Saturday, January 07, 2006

Small Businesses Are Not Our Friends Either

After I read And the Band Played On I promised I'd write about some of the things that it made me think about - and I haven't yet, but thought I'd start now, because my thoughts on small businesses in the gay community in the 1980s fit quite nicely with my thoughts about Jared Diamond's thoughts about big businesses

One of the most interesting issues, for me, in And the Band Played On was the bath house controversy in San Francisco. Not surprisingly sex was pretty central to the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, and bath houses became an important part of both the movement, and the community that was built up around that movement. They were more than just a space in which to gather, they were also an important advertiser in gay magazines, and some of the owners of bath houses were on the boards of various gay organisations. They were also businesses that made their money from providing space for sex. People's livelihoods (in some cases very good livelihoods) depended on the financial viability of space for sex.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s having sex in a bath-house was playing Russian Roulette. Because no-one wore condoms, and people were having multiple sexual encounters a night, the chances of getting the HIV virus got higher and higher.

There were people, both within the gay community and outside it, who wanted to shut down the bath-houses. Randy Shilts (the author of And the Band Played On was definately one of those, and there those who strongly disagree, and I can see why - the bath houses in San Francisco were shut down by the state, and that's highly problematic..

But the central point I want to make is that despite being members of the gay community, despite being part of the sexual liberation movement, the bath house owners acted like the business owners they were. They resisted any linkage between unprocted sex and GRID (as it was then known). They would agree to put up education about safe sex, and then only put it at the end of a corridor no-one went down. One bath-house owner said to one of the doctor's who worked in an early AIDS treatment facility: 'we both make money from the epidemic, us when we go in, and you when they go out'

There's a moral in this for me, which is that we can never trust the owners of business to act in the interests of anything but their bottom line, no matter how socially conscious they are, no matter how much they're part of our community, no matter how much they're providing a service we want. Yes, people dying is quite an extreme end of the scale, but it demonstrates an important point, small businesses have no place in an activist community, because they will always act in the interests of their bottom line. I actually don't think it matters if they're operated by a single owner, or by a collective: if people's livelihood depend on selling stuff, they'll do what it takes to keep on selling stuff.

4 comments:

  1. tenor horn9:06 pm

    "Small businesses have no place in an activist community, because they will always act in the interests of their bottom line. I actually don't think it matters if they're operated by a single owner, or by a collective: if people's livelihood depend on selling stuff, they'll do what it takes to keep on selling stuff."

    Jolly well observed.
    Anarchists, Alliance and Greens take note.

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  2. Simon5:36 pm

    I prefer to have a choice over who I buy from. Without activist small businesses you're stuck with the same old shit. No options. Better to try and do something better. If it's a non-profit organisation then it shold be no-ones livelihood.

    It's not just about selling stuff it about having a presence in the city, an alternative to your chain stores and profiteers.

    If the business runs well then it can provide ethical employment and fundraise for the local activist community as well as develop a social network.

    My 2c.

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  3. tenor horn10:52 pm

    Well, I can't deny it sounds nice, rather like Ross Wilson's "high skills high wage economy".

    A non-profit business with a presence in the city,runing well while providing ethical decently paid employment, fundraising for the local activist community and developing a social network.

    How many such firms are actually out there?

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  4. Err, obviously privately owned businesses will be much more likely to have moral obligation. If the CEO of a listed company makes a moral move that results in less profit they will get fired and replaced. A private business owner will often feel that the money is not worth the hate they will recieve.

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