fragments of an attempted writing.

small may be beautiful, but it ain't the way out.

One of the things I disagree with OWS and the more populist side of anti-finance in this country is the "Official Bank Transfer Day" and these promotions of transferring money from big banks to credit unions as a way of hurting the banks.  I used to think this financial localism "mattered" but I'm not inclined to think so anymore.  Keep in mind what a low percentage of overall financial assets the bottom 80% of Americans have anyway.  1/4 of them could transfer to credit unions, and in the grand scheme of things it wouldn't matter much at all.

See Doug Henwood on the futility of these bank to credit union campaigns.

I'm all for going into a Bank of America and raising hell as you get your cash out of there.  Just don't spin the withdrawal of money as something which actually hurts Wall Street.  It doesn't.

There has also been a lot of rhetoric from Occupy circles supporting doing business with small businesses as a means of attacking Wall Street.  I think this is similarly misguided.  Small businessmen invest a substantial portion of their wealth in financial markets, or at least the vast majority of them do.  Small businesses suck at the teat of mass finance and their loan payments feed the beast.  The idea that small businessmen heavily re-invest in local communities is a notion perhaps more romantic than it is accurate.  So a bit more of their money goes local - that money still moves in and out of mass finance vehicles constantly because we are all "in the shit."  The idea that small businessmen are going to offer pay better and offer better benefits than larger businesses has no basis in economic data.  Many people seem to think that small businessmen are generally less ruthless and cunning and apathetic toward worker misery than businessmen working for large corporations.  I wonder how much experience the people who hold these views actually have working for small businessmen.

I used to argue for the use of credit unions and hyper-localist spending whenever possible on moral grounds - the logic being that I, at least, should try to do as little damage as possible in my economic transactions.  I was wrong, first for the moralism, but second for the tactical error.  If one is not taking extreme measures to go off grid (of the sort perhaps a few thousand people worldwide accomplish - people whose effect upon capitalism counts as zilch), then the only thing one can do concretely is to consume less, the wheres and whens and with whoms of consumption don't really matter much, and let's face it, me consuming 10 or 20% less than I did last year has virtually no effect on capitalism, the environment, and so forth.  If I start a movement which gets 33% of Americans to consume 10% less, in just about any reasonable scheme of things this amounts to nothing substantial with regard to the an assault on capitalism or the protection of the earth's resources.

About 45 minutes from my wife's hometown in central WI is a thriving Amish community.  They have all sorts of shops, bakeries, dairy operations, and the like.  Chartered buses bring petit-bourgeois folks from the Twin Cities, the Milwaukee suburbs, and Chicago.  Almost every one of the Amish stores takes credit cards.  Many of the Amish there are quite wealthy and they keep their money in banks.

It's not really any different when I buy beef (which I don't because I can't afford it) from the local organic beef producer in my county in West TN.  He takes credit cards, he buys organic feed from a large corporation, he finances his large trucks which guzzle gas like any other farmer's.  His son (who works there) vacations at Disneyworld with family in tow.  I have friends at a workers co-op in the Twin Cities.  They are decent folk, and they do good work.  But let's face it, they all seem to smoke cigs made by large corporations, put BP gas in their cars, and use the credit behemoth when ordering concert tickets.  Many of them buy second hand clothes too sure, but in the end, those offsets have nominal effect.  And the local Goodwill and Salvation Army take credit cards too.

There is no consumer-choice-magic out for escaping the reach of capitalism and its normative mechanisms.  This isn't to say worker's co-ops are a waste of effort, or that buying second hand clothes with cash is bad, or that eating locally grown peas is wrong.  Do that if you want to, but if you eat those organic peas on mass produced paper plates, don't sweat it.  These "go small and buy local" fads are simply not solutions to meta-level problems, they pose no threat to capitalism, and when taken as an end in themselves they reinforce capitalism.  They may make for a more enjoyable lifestyle, and when we think that they are moral acts which make us "better" for having done them, in doing these things we are playing the capitalist game as well as anyone else.  Only the masses can actually confront capitalism, and meta/mass collective solutions are the only solutions that don't amount to lifestyle choices.

Here is a new, slightly expanded version of Doug Henwood's take on the big to small banking matter.


  1. There was an interesting argument on the YDS Facebook page about whether there is class warfare in small businesses and whether these types of industries would exist in a socialist system. Given how much the small businessman is fetishized in American discourse, I think that many Americans would balk at a world without "Mom and Pop" stores, yet it's clear that small businesses can be even more exploitative than large corporations, especially when family and/or friends are involved.

  2. Sheeit, Owen, don't you know that subsidarity is an important part of CST?

    For a long time I was taken by the idea that small businesses were more moral. It helped that I work for a smallish company that does treat it's employees well. I'd be on disability with anyone else. The head guys have told me more than once that they just don't have the stomach for ruining people's lives. I think part of it may be that Civil Engineering is an entry point into the petit bourgeois. Most have working class parents, if they did not start out in construction themselves, so there seems to be, at least with the ones I know, less of a class superiority complex.

    I have an uncle who worked his way up from putting engines together in the factory to stockholder in a smallish ski boat company. Many years ago he was arguing with my dad that he did not think the men in his shop should unionize, because they were already treated as fairly as they could be. My dad argued that management would not always remain the same. Well, just before the crash, the owner sold out without concern for the employees. My uncle had many sleepless nights as he had to lay off his best friends. The California factory was shut down so everything could be done on the cheap in Tennessee, and then he got the axe. I wonder wether he think they should have unionized now.

    There's small business for you. They can be somewhat better than big business, as much as the general state of capital will allow, if good people are in charge - usually first generation petit bourgeois. They can also be worse, because they get plenty of labor practice exemptions and can escape the unions. Slaveholders with few slaves still beat and raped, just like the big guys. It's hard to say one is more or less moral.

  3. Don't forget that you too could always start your own business. Good luck on that by the way.

    I had to work myself up to the point where I acknowledged a 21st century lifestyle was at least a trade off. Not depending on the weather cycle for whether I eat or not is nice. That a half-million dollar combine does what a small village used to do doesn't bother me anymore. I have almost even made my peace with China. At least I am unwilling to give our elites a pass on their lie that the lower classes need to be treated like shit because of China.


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