1960s >> 1964 >> no-715-march-1964

The little capitalist

Capitalist society is divided into two classes, a small minority owning the means of life (factories, land, etc.) and the vast majority owning little or nothing and consequently being compelled to hire themselves out to the owning class in order to obtain their means of existence. And the only sensible definition of this latter working class is that those who have no choice but to work for their living belong to it. Roughly speaking, in a modern capitalist country such as Britain about 90 per cent, of the population belong to the propertyless working class and the remainder constitute the capitalist class.

Now the above remarks are so obvious as to be truisms and one would think that there would be no need to re-iterate them to people who live all their lives in capitalist society. Nevertheless, there has always been a propensity among workers to confuse the issue (and themselves) by contending that they do not belong to the working class but to something that they are pleased to call the middle class. This attitude is prevalent among so-called white-collar workers, bank clerks, office staff and the like. These people, however, are suffering from self-delusion. The fact that they work for wages or salaries and can be sacked like any other workers if it is no longer profitable for their employers to use their services, should be proof enough for anyone that they fall in with our definition of the working class—that they must work for their living or they cannot live at all.

Strangely enough, however, many workers, instead of accepting this obvious division of society into two classes, have been more concerned to blur the division with border-line cases. One typical example that is often brought up is that of the small shopkeeper. Here, we are told, is a class of people many of whom have by dint of industry and thrift accumulated sufficient capital to enable them to climb out of the ranks of the working class to that happy state where they no longer work for an employer and are masters of their own fate. What substance is there in this story?

Let us consider a fairly typical—and true—example. This man had for over 20 years been a worker in the packaging industry, latterly as a departmental foreman. Like so many similar workers he had long dreamed of achieving his independence and by dint of much self-denial had saved over the years the not inconsiderable amount oft £2,000, a sum far beyond the reach of most workers. In due course he was able to use this sum as a deposit to buy the lease and goodwill of his dream business—a village store in the Home Counties. The balance of the purchase price (a further £3,000) was borrowed from a finance company who took a mortgage on the business as security. The rest of the story can be quickly told. He gave up his job and his home and moved into the shop with his family. For two years he (and his wife who had previously not been working plus help in their spare time from his two children at school) worked harder than he had ever done before. Customers appeared to be there in plenty and the shop was always busy, but somehow the takings and the profits always seemed to fall a little bit below what had been hoped for. The number of customers was as great as expected but their purchases were a little disappointing. One of the main reasons, it transpired, was that although there was no cut-price multiple store in the village (which was not big enough to attract one; if one had opened, it would have meant a quicker death for him) there were two in the nearby town and people were getting a fair amount of week-end supplies from there.

If the savings had been large enough to have paid the entire purchase price the venture would have been able to keep afloat, but as things were the mortgage repayments proved just that bit too high and he got further and further behind. The mortgage company acted with reasonable forbearance, but eventually the predestined end arrived and he was compelled to sell at the best price he could get in order to meet his obligations. Eventually, when he had given up the struggle and reckoned what he had lost in money and legal expenses, he found himself having to look for a new home and job with about £500 of his cash remaining. But, as he said, it could have been worse.

For the whole of the period, he confided, he had gone to bed worrying about money; when eventually he had managed to fall asleep he had dreamt about money; and when he woke up in the morning his first thought was, once again, money. During the day he and his wife had worked themselves to a standstill trying to economise on hired labour (but there was a limit to that because if customers were kept waiting too long they walked out). He would not allow an assistant to cut the bacon because he found there was waste at the end; only he could be trusted to cut it right out. Whenever possible, one of two fridges would be switched off to save coppers on the current. The whole of his existence was geared to skimping and scraping over pennies. This was the price of independence. Clearly it was not worth it.

And, of course, even the delusion of independence soon wore off. True there was no employer to warn him of impending dismissal if his work did not suit or his face did not fit. But every month he had to find the money to pay his bills for bread, cigarettes and detergents, otherwise the supplies would be cut off and the business closed (which would have meant the loss of the entire capital paid for the goodwill of the business). It did not take him long to realise that he had swapped one employer for a dozen. He was now acting as local distributor for the big firms who manufactured the goods sold in his shop. And he was doing this work at a rate per hour and with an expenditure of work and worry that it would have been quite unthinkable when he was an ordinary employee. How could he be no longer a worker when he was working harder than ever? And what a joke it was that he was providing the big food and tobacco combines with a quality of labour which they could not possibly get from their direct employees not many of whom would lie awake at nigh; worrying if the sales of Omo or Woodbines were falling below target.

Of course, it is true that most small shopkeepers seem to keep going; not all are forced out of the fight. Nevertheless, it is true that the heyday of the corner shop is over. The struggle with the giant multiple is too unequal and the little man finds the competition increasingly overpowering. Board of Trade figures show that a constant stream of grocers, greengrocers and the like are being forced out of the rat-race. And of those who remain, how many could honestly say that they are not really workers? If they counted the hours that they and their wives put in to the business they would possibly find that they were in reality not only workers but underpaid ones into the bargain. In their way they and their families put in their unpaid labour, the small shopkeepers are the peasants of our times. And like the peasants they are doomed to struggle until the establishment of a new economic order removes the monetary system and the need to worry about money.

L. E. Weidberg