Last week, John Boehner found himself in the position of having to defend tax subsidies to oil companies; he agreed that subsidizing the massive, and massively profitable, oil companies was perverse but, he pleaded, what about all the small, struggling oil companies? This is a particularly amusing instance of the appeal to an imaginary petit bourgeoisie, which you also see in claims that people getting paid half a million dollars are “small business owners.” This is, perhaps, a central feature of bourgeois ideology, which imagines that capitalism is based on individual “property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence” (Marx), rather than being a whole system of social production. This particular aspect of bourgeois ideology does seem to be undergoing a resurgence of popularity at the moment, perhaps as a kind of protective reaction to the increasing visibility of the structures of capitalism in the wake of the financial crisis.
However, the resurgence of the mythology of the petit bourgeoisie may also reflect a certain truth, albeit in a distorted form. I’m thinking of Agamben’s claim in The Coming Community that we are all part of a planetary petty bourgeoisie. There’s a strange way in which today’s capitalism is repeating in reverse the early capitalism in which although workers are, in reality, wholly dependent on capitalism, they are formally – legally and ideologically – treated as independent contractors. This spurious reconfiguration of the worker as entrepreneur unites informal workers in the third world and precarious workers in the first (although how much this particular similarity reveals and how much it obscures is a question, but not one that Agamben asks).
It also unites us all with Paris Hilton. I’ve previously praised her for her antipathy to productive – and hence capitalistic and exploitative – consumption, but, while I think the criticism of productivism still stands, I’m less convinced of its applicability to Paris. In an intriguing twist on the Fordist relation between production and mass consumption, Hilton’s individual “unproductive” consumption is in fact an investment in her personal brand. And the more unproductive the better, as $300,000 dog houses make for the best headlines. So, formally speaking, Paris Hilton is self-employed as a professional consumer; like everyone else, a petit bourgeois formally subsumed within capitalism.