Reviving a news item that conscious capitalism purveyor and Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey may find inconvenient, a federal appeals court decided that the publicly-held corporation “systematically” overcharged customers for their pre-packaged foods. According to a story from Forbes,
A federal appeals court on Friday ordered Whole Foods Market to face a proposed class-action lawsuit accusing it of overcharging shoppers in New York City by overstating the weight of pre-packaged food in its supermarkets.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said a lower court judge had erred in concluding that the plaintiff Sean John, a frequent purchaser of pre-packaged cheese and cupcakes, had no right to sue because he could not show that Whole Foods overcharged him for a specific purchase…
…Writing for the appeals court, Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier said John may face “significant evidentiary obstacles” but had legal standing to sue, even if the Manhattan resident could not show that any of the food items he claimed to buy once or twice a month were mislabeled.
“According to the DCA’s investigation, Whole Foods packages of cheese and cupcakes were systematically and routinely mislabeled and overpriced, and John regularly purchased Whole Foods packages of cheese and cupcakes throughout the relevant period,” Lohier wrote.
Unfortunately for John Mackey, and his retail behemoth, the court ruling is small change in light of the situation Whole Foods finds itself in, with six consecutive quarters in the red, and rumors of a takeover bid frothing over Wall Street. In the end, the idea of big organic was bad for everybody, save the large-scale producers, and big-box retailers undercutting Whole Foods’ mighty margins.
What allowed Mackey to sell himself, and drooling investors on the ever-expanding Whole Foods dream was his theory of conscious capitalism, defined here by Nicole Aschoff writing in The Guardian,
The Whole Foods founder penned his treatise in response to the growing consensus that capitalism is doing irreparable harm to the planet and the people who live on it. Our for-profit system is increasingly viewed as a zero-sum game in which ecological destruction, climate change and rising inequality are firmly linked to the rapacious behavior of multinational corporations.
Mackey agrees that humans are harming the planet, but he doesn’t think the problem lies in capitalism. Free-market capitalism, according to Mackey, is actually a “beautiful”, “heroic” system that, properly harnessed, can operate “in harmony with the fundamentals of human nature” and the planet.
We don’t need to rein in corporations through onerous labor and environmental regulations, he writes, because the virtuous feedback loop of honoring stakeholders plus innovation will leave “unconscious” firms such as Walmart in the dust.
The conscious capitalism model is appealing. It’s simple, easy. We can avert looming environmental catastrophe by becoming conscious consumers who frequent conscious companies. After all, shopping at Whole Foods is a heck of a lot more fun than lobbying for regulations on corporations or convincing people to consume less. More Whole Foods, less Walmart. Problem solved.
Unfortunately for Mackey, the concept of conscious capitalism is as mythical as the promise of capitalism itself. Unfortunately for the rest of us, his myth has turned the promise of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s into a commoditized cacophony of greed and corruption. Rather than rationalize and humanize capitalism, we need to identify it for what it is.
Naming the Beast
At a recent dinner gathering with smart establishment liberals, as is my habit, I raised the collective blood pressure of the participants by simply stating that all of our societal and planetary problems can be traced to capitalism as the mechanism by which the lowest qualities of humanity are legitimized and rewarded via the exploitation of labor and resources. “You can’t call capitalism the problem without offering a better economic system,” I was chastised. How about one that isn’t bankrupting civilization and raping the ecology while hurtling us to the end times, I offered back, bringing the table, as is my habit, to a depressing quiet. Naming the Beast is never popular, nor wins you repeated invites to dinner parties.
The bestial nature of capitalism is echoed in a daily meditation from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr,
Most of us have grown up with a capitalist worldview which makes a virtue and goal out of accumulation, consumption, and collecting. It’s hard for us to see this as an unsustainable and unhappy trap because all of our rooms are decorated in this same color. It is the only obvious story line that our children see. “I produce therefore I am” and “I consume therefore I am” might be today’s answers to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” These identities are all terribly mistaken.
An unhappy trap, indeed, as capitalism – our modern, neoliberal variety, in particular – creates, in my view, insanity for those who thrive and the exploited alike, as no inherent value is placed on compassion. The Beast doesn’t do love well.
Whole lotta love
The story of capitalism, particularly at its late-stage, is similar to that of Whole Foods, whereby propagated myths wrapped in an emotional swaddling blanket lure trusting humans into its fanciful spell. With the decimation of the middle-class in America, there is no longer a buffer between the rich and the poor. And the casualties are not hard to spot, with reports of sharply increasing suicide rates among middle-aged white males, as reported by BakersfieldNow,
In 2015, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. That year, 44,193 people committed suicide. Of those, 33,994 were men, and 30,658 were white men.
Kern County Mental Health Director Bill Walker notes that when there is an economy downturn, one of the groups that is hit the hardest is white men.
While those on the losing side of the capitalist tracks are falling increasingly through the cracks of a vanishing social safety net, those on the other side are enjoying perks like “concierge medicine,” where the rich are paying tens of thousands of dollars per year to purchase medical care, as they avail themselves of every other consumer luxury. According to a NY Times article about the elite phenomenon,
He [Dr. Jordan Shlain] sees no reason that the medical world should not respond to consumer demand like any other player in the service economy. “Whenever I bump into a bleeding-heart liberal, which I am, I mention that schools, housing and food are all tiered systems,” he said. “But health care is an island of socialism in a system of tiered capitalism? Tell me how that works.”
Dr. Shlain’s attitude is common among wealthy elites. For those who capitalized on capitalism, the myth that they arrived there as a result of their individual specialness is one that’s shared and enshrined in their collective biographies. Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump are names that come to mind. For the rest of us, however, much like the case with Whole Foods, we’re left with the realities of fading smoke and mirrors. While John Mackey bathed in the myth of capitalism entwined with love for people and the planet, it’s clear that the two are antithetical to one another. What we need is a whole lotta love, and fast.
You need cooling
Baby I’m not fooling
I’m gonna send ya
Back to schooling
–Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Willie Dixon