I am perhaps the only card-carrying socialist who will admit that he loves Starbucks. My leftist friends, even the ones who aren’t nearly as active as I am, find this sort of behavior revolting. I’m already on probation for being a Zionist, saying that the left doesn’t know all the answers to war and peace, and being chummy with the bureaucrats in Nassau Hall. So Starbucks is another brick in the wall between me and the Far-Left-till-I-marry-and-raise-children-and-not-do-much-of-anything-good-in-the-world-but-change-diapers-or-attend-PTA-meetings crowd. Is my coming out as a Starbuckster another instant of liberal-left hypocrisy? Sure, but that’s not very interesting.
What is interesting are the complex feelings I have about the entire Starbucks debate. It brings to a head plenty of issues about our choice of consumption and our choice of battles. I contemplate these not in Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics class (though I think he should replace the unit on “voluntary euthanasia” with this) but, well, while I’m people-watching at the Astor Place Starbucks.
In case you haven’t noticed, Starbucks is a large chain store. It has come to represent the ultimate capitalist enemy for the anti-Globalization crowd and the meeting place of choice for the BoBo (Bohemian bourgeois) generation. Its biggest crime seems to be that it opens way too many stores and has put many “mom and pop” coffee shops out of business. Starbucks was, for a while, the Agent Smith of coffeehouses. This negative rumor is, no doubt, true. Like Leibnitz’s perfect world that maximizes variety, we want to have variegated options when seeking a place to read, meet, drink, or, um, relieve ourselves. Sure! But our choices are limited. Starbucks is an oasis of certainty in an uncertain urban environment. Akin to a gas station, it’s a comfort zone in major cities which, unlike rational cities like Amsterdam, do not have public urinals. But my bourgeois comfort is not by itself enough justification for capitalist participation.
A number of years ago, I was part of a movement to get Starbucks to buy “Fair Trade” Coffee. Very important! It meant an instant market for small coffee farms, and another blow against Big Agribusiness, especially in Latin America. Starbucks, well, they gave in. “Don’t shoot!” they might have said, “We’ll do what you want!” And, for the most part, they did. Starbucks is beholden to its image and, unlike real oppressive corporations like Nike or The Gap, they do what we on the left ask. Fine. “So, it’s safe to shop at Starbucks?” I asked, book in hand, ready to study. Nope. Starbucks continues to be the object of venomous hatred by the anti-globalization crowd. Among my less picky leftist friends, they say they’d rather shop at local mom and pop coffeehouses. Ok, fine. Fair reason. Valid. But I don’t like the tea at Small World, and nobody carries good black-and-white cookies on Nassau Street.
Still, there is something distasteful about a company so big and so ubiquitous. So here is my strategy: I bring my own teabags. A buck fifteen lets me study in a Starbucks all day long, occupying some seat that someone with more money and worse politics could be filling. Occasionally, I steal a cookie (it is still a multinational corporation, you know!) and I tip the usually happy wait-staff generously when they freely refill my cup with hot water. Is this enough to keep out of activist Hell? Probably not. Am I rationalizing? Sure.
Now, when I go to the occasional march against big corporations, the World Bank, and other institutions too big for their britches, I encounter plenty of urban anarchists who just love to vandalize Starbucks. The police are now actually stationed outside of Starbucks and the Banks. Fine, fine. However, I think our anger and outrage should be focused on more important and insidious industries like oil, pharmaceuticals, SUVs, sweatshops, agribusiness, tobacco, prisons, and Fraternities. It’s hard to take on these bad boys. Compared to their crimes, Starbucks is misdemeanor.
Look, here’s the deal: I love women singers. Starbucks plays the music I like. Natalie Merchant and Joni Mitchell move me, Ok? (Editor’s note: Ratzman is really a big lesbian trapped in a little man’s body. He likes cats too.)The coffee smells good, the hours are late, and the staff (unlike mom and pop) don’t mind if I occupy a comfy chair all day long, or steal their hot water. I get a lot of work done, and I feel comfortable. More rationalization is needed.
Starbucks have their own culture and their regulars. For example, the Astor Place Starbucks has these urban semi-homeless artists who sleep, compare drawings, and convene meetings all day. In between reading Marxist theory, I listened all weekend to a genuine anti-Semite demonstrating to his little group of friends the relationship between the Jews and the Kennedy assassination. Who knew such dorks existed in New York City? I’ve met some wonderful people in Starbucks over the years, including a fellow Hannah Arendt fan in Washington D.C. I’ve bumped into long-lost friends, and had some great sessions reading and writing. I’ve had these experiences as well in local coffeehouses, but when I’m in a strange city, don’t have time to explore the culture of the local places, and jonesing for my Tazo “Awake” tea, you know where I’m headed.
So what does this mean for you dear readers? You who want to ‘do the right thing’ lest you go to purgatory, or embarrass yourself in front of friends and society? Well first, don’t take this as legitimizing this sort of consumer capitalism. We should all be consuming less, and resisting these very big corporations, especially the ones that actually, you know, KILL PEOPLE for what they do. We’re going to be buying bottled air soon, and it’s not because of Starbucks, but because of big, big, big-ass industry. Compared to DuPont, Starbucks is J. Lo-ass industry. Hmmm. More like Lara Flynn Boyle-ass industry, but you get the idea.
We should all be consuming less. Less (or no) meat. Smaller cars. Making fewer flyers to advertise our arch sings. Printing up less (or no) worthless college radio station program guides. We should be donating more money to hunger relief, environmental causes. We should be registering people to vote. In exchange, I propose, allow me to sit in Starbucks in peace, guilt free. Perhaps I will convene a Democratic Socialists of America meeting there!
I boycotted Starbucks when I had to. I will boycott them again if need be. Until then, I will sit in their chairs and study when I can. I’ll throw a rock through some other window, perhaps through glass houses.