Small Business Owners at the Barricades

Small business owners, who feature prominently in the anti-shutdown protests, occupy a unique place in capitalism’s class hierarchy — although many share the same kinds of struggles experienced by wage workers, as a class, they’re often drawn to the far right.

Protesters hold signs encouraging people to demand that businesses be allowed to open up, and people allowed to go back to work, at the Country Club Plaza on April 20, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. Jamie Squire / Getty

Last weekend, Minnesota state representative Mary Franson posted a video to social media in which more than a dozen Minnesotans pleaded with governor Tim Walz to lift his shelter-in-place order, allowing businesses to reopen and normal economic functions to resume. The video was stamped with the words “Open Up Minnesota” beneath an image of an open door inside the state’s silhouette.

The testimonial videos had been crowdsourced through the website of the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus, which had put out a call asking for “input from business owners and workers to help get Minnesota operational as soon as possible.” For whatever reason, the caucus chose only to include submissions from women, all of whom were white and roughly between the ages of thirty and sixty-five.

Of particular note was the class composition of the women who voiced their dissatisfaction with Walz’s pandemic safety measures. The majority were small-business owners, including proprietors of multiple hair salons and massage parlors, a bowling alley, and a vacation rental. Many of the others were likely self-employed, including multiple swimming instructors and hair stylists. Only one of sixteen, a dental hygienist, cited a job that probably meant she appears on somebody else’s payroll.

Around the country, in-person protests against sheltering in place have featured more eclectic crowds, including right-wing extremists, conspiracy theorists, armed militia members, anti-vaxxers, and religious zealots. But the protests have also drawn some more mainstream conservatives who regard the protests as essentially DIY Donald Trump rallies. Among the latter group, the preponderance of pro-small-business signage suggests that people from the same economic stratum as those featured in the Minnesota video may make up a significant portion of the protesting population. “All business is essential” and “Small business is essential” were common slogans across the country.

One in four businesses owners say that if the economic lockdown continues, they fear their businesses will permanently shutter. Meanwhile, one in ten working Americans has lost a paycheck. When people read that the protestors were chanting “Let us work,” their minds may turn to the latter. Of course it’s impossible to fully separate out economic and ideological concerns, but anecdotally, it seems that the protestors who were motivated by the immediate problem of making a living (rather than just right-wing political views) were more likely to be struggling small-business owners than laid-off employees.

Noticing the overrepresentation of small-business owners, some on the Left have remarked that the anti-shutdown protestors appear to want other people to work so they can continue making money off their labor. While that is certainly what lies behind many business lobbying and astroturfed campaigns, it’s not a fair characterization of a shoebox storefront owner. When a white sixty-one-year-old female hair salon proprietor brandishes a sign saying, “I want to save my business!!! I need to work to live. Otherwise I will die,” she very likely means it. Among other things, she’s not eligible for Medicare yet, so in the absence of Medicare for All, she has to buy her own insurance. If she has no customers, there’s a good chance she won’t be able to afford that.

The Literal Middle Class

People who own very small businesses with few or no employees occupy their own stratum of the class hierarchy. They aren’t what Marxists usually call workers, in that they don’t survive by selling their labor to an owner in exchange for a wage. However, they generally do work, in the sense that they have no choice but to put in actual labor in order to sustain themselves, unlike wealthy capitalists who employ large numbers of people and can simply sit back and collect profit.

From New York City immigrant-run bodegas to suburban Michigan thrift shops, there are many small-business owners who are now facing a choice between paying for health insurance, mortgage payments, and groceries, unable to cover them all. Marxists traditionally think in terms of exploited workers and privileged owners, and while there is some truth to that schema (especially in terms of autonomy and opportunities for advancement), it’s also true that many small-business owners have living standards that are comparable to members of their community who are on payroll. The fundamental difference is the nature of their employment — whether they rely on profit or a wage.

On average, this middle stratum is by no means the hardest hit by the economic shutdown. That distinction surely goes to newly laid-off workers struggling to survive, as well as essential workers who are being exposed to a deadly disease without adequate protection or compensation, often facing retaliation for standing up for themselves. Nonetheless, many self-employed people and owners of small businesses are in dire straits and have legitimate grievances.

Freelance self-employment is part of this middle stratum, too. As the late Marxist theorist Erik Olin Wright explained, “Self-employment is primarily contrasted to two other conditions: being employed by someone else (i.e. being a wage-earner) or earning an income without working at all (i.e. being a rentier of one sort or another who receives an income without working).” Thus, like very-small-business owners who are unable to stop working lest their enterprises collapse, self-employed people also exist between the two dominant classes, their lives sharing some characteristics with both. In this sense, both groups can be understood as comprising a literal middle class — a term often erroneously used to refer to workers with a certain degree of material security.

In a moment of heightened class conflict, the allegiances of self-employed people and very-small-business owners who occupy this space between capitalists and workers are often up for grabs. While the current protests have a clear right-wing coloring and most of those participating in them are presumably beyond persuasion, there are many more business owners undoubtedly watching them from home and considering their arguments.

Anti-capitalists should strategize about how to prevent more small-business owners and self-employed people from siding with the Right. One way to go about this would be to build up the social-democratic welfare state. It won’t solve every problem, but if, thanks to Medicare for All and tuition-free higher education, self-employed people and small-business owners didn’t have health care bills to pay and college tuition to worry about, they wouldn’t just be less likely to side with right-wing movements out of desperation. They would also have a material stake in supporting the Left — to fend off the inevitable attacks on such programs from the Right.