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The term petty bourgeoisie originally referred to the class of people involved in small-scale commercial enterprises who owned their means of production. It included merchants and traders, and, in some cases, wealthier land-owning farmers. Thus conceived, this class partakes of the structures of private property on which capitalist society is grounded, but it does not own sufficient capital to reap the benefits of large-scale industrialization and workplace rationalization. Moreover, its members are not dependent upon the sale of their own labor-power. They occasionally employ others, although, unlike capitalists, they themselves must also work, and often do so alongside their employees, including family members.
The petty bourgeoisie has been assigned a particularly significant role in Marxian historiography by virtue of Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) claim that, during the failed revolution of 1848 in France, they transferred their allegiance from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. In the mid1840s, a period of famine and widespread discontent throughout Europe but especially in France, the petty bourgeoisie had fought alongside members of the urban proletariat and students to demand workers’ rights and liberal political reform. However, when this conflict began to assume anarchic dimensions, they joined with the bourgeoisie, the conservative peasantry, and residual feudal powers to support a counterrevolution whose outcome was the establishment of the Second Republic and a new era of European despotism.
By the late twentieth century, the term had receded from usage, and has been replaced in large measure by middle class. This has occurred at the same time that the term middle class has come to be dissociated from its original referent of the bourgeoisie. The reasons for this development, particularly in the United States, reveal much about both the nature of economic life in contemporary capitalist society and the ideology by which it is sustained. This ideology can be described as one that valorizes the middle class, that sees its expansion as the necessary condition of economic growth and democratization, and that links middle classness to upward mobility.
Significantly, this understanding rests on a slippage in the definition of the middle class from Marx’s time. Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) had warned against this possibility in a letter to Marx in 1852. There, he distinguished the middle class as that group between the nobility, which it had superseded, and the proletariat, which would ultimately displace it. In this sense, middle class meant transitional class for Engels, rather than simply the class of small business people and professional managers now typically associated with the term.
However, the question of transition has itself become problematic in economic history. The joint stock company, which Marx believed to be a mere stage in the development and transformation of capital, now dominates capitalist enterprise, and its professional managers (as well as their support service workers) now form the core of what is sometimes referred to as the “new petty bourgeoisie.”
Like the more classically conceived proletariat, these individuals are also employees of capitalist enterprises. However, they do not own the means of production in the sense that enables them to alienate it, and they are somewhat contradictorily positioned as the representatives of capitalist interests. Various theorists have tried to exclude this new form of the petty bourgeoise from the categories of both the bourgeoisie and the working class, on the basis that they perform “unproductive” mental labor which is antithetical to the interests of the proletariat (Poulantzis 1975); that they do not own the means of production despite exercising the “function” of capital (Carchedi 1977); or, more generally, because older notions of property ownership no longer describe the ambiguous distribution of rights over property that define modern joint stock companies today (Olin Wright 1978). In each of these cases, the managerial classes are thought of as a problem for both theory and radical political organization. Allin Cottrell (1984) nonetheless suggests that the variability in forms of ownership, social roles, and ideological commitments that characterize the managerial classes in contemporary capitalist societies requires a new conception of class, and prohibits any predictive model identifying the new petty bourgeoisie with any particular political orientation.
The older model of the petty bourgeoisie nonetheless retains great ideological force in many neoliberal societies, where the idea of the self-employed businessperson who is free from the demand to sell his or her own labor continues to occupy a dominant position in popular representations of the middle classes. It is often associated with radical individualism, as well as the values of personal autonomy and rational decision making. Moreover, it is frequently imagined as the ideal form of immigrant assimilation—and serves as a counter-image to balance other immigrant economies, including those of short term contract labor in the agricultural or energy sectors, and the feminized economies of domestic and sexual labor.
- Carchedi, G. 1977. On the Economic Identification of Social Classes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Cottrell, Allin. 1984. Social Classes in Marxist Theory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Marx, Karl.  1978. The Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850. In Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, Vol. 10, 45–145. New York: International Publishers.
- Marx, Karl.  1951. Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, with explanatory notes. New York: International Publishers.
- Olin Wright, E. 1978. Class, Crisis and the State. London: New Left Books.
- Poulantzis, N. 1975. Social Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. London: New Left Books.
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