My best friend is in training to someday take the reins of his family business. In the course of this education he has had to learn some hard truths of business, and he has been required to do things in the quest for the bottom line which don’t exactly fill him with self-worth. I’ve had a few conversations with him in which he has freaked out over having to lay off veteran employees, or in which he wonders whether he might be a little too good at being a company man. While unlike me he has a family and thus the sort of obligations which tend to fade younger principles, we’re on the same page on just about every ideal. The main difference between who we are today is that he can better pass as normal.
After the recent madness descended upon Wisconsin, my first conversation with my friend naturally involved me asking him whether he was getting flak for being a businessman. I didn’t get the impression that he was being painted as a greedy villain, and he came out pretty hard against Walker’s power grab. However, he did note that he is dreading what he may be forced to do as a local businessman as a result of trends set by corporations.
His dismal outlook on the matter, combined with many other such conversations I’ve had with others in the past few weeks, led me to articulate a viewpoint that has been solidifying in my brain during the Wisconsin protests. Small businesses are the human shields of corporations.
As a term, capitalism is as outdated and indistinct as punk rock, and yet the real genius of its most extreme adherents is that they’ve managed to keep it in the public lexicon. What this does is create a universal economic banner that has little basis in reality, perpetuating the myth that an attempt to stop the excesses of corporations is an assault on small business. Captains of industry take the lion’s share of the profits, but when it’s time to talk taxes and regulation it always seems like the world’s Joe the Plumbers get trotted out with sob stories about how the government – never the corporations themselves – are out to destroy their grassroots hard work. We saw this during the 2008 financial meltdown; we’re seeing this in today’s union-busting fever, and we’ll see it so long as small businesses are allowed to survive.
A parallel argument tends to paint all critics of unfettered capitalism as hardcore Stalinists or Maoists. I saw this during the current conflict, as Rush Limbaugh went on a typical troll and deemed Madison “Moscow West” – as though Madison’s communities of college students, artists, Packer fans, and hippies would be down for running gulags and engineering mass famines.
Though I’m usually one of these dirty critical commies, I can’t deny that big business serves a great purpose. For good and ill, big businesses connect consumers and distribute products in a way that small business can’t, which results in greater commercial egalitarianism. Chain stores have better hours and catalogues than small businesses, and it’s easier to get a job in a big company (I’ve found most small businesses to be rather cliquish in their hiring practices). Our modern, costly state of high technology is almost wholly beyond the reach of grassroots business. For all their sins, corporations fill a vital role in our world. The problem is that they rarely hold themselves to that role.
Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that small businesses and large corporations are the same creatures with the same interests. Let’s not act as though the same laws of taxation, the same labor conditions, and the same levels of government regulation can be applied in the same manner to both large and small businesses. They can’t.
Whereas franchise stores are interchangeable clones worked by faceless staff, backed by enough money and advertising to steamroll over any resistance, the survival of small businesses depends entirely upon the connections they make with their communities. This isn’t a necessary consideration for Wal-Mart, or Best Buy, or any company who can afford to sell its products for less than it paid for them. Consumers may flock to dirt low prices, but when corporations use those profits to shut down every small business in town, the customer truly gets what it paid for.
So why don’t we completely divorce the two concepts and acknowledge that small businesses and corporations are completely different, often competing species within the capitalism genus? Let’s coin new terms for the economic disciplines of each and stick to them in the public discourse, so as to avoid the confusion and blurred lines which screw up all discussions of capitalism. So far, the best word I’ve thought of to describe the work of small businesses is localism. I’m not the biggest fan of that term (too bad socialism was already taken), but corporatism works just fine to describe the other side. Of course, it’s always profitable for the big shots to duck behind the bodies of their less powerful counterparts, so don’t expect to ever see this separation mentioned in the mainstream. But that’s the fun of living in a post-media world in which the mainstream is fairly irrelevant.
Keep these distinctions in mind the next time the elected monkeys raise a stink about taxes, redistributing the wealth, or any other obstacle which threatens the impending dollar feudalism. People like my friend aren’t the only human shields at big business’ disposal. We are all cannon fodder, if we allow ourselves to be.