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The Starbucks Effect
There is no counterculture in "culture capitalism".
In his 1899 ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’, Thorstein Veblen first articulated the theory that human consumerism and consumption could be understood within an evolutionary framework, as representative of social hierarchy. Termed “conspicuous consumption”, Veblen argued that consumer preferences are determined relative to their position in the social hierarchy, where individuals attempt to mimic the patterns of consumption of higher strata of the social hierarchy.
Veblen’s theory was located in its particular time and could not have predicted the post-Second World War economic growth of the West that put the proverbial Ford in every driveway, dishwashers in every home, and growing incomes in peoples’ pockets. The middle of the 20th Century was the period where market capitalism made many commodities only previously affordable to the wealthy into everyday items, accessible to many. This meant that expressing social status through consuming material goods was providing less return on investment.
The Canadian academics Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter expanded conspicuous consumption to include the contexts of culture and counterculture. The Vietnam War spawned the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, which metamorphosed from anti-war protests into a sprawling rejection of modernity, “the Man”, embrace of expansive individual expression, and Left-wing politics. Yet the counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s was ultimately a movement of the university class and the privileged, and counterculture expressed largely in political terms.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s with MTV and the advent of the internet that cool became accessible to everyone. The concept of counterculture started to collapse. Even the kids who thought they were being edgy and different, whether goths or ravers, just looked like carbon copies of each other and listened to the same music. Counterculture was mainstream; it was the culture itself. And true to market capitalist form, the culture had a buffet of choice for the consumer, only the choice now was for lifestyle and identity rather than a car or a wristwatch.
In this transition, Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” was supplanted by Potter’s “conspicuous authenticity”, a form of cultural capitalism in which “consumption” of experiences and practices became the signifiers of social status. In their book on explanatory models, Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler use the example of Starbucks to illustrate “authentic consumption”. By 2000, Starbucks was mainstream, and the attempt to create a coffee counterculture centred on rejecting Starbucks in favour of fair trade coffee. The independent cafes buying and selling fair trade coffee considered themselves to be bucking the mainstream. That is, until Starbucks subsumed the entire brief moment in the sun for the counterculture by selling fair trade coffee.
In eating the counterculture, Starbucks mainstreamed fair trade, adorning their premises with cringe images of a grinning Amerindian labourer standing proudly next to his harvest and who, we are assured, is paid a fair price for his coffee. Marketing of this nature was entirely deliberate. At the crux of authentic consumption is an aspiration of what Potter termed “anti-consumption”, where the consumer is not only making a coffee purchase but a statement of identity as someone who truly cares about the coffee bean harvesters and their working conditions. The transaction takes on a transcendental quality, no longer a mere purchase of coffee, but the purchaser paying away their feeling of being just a consumer in the transaction. This is what Potter meant by “anti-consumption”.
The “Starbucks Effect” was an early example of how there is no true counterculture under late-stage capitalism, only conspicuous authenticity; a desire to portray an authentic Self through the projection of meaning onto commodities and experiences. This transformed every part of the market that thought itself counter to the culture of consumer capitalism into cultural capitalism itself. Brands fought competitively to portray a lack of connection to what may considered the mainstream and material, and mainstreamed it all in the process. Every little hipster cafe started serving coffee in washed out jam jars (“oh, how chic and rustic!”), while drowning their menu in quaint cottagecore origin stories about their ethically sourced ingredients.
Conspicuous authenticity generated the explosion of inane “mission statements” for brands. “Since childhood, when Barry and Claire first began making toothpaste in their dear grandfathers’ old homely outhouse basin, it has been their dream to produce toothpaste that connects the wisdom of the ancients with the challenges of modern life. Every batch of our toothpaste is carefully handcrafted using sweat extracted from Barry’s boarding school socks, delicately mixed with Claire’s tears cried over the plight of the Indigenous people somewhere. This isn’t just any toothpaste; with every brush of your teeth you are helping to plant trees and end poverty in some place you’ve never spent a thought on in your life. Our promise to you is that each brush with our artisan toothpaste will not only bring you closer to enlightenment, but give you an amazing smile to flourish as you approach Nirvana.”
Anti-consumption is competitive. Whereas previous patterns of consumption (“Look at my car!”) demonstrated wealth as social status, authentic consumption became a demonstration of moral superiority. It wasn’t just that you could financially afford this lavish trip to a sunset-drenched yoga retreat; it was that you were spiritually and morally superior to everyone else for having this “experience”. The epiphenomenon of a tech-bro fresh off their first Burning Man. Little surprise therefore that the rise of conspicuous authenticity coincided with the explosion of commodified pseudo-spirituality, with transcendence just one purchase of a jade egg away.
The aspirational nature of anti-consumption has also allowed culture capitalism to commercialise oppression and subsume identity politics. Gay Pride has metamorphosed from a liberation march protesting violence against a community whose lives were criminalised in law, into a corporate bonanza of “allyship”. It is interesting to see how common anti-capitalism rhetoric is in the liberal/Left world of identity politics, seemingly oblivious to the irony that it is culture capitalism that has exploded the visibility and prominence of the LGBTQ community in this contemporary moment.
If anything, the latter point should reveal the insidious element of culture capitalism. But it is our desire to feel, and to be seen to be, “authentic” consumers that has created this landscape. In the monopoly age of late-stage capitalism, there is simply no such thing as “counterculture”. Whatever temporary novelty and perception of authenticity may be created in any market will eventually be subsumed and mainstreamed. It will become the culture itself. Culture capitalism has commodified our desperation for meaning, our aimless alienation, and sold it back to us on the promise that we’re not just a consumer, but an agent of change in the world.
And this, surely, is its most insidious victory: capitalism took rejections of the mainstream capitalist order and turned that opposition into a lucrative market in itself. Tell the coffee shop revolutionaries to quench their dreams of a new world order, because they’ve bought their way out of it.
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