I was reading two articles about John Mackey (citations below), CEO of Whole Foods Market Inc. and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Lululemon. Both are brands that appeal to a middle class idea of consumerist virtue, with each individual buying his or her way into a healthy, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable lifestyle of their own choosing. Both corporations are stock market superstars run by Ayn Rand happy executives. Both have developed a feel-good, team slash cult work corporate culture.

Whole Foods and Lululemon brought to you by... objectivism?

I find it more than a little amusing how people can be unhappy to learn that their shopping runs to LULU and WFM are supporting companies run by people who don’t subscribe to liberal, middle class, lefty values. (Recently, Lululemon’s Ayn Rand bags shocked a good number of customers and earlier, Mackey published an article in the Wall St Journal against public health care, causing a major backlash.) I mean, were people truly surprized? Did they think that these companies’ stocks had a meteoric rise because their execs were… what? Not really, really, really into capitalism and the free market?

Capitalism takes on many forms and what impresses me most about it, is its uncanny ability to appropriate any ideology, even those that seem anti-capitalist. There is something so efficient and flexible about this system when it comes to human psychology, how it has consistently demonstrated the ability to leech out all of the threat from something powerful, turn it on a dime and sell it at a markup two weeks later. The mistake is to think capitalism is about this human value or that human value. Wherever there is demand, and there will always be demand, capitalism will always be ready to sweep in to make a buck or two. Or trillions.

But back to Mackey, a man of (seeming) contradictions. He sees the binary of nonprofit=virtuous versus corporation=evil as highly problematic and has this to say about capitalism: “Human beings are obviously self-interested. We do look after ourselves, but we’re capable of love, empathy, and compassion, and I don’t see that business is any different. We’re trying to do good. And we’re trying to make money. The more money we make, the more good we can do.” Mackey even has a publication out about his views on capitalism which he has called Conscious Capitalism. I’ve called it a modern monster because to me, the juxtaposition of those words, the very idea of it, is so very modern, this kind of rational, Frankensteinian hybrid. Imagine this mechanized, standardized, alienating ontological system formed by modernity, capitalism and science, a system that the existentialists warned us about, as something that has become its own being. There’s no contradiction here except on the surface. Since I was a teenager, this is exactly where I saw things heading all along with capitalism.

I see this kind of thinking more and more, a growing development in which capitalism encroaches evermore upon ontological space. A development in which human ethics, human values, human experiences and the very identity of man are all by and large, defined by the free market and the narrative of our agency as atomized, informed and enlightened consumers (and in which we are encouraged to commodify everything, including our own selves and our behaviour, but I won’t get into that here) [1]; and underneath which, capitalism itself as a system, appears to be absorbing more human qualities and begins to be adapting to human behaviour in evermore nuanced and human ways.

Well we can have all this talk about triple bottom lines or serendipitous marketing or value propositions, but at the end of the day, we’re still spinning along the same trajectory in which our lives and our minds are increasingly colonized by the logic of capitalism which, at its root, alienates man from his very being.

Human suffering, as the Buddhists describe it, is like a wheel; it is wholistic and systemic. You cannot isolate one element and hope that in fixing that one area, everything else will follow suit. Any movement that hopes to change anything that cannot address the entirety of the wheel will fail, for the powerful inertia of the turning wheel will inevitably suck every systemic anomaly back into its logic and structure. And capitalism has a lot of inertia going for it right now on so many different levels, perhaps more than any other system in history. [2]

So don’t be surprized when you see corporations adopting ethics in a way that is more meaningful than lip service or pure hypocrisy. Don’t be surprized when you see companies incorporating ethics into the very core of their operations but are still unable to adequately address all of the social, environmental and human devastation caused by capitalism. This profound level of appropriation is simply capitalism’s modis operandi.  People like Mackey and Chip Wilson may seem contradictory now, but these men represent a future incarnation of capitalism that will be even more deeply ontologically entrenched in our lives than it already is today. It is important then, for us to see clearly, to penetrate past the surface of these new ideas, and to grasp what is really going on.

Footnotes

[1] And yet, parallel to this narrative of self agency and Randian self interest is a reality in which marketers now have an exponentially growing mass of behavioural data on us, and are constantly launching more and more sophisticated psychological campaigns designed specifically to create purchasing habits, manipulate our self image, wear down our individual resolve and mold our children’s desires. More on this here.

[2] This ability of capitalism to appropriate just about anything and everything into its own logic also reminds me of a warning by Rollo May, an existential psychologist: “There is considerable danger that psychoanalysis, as well as other forms of psychotherapy and adjustment psychology, will become new representations of the fragmentation of man, that they will exemplify the loss of the individual’s vitality and significance, rather than the reverse, that the new techniques will assist in standardizing and giving cultural sanction to man’s alienation from himself rather than solving it, that they will become expressions of the new mechanization of man, now calculated and controlled with greater psychological precision and on the vaster scale of unconscious and depth dimensions – that psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general will become part of the neurosis of our day rather than part of the cure.” Psychiatry today, which can be currently described as a kind of medical-pharmaceutical complex, has achieved exactly what May forsaw.

Resources

  • The Wall Street Journal, “Unraveling Rahodeb: A Grocer’s Brash Style Takes Unhealthy Turn — Were Posts by Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, A Case of Ethics, or Ego?” July 20, 2007
  • The New Yorker, “Food Fighter”, January 4, 2010
  • Existence, edited by Rollo May, Ernest Angel and Henri F. Ellenberger
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