It’s a lot like old phases of Capitalism (like, pre-1930), but with more technology. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the US has decided to become an oligarchy coupled with a security state apparatus necessary to maintain extreme inequality. This is not new news, but the rapid emergency of the technology and systems needed to maintain this state of affairs does seem new to people living under it, especially to people who were previously part of privileged classes.
An article in The Nation is looking at bits and pieces of what is emerging. This is, in effect, the neoliberal state. When everything is privatised, everything is organised towards the benefit of the people who own the private systems. Since the private sector is taking over state functions – big functions – the emerging privatisation is big companies. Which means that the owning class is the really very very rich. And the functions they want to take over are sometimes surprising, unless this is viewed as a bid for total political and cultural control. Take, for example, Starbucks.
A few days ago, Starbucks decided that it was time for (white) people in America to have a large conversation about race. Ok, obviously, white people in America really do need to talk about race. We need to listen to things black people are saying, talk amongst ourselves, and work to dismantle white supremacy. Starbucks is not wrong about needing a conversation. What is perplexing is why a chain of coffee shops would take this task on board.
One might be tempted to explain this historically. Coffee shops used to be places where people did gather to talk about politics, especially a few centuries ago. More recently, Starbucks has been forced into culture wars, specifically, the gun debate as they finally decided people carrying large assault rifles were not welcome to terrify their staff. The brand itself has a political resonance, on the side of Apple computers, gay rights, urban ‘creative classes’ and 1990’s Bill Clinton. All of that is specifically proto-neoliberal baggage. And this is a neoliberal project. Let’s look at how it was promoted to baristas on twitter:
(The images on the tweet are from a screen shot of this page. Note the tweet does not contain a link to the post and thus is completely inaccessible to people who rely on screen readers. Seriously, people, if your post is worth sharing, it’s worth making it accessible to blind people.)
The promotional text starts it’s second paragraph with, ‘Change won’t come from the government. It has to come from everyday people like us.’ This fits in very well with the disenfranchisement described in the article in the Nation. Despite being a democracy, this asserts that we cannot depend on the government to have anything to do with our needs or desires. The government does not serve ‘everyday people’. Therefore, the business of social change cannot come from the sort of action one normally undertakes to change government. Not from voting, certainly, but not from marches either. The days of MLK giving speeches in Washington are over, because this not Washington DC’s problem. It’s Seattle, Washington’s problem. To emphasis this, the coupled picture shows a hashtagged coffee cup in front of the Washington Monument, where MLK’s speech happened. Starbucks wants to privatise social movements.
They’ve already made efforts to insert themselves into culture, above and beyond serving coffee. They have previously sold CDs in their shops and want to shape, control and profit from culture more generally. And also this is also a way of wading into a disagreement among billionaires as to what extent white supremacy continues to have utility. On the one hand, voter suppression laws are quite openly removing the right to vote from black people. On the other hand, racial unrest is disturbing the market. Under a deligitmised government, this is how democracy is meant to take place: by people with money coming into a private forum to have a conversation about what number of rights to extend to others. (Starbucks does not tend to build coffee shops in black areas and the imagery they’ve chose to promote this effort is specifically designed to make white people feel comfortable (‘the only race is human’), so this is very much a conversation about others, which is not surprising in a conversation that seeks only to decide on the acceptable amount of white supremacy, but I digress.)
It’s extremely obvious why an oligarchy would want to control the means to the conversation about race. People in the street are alarming. People purchasing things is good. Which is exactly why any effort like this is ultimately disempowering for everyone involved, aside from the owners. The emerging security state is distressing, but it is not insurmountable. It is still possible to resist. Not by heading to our local multinational outlet to demand extra emotional labour from the staff, but by being in the streets. They want people to politely consume and that is what absolutely will not destabilise concentrated power. People do still have power in the US, from mass movements and street protests. Privatisation has zero long term plans about anything, certainly not about managing us. We can still make a better world.