Are shopkeepers the only true anarchists? The idea came to mind this week on reading a really wonderful new book by Yale professor James C Scott called Two Cheers for Anarchism, which defends anarchism as a political principle and attacks large institutions, whether state or corporate. The most brilliant chapter offers a defence of the petty bourgeoisie, a class to which I now happily belong.
Prof Scott points out that when American wage slaves, tied down to factory jobs, are asked by opinion polls what sort of work they would prefer, most say they yearn to run their own shop, restaurant or farm. Prof Scott goes on to say that, "the desire for autonomy, for control over the working day and the sense of freedom and self-respect such control provides, is a vastly under-estimated social aspiration for much of the world's population".
The life of a shopkeeper has traditionally been viewed with scorn by middle-class professionals, Marxists and aristocrats alike, to whom "trade" is a dirty word. The petty bourgeoisie was viewed with distaste by the Bolshevik state. Indeed, states in general seem unfriendly to small business: it is the leaders of giant corporations and banks who are given time by Downing Street, not small businesspeople.
But it is the petty bourgeois who are the really responsible citizens, in that they get on with making and selling, and do not hang around waiting for the state to help them out. They might work long hours for a low income, but this is seen as preferable to being slowly strangled in a boring job for the state or big business.
Scott: "I believe the petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by large public and private bureaucracies. Autonomy and freedom are, along with mutuality, at the centre of an anarchist sensibility. Second, I am convinced that the petite bourgeoisie performs vital social and economic services under any political system."
To be sure, running a small shop is no easy task. You are subject to pretty much the same rules as any large company as far as VAT, employment law, health and safety, insurance and tax are concerned. In fact, you may pay a larger percentage of your profits (if any) in tax than big companies, as the recent fuss over the tax arrangements of several megaliths has demonstrated. The Booksellers Association is to be commended this week for producing window stickers for independent booksellers which read: "We Pay Our Taxes!"
Small shops provide a social service which the likes of Amazon can never match. The door is always open and anyone can wander in for a browse and a chat. The shopkeeper greets you with a friendly smile. He or she can trade joys and woes with you. "One sees that the shopkeepers are unpaid social workers, providing brief but amiable companionship to their steady clientele," writes Prof Scott.
Having been delighted by these reflections, I was also delighted to read my copy of the new Anarchist Voices magazine. Here I read an article by former teacher Chris Draper which put into words an issue that had been worrying me, namely: how can anarchists, who look forward to a withering of state control, also whinge about cuts? Logically speaking, they should welcome cuts as a step towards individual self-reliance. Draper writes: "Anarchists should regard state cuts as an opportunity and respond creatively with ideas for voluntary, collective solutions, not mindlessly parrot socialist anti-cuts slogans."
You could even make the same argument for jobs: if anarchists are serious in their condemnation of wage slavery, then instead of whingeing and moaning when giant firms lay off 1,000 workers, they should be rejoicing that 1,000 people have been released from servitude. We should get out there and help those people to recreate their lives anew. In fact I am forced to conclude that the Occupy movement, which started off in such promising and creative fashion, a magnificent anti-usury demonstration with library and café on the steps of St Paul's, appears to have degenerated into a lot of purposeless moaning. Perhaps it has been invaded by the Bolsheviks, and the responsible anarchists have been pushed out.
It is time for us all to embrace the life of the shopkeeper and smallholder. It is a noble path. There is help out there. The Federation of Small Businesses, of which I am a proud member, does fantastic work in standing up for the little guy, with practical help as well as positive propaganda.
Truly, to be a shopkeeper is a revolutionary act. As Prof Scott asserts, "[A] society dominated by smallholders and shopkeepers comes closer to equality and to popular ownership of the means of production than any economic system yet devised." Yes, comrades, rise up, throw off your chains, open a shop!
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'