Class, Community and Starbucks

The Telegraph reports the work of Professor Bryan Simon which argues that Starbucks has had an extremely detrimental effect on community life. The report comes ahead of the launch of Simon’s book on Starbucks, Everything But the Coffee. Based on research in nine countries, Simon argues that although Starbucks supposedly offers a communal experience, in reality most of its shops represent a conglomeration of individuals.

“People immediately create their own little private, gated communities. You come in, set up your laptop and put on your headphones,” he said yesterday. “You couldn’t be more alone in public if you wanted to be.”

Simon compares the coffee shops of today to the coffeeshops of the past, and their role in providing a forum for debating issues of political importance.

He said the rise of Starbucks and its rivals was a far cry from the British coffee houses of the 18th and 19th centuries “which were the cornerstone of democracy with a small ‘d’”.

The most interesting part of the article though is that which discusses the class aspect of Starbucks, and its relationship to the aspirational consumerist lifestyle. By opening up in expensive areas, and charging high prices, Starbucks creates a feeling among its clientele that they are successful, sophisticated, and fashionable. This is a reflection of how modern consumer capitalism seeks to provide atomised consumers with the illusion that they are part of a broader community. Whether it is the self-congratulatory recognition of a fellow owner or an iPhone or whatever the gadget du jour is, or online fora to discuss ownership of a pricey item, it provides people with a sense of being part of something bigger and yet exclusive, while in reality hindering the development of genuine community feeling. As Simon points out, sitting in a room with like-minded people is not the same as engaging with them.

In this sense, Starbucks is representative of a broader issue within society. Capitalism has succeeded as never before in driving out a sense of the collective, and the organisations capable of collective action. Whether it is non-union workplaces or the fetishisation of the small business by Maggie Thatcher, the impulse is the same. To wage an ideological war against the solidarity necessary for class politics. Starbucks stands for many things. But it is perhaps as a representative of the fall in solidarity that it is most significant.

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14 Responses to “Class, Community and Starbucks”

  1. nineteensixtyseven Says:

    Fantastic post. I’ve actually debated motions condemning Starbucks before so I’m with you on this one!

  2. GoodHardRant Says:

    Simon’s stuff sounds pretty interesting, though I’m wary of his idealised Habermassian coffee house of yore. His description of consumers as ‘alone in public’ is absolutely spot-on though. Processes of identification based on commodities are delusional, hence the discouraging of human interaction: it wouldn’t do to find out the hep, benneton-wearing apple-user beside you is a total wankstain (because you might be too). Might damage the brand. Have to keep consuming to maintain the illusion of selfhood that the little white cup of latte endows. God I need a coffee.

  3. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks 1967. I see that Subway is about to overtake McDonald’s as the world’s largest fast food chain. It’ll be interesting to see if it becomes a focus for protest and hate to the same degree.

    Good Hard Rant,

    The alone in public thing struck me too. A very good description I thought. I agree entirely with what your saying about the brand as delusional self-image. Having neither an Apple Mac nor an iPod and not being a great drinker of coffee I am feeling particularly virtuous after reading your comment!
    And btw, wankstain is a word we don’t hear enough these days 🙂

  4. Luis Enrique Says:

    “An extremely detrimental affect on community life”. Oh dear – sometimes I might choose to take some work or a novel to a ghastly chain coffee shop, put in my headphones and while away the hours. ON NOES I HAVE DESTROYED THE COMMUNITY! I might choose to do the same in a independent family run coffee shop, if they had the wit to provide WIFI and enough seating. Sometimes I like to read a novel on a park bench. I COULDN’T BE MORE ALONE IN PUBLIC. Anyway, the idea that they are filled with solitary laptop users is bullshit – what proportion of Starbucks customers at any given time are one their own, and what proportion are nattering away to friends? I remember England before the invasion of the coffee chains, and do you know what, there weren’t that many places to get a nice cup of coffee with ample seating! Maybe the coffee chains flourished because they provide something people like? Quick! Write a thesis explaining how people don’t know what’s good for them! Oh, how much better off we’ll be, once capitalism is overthrown and nobody will be using Apple Macs and free WIFI in comfy chairs and drinking coffee! then we will REALLY ENGAGE with each other, and have a REAL COMMUNITY! I can’t wait.

    “By opening up in expensive areas, and charging high prices, Starbucks creates a feeling among its clientele that they are successful, sophisticated, and fashionable.” Yes! Aren’t people morons! I’m actually a dullard, but just by handing over £2 for a coffee, I can feel like George Clooney!

    But, I’m missing a trick, because if I really want to generate a warm feeling of superiority, nothing beats positioning oneself above the Starbucks slurping deluded consumer drones, as this post and comments amply demonstrates. Hows that for “solidarity”?

  5. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi Luis,

    Thanks for stopping by. In my experience, a large proportion are on their own and using laptops, and the proportion goes way up in the States, where the research is focused. No-one is saying that Starbucks is responsible for the destruction of community life. What is being said by me is that it is the nature of interaction in Starbucks – or the lack of it – is symbolic of a whole raft of issues regarding ideas about community and solidarity, and the nature of consumer capitalism.

    As for the argument about class and exclusion. Do you know of many Starbucks that are in working class areas?

  6. Luis Enrique Says:

    “buying a cup of coffee and then sitting down to drink it with friends or on your own” symbolizes “a whole raft of issues regarding ideas about community and solidarity and the nature of consumer capitalism”.

    Projection

    “Nobody is saying that Starbucks is responsible for the destruction of community life” … the precise wording was “an extremely detrimental effect.”

    meanwhile, news just in … retail outlets selling relatively highly priced goods are not found in areas where people don’t have much money. And what does this insight into where different types of business choose to locate tell us about class and exclusion? Presumably you are celebrating the exclusion of the working classes from Starbucks, in view of its detrimental effects on community life.

  7. Garibaldy Says:

    Ah. Class analysis equals mental illness. I see. I think it’s clear where you are coming from.
    And by the way, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t misrepresent me by putting quotation marks round things I haven’t said alongside things I have said in quotation marks.

    You’ll find plenty of coffee shops in working class areas. The Falls Road, for example, has several. But no Starbucks. It aims at a certain type of consumer. That’s absolutely fine. But when the propaganda/advertising of such places is trying to foster a certain image, it’s reasonable for Prof. Simon to point out the gap between image and reality, and for all of us to discuss what the popularity of such places that may or may not tell us about our culture.

  8. nineteensixtyseven Says:

    Go to any coffee shop in Cambridge, seriously any one at all, and there will be more people with laptops than without. Caffé Nero is my library.

  9. Luis Enrique Says:

    yes, sorry, my use of quotation marks was unintentionally misleading; I didn’t mean those were your words, I was just trying to write: So you’re saying “A” symbolizes “B” where A was my interpretation. And the definition of “projection” I linked to was misplaced too. I’m just trying to say that what you are reading into the “nature of interaction in Starbucks” (buying a cup of coffee and drinking it on your own or with friends! gasp!) is projection in the sense of being closer to a hallucination than accurate observation.

    I’m not sure why you point out that there are coffee shops in working class areas. Did anybody think otherwise? I still fail to see the insight in observing that a business addressing a certain customer locates its outlets where those customers are. Really, how large is the “gap between image and reality”? Starbucks sells itself as X whereas in fact its Y! What’s the awful truth … it’s just a sort of fancy cafe! Next you’ll be telling us that Mars Bars don’t actually help us rest work and play, and that Centerparcs isn’t actually full of happy families with good teeth.

    Discuss what the popularity of such places may or may not tell us about our culture, by all means. My contribution to this discussion is to suggest your “analysis” is … mistaken, and more sensible analysis might focus more on how people like to drink fancy coffee in a reasonably pleasant environment, sometimes in a solitary way, sometimes not, and perhaps take advantage of free wifi.

  10. Garibaldy Says:

    So much for poor students, eh 1967?

    Luis,

    You are looking at this at the level of personal choice to go into a Starbucks. I am trying to look at it at a societal level. It’s not a surprise that we are seeing different things.

  11. yourcousin Says:

    Support Starbucks workers in their fight for dignity and better working conditions.

  12. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks for that information Yourcousin.

  13. nineteensixtyseven Says:

    If I’m going to get into horrendous debt I might as well do it with a cup of coffee in my hand 🙂 Luckily the café in question has an upstairs so I can get about 6 hours work done on the strength of one cup purchased in the morning.

  14. Garibaldy Says:

    6 hours? That’s a full week’s work on one cup of coffee then.

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