Petty Bourgeois Radicals and the Freerider Problem

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, among other things, spoke about the value of petty bourgeois radicals – essentially, as he says, “the coexistence of a large number of relative equal small-scale productive enterprises as the mainstay of economic organization.”

I liked this expression, not only because it sounded funny, but because I think there is a lot of value in having an economic system composed not of only large, conglomerated corporations, but of small businesses – of petty bourgeois, if you will.

Local businesses are critical to the character of a community. The Welcome Project’s YUM initiative, for example, focuses on immigrant-owned restaurants as important cultural institutions. Somerville Local First (SLF), more generally, focuses on maintaining Somerville’s economic stability and funkiness by supporting local businesses.

But sometimes it can seem challenging to “go local.” Groups like SLF provide helpful tools for finding and connecting with local businesses, but when you’ve already fallen into set buying patterns and you’re constantly inundated with advertising from major corporations, it can be hard to change your habits.

But surely, if local businesses are so important, other people will take care of supporting them – making it less critical what you, yourself do?

That’s what Elinor Ostrom, theorist of common pool resources, would call the “freerider problem.” If you think local businesses are good, but you don’t go out of your way to support them, then you’re just hopping a free ride and hoping everyone else takes care of it.

That can be a dangerous approach to take. If everyone free rides, the system falls apart.

Beyond the economic benefit, Unger indicates that the petty bourgeois are critical to social change:

“Historical research has produced mounting evidence of how much of the radical challenge to the emerging dominant forms of governmental and economic organization, throughout nineteenth-century Western history, came from skilled workers and artisans, technicians and professionals, shopkeepers and even petty manufacturers…”

Economic independence translates into political independence. Having a decentralized (small business) economic structure allows a community to have more flexibility, power, and agency. When one commercial interest dominates a community, that community must necessarily be beholden to the interest of that commercial interest. When the big factory in the factory town threatens to close, the community itself loses it’s agency in order to protect, or attempt to protect, the interests of the factory.

So I leave you with this, my friends – when was the last time you shopped local?

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