Karl Marx’s theory of the petite bourgeoisie was essentially about shopkeepers. At times, his theories have inspired utter contempt for and contributed to violence against that ubiquitous class. Although Marxist-inspired mass atrocities have claimed many lives, the shopkeeper has been a persistent prime target, as the supposed epitome of greed and exploitation, a useful tool of larger capitalists, etc. This one-dimensional argument has even led to calls for their eradication.
For eighteenth-century social theorist Justus Möser, shopkeepers threatened the livelihood of artisans and peasantry and the sociopolitical order of his hometown of Osnabrück. According to Möser, shopkeepers brought city-made goods, manufactured on a larger scale, hence introducing new tastes and desires that could be satisfied at a cheap price and completely transforming semi-rural Osnabrück and destroying its traditional culture in less than half a century.
Today’s American equivalent of the shopkeeper is the small business retailer or microbusiness owner: Marxists and other ideologues no longer view shopkeepers as an existential threat. The most recent large protest against a single group of small retailers occurred during the 1992 Los Angeles riots and caused destruction, but was not a mass atrocity.
It is more common to see local, short-term collective protests against retailers—especially those from immigrant or Asian backgrounds—by African Americans in poor urban neighborhoods. The protesters often meet with sympathy from progressive and radical leftist groups, who presume that there is a static, structural inequality between Asian and African Americans or between retailers and residents.
Small business retailers have clearly always encountered some animosity.
However, retailers now enjoy a better reputation. The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our attention to the looming economic crisis. A depression, or at least an economic recession, is almost certain. The small business is being heralded as a critical local institution, which we must save in order to mitigate or prevent an economic downturn. Many of the public are learning that small business comprise 99.9% of all businesses in the United States and employ nearly half the US workforce. If small businesses collapse, our entire economy will collapse. There have therefore been cross-party calls to support retailers, who are now in the national spotlight.
If and when the current crisis subsides, resentment against certain retailers may re-emerge. Presently, retailers are viewed as the employers of millions of low-income, immigrant and undocumented workers, individuals whose opportunities are few. The income those workers earn supports their immediate families and may be converted into remittances sent to family abroad.
More usually, however, retailers are portrayed as opportunists exploiting workers’ labor. Those who run bodegas, liquor stores, fried chicken restaurants and other businesses in poorer neighborhoods are often also accused of exploiting local residents. The public view of retailers is highly polarized.
Such views do not endanger small businesses alone. They obscure the fuller truth about poverty and labor in the United States and hamper effective social and labor policymaking.
Few liberal or progressive activists ask themselves whether the small business retailer is poor, too, when she is involved in a dispute with poor workers or residents. Yet it is not uncommon for retailers in poor urban neighborhoods to be immigrants from difficult backgrounds. If someone opens a corner store in a high-violence neighborhood in Baltimore or St. Louis, he probably lacks the capital necessary to open in a safer neighborhood. Or perhaps he has only limited English and operating a corner store is one of the few jobs he can manage.
Certain subethnic immigrant groups, such as the Pakistani Memon in Chicago and the Iraqi Chaldeans in Detroit, are strongly influenced by a family-centered ethos, which compels individuals to take on less than favorable retail work in order to financially sustain the collective. In a dispute between such a retailer and a poor worker or resident, the latter is often seen as a victim of circumstance, while the former is not.
Sociologists refer to this as framing: we strictly demarcate people into victims and oppressors, or allies and enemies. Labor and other activists use it to achieve organizing objectives. Framing of this sort obscures facts.
In the current economic crisis, it is important to understand the facts about small business retailers in order to optimize social and labor policymaking and craft effective COVID-19 relief legislation. A series of bills, which are being negotiated between Democrats and Republicans, continuously fail to address the distinctiveness of small retailers.
Despite bipartisan rallying on behalf of small business, the bills do not provide scaffolding for individuals who do not conveniently fit into the categories of salary or wage worker. Paid sick leave—a key stipulation in the relief legislation and often touted as universally applicable—is a foreign concept to many small business retailers. Unless they choose to pay themselves wages, which is not always the case, it remains uncertain whether paid sick leave will benefit them as much as it will the typical salary or wage worker.
Even if the benefit were extended to retailers, they might not take advantage of it. I once asked the owner of a local deli where her husband was, assuming that he was sick because he usually works alongside her. While she made sandwiches, took orders and managed the payroll singlehandedly, her husband was working in the backroom. “Always here, seven days a week—healthy or not healthy,” she told me. This work ethic rules out paid sick leave even as a voluntary option.
If small business retailers are neither salary nor wage workers, what labor class do they fall into?
Some insights can be drawn from Walter Zenner’s work on Jewish middleman minorities. Zenner argues that Jews were historically often part of a merchant class, midway between the upper and the poorer classes. Middleman minorities generally buy from dominant groups and sell to poorer groups.
From a labor perspective today, the dominant group is usually comprised of mid to high-level members of government, corporations and large organizations. Members of the dominant group often earn comfortable salaries and fringe benefits and may enjoy a degree of job security because of bureaucracy or the organizational structure of the corporation. Those belonging to poorer groups are often low-income wage workers with few to no fringe benefits, who lack job security.
Middleman minorities, like small business retailers in general, have always operated under a certain type of precarity that is uncommon among typical salary and wage workers. They do not have the social safety net provided for the poor worker, and the risk is theirs alone, rather than distributed, as it is for the salaried worker.
One could argue that small business retailers do not need the same social safety net as the poor because they are not as vulnerable. However, there are considerable risks to running a small retail business. Many such businesses shutter only after a short time because of cost and competition. Restaurants, for example, are notorious for operating on low margins. The industry has become less and less profitable.
Despite some people’s assumptions that owning a small business means having a substantial income, the average income of a small business owner is, well, quite average. Even if we don’t account for their longer than average work hours.
In addition to financial risks, occupational health research suggests that small business retailers experience high levels of stress. Depending on the type of business and where it is located, retailers may experience some of the highest rates of workplace violence in the US. Some are even in danger of being physically assaulted or killed.
My own research on Cambodian alcohol store owners in Philadelphia, for example, has found disturbing patterns of violence against them. One owner was shot in front of his store in broad daylight, by a man wielding an AK-47. Others speak of being physically assaulted, dealing with racial and sexual harassment from store visitors, and of thefts and robberies, which may go unreported to the police because the storeowners are afraid or because they have come to passively accept their circumstances. Many of these Cambodians have fled genocide, only to find themselves in violent workplaces in their new home country.
The popular imagination of the small business retailer is of a smiling man sitting in a tree-lined Main Street mainstay or a friendly cashier in a New York City bodega. While such people certainly exist, their cheeriness can conceal the real anxiety and anguish retailers often hide in the name of good customer service. As anthropologists point out, our gaze is selective. What we often don’t see is the vulnerability and precarity of many small businesses, which existed before our current crisis.
Many people are—rightly—taking the opportunity of the current public health crisis and looming economic crisis to draw attention to the inadequacies of our social policy and the vulnerabilities of America’s workforce. However, the specifics of their policy demands, such as paid sick leave and unemployment insurance, are also inadequate, because of an incomplete conceptualization of labor, which does not fully account for the millions of small business retailers—ranging from the corner store owner to the food cart street vendor—who are labor anomalies. They are effectively workers too, and they can be poor as well.
This incomplete understanding stems partly from ideological blindness and unwillingness to encourage intellectual heterodoxy and engage in conversations that include representatives of well-reasoned liberal, progressive and conservative thought.
Sometimes, the small business retailer is portrayed as a villain, an exploiter of the worker and the poor; sometimes celebrated as an indispensable part of the local economy: either an antagonist or a rugged individual. This simplified binary picture leaves us with no recourse to address the real vulnerability among them.