Starbucks and the socialism of fools
Commentators’ glee at the closure of 700 coffee shops, and the loss of more than 12,000 jobs, exposes the inhumanity of anti-globalisation.
When is the loss of 12,600 jobs a cause for celebration? When those 12,600 workers are mere Starbucks baristas, young men and women in green aprons who use annoying words like ‘venti’ and ‘wet’ (what drink isn’t wet?) while serving overpriced coffee to harried young professionals. Who cares if these workers – many of whom work at Starbucks to finance their studies – are stripped of their livelihoods and forced to peruse the ads in soulless Job Centres? Serves them right for getting a job with the Evil Corporate Coffee Empire in the first place.
At least, that is the implicit message of much of the whooping and cheering that has greeted Starbucks’ economic turmoil. Since the Seattle-based coffee-serving corporation announced that it was closing 600 stores in the US and 61 in Australia – with the disgraceful cutting of up to 12,000 jobs in America and 685 Down Under – commentators have been quaffing some no doubt ethically sourced champagne to celebrate. At last, the corporation - which, as one British journalist wrote yesterday, has ‘earned VIP status at the top table of brands that anti-globalisation activists love to hate’ - is closing outlets rather than opening new ones.
And what of the workers who will lose their jobs, including the 685 people in Australia who were given just days to hang up their green aprons and fuck off? Screw them. In fact, suggested one writer at the end of last week, send them to ‘re-education camps’, North Korea-style, because the skills they learned at cynical Starbucks ‘won’t be transferable’. Behold the new socialism of fools, so obsessed by eyesore logos and sameyness on street corners, and so determined to preserve small, family-based, conservative businesses over ‘corporate behemoths’, that it thinks thousands of job losses are a small price to pay if it means being able to walk one’s labradoodle from Hampstead High Street to Hampstead Heath without having to see or smell a Starbucks.
Since it started spreading around the world in the 1990s, Starbucks has been the bete noire of posh boys with dreadlocks (who smashed them up during anti-globalisation protests in 1999 and 2000) and organic-patronising, barefoot commentators (who have championed ‘Keep Starbucks Away!’ campaigns). So it isn’t surprising that Starbucks’ economic slowdown has been hailed as one of the positive side effects of the credit crunch/possible recession. In late March this year, Starbucks had 16,226 stores worldwide, including 11,434 in America. On 1 July, it announced that it was closing 600 stores in the US; on 29 July, it pulled the plug on 61 out of 84 stores in Australia. Some Australian workers were given a week’s notice and a measly two weeks’ severance pay.
But what is bad news for coffee-shop workers is brilliant news for well-to-do writers for whom Starbucks’ once-unstoppable spread summed up everything that is Rotten about Greedy Capitalism. The 12,000-plus workers without jobs don’t even get a mention in one British commentator’s overexcited dance on the grave of Starbucks’ shut-down stores: ‘Bad news for Starbucks shareholders, great news for those of us who resent the ubiquitous coffee chain’s omnipresence in our towns and cities.’ (1) Indeed, she thinks it would be a good thing if Starbucks’ ‘US and Oz slump gets a grip here [in Britain]’ (2).
In Australia, a self-confessed ‘horrible coffee snob’ said he is sorry that 685 Starbucks employees will lose their jobs as 61 of Australia’s 84 Starbucks outlets are shut down – but he still feels ‘pure joy’: ‘My only regret is that the company hasn’t decided to close all 84.’ (3) In the US, the online magazine The Huffington Post, edited by the rich and perfectly coiffured liberal commentator Arianna Huffington, asked its readers what they thought of the campaigns launched by some Americans to save their Starbucks stores. One said: ‘Americans are so stupid, brainwashed and misguided. How can people possibly want to help out a multinational firm that saps away wealth from their local economies? Oh yeah, I forgot – the media told them to.’ (4)
This glee at the closure of Starbucks stores shows just how shallow – even inhumane – is the new kneejerk anti-capitalism that has emerged over the past 10 years. As far as I’m concerned, Starbucks’ casual closure of more than 600 stores and its slashing of 12,000 jobs is the worst thing the corporation has ever done. In an effort to protect its profits in a time of economic difficulty, it has chucked thousands of workers – from the migrant workers who serve the coffee to office workers in its Seattle HQ – on to the scrapheap. It has sacrificed the wages or livelihoods of thousands of people on the altar of Preserving the Profits for a few. It is capitalism at its most ruthless.
Yet for commentators of an anti-globalist or ‘anti-capitalist’ bent, Starbucks’ cutting back is the best thing the coffee corporation has ever done, eliciting ‘pure joy’ in those who despise Starbucks’ ‘omnipresence in our towns and cities’ (5). That is because the new ‘anti-capitalists’ have always been obsessed by the artifice of capitalism rather than being concerned with the exploitative relations that underpin it. They despise the logos, brands, ‘corporate talk’, global spread, cynical sales techniques and invasive adverts of big corporations, while caring little about the exploitation of workers.
In short, they hate that which is potentially positive about the capitalist system – its globalising tendencies and creation of new needs and desires – while turning a blind eye to the most dehumanising and destructive aspects of capitalism: its treatment of men and women as the disposable providers of labour and its tendency to lurch from one crisis to another.
Indeed, it was the very visibility of Starbucks that meant it became public enemy no.1 of the new ‘anti-capitalism’. Starbucks is minuscule compared with capitalist monoliths like Wal-Mart, BP, Microsoft and others. Yet because it seemed to be everywhere (one Guardian writer bizarrely calculated that his pillow in his bedroom is within five minutes of 158 Starbucks outlets, presumably meaning he could not sleep peacefully at night), it became a symbol of rampant, runaway, globe-trotting capitalism (6).
For many, a new Starbucks store was a super-physical, super-visible shiny new capitalist entity that apparently put small shops out of business and made my high street look like everyone else’s! Not fair! That was the extent of the ‘anti-capitalist’ critique of Starbucks. And as for their ‘anti-capitalist’ protest against Starbucks, it amounted to the smashing up of coffee shops by posh kids wielding bars and bollards, possibly angry that Starbucks’ coffee isn’t a patch on the green tea their au pairs made for them. It was driven not by solidarity with Starbucks workers but by a small-minded, narcissistic desire to keep ugly American brands off our lovely, little, local streets, in order to protect people from US-imported obesity (‘Starbucks likes to supersize everything, not quite such a commercial formula for more health-conscious, waistline-watching times’, says one commentator) and from ‘American corporate language, [spoken] with a phoney Italian accent’ (7). Such is the localist fury of the anti-Starbucks activist that he even welcomes the loss of thousands of jobs if it means he will no longer have – horror of horrors – a green Starbucks logo within five minutes of his bedroom pillow.
The anti-Starbucks frenzy shows that the new anti-capitalism is a million miles from yesterday’s socialism. The two things that Starbucks-bashers hate most about Starbucks are a) its global spread and b) its continual creation of new coffees, cappuccinos, frappuccinos, macchiatos and different-flavoured drizzles, and its omnipresent advertising convincing us that we should want or possibly need these weird new concoctions (8). These are the two things – probably the only two things – that Marxists of old might have quite admired about Starbucks.
Karl Marx himself had a soft spot for the internationalising tendencies of the capitalist system, arguing that, ‘to the chagrin of reactionists’, capitalism dislodges local and national industries and turns production into a global phenomenon. If you will forgive his and Engels’ inappropriate and un-PC nineteenth-century language, he argued: ‘The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation.’ (9) Of course, coffee shops are not the drivers of the kind of dynamic international capitalism Marx was writing about. But it is striking that anti-Starbucks ‘reactionists’ hate the globalism of Starbucks in particular, and campaign to protect ‘local industries’ – like those old British cafes, perhaps, which frequently served yucky tea and paid their staff a couple of quid an hour (cash in hand) – from the uniform universality of the Starbucks brand.
Marx also quite admired the consumer society, believing it to be a ‘civilising moment’ of capital. In the Grundrisse, he wrote: ‘In spite of all his “pious” speeches, [the capitalist] searches for means to spur [the workers] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter, etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment.’ (10) Of course it’s true, as one commentator says, that no one really needs a ‘decaff, tall, low-fat, extra-whip, crème-de-menthe mocha with chai spice muffin’ (11). But it is notable that what a bearded communist described as ‘civilising’ 150 years ago – the attachment of new charms to old wares – is now written off by Starbucks-bashers as somehow dangerous and corrupting.
Over 100 years ago, the German socialist August Bebel exposed the hollowness of one-sided criticisms of the market. Back then, some so-called radicals singled out the Jews as ‘predatory’ capitalists who were destroying society; Bebel labelled their arguments the ‘socialism of fools’ (12). Today, the ‘predatory capitalists’ are not Jews (contemporary anti-globalists are no anti-Semites), but rather coffee shops like Starbucks or fast-food chains like McDonald’s - and the foolish socialists criticise only their logos, products, encouragement of obesity and general not-very-niceness rather than their role in maintaining inequality in the capitalist system more broadly. Starbucks has inhumanely and unceremoniously sacked thousands of people – and the ‘radical’ critics have cheered it on and asked it to send more staff to the dole queue or ‘re-education camps’.
A socialism that is even more reactionary than capitalism is not one I want anything to do with.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
(1) Starbucks loses steam – at last, Sunday Herald, 3 August 2008
(2) Starbucks loses steam – at last, Sunday Herald, 3 August 2008
(3) Goodbye, Starbucks. Hello, coffee, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 2008
(4) Save Our Starbucks campaigns launched: is Starbucks brilliant?, Huffington Post, 19 July 2008
(5) Starbucks loses steam – at last, Sunday Herald, 3 August 2008
(6) A serious case of caffeine overdose, Guardian, 16 January 2007
(7) Is Starbucks coffee talk really that snobby/confusing/annoying?, Seattle Post Intelligencer, 10 April 2008
(8) Goodbye, Starbucks. Hello, coffee, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 2008
(9) The Communist Manifesto, republished at marxists.org
(10) Grundrisse, republished at marxists.org
(11) Starbucks loses steam – at last, Sunday Herald, 3 August 2008
(12) See the August Bebel archive at marxists.org