Financial Times, CWO] of 6 May 2019) establishes the lower limit of €15,000 (gross), the situation does not substantially change. Does a gross salary of €1,250 per month (for twelve months; for thirteen it is obviously less) make us middle class? This is not just a bizarre Italian — let’s call it — experience. It is true for every country, because the survey criteria are always the same. In the United States, home par excellence of the middle class (so they say …), it is enough to have an annual income of $25,000 to enter the narrow-gauge paradise of the middle class. Now, $25,000 in the US cannot be equated with €25,000, say, in the European Union, since, among other things, that sum includes the portion of indirect and deferred salary (pension, health, school) which is withheld from the pay cheque here. Moreover,
“… a huge part of the people defined as belonging to the middle class consisted of single parents with two children and an income [in fact] of about $25,000 a year.”(19)
It is difficult to believe that a single mother on that income (19 years old with two children) can enjoy the same sort of secure, almost wealthy economic existence, as someone belonging to the true middle class.
Here’s another example from the OECD. Before the 2007/8 subprime crisis 51% of the US population were categorised as middle class, a percentage which had fallen by ten points by 2015. Just a year earlier Janet Yellen, then governor of the Fed, had declared that,
“… an unexpected financial outlay of just $400 would induce the majority [our emphasis, ed] of American families to borrow money, sell something or simply not pay.”(20)
Today, with the ongoing pandemic, those figures are bound to be worse as thousands of small businesses, sole proprietors, self-employed workers are inactive or are about to be so; not to mention the tens of millions of applications for unemployment benefit last Spring, which only partially declined during the Summer.
The attempt to pin down the middle class in a less random way becomes even more difficult if the territory and the institution promoting the research are changed. For example, a study dated 2019 by ECLA (Economic Commission for Latin America, UN agency),
“estimates that the middle class — that is the broad spectrum of people whose incomes are between 1.8 and 10 times above the poverty threshold — represents 41% of the population.”(21)
It is therefore useful to remember that the poverty threshold set by the World Bank, in 2018, is $1.9 a day.(22) So it is enough to live (?) on $3.5 a day to be considered middle class. If that wasn’t so outrageous it would be laughable. On the other hand, it is thanks to a specific interpretation of similar data — so to speak — that bourgeois sociology can triumphantly declare, at least before the pandemic, that global inequalities have been reduced along with absolute poverty. This is partly true, but only because millions of workers, often female, have moved to cities where they earn an income that is somehow statistically detectable and which, although low, is above the absolute poverty threshold set by the World Bank. So unlike before, they are no longer classified as very poor peasants or self-employed workers in the so-called informal sector. This is the only way to conceptualise the three hundred million middle class people hypothesised for China.(23) But it’s a stretch of the imagination to get them all in …
Apparently — and it’s largely only apparent! — the growth of the middle class in so-called emerging countries, corresponds to increased uncertainty for the middle class in the West as documented by numerous analyses (such as the OECD one mentioned above), all driven by the same concern: to find ways to stop and if possible reverse a trend which has been going on for decades; a trend which is making increasingly wider layers of (real) petty bourgeois poorer and obliging them to approach the world of wage labour, sometimes on its lowest rungs, with a view to earning an income. Here it is worth mentioning briefly that many activities classified as self-employed and undertaken by people of petty bourgeois family origin, often graduates, are in reality disguised forms of dependent work, where low-pay and precariousness dominate. Apparently a degree, in itself, does not protect against sliding downwards, not even when its holder occupies a post commensurate with their qualification.
Even graduates, who in the past held typically middle class jobs, are experiencing a significant reduction in income (25% from 1993 to 2012).(24)
Of course, the bourgeois intellectuals’ search for the miraculous cure will not end, because the tendency to proletarianisation — or downgrading or loss of status, if you prefer — as foretold by the laws of capital, speeds up in the crisis periods of the accumulation cycle and accelerates even more if the crisis is strongly aggravated by an unexpected element such as an epidemic.
Staying with Italy, that long-standing little Eden of autonomous and independent work (also a means for maintaining political stability) with a middle class par excellence: since at least the 1990s this social stratum has been shrinking and the trend was accelerating even before the sub-prime bubble burst. In 2004 it included about 6,300,000 employees, equivalent to 25.3% of total employment (against an EU average of 14.5-15%). By 2016 they had suffered a decline of over 800,000, dropping to 22.4%. The biggest decline was amongst small traders (bars, restaurants, corner shops, etc.) and artisans. Yet the decline would have been even more marked if, in the meantime, tens of thousands of immigrants had not taken over or opened their own businesses.(25) By October 2020 there were 5.1 million, but the haemorrhaging continues, especially in the under 40 age group. Here, within a year, i.e. between the second quarter of 2019 and that of 2020, 110,000 employees have disappeared, amounting to a drop of 30% from 2010 to today.(26) Since the decline mainly involves those self-employed with employees, there are those who, again in the bourgeois environment, manage to see the glass as half full, in the sense that they interpret this as a trend towards an increase in the size of companies (centralisation of capital, we would say) and therefore of the overall competitiveness of the Italian economy.(27) Maybe the much-vaunted small is beautiful of thirty years ago, where the adaptability of small businesses (where a surplus of exploitation is often the norm) has come up against limits which the ideological smokescreen had tried to hide. This does not mean that the small business is destined to completely disappear, of course, but only that the laws of capital cannot be circumvented indefinitely, especially when the rate of profit falls and struggles to recover. The pandemic is certainly intensifying the decades-long trend that was already underway. In fact,
“… the ECB has sounded the alarm about an upcoming spiral of bankruptcies for businesses. This is a “particularly high risk” … and according to the forecasts made yesterday by the second Censis-Commercialisti [Business Census] barometer in Italy 460,000 small businesses with less than 10 employees and with a turnover of less than €500,000 are at risk. The crisis could wipe out double the number of micro-enterprises compared to the economic crisis of twelve years ago.”(28)
Naturally, this has hit employment hard and, consequently, that celebrated factor: consumption, the supposed driving force of economic growth.
The mountain of money that governments are dishing out may plug the losses, but certainly does not raise the rate of profit in a decisive way nor can it revive a social sector which, as we have seen, has been suffering for many years. The pandemic is certainly a factor, but this is only the tip of an enormous iceberg. The self-employed are well aware of this, and, despite having received over €4 million in benefits(29) between April and October (as well as being in line for more), are still fuming and thus take to the streets. They are determined to get more out of that state which takes back with one hand what it has just given them with the other, thus earmarking for themselves the services financed by taxes on pay and pensions. This is also the reason why an alliance between the middle class and wage labour would be an unnatural union: the former just want to survive or thrive within a system that periodically has to sacrifice them, and in the attempt they can do nothing but shift the costs of this struggle for life onto the proletariat. For their part, the proletariat, if they want to emancipate themselves, can only go beyond the system. The anti-capitalism of the middle class, if it can be called that, is only the resentment of those who fear falling off the steps of the social ladder inherited from their family or on which they have climbed, often with difficulty and frequently with few legal scruples. The ladder itself is never questioned: it is always the bourgeois one.
If today these protests steal the show from the proletariat(30) it is only because, to use a term associated with white collar work, the working class is spiritually homeless,(31) crushed by the social war which the bourgeoisie has been waging on it for decades; blackmailed, impoverished, above all deprived of the sense of an alternative to capitalism, remaining under the rubble produced first by Stalinism, and then by its collapse. Shaking off that rubble is not easy, for sure, but it is not impossible, and it will only be possible if the working class, once torn from its torpor by material conditions, resumes the fight, gets rid of the false friends of the right and the left who poison our minds, paralyse us and sometimes even drive us to self-destruct. In a nutshell, the working class needs to break out of the capitalist cages which imprison us, including trade unionism, and to which we are constantly being led back, as soon as we step out even for a moment. Only in this way will the small advance guard, who have been forced to survive almost ignored by the proletariat as a result of the Stalinist counter-revolution and decades of setbacks and defeats of our class,(32) be able to re-establish deep roots inside the class, thus restoring the dialectical unity of the communist revolution: struggling proletariat and revolutionary party. In this sense, the problem is not the middle class, but the question of the political recomposition of the working class.
(1) On the details of these and their class implications, we refer readers to our already published articles.
(2) Those episodes are also mentioned in other articles in this issue of the magazine and we refer readers to them.
(3) Lucio Luzzatto and Bruno Maffi, La politica delle classi medie e il planismo, 1935/1938, in Stefano Merli, Fronte antifascista e politica di classe. Socialisti e comunisti in Italia 1923 –1939. De Donato, 1975, p. 85. This document, although from the far-off past, remains substantially valid and generally sound, as regards the judgment on the petty bourgeoisie. The authors belonged to the left of the Socialist Party, but one of them, Bruno Maffi, met Onorato Damen whilst in confinement together and took on the positions of the Communist Left. He went on to make a very important contribution to the foundation of our party. Later, however, he was also the main protagonist of the Bordigist split of 1952.
(4) In the so-called emerging countries one can find social strata who resemble the middle classes mentioned in the Manifesto.
(5) Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution, in Selected Writings, Einaudi editions, 1975 or in Political Writings, Editori Riuniti, 1974, but also available on the web.
(6) Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, chap. 17 °, Einaudi, p. 418-19. (For the same passage in English, see the Penguin 1981 edition of Capital Vol. III.) Today, the inadequate level of surplus value pushes capital to make not only the workers directly productive of surplus value precarious, but also workers in commerce, services and a lot of petty bourgeoisie in the same sectors, in order to save costs and thus increase the surplus value — of that specific sector — or, better, to consume less in unproductive expenses.
(7) Note from Engels to the pages cited from Capital.
(8) Karl Marx, Storia delle teorie economiche [Theories of Surplus Value], Einaudi, II, 1977, p.634. On page 131 of the same volume, mention is made of the importance of the “new” classes with regard to the consumption of commodities and the repercussions on the accumulation of capital, proving that Marx’s schematicity is only an invention of malevolent critics and ignorant learned.
(9) Harry Braverman, Lavoro e capitale monopolistico. La degradazione del lavoro nel XX secolo [Labour and Monopoly Capital]. The degradation of work in the twentieth century, Einaudi, 1978, p. 424.
(10) Falling into that category are not only the parliamentary left, indeed, its extreme fringes, but also the great part of what was once called movementism (leftist activism is the closest in English) and today antagonism; in addition to the remnants of Stalinism and Trotskyism: in short, of the degenerate Third International.
(11) Luzzatto and Maffi, cit., p. 80.
(12) The reference is to two classics of sociology: Siegfried Kracauer, Inpiegati, Meltemi, 2020 (original edition 1930) and Charles Wright Mills, Colletti bianchi. La classe media americana [White Collar Workers, The American Middle Class], Einaudi, 1974 (original edition 1951).
(13) Siegfried Kracauer, op. cit., p. 25.
(14) In the autumn of 1980 Fiat Group boss, Cesare Romiti, laid off 23,000 workers as part of management restructuring and the workers responded with a 35-day strike. Romiti is notorious for organising a counter-protest of workers and managers who marched through the streets of Turin to demand the right to return to work!
(15) On the role of the trade unions we could refer to our innumerable documents, but, for once, we report the considerations of a bourgeois, certainly not a communist, whose intellectual honesty, however, allowed him to see what almost everyone on the “left” does not and cannot see, because they wear the glasses of ideology, because they reason with the theoretical tools of another era of the class struggle: “Unions, after all, are the surest tools for taming and channeling the aspirations of the lower classes, for framing workers without internal shocks in times of war, and to control their onset in times of peace and depression”, C. Wright Mills, op. cit., p. 415.
(16) See Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
(17) Il Sole 24 Ore, 23 April 2020. Income is gross, of course.
(18) Sous pression: the moyenne class en perte de vitesse, 2019 [Under pressure: the middle class is slowing down].
(19) It is almost always mothers who are single parents, which says a lot about the condition of women, especially proletarians.
(20) Quoted in Mario Deaglio, Un mondo più disuguale, anche quando cresce [A more unequal world, even when it grows], Aspenia n.74, 2016, p.90. Deaglio reports that, according to the OECD, the middle class comprises incomes between 75% and 125% of the median. We note the difference between this criterion and the other already mentioned and accepted in some more recent documents.
(21) Frédéric Thomas, La morale des soulevements? Classes moyennes, économie morale et révoltes populaires, http://www.contretemps.eu/, 7 April 2020. [The consequence of upheavals? Middle class, moral economy and popular uprisings]
(22) Oxfam’s poverty line is different and is set at $5.5 a day.
(23) Marco Bertorello, Disuguaglianza, dalle maree ai naufragi, [Inequality, from tides to shipwrecks], Attac Italia, 21 November 2016.
(24) Enrico Comini https://www.pandorarivista.it/articoli/saggio-sulle-classi-sociali-paolo… sione/ 27 July 2016.
(25) Emilio Reyneri, Lavoro indipendente sul viale del tramonto, [Independent work on sunset boulevard], http://lavoce.info/, 31 October 2017.
(26) M. Pri, Il Covid fa chiudere i lavoratori autonomi under 40 [Covid shuts out self-employed workers under 40], Il Sole 24 Ore, 17 October 2020.
(27) Nicolò Bertoncello and Andrea Garnero, Il lavoro autonomo non è più quello di una volta, [Self-employment is no longer what it used to be], http://lavoce.info/, 10 March 2020.
(28) Roberto Ciccarelli, Pandemia economica: 460 mila piccole imprese a rischio, [Economic pandemic: 460 thousand small businesses at risk], Il Manifesto, 13 November 2020.
(29) Il Sole 24 Ore, 17 October 2020, cit. We are talking about Italy, but many countries are experiencing the same sort of protests.
(30) Even when the proletariat does participate in struggles alongside angry middle class elements who are scared of being downgraded, its demands not only do not go beyond economic issues, above all they are confused with the inter-class ones of the protest movement itself and die there. The most emblematic case of recent times is that of the French gilets jaunes.
(31) S. Kracauer, op.cit. p.105.
(32) Defeats and setbacks in which Stalinism, first, and then its descendants, played a leading role.