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.