In the firmament of deified American archetypes, none commands perhaps so much unquestioned deference as that of the “small business owner.” The price of transgressing against this entrepreneurial phantom can be seen in stark relief in the backlash against Barack Obama’s (cynically cherry-picked) statement in 2012 that, “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” He ought to have known better after his 2008 campaign’s brush with “Joe the Plumber.” Of course, Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher was neither an actual plumber, nor someone with serious prospects for owning a plumbing business; it didn’t matter that he made barely forty thousand dollars during the year in which he was pontificating about higher taxes crushing the dream of being his own boss. The right to dream that dream, however fanciful, is enshrined in the American popular imagination as the most sacred of (white) entitlements.
In August 2012, still milking the remainder of his political clout, Wurzelbacher told a reporter, “For years I’ve said, you know, put a damn fence on the border going to Mexico and start shooting.” Molon Labe, indeed.
The first reported death among Trump’s quasi-insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol last Wednesday was of thirty-five year old San Diego resident, Ashli Babbitt. Most news reports centered her ten-year service in the Air Force, and while the reality of ex-military or police presence in these proto-fascist formations is both disturbing and increasingly well-known, one nearly overlooked detail was this: Babbitt was the owner and proprietor, along with her husband, of a small, struggling pool-supply business. Pop stayed home, but Mom heard Trump’s battle cry and helped to comprise the tip of a very strange American spear as it breached the doors of the House of Representatives.
On hearing that Trump was, however feebly, calling on the mob to go home, one man was heard to shout, “well, he can go home to his Mar-a-Lago estate. We gotta go back to our businesses that are closed!”
Among the rioters identified thus far: a CEO of a small tech company, the owners of a chain of gyms, a real estate agent, a tattoo artist, lawyers, high-ranking cops, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, the son of a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge. These are not the toothless “rednecks” of “deplorable” lore; these are representatives of a specific and dangerous class fraction: the American petit bourgeois.
As Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.”
Nowhere has the intersection of this petit bourgeois, Trump-loving conspiracy theorists, racist right-wing militias, and plain old white entitlement been on clearer display than in the anti-lockdown protests, most prominent (and most militarized) in the Rust Belt and the Pacific Northwest. In Michigan, especially, we see how rallies about shuttered small businesses, framed in the language of “freedom” and personal autonomy, escalated to a dead serious militia plot to kidnap and possibly execute Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
In interviews with anti-lockdown protesters, a consistent theme develops: people “don’t want a handout; they want to go back to work.” Few in the media scratched the surface of these statements, especially concerning the class position of those making them. In article after article, you’ll find (interwoven and coexistent with QAnon cranks and committed “Three Percenter” militiamen) that the most obstreperous protesters are small businesses owners of barber shops, tanning salons, bars, restaurants, and landscaping companies. The people they want back at work are their employees, a class fraction significantly underrepresented in these protests.
There’s good reason for these skewed ratios. Most wage-laborers received (paltry) stimulus checks, but were also eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits, while small business owners complained about being frozen out of the emergency Paycheck Protection Program federal loans, a process much more easily navigated by large corporations with armies of savvy lawyers, some of which were pressured into returning money they clearly didn’t need. The news reports to that effect only added to petit bourgeois anti-elite sentiment. At the same time, small businesses are much more likely to be in serious debt and over-leveraged. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, twenty percent of new small businesses close within the first year, while fifty percent fail by the end of their fifth year. The COVID-19 lockdowns have only intensified the very normal process of capital accumulation and the all-too-predictable squeezing of small producers described by Marx.