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Hippy Capitalism

By David Turner, March 12, 1999

On a couple of recent visits to London I've been rather taken with the Borders bookshop which has just opened in Charing Cross Road (where "Books etc." used to be), and the longer-established Borders shop in Oxford Street (near Oxford Circus).

Their stock is huge (and includes leftish material that isn't easily available elsewhere); they stay open really late (until Midnight in the run-up to Xmas); they sell CDs (mostly blues, jazz, folk and "world music" -- all of which are played over the public-address system); they have state-of-the-art trendy coffee / juice bars; they put on readings and lectures by authors; and they encourage customers to sit and read the books in comfy chairs for as long as they like.

This is the very antithesis of that sclerotic dinosaur Foyles (located directly opposite Borders in Charing Cross Road), which is notorious for being a lousy shambles of a place with chronically disorganised stock, bewildered staff, limited opening hours, arcane purchasing procedures and other inconveniences.

I did, however, wonder what Borders is like as an employer. I got an indication of the company's working practices from the American voices which kept barking orders to the (young and educated) staff over the public-address system (periodically drowning out Robert Cray or Ella Fitzgerald): the voice says "back-up to tills on the ground floor!" and all the shelf-stackers drop what they're doing and race downstairs to man the tills (once when this happened I heard a disconcerted customer mutter, to no-one in particular, "that's not English, is it?").

It did rather remind me of the time I spent as a teenager working in McDonald's in Maidstone, where starry-eyed young Americans enthused to the newly-recruited "crew" about the company's corporate ethos like Mormon missionaries talking to recent converts (after four hours I told them where to stick their job).

Having done a bit of online research into Borders (see accompanying pages) the penny has at last dropped that this is the union-bashing company which caused the American satirist Michael Moore such grief three years ago when he was promoting his pro-union / anti-corporate book "Downsize This!" (Moore's experiences with Borders were documented in his 1997 film "The Big One").

Borders doesn't behave like bad old employers such as the founder of Foyles, Christina Foyle, a sympathiser of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, who treated her workers like dirt and wouldn't allow a union in the place, even in the face of a long-running strike and boycott campaign over union recognition.

Borders loudly proclaims its "liberal" credentials, gives its employees share options, spouts lots of pseudo-politically-correct "Human-Relations" psychobabble ... and then bashes unions.

People aren't fired for trying to organise a union -- they just get "separated from the company for a performance based issue" (Tom Lehrer was right: satire just can't keep up with reality in America).

Borders might have Woody Guthrie in the CD racks, Michael Moore on the bookshelves and "The Nation" on the magazine stand -- but woe betide those employees who take any of that stuff to heart.

Borders (which, together with Barnes & Noble, is part of an emerging duopoly in the US bookselling industry) turns out to be another example of "hippy capitalism" -- the counter-culture turned corporate (the business equivalent of "New Democrats" and "New Labour": social liberals becoming born-again economic liberals).

Richard Branson, who in the 1960s ran an underground magazine and marched arm-in-arm with Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave against the Vietnam War, thinks that Virgin employees have such cause to be content with their lot that they don't need a union. Anita Roddick, who tries to present The Body Shop as a crusade for the environment and the Third World rather than a business selling bars of soap, says exactly the same.

In America Ben & Jerry's, the ice cream manufacturers, claim to have broken the mould of corporate culture; but the hairy pair, who once famously sued Pilsbury for rigging the market by bullying retailers into keeping rival products out of the chilled cabinets, now try to ... rig the market by bullying retailers into keeping rival products out of the chilled cabinets.

The computer industry is likewise substantially run by erstwhile hippies who have mutated into "bread-heads" but still like to think they haven't sold out to "the Man".

The attitude of these people to unions is in practice only a more polite and circumspect version of that displayed by my father, and his fellow building sub-contractors, at the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s when an official from UCATT (a Canterbury Labour Councillor who lived round the corner from me, as it happened) tried to unionise one of their sites:

"Fuck off! My blokes are on good money and they don't want wankers like you taking union subs off them to pay for your cushy lifestyle. Now get off my job or you'll get this shovel wrapped round yer ears!"

(I'm paraphrasing, but I think this catches the gist of the conversation. The sad thing is that the workers were even more hostile than the subbies.)

It looks like we lefty bibliophiles (myself especially, as I will soon be a bookshop-worker and an USDAW member) will have to respect the "Boycott Borders" campaign which Michael Moore, Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Billy Bragg and other worthies are supporting.