Dressing the Emperor

The Dangerous Farce of the Petite Bourgeoisie

January 28, 2021

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.

 

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 response to this quandary by the Democratic and Republican establishments seems nearly designed to accelerate the kind of proto-fascist, white supremacist mobilizing that found its footing in the Trump era (though it was never more than dormant in any American period). Republicans pay lip service to the “nobility” and struggle of “Main Street” small businesspeople, but their true interest in tacitly or openly supporting the anti-lockdown protests is to hasten the return of wage-laborers to the warehouses, agricultural processing plants, and other large worksites whose capitalist owners depend on manual, in-person labor (and which owners contribute handsomely to their reelection coffers and employ them after they exit government service). Republicans are terrified, as well, that by extending unemployment benefits that constitute above-minimum wages in many localities, they might risk opening the eyes of exploited wage-laborers and unleashing a popular movement against the austerity regime that is their only possible offering to their bourgeois capitalist overlords. 

Democrats, on the other hand (while similarly beholden to big capital), know that much of their liberal, college-educated base is employed in “knowledge” work that easily and quickly migrated to the home office. As long as they appeared to campaign for larger stimulus checks and unemployment extension, they could simultaneously assure the more proletarian, wage-laborer section of their base that they were fighting for them, however quixotically.

It should surprise no one that the combination of a right-wing demagogue in the Oval Office, widespread economic and health-related immiseration even before COVID-19, and the mass movement of Black Lives Matter taking the streets during the middle of a global pandemic, resulted in a reactionary, organized assault on a multivalent symbol of the American political establishment. Whether the Capitol building represents to these Trumpian enragés the pedophilic, Satan-worshipping Democrats who give “handouts” to a largely Black and Brown working class while their vape shops and tanning salons go belly up, or whether that Neoclassical dome means establishment Republicans who refuse to participate enthusiastically enough in the alt-right’s delusions of Kulturkampf and “white genocide,” Trump’s stolen election “big lie” was always and only a pretense. 

Of course, Conservatives have always believed they could harness the anger and resentment of a downwardly mobile and racially paranoid middle class to suppress the Left. In the early 1930s elections that ultimately brought Hitler to power, the Protestant middle class was the defining demographic in his support; the unemployed and working-class overwhelmingly supported the SPD’s social-democratic ballot.

America’s relationship with its homegrown petit bourgeois is, however, more opaque on the surface (and irrevocably more complicated by the enslavement of people of African descent, and by race more broadly). Abraham Lincoln, in his First Annual Message of 1861, articulates a deceptively Marxian labor theory of value: 

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

He was careful, however, to contrast European modes of production with a kind of hopeful American exceptionalism [emphasis mine]:

“Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class–neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the North a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families—wives, sons, and daughters—work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other.”

As the Civil War itself demonstrated, the priorities of a petit bourgeois that aspires to the economic and social dominance of the true bourgeoisie that lords it over them, and a white supremacist reaction against a despised, non-white class of persons whose liberation, they are told, stands in the way of that aspiration, are in the American tradition quite inextricable.

Marx might have warned him where this all was headed. (And indeed they exchanged letters, though only through Lincoln’s subordinates.) This was clearly a large part of the foundational aspiration for the United States: a nation of democratic, patriarchal yeoman farmers and artisans, sustained perhaps for a time by westward expansion and genocidal Indian removal, and the absence of land enclosure policies and the kind of industrial monopolization prevailing in Britain and the rest of Europe. But with the annihilation of family farms as a sustainable economic model (and the cultural values and familial structures it reinforced) that mythos attached itself to the “small business” proprietor. If you’ve ever worked for a boss who described his employees as “one big family,” you understand.  (As Peter Kwong outlined in his studies of immigrant business and Chinatown in NYC, literal family ties often structure hyper-oppressive conditions of work, while major corporations from Amazon to McDonalds try to sell the “family” structure of work as a justification for danger, self-sacrifice, union-busting and low wages. The truth is, work just wont “love you back.”)

As the Civil War itself demonstrated, the priorities of a petit bourgeois that aspires to the economic and social dominance of the true bourgeoise that lords it over them, and a white supremacist reaction against a despised, non-white class of persons whose liberation, they are told, stands in the way of that aspiration, are in the American tradition quite inextricable.

Thus, on January 6th, Trump’s mob waved the Confederate battle flag in chambers that it never managed to intrude under the armies of Lee and Davis. The internet LOLs at memes of a QAnon “shaman” in horns and fake furs astride the dais of the US Senate. We forget at our peril that the Boston Tea Partiers were also effectively LARPers, in the sense of being self-evident and self-aware in their ridiculous and costumed presentation, but with deadly serious politics. Marx himself anticipated such bizarro, atavistic displays:

“…precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

Trump, in addition to his reality TV-show-turned-presidency,  is famous for his Art of the Deal. The book of course, was ghost-written by Tony Schwartz, who in retrospect views it as a monument to skilled but shallow deception and a deceptively substance-free and too-easily dismissed stepping stone for Trump’s eventual path to real power.  The comical trappings of petit bourgeois aspirations should, now, likewise not be underestimated. With or without Trump, that is the “art” of fascist aesthetics, as a cover for anti-democratic and eliminationist aims. That’s the “deal.” 

 

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