For us as Marxists, individuals do not make history, classes do. Class is the only (latent or existing) grouping of human beings capable of altering the way that society produces and reproduces itself. What shared characteristics do members of a common class have, in other words, what allows us to group individuals in to the same class? Their relationship to the means of production is the generic way to explain this, but I’ll be a little more detailed and say that this relationship is characterized by three facets; ownership of the means of production, working of the means of production, and, that which stems from the first two, ownership of the product. To distinguish between ownership and working of the means of production we need only think of the relationship between capitalist and worker wherein the worker physically swings, that is, controls the motion of, the hammers that the capitalist owns. This ownership of the means of production by the capitalist is nothing more and nothing less than their ability to control the social movement, or lack thereof if so desired, of the means of production. As far as ownership of the product is concerned, it stems entirely from the ownership of the means of production.
During the production process when capitalistically considered, the worker owns nothing, not even their own labor-power. They have sold their labor-power in exchange for a wage. Because the capitalist owns every single component involved in production, the product is given wholly over to the capitalist who does not participate in the process of production. When viewed merely from a physical point of view, the difference between the worker and capitalist is that the worker works and the capitalist does not. The difference in allotment of product stems from the ownership of the means of production and not merely the physical act of production. With that said, the petty-bourgeoisie are often confounded with the working class due to only looking at the physical process of production. The petty-bourgeoisie are incapable of fielding enough capital to avoid participating in the labor process, which is to say that in addition to owning the means of production they also work them, perhaps alongside hired hands. Just because, from a purely physical standpoint, the petty-bourgeoisie are indeed workers does not mean that they share the class-interests of the working class. To illustrate this point, let us examine the struggles of the independent owner-operators against the Teamsters union.
The Teamsters union is one which is instantly recognizable and associated with the trucking industry. The Teamsters were able to win very respectable wages. So respectable in fact, that due to the unique position of the trucking industry, a rare thing happened, the dialectical transformation of quantity in to quality. The high wages enabled some individuals to actually purchase their rigs, transforming themselves from workers to petty-bourgeoisie, from drivers to owner-operators. Their physical activity of driving trucks hither and thither did not change, but their material interests altered along with their new relationship to their trucks.
The concretization of this difference in material interests began with payment from employers. Drivers are simply paid a wage, typically based on miles driven, whereas owner-operators are also paid for the lease of their tractors and trailers. Teamsters, being a working-class union, negotiated only the former sum while neglecting to negotiate the latter. The take home pay of owner-operators began to decline as the rates paid for maintenance of their equipment fell below actual costs of maintenance, causing maintenance to be paid out of regular-wages as well. This situation was the result of the economically weak position that the fresh-faced owner-operators occupied. Teamsters had successfully occupied almost all sectors of trucking transport with the exception of a few unregulated areas such as agricultural produce transportation.
The owner-operators began to form their own organizations which explicitly recognized themselves as a different economic class from regular drivers.
“In the Midwest, the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers formed to fight for the union’s consideration of the “unique economic interests” they had as owners of their “own expensive equipment,” Hamilton writes.”
These new organizations of the petty-bourgeoisie quickly and literally turned their guns on the proletariat.
It is somewhat amusing that the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers is shortened to FASH. More amusing is the fact that the FASH and other owner-operators cut the ground out from under themselves by demanding deregulation of the trucking industry. The regulations surrounding the trucking industry prevented the whole-sale invasion of Capital and allowed Teamsters to maintain wages at a high level. When Carter passed the Motor Carrier Reform and Modernization Act of 1980, it was no holds barred competition. The petty-bourgeoisie quickly realized their mistake.
The social position of the petty-bourgeoisie comes from two sources, the fact that they work the means of production, and the fact that they own them. In fighting for the interests of the latter fact, the owner-operators had ignored the former fact. Their wages tanked, along with everyone else’s. In 1976, four years before deregulation, the average annual earnings of a long-distance truck driver was $17,700. In 1986, six years after deregulation, the average hourly wage for a long-distance truck driver was $13 which comes out to $26,000 a year. Adjusting for inflation, the 1976 annual income becomes just shy of $35,000 a year in 1986.
Whereas before, the strength of the working-class over the power of capital cut in to the capital side of the petty-bourgeoisie’s income, now the strength of capital over the working-class cut in to the labor side of the petty-bourgeoisie’s income. This coupled with the fact that the amount of capital the petty-bourgeoisie has is insignificant next to the bourgeoisie led to the decline in the economic position of the petty-bourgeoisie compared to when the working-class held the more dominant position.
The petty-bourgeoisie is helplessly trapped between two classes both greater than itself. It can be seduced by either the working-class or the bourgeoisie until the seducer becomes powerful enough to encroach upon one part of the petty-bourgeoisie’s social basis at which point the petty-bourgeoisie will defect to the opposing camp.