This piece is written from the context of a stalwart NDP supporter who wants to see the party both succeed, and succeed with purpose.
Recently, the NDP’s official Twitter account put up a post suggesting that “small businesses are the backbone of our economy.” And while one tweet’s importance should not be overstated, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said the same thing recently. This is representative of a problem that is central to the NDP and its failure to put forward a coherent message rooted in the class conflict and social relations that define Canada.
Small businesses are the backbone of our economy.— NDP (@NDP) March 3, 2021
Join @theJagmeetSingh in calling on Justin Trudeau to support your local mom and pop shop and not wealthy corporations that are profiting off of the pandemic.
Sign here https://t.co/Cd1WCIdtuD pic.twitter.com/qqV3DN7Xnu
This tweet was heavily ‘ratioed’ (it got more negative responses than positive ones) precisely because it failed to represent both the desires of New Democratic activists, but—more importantly—it also failed to represent the reality within our current social and economic order.
Business owners—from Galen Weston Jr. to the local ‘mom and pop’—do not form the backbone of the Canadian economy: the working class in all its diversity and complexity does. Without labour there is nothing, and Canada’s nominally left-wing party should understand this, and not shy away from saying it.
It must be remembered that class conflict is a persistent reality in this country, even if our leaders are reluctant to name it as such. And while there is likely a case to be made that mega corporations have divergent interests from small businesses, it is likewise the case that they share much in common, and that working class people are not of the same class as the petty capitalists that employ them.
Certainly, there are areas of cooperation which may be found between left-of-centre parties and small businesses. This may include policies to curb the power of large landlords that stifle both residential renters and small shop fronts. It may also entail efforts to ensure public utilities serve the needs of the community rather than privatized profit, which on everything from hydro to internet service could lower costs for businesses and individuals alike. It may even include pushes for universal social programs that narrow the competitive advantage that exists between larger employers that provide benefits and many smaller ones which do not.
But none of this must obscure the reality that a working people’s party is not a petty capitalist party. The alliances with that latter class must be tactical and made on a case-by-case basis, not utilized as some sort of unifying philosophy. The problem with “small business” as terminology is that it is both nebulous and tends to act as a ‘cleanser’ for capitalism. Comparisons to the term middle class instantly jump to mind. It is a term which includes far too many people to be useful as any sort of vector of political analysis, and tends to obfuscate the realities of class and capital in Canada.
Small business likewise can include—in the popular mindset—businesses ranging from single proprietorships to handfuls of employees to literally anything which isn’t an identifiable national or international brand. This allows rather hefty businesses to cloak themselves in the sympathetic veil of small business-hood while being nothing of the sort. But even if we came to a universally-accepted definition of small business within popular discourse, we must resist the urge, as Matt Bruenig puts it in Jacobin, to “fetishize mom and pops” because they can often be just as cruel, exploitative, and stingy when it comes to the treatment of their workers when compared to their larger counterparts. This is because the nature of capitalism is to extract surplus labour from workers as part of the profit-making process, and while scale is not irrelevant, the mechanisms play out even when the boss has only five employees, let alone 5,000.
Similarly, small businesses tend to be harder to unionize, and just as hostile to unionization as the most cutthroat conglomerate. As a party which was formed at the outset in an alliance with the Canadian Labour Congress, the NDP should question the limitations of lionizing the very small capitalists who tend to run mini-autocracies where few if any of their workers have union representation. Certainly, petty capitalism isn’t the lynchpin of the economic democracy we should be striving to build.
In February, the popular Alberta Advantage podcast released an episode on this broad topic, reminding people that as leftists we must challenge our political-economic system of exploitation, and that small businesses do not exist outside of capitalism, but are rather integral to it. To illustrate this, the hosts used a browser extension which replaces all mentions of small businesses on the internet to “small capitalists.” Seeing this myself in action was illuminating: while I am cognizant of the cleansing value small businesses serve to capitalism, it is laid bare when you see them referred to as “small capitalists,” and the lengths progressive groups continue to go to worship them.
Again, none of this is to say that the NDP must adopt a directly hostile line of attack against the local coffee joint or candle shop, and it isn’t to suggest that cooperation isn’t possible. Indeed, in 1972, David Lewis made great headway in attacking corporate welfare aimed specifically at the largest capitalists, likely winning some tactical support from small businesses. But the NDP must be a party of workers, and the interests of workers aren’t the same as the interests of mom and pop.
Christo Aivalis is political writer and commentator with a PhD in History. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Passage. He can be found daily on YouTube.