Petit Bourgeois & Amazon Reselling

Friday March 18, 2022 — Taipei, Taiwan

I recently read this 2019 Atlantic article about Amazon reselling, and particularly about people selling courses about how to make “passive income” by reselling on Amazon. Absolutely no one in the story is at all likable — the main villain is made out to be the people selling $4,000 courses to any suckers dumb enough to fall for it, but many of the suckers come out looking at least as bad: it’s hard to have any sympathy at all for someone who buys cheap trinkets produced by exploited factory workers in China, has them shipped directly to the fourth largest American megacorporation to be sold and delivered to Americans by exploited warehouse workers and drivers, with the goal of getting “a passive income [to] get a vacation home in Cancun.”

As I read it, though, I was reminded of James C. Scott’s defense of the Petit Bourgeois in Two Cheers for Anarchism. He writes:

It is time someone put in a good word for the petite bourgeoisie. Unlike the working class and capitalists, who have never lack for spokespersons, the petite bourgeoisie rarely, if ever, speaks for itself. And while capitalists gather in industrial associations and at the Davos World Economic Forum, and the working class congregates at trade union congresses, the one and only time, as near as I can tell, the petite bourgeoisie gathered in its own name was at the 1901 First International Congress of the Petite Bourgeoisie in Brussels. There was no Second Congress.

Why take up the cudgels for a class that remains relatively anonymous and is surely not, in the Marxist parlance, a class für sich? There are several reasons. First and most important, I believe that 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 center of an anarchist sensibility. […]

Finally, given any reasonably generous definition of its class boundaries, the petite bourgeoisie represents the largest class in the world. If we include not only the iconic shopkeepers but also smallholding peasants, artisans, peddlers, small independent professionals, and small traders whose only property might be a pushcart or a rowboat and a few tools, the class balloons. If we include the periphery of the class, say, tenant farmers, ploughmen with a draft animal, rag pickers, and itinerant market women, where autonomy is more severely constrained and the property small indeed, the class grows even larger. What they all have in common, however, and what distinguishes them from both the clerk and the factory worker is that they are largely in control of their working day and work with little or no supervision. One may legitimately view this as a very dubious autonomy when it means, as a practical matter, working eighteen hours a day for a remuneration that may only provide a bare subsistence. And yet it is clear, as we shall see, 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 underestimated social aspiration for much of the world’s population.

(I’m not going to try to summarize the chapter — I recommend reading it yourself, but here are some notes that I think are reasonable if you’d prefer that)

This allure of the petit bourgeois is a interesting lens to view the rise of Amazon reselling and other “passive income” schemes through — the marketing around these courses is targeting exactly the sort of aspiration that Scott talks about: “be your own boss,” “set your own hours,” “work for yourself,” etc. And I don’t think those aspirations are, in and of themselves, bad! I’d certainly rather more people be “working for themselves” — ideally in the form of a worker coop, but if not that, I’d still rather an abundance of small companies than the small handful of extremely powerful and ever-consolidating megacorps we have today.

While I think that the allure of the petit bourgeois explains a lot of the psychology of Amazon reselling, there is a strikingly obvious reason this analysis doesn’t quite hold water: The term “petite bourgeoisie” typically refers to a class that owns some means of production — usually an artisan owning their tools or a shopkeeper owning their shop — but in the case of Amazon reselling, all of the production has already happened! The only thing the resellers are providing is capital, to have the items produced and warehoused and shipped.

The Amazon resellers do no production, and are thus quite different from the petite bourgeois, who are defined by owning their means of production, but still being in a economic position that requires their labour.

This is pretty bad news for the resellers, who are effectively loaning their money to Amazon, and taking all of the downside if the product they choose doesn’t sell. They want to be pure capitalists, but they don’t have access to enough capital to actually play that game, so they’re instead reduced to providing loans to megacorps under extremely unfavorable terms, which they largely do not understand.That makes it sound pretty bad, but I’ll note that “invest in index funds” is generally considered good financial advice for people who have a couple tens of thousands of dollars sitting around, and that’s effectively the same thing, just with slightly better, slightly more understandable terms.

It’s pretty obvious why it turns out this way — if your goal is “passive income”, that definitionally cannot require labour from you, and thus the only avenue available for extracting profit is owning the means of production, and using that ownership to exploit the people who do the actual labour.

Amazon, ever the innovator, has essentially figured out how to gig-workify exploiting ownership of the means of production: Instead of producing anything yourself, just pay a few thousand dollars to drop ship some trinkets from China to their warehouses! Structurally, this is actually worse than companies like Uber offering predatory car loans, because the Amazon resellers are not even nominally working towards owning anything.

That doesn’t mean you need to have sympathy for these people: they are mostly mildly wealthy people who I’m happy to see make dumb decisions and lose money because of it. I’m not happy, though, to see that money going towards Amazon, who certainly doesn’t need a ounce more power than they have already.

There’s a pretty clear narrative here about the idea of “passive income” being, essentially, a scam: It’s possible to get, by exploiting ownership of the means of production, but even if you are morally OK with doing that,I’m not, and I don’t think most people should be, but that seems to be a minority position among middle-class and wealthy people. the vast majority of people simply do not have enough access to capital to play that game without getting exploited themselves by even larger and more powerful entities trying to do the same thing.

The question that leaves me with, though, is where to redirect that energy. The reason people are drawn to “passive income” is a very reasonable desire for a sense of security that is severely lacking in society today. What options are available for people who have a bit of extra money, but not enough to buy a house or start a business or do much else that will provide them actual security?

That’s the question we’ll need to answer if we want middle-class people to stop falling for scamsI’m reminded of Jia Tolentino’s essay “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” from Trick Mirror, which posits that scamming is the fundamental millennial ethos. Given that a defining feature of the millennial generation is economic instability in their adult lives, it’s unsurprising that there’s such a desire for security, and that that desire for security feeds into a ecosystem of scams. that just end up funneling money to the already ultrawealthy. The Atlantic article about Amazon resellers was from 2019 — since then, that particular scam has fallen out of favor, largely replaced in the last year or two by NFTs. Those too seem to be on their way out, but unless we can provide some productive outlet for middle class people with small amounts of capital and a desire for security, I’m certain some new thing will pop up to fill this exact same niche, and the exact same people will fall for it.