Curiosity killed the anti-capitalist, or, why you should drink more Starbucks coffee

The principal reason we are led to buy and consume one commodity rather than another is the promise that it will offer more than we strictly desire, and certainly more than the alternative. Why drink Coca-cola rather than Co-op own brand? Because ‘Coca-cola is it!’ We won’t get ‘it’ with the Co-op cola. Why buy Nike rather than any other brand? ‘Just do it’, then you’ll see. The ‘something extra’ that commodities offer isn’t always quantifiable, and it’s certainly not consumable. You can’t taste Coke’s ‘it’, can’t feel the just-doing-it-ness of Nike as you lunge around a tennis court. There is simply a satisfaction in the promise, the sense that you’re consuming the best example of whatever it is you’re consuming.

As neoliberalism continues to bring everything within the sphere of private capital, the commodification of everything (which has always been going on in the historical epoch of capital) becomes so exaggerated that it is increasingly obvious to everyone. In human relationships, mediated by both patriarchy and capital (which are in any case more or less the same thing) an ideologically frank question might be Why is this woman more suitable for consumption as a sexual object, a material possession, etc., than that one? The answer, to borrow the title of a film, might be because She’s all that. All what? It doesn’t matter: she will be more than just a partner (on whatever definition you might want): she’ll provide an extra something, an ‘all that’. You’ll have it. The other guy won’t. You win: you’re a better consumer. You get patriarchy points. People will think you’ve got a greater manly aretē. You’re more man, more the thing you are ‘naturally’, ‘essentially’, because of your body, meant to be, and so on.

Being a better consumer is the urge that drives all human subjects that are conditioned by capital, because it penetrates to the core of how we define ourselves as individuals. Consider the ordinary discourse of ‘expressing oneself’. The reason why people waste so much money in the West on clothes that are fashionable for half a minute and then must be replaced is because we mediate the personality we want to present in public through the clothes. As the fashion codes shift, so we have to change our clothing to give off the right signals within the minutely redrawn symbolic universe of the clothes. If I wear cords some days and jeans others, it’s only partly because they’re hard-wearing; part of it too is the desire to communicate to people that I’m an academic rather than a besuited city worker or university administrator, and I suppose also (the jeans) to show that I’m not a Tory either (they’re good to wear to the opera). Imagine a utopia where there is only one state-owned sock company, producing socks in a range of eight colours. And now imagine the uproar. How would we express our individuality? It would be totalitarian madness. We need choice, and a range of options that will enable us to show exactly who we are through these commodities.

Which brings me to coffee, and a little maxim. All anti-capitalists should drink coffee at Starbucks. Why do I say that? I move in circles in which my preference for chain coffee shops is not quite sniffed at (I have nice friends) but certainly wondered at. Why do I persist in patronizing massive multinationals like Starbucks, or at least huge national concerns like Caffè Nero, when I could choose from an abundance of bijou coffee shops producing rich, single-origin, direct-traded, micro-roasted coffee with beautiful latte art? I admit that chain coffee tastes worse than that I brew at home, and that on the best days my extremely limited latte art skills even make it look pretty. I’m also concerned about the capitalist model of production and exchange that drives the bigger coffee businesses, but I have the same concerns about virtually everything in the private sector. Exploitation, as an inescapable mathematical function of capital, is everywhere.

Independent coffee shops offer various promises. Some are readily acknowledged by their fans: the coffee tastes better, the decor is more stylish, the cakes are tastier and more imaginative (‘They do a simply divine lemon and rosemary sponge!’), people won’t judge you for drinking there, and so on. (Note the capitalist psychology of that last point: people will judge the appearance you present to them, mediated through the commodity you are consuming, and that is scary.) Some benefits of independent coffee shops are not so readily acknowledged, but they add an additional sheen: for instance, you won’t find so many lower-class people there, and overhead conversations are more likely to be about the London Review of Books than X Factor.

In short, independent coffee shops offer the ‘something more’ that all commodities do. Starbucks, canny capitalist enterprise that it is, has leapt onto the bandwagon (as McDonald’s did several years ago with the perceived need to allow its customers, through the mediation of its salads, to present themselves as being as health-conscious as the next person). As Žižek has remarked, campaigns suggesting that with every coffee we drink there we’re contributing to a better deal for local farmers, that every purchase we make is a charitable act, feed into the irrational but humanly unavoidable logic of charitable giving. What will change the economic structure of a world in which the rich West leeches off the poor rest is precisely not buying more commodities. Yet he misses the additional point about Starbucks and other coffee chains (and the same could be said for chain clothing shops – any kind of chain, if I can use again that word – chain, lovely old chain – that so horrifies a lot of liberal people), which is that the acceptance that what they offer is ‘less’, not ‘more’, is very useful.

Go for less. If you want to buy coffee you’re stuck with capitalism: but don’t make it worse than it already is. Yes, people will wonder what kind of a fraud you are to preach anti-capitalism and drink such filthy stuff, will wonder whether you’ve got a tastebud in your mouth if you can palate that rank brown liquid. The alternative is to hone your capitalist-subject abilities by hunting down the ‘simply perfect’ independent shop, the one so elegantly chosen, so perfectly expressive of your political character, that it demonstrates your superior ability to choose. In the psychological battle against our conditioning by capital, independent coffee shops are not a cure but another example of the disease. In the resistance to the eternal quest for the ‘more’ offered by a specialist commodity, the independent coffee commodity, through which – and through which alone – we can mediate our leftist, anti-capitalist persona as a critic of the currently existing world, there is a kernel of anti-capitalist wisdom in drinking at Starbucks.

3 thoughts on “Curiosity killed the anti-capitalist, or, why you should drink more Starbucks coffee

  1. Very interesting take on what independent coffee shops are offering and what it means. Also on clothes. I started my own law from 3 years ago and oddly enough, think much more about what I wear than when I was at a large firm, where it would seem like dressing a certain way would matter more. But now I am my own “brand” and no longer have the name of a known quanitity behind me. I also have more time to pursue my writing, and want to dress in a way that feels more creative, not ultra-conservative. On the one hand, I enjoy wearing clothes that I feel match my personality and life more, and I have to wear something; on the other, I’ve become a much better consumer and our consumer culture is damaging in so many ways.

  2. So, I’ve been thinking about this, and I think I’ve put my finger on why I couldn’t get 100% behind this analysis. In terms of the lifestyle choices we make in order to mediate our own sense of ourselves I completely agree – there is nothing qualitatively different between buying bread at a farmer’s market because you want to be the sort of person who shops at farmer’s markets and buying a Hummer because you want to be the sort of person who own a Hummer.

    However, this only covers one aspect of what a business (in this case a coffee shop) is, with a nod to the world of commodity markets underpinning them. What’s not covered here is how a business functions locally, as an agent within a community of consumers and suppliers in a given areas. A lot of these independent coffee shops use primarily local suppliers, ones who would perhaps struggle to survive if they dealt with the large supermarkets. Many of them are workers’ co-operatives, and even the ones that aren’t tend to have better labour relations than the large fast food chains (which is what Starbucks is, at the end of the day). In other words small independent businesses are more deeply embedded in their local communities, offering alternatives to workers and suppliers (not just customers) to the mega-corp models of the multinationals.

    That’s why, even though I agree with you as far as “you don’t get an ethical gold star just for eating a hand baked muffin on a wobbly wooden chair” goes, I still think it makes sense to patronise the genuinely local, independent small businesses that exist in my area – particularly bearing in mind that “my” area isn’t, you know, Cambridge. Which means that these guys are few, far between, and often struggling.

  3. It’s a good argument, very well presented, but as the person above says, it only covers one specific of “what is happening” when a person chooses one point of consumption over another. The psychological self-appeasement of drinking in a independent may not be wildly separated from the process of consumption at a chain supplier. But there are more practical, tangible reasons for choosing the independent which isn’t really included here.

    I still love the approach, though – any challenge to the mindless judgement of a person’s consumption “quality” is extremely worthwhile.

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