Petty bourgeois conservatism
As mentioned, the social class literature is preoccupied with the assumption that the “petty bourgeois” prefer a limited role of governments vis-a-vis markets, and would have right-wing political attitudes. By using the term “petty bourgeois” class theorists refer to the group in-between “capitalists”, who own the means of production and hirer workers, and “workers”, who do not own the means of production and sell their labor power to capitalists (De Witte and Klandermans, 2000, p. 17). The petty bourgeois are self-employed persons who own small-scale capital and who produce and trade goods often without employing others, except sometimes unpaid family labor (Scase 1982). According to Arum and Müller (2004, p. 430) traditional petty bourgeois self-employment comprised “craftsmen, small shop-owners, proprietors and others working on their own in skilled occupations.” Typically, the self-employed would be associated with intergenerational inheritance and a high degree of stability over the life course (Blau and Duncan, 1967, p. 41), giving them a clear interest in conservative politics aimed at preserving the status quo of capitalist markets.
Class voting studies have put forward that the self-employed are also at the heart of extreme-right ideologies (Lipset, 1959; Norris, 2005). The radical tendencies among the petty bourgeois is sometimes attributed to their “contradictory” class position (Wright, 1997, p. 122): being distinct from both capitalists and wage-laborers they would be “trapped between the threat of big business and manufacturing industry, on the one hand, and the collective strength of organized labor, on the other” (Norris, 2005, p. 131). Discussing the social basis of fascist and other reactionary movements in Europe, Manza and Brooks (1999, p. 69) note that “many interpretations of right-wing movements have suggested that these movements draw disproportionate support from a ‘frustrated’ petty-bourgeoisie whose members are often among the first to suffer from economic downturns.” The self-employed are also prominent in more recent studies on anti-statist movements, such as the Tea Party in the United States. Skocpol and Williamson (2012) argue that among Tea Partiers, business is often idealized and that many Tea Party members are small business people.
With its recent decline, the “petty bourgeois” no longer accurately represent self-employment in modern democracies. To interpret the changing nature of self-employment, scholars have increasingly used the label “new self-employment”. Although the label has been used in different ways, as a common denominator it usually refers to self-employed workers which are believed not to correspond to the traditional profile of business-owners. A group, according to Buschoff and Schmidt (2009), that works “on their own account and without employees, often in professions with only low capital requirements. A growing share of these workers can be found on the one hand in ‘modern’ service-sector branches (such as education, health, financial and enterprise services) and on the other hand in the construction industry (via outsourcing and subcontracting)” (2009, p. 147).
In social stratification research, the term “new” self-employment has been used to denote the growth of self-employment in new occupational areas. This is most systematically done by Arum and Müller (2004) who distinguish two new types from traditional self-employment2, i.e., unskilled self-employment and self-employed professionals and managers. Instead selling goods, self-employed workers in these new types would increasingly provide services and sell their labor power as freelancers or independent contractors (Kösters et al, 2013). Since the mid-1990s, the majority of people in self-employment work in either one of the two categories (Arum and Müller, 2004). Self-employment has therefore become more diverse and polarized in terms of economic well-being and social status. Compared to other categories, unskilled self-employment is associated with the highest labor market risks, as it is generally more instable and more poorly paid (McManus, 2000; Arum and Müller, 2004; Lofstrom, 2013), and – because many immigrants in self-employment hold lower-skilled jobs (Kanas et al, 2009) – also most ethnically diverse. Like manual workers in wage-employment, most self-employed workers do not own property and sell their labor power at a wage-like rate. Therefore, this form of self-employment is sometimes considered to be part of, or at least closer to, the working class instead of the petty bourgeois (Form, 1982). By contrast, those in professional and managerial occupations (typically including liberal professions) are generally assumed to be highly educated and profitable (Barbieri, 2003).
To account for the heterogeneity of self-employment, this study further differentiates the Arum-Müller classification. In doing so, inspiration is drawn from “new class theories”. As a single sub-category, professional-managerial self-employment misrepresents fundamental occupational differences between “technocratic” jobs (i.e., the “old middle class”) and a new class of “social-cultural specialists” (Güveli, 2006; Oesch, 2008). Unlike the former, people in the latter category hold occupations that involve providing social services and/or using knowledge on social-cultural issues and conducting tasks that are relatively difficult to monitor. Social-cultural specialists, compared to rightist-oriented technocrats, have developed a strong preferences for leftist, and in particular new-left and green politics (Güveli et al, 2007; Oesch, 2008; Jansen et al, 2011). In self-employment, social-cultural specialists may be found in occupations that are characterized by a combination of relative autonomy, specialized social-cultural knowledge, and tasks that are not directly instrumental to profit-maximization (e.g., authors, journalists and other writers, or creative and cultural workers, and self-employed health professionals). Although working on their own account, they often provide services to the (semi-)public or non-profit field or other domains that receive state support. With these characteristics, the new group of social-cultural specialists hold self-employment jobs that strongly deviate from traditional “petty bourgeois” self-employment. These differences can be expected to be greater than for self-employed technocrats (e.g., independent accountants and other financial and legal specialists, civil engineers and self-employed ICT professionals), who, like the petty bourgeois, drive businesses that are more directly related to profit-maximization and whose tasks do not involve providing social services or social-cultural knowledge.
Inside the domain of industrial relations studies, “new” self-employment has largely been examined through the lens of precarious work, linked to the flexibilization of labor markets (e.g., Stanwoth and Stanworth, 1995; Buschoff and Schmidt, 2009; Kalleberg, 2011). Compared to standard employees (i.e., with secure employment contracts), freelancers, sub-contractors and others in quasi-independent employment relationships are exposed to greater risks because they – sometimes involuntary – bear responsibility for market changes, enjoy lower levels of social protection, and have less capacity for savings, insurance and pensions (Buschoff and Schmidt, 2009; Dekker 2010a; Kautonen et al, 2010; Pedersini and Coletto, 2010). What is even more explicit in this stream of literature, is that risks and uncertainties cut across occupational lines. Also highly educated professionals may work in semi-autonomous, low-paid, or precarious self-employment jobs, without legal protection (King, 2014).
Building on the insider–outsider literature, insecure forms of self-employment may be thought of as “outsiders” on the labor market. To study insecurities associated with self-employment, indicators may be borrowed from the insider/outsider-model by Rueda (2007, p. 15), who focusses on the precarious nature and involuntary nature of the work relationship, i.e., Like precarious wage-employment, self-employed precariousness should be characterized by insecure and unstable work. In the case of self-employment that is most likely to be reflected through irregular orders and income, or little financial buffers. Second, most precarious workers are assumed to aspire more secure jobs. For people in self-employment that might be the case when someone prefers to have a job in wage-employment. A third aspect, however, may be added: the dependent nature of the (self-)employment relationship. Some workers, although formally in self-employment, work in hierarchical subordination to a single firm, on which they are economically dependent (Muehlberger, 2007). These arrangements can be associated with high labor market risks, in particular when self-employed workers are allocated tasks over which they have little control (Standing, 2011, p. 16). In such cases, they bear the entrepreneurial risk without entrepreneurial independence.
Diverging political alignments
Given the increased heterogeneity and presumed precarization of self-employment, the political alignments of the self-employed can be expected to have become more diffuse, and less strongly attached to liberal-conservative politics. Below, two sets of hypotheses are formulated on how disparate types of self-employment may translate differently into political orientations. The first category of expectations departs from the assumption that political preferences are for an important part shaped by self-interest (Reeskens and Van Oorschot, 2011), and that economic insecurities would be associated with left-wing political support. The second scenario builds on the assumption that people with marginal positions on the labor market move away mainstream politics. From this perspective, labor market vulnerabilities might not be associated with left-wing political support, but rather with radical-righ support or political alienation.
Policy and party preferences may be formed by a mixture of normative, social and rational motives (Van Oorschot, 2000; Mau, 2003). With respect to labor market vulnerabilities rational self-interest provides a straightforward potential explanation for left-wing attitudes. This understanding of self-interest involves that welfare consumers (or, at least potential consumers) would be more likely to support welfare policies (Kangas, 1997; Reeskens and Van Oorschot, 2011): People who generally run higher risks of being unemployed or otherwise not being able to provide for themselves are assumed to support welfare and governmental redistribution because they may need protection themselves in the future (Corbetta and Colloca, 2013; Marx, 2014; Marx and Picot, 2013). Along these lines, recent studies comparing temporary and permanent workers have suggested that temporary workers are more likely to support (new) left-wing parties (Corbetta and Colloca, 2013; Marx, 2014; Marx and Picot, 2013; Emmenegger et al, 2015). Following this line of thought, the political preferences of people in new self-employment might be similar to others in “non-standard” work relationships. Rather than stability, which is the driver of petty bourgeois conservatism, “new” self-employment would be characterized by instability and insecurity. It may therefore be expected that self-employed persons with insecure conditions demand more inclusive welfare systems, for example, in the domains of pensions or health care3 (Dekker, 2010b) and generally hold more left-wing attitudes. To examine which segments of the self-employed are the most left-wing, hypothesis 1 assumes that precarious self-employment is (a) insecure rather than secure, (b) involuntary rather than voluntary, and (c) dependent rather than autonomous.
Hypothesis 2 formulates a similar expectation related to occupational categories. This hypothesis differentiates between the “new” self-employment types (i.e., unskilled self-employment and social-cultural specialists), on the one hand, and the “old” petty bourgeois and technocratic professionals, on the other hand. Again, the political preferences of people in unskilled self-employment might be motivated by self-interest, as this category is generally associated with the highest labor market risks. With lower incomes, less capacity for savings, and little insurance against economic hardship the support for welfare arrangements and left-wing politics may be stronger among unskilled self-employed workers, whereas their support for rightist politics may be weaker. For social-cultural professionals, however, left-wing political attitudes may only partially be explained by self-interest. On the one hand, like technocratic professionals, social-cultural specialists may not be the potential users of welfare state services because they tend to work in higher educated jobs and may be economically well-off. Self-interest would therefore not necessarily dictate pro-welfare attitudes. Yet, it should be noted that many in this category work in competitive sectors with low entry barriers (e.g., the media industry or other creative sectors), where pressure on tariffs and hourly earnings reduce the capacity to save and build financial buffers. So, also for this group vulnerabilities may be associated with the support of left-wing parties and policies. Yet, next to rationalist motives, also ideological and normative motives may play a role here. In particular, this category of social and cultural professionals may be drawn to new-left parties, as their tasks involve specialized social-cultural knowledge stimulating non-economic, post-materialist values (Güveli et al, 2007; Oesch, 2008). As a result of their occupational tasks this group may have developed a distinct understanding of the ‘functional and moral necessity’ (Van Oorschot 2000, p. 20) of contributing to common welfare, leading to a left, and in particular new-left political orientation (Jansen et al, 2011). Acknowledging the relevance of task structures for the normative aspects of political preference formation, does not rule out the potential impact of self-interest: Because the services provided by social-cultural specialists are often in the (semi-)public or non-profit domain (such as education and healthcare), their interest to support left-wing politics may still, partially, be based on their role as producers (or co-producers) of social and cultural services. Yet, such different lines of reasoning result in similar expectations about the link between self-employment in social-cultural professions and left-wing preferences.
People in self-employment jobs that are more (a) insecure, (b) involuntary and (c) dependent are less strongly oriented towards liberal-conservative politics, and more strongly oriented towards left-wing politics.
People in (a) unskilled self-employment or (b) self-employed social-cultural professionals are less strongly oriented towards liberal-conservative politics, and more strongly oriented towards left-wing politics, compared to those in traditional self-employment and self-employed technocrats.
Alternatively, for precarious self-employment neither a conservative nor a left-wing orientation may be straightforward. On the basis of the insider–outsider model, right-wing conservative parties often oppose labor market policies that are beneficial to “outsiders” [i.e., policies that advance the creation of jobs or compensate potential job loss (Rueda, 2007)], because these policies imply an intrusive role of government and higher taxes. Yet, this is not to say that “self-employed outsiders” would turn leftward. Insider–outsider theories postulate that left-wing parties – and social democrats in particular – defend the interest of insiders rather than the interest of outsiders (Rueda, 2007; Lindvall and Rueda, 2014). People in self-employment do not benefit from strong protection of wage-employment. On the contrary, as long as they depend on, for example, short-term freelance contracts, strict hiring regulations might even prevent their access to work. For precarious self-employed workers this implies that their interest are represented by neither left-wing, nor right-wing parties. This line of reasoning is consistent with the general thesis that economically marginalized groups (e.g., the ‘losers’ of globalization, Kriesi et al, 2008) may become politically alienated, and might abstain from participation in general or turn away from mainstream parties in particular. A movement to the radical right may be expected to be driven by political dissatisfaction (De Witte and Klandermans, 2000). Emmenegger et al (2015), for example, find that labor market disadvantages may lead to support for radical political forces as they influence individual’s perception of the extent to which the political system is responsive to their personal needs. Especially radical-right wing politics are assumed to appeal strongly to those who are most insecure and alienated from mainstream parties. The ideological blend of radical-right parties [i.e., combining a centrist economic program with welfare chauvinism and protectionism (Mudde, 2000)] may be especially attractive to those in vulnerable forms of self-employment. Self-employed individuals in economically and socially precarious conditions, may exhibit a “politics of resentment” by seeking to punish mainstream politics for their relative misfortunes (Wells and Watson, 2005; Standing, 2011). Hence, hypotheses 3 assumes that people in precarious self-employment are outsiders in the political system.
People in self-employment jobs that are more (a) insecure, (b) involuntary and (c) dependent are less strongly oriented towards liberal-conservative politics, and more strongly oriented towards radical-right politics and abstention.