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n Suzi Hall’s (2021) Migrant’s Paradox we witness an intricate cast of ‘migrant’ lives – as laborer, as customer, as public street character, but also, as entrepreneur. It is the latter, through the trope of the ‘shopkeeper’, that I centre my remarks on, as it commands a particularly complicated presence in how we understand the wider issues of Anglo-British nationalism that my own work ordinarily attends to.
The figure of the entrepreneurial shopkeeper as interrogated in Hall’s work enjoys a hallowed place in the more neoliberal variant of today’s British nationalism. In my own book, Clamour of Nationalism (Valluvan, 2019), I argued that Brexit-era nationalism, and its assorted racialized aversions, draws upon multiple ideological legacies spanning the left, liberal, conservative but also neoliberal spectrum. Contrary to popular assumptions, neoliberalism is not exempted from this nationalism. Consider how the distinctly neoliberal boosters of Brexit, represented in the author rollcall for Britannia Unchained, all rally a recidivist vision of an entrepreneurial Britain striking trade deals the world over with confident ease. Indeed, though Napoleon might have once maligned Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, it was this very visioning of national selfhood that was unironically mythologized by Thatcher – not least, via her biography as the daughter of a humble, provincial grocer. This ethos was amplified in the Brexit context, where Britain was presented as a muscular nation of enterprise purportedly envied by its lethargic European (EU) cousins. Relatedly, this particular neoliberal rationality helped further legitimate the anti-immigration orthodoxies so entrenched in Brexit Britain and which Hall’s work captures so poignantly. For instance, it is a neoliberal nation-state morality, anchored by a motif of self-reliant entrepreneurialism, that helps characterize the vast majority of migrants as ‘low-value people’ (Brinkhurst-Cuff, 2017) undesirable to the economic constitution of the nation — a sensibility that culminates in the current government’s vocal commitment to a ‘points-based’ immigration regime. Under these terms, the border should be governed by a surgical vetting of the industriousness and ‘human capital’ (Davies, 2017) of anyone granted entry – a vetting that safeguards Britain’s entrepreneurial essence.
It is against this ideological backdrop that Hall’s detailed portraiture of the business life of the migrant-populated high-street draws out so many important realities. Here, ethnic minority businesses are not some testament to a permissive nation that allows for ‘post-racial’ commercial success. Instead, the exertions of diasporic ‘shopkeeper’ resourcefulness often manifest because of the very racisms that color British opportunities. In other words, as opposed to the endless extolling of the business ethos of (certain) migrant diasporas – an extolling that helps stage newer iterations of the always tired, but always effective, good/bad migrant dichotomy – Hall captures the more solemn reality that scores the migrant, race and small-business interface.
Here, the racisms that preclude economic integration constitute the indelible backdrop. For instance, racisms that refuse to recognize existing qualifications as acquired in countries of origin. Or racisms – as tied to attenuated citizenship status, if even that – that mitigate access to the realm of professionalized salarification or even mere wage-labour in those settings where work is secure or dignified. These racisms are what motor the recourse to a business-minded independence. A business independence that is, in the other words, the symptom of state neglect and civic exclusion.
And similarly, this is a business independence that is anything but. Consider here the punitive market overheads that privilege the monopolizing realities of corporate market concentration. Add to this the bordering nationalism that makes political capital from closing off channels of labor mobility, both EU and beyond, leaving businesses to be undone by shortages but, equally, ruptures the personal bonds forged between laborers, laborer and customer, and even owner and worker. It is against this hostile external reality that we witness in the diasporic commercial networks that Hall profiles an intricate resourcefulness, often undergirded by recourse to community financing and credit systems and improvised reliance on extended familial bonds of labor.
This reality as regards migrant business is not so much the feted neoliberal ‘resilience’ and much more the softer but also desperate textures of a local inventiveness rooted in mutuality, even if bent to the exigencies of commerce, and therein inevitably, exploitation. These are also the webs of local business that become centrifugal to the possibility of high-street community itself. We see here low-scale economies adapted to local circuits of need, affordability and unglamorous, non-discerning leisure, all of which also extend through the vertiginous, matter-of-fact multiculture of these local spaces and where migration in and out of space is seen as an unremarkable fact of life. Such migrant-driven multiculture is however a fact of life against which the menace of an increasingly populist-nationalist state/Home Office always looms large.
But there is still a complication I wish to end on here, lest my above emphases succumb to a misleadingly romantic account of everyday diasporic neighborhood sutured by local businesses and workers. As certain migrant generations experience mobility or a modicum of stability through business endeavors and property ownership, their wider social reproduction risks cultivating a receptiveness to petty-bourgeois (or equivalent) morality. Put differently, even if the realities of racism discussed above helps re-contextualize the place of small-business in the lives of different diaspora networks, we also see how a certain business ethos can incubate a defensive conservatism. A conservatism about discipline, effort and taxation but also a nation-state conservatism about other racial others and new migrants against whom a moralizing denigration about character and deservingness can be rallied. Glimpses of this conservatism, one that makes claims against new migrant groups, surface across Hall’s ethnography, allowing an important sociological reality to be foregrounded: where the experiences of racist realities do not in themselves induce consistently anti-racist identifications and where social incorporation into uneven webs of national belonging and attendant national mythologies yield a messy political outlook. Todays’ presence of numerous high-profile ethnic minority figures on the British Government’s frontbench, all noteworthy ideologues and hardly mere ‘tokens’, is a portend of this complicated future as regards the play of race and ‘shopkeeper’ moralities when nationalized with a Union Jack.