Activism wrapped in capitalism: Josh Clark Davis on Activist Entrepreneurs in the 20th Century

“We now know that, during the Cold War, consumerism came to be increasingly tied to American citizenship in a particularly gendered form of privatization that occasionally surfaced into public politics,” noted Elaine Lewinnek in her review essay on architecture and consumerism in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of Urban History.[1] As evidenced by Lewinnek’s statement, it would be hard to deny the power of consumerism in American culture. More recently in the twenty first century, Presidents have framed consumerism as a central aspect of citizenship and a means to happiness amidst tragedy. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” President George W. Bush told the American public after the 9/11 attacks. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Our current president arguably occupies the White House due in large part to his success hawking what he perceives as “the good life” whether through reality TV or the odd cable shopping network; he even included a random, tone deaf plug for his winery as his disastrous August 15th press conference concluded. On the left, consumerism has no shortage of critics; Naomi Klein and Michael Moore regularly assail Corporate America.

Unsurprisingly, academics have found in consumerism a rich cultural vein from which some profound revelations about post World War II America can be extracted. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) remains mandatory reading for anyone studying ideas, government policies, and ideologies related to post World War II twentieth century consumerism and citizenship. Numerous other historians have contributed significantly to the discussion. Robert Weems, Lawrence Glickman, Kathy Piess, and Susan Benson serve as just four very notable examples; collectively they address class, race, and gender in America through an exploration of consumer behavior and activism.[2] One could easily add Meg Jacobs and Tracey Deutsch, who each have shared their own insights relating to “economic citizenship” particularly in regard to the government’s promotion of this idea, and its connection to gender.[3]

The study of consumerism includes the spaces that postwar shoppers inhabited. William Leach examined how business, finance, industry, and government intersected to create the nation’s mass consumer culture in the early decades of the twentieth century United States.[4] Long the dean of vernacular retail architecture, Richard Longstreth documented and illustrated the processes by which suburban and urban retail were transformed by business leaders, consumers, and in many cases, cars, both in terms of geography and the new spatial relations that business created for shoppers and the shopping experience.[5]

Gabrielle Esperdy and Andrew M. Shanken have also contributed work that comments on consumerism in other ways.[6] Esperdy explores the Modernization Credit Plan, part of the National Housing Act of 1934 as well as two public relations programs run through the Federal Housing Association, “Modernize Main Street” and “Better Housing Program.” She argues that though ignored, these smaller aspects of the New Deal program cast a broad influence such as through the mobilization of $5 billion in a depression era attempt to improve store fronts while promoting the idea of retail “main streets” as a symbol of commercial uplift and solution to economic decline. In many ways, Shanken’s work picks up soon after Esperdy leaves off with architects and urban planners attempting to puzzle out a postwar economic program during World War II. In doing so, he traces the discourse that popularized modernism in the U.S., provided new urban planning models, and impacted the nation in ways that exceeded architecture.

I will not even mention studies on international cities or parallel transnational works. They are legion and for our purposes here, regrettably omitted.

Josh Davis

Yet while the force of consumerism has received domestic and transnational attention, among historians the focus most often remains on corporate entities (or large scale enterprises), government planning, and a consumerist public that sways from apathy to resistance. Many, though not all, of the historians above discussed consumerism amidst the expansion of mass consumer culture in the 1920s, the rise of the social welfare state during the New Deal, World War II era U.S. and even the postwar prosperity of “consensus liberalism”.

Fewer scholars have endeavored to study the small business side of the consumerist politics during the 1960s and 1970s. In his new book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, urban historian Josh Clark Davis explores the intersection of 1960s/1970s social movements and small business activism that promoted black power and civil rights, feminism, drug reform (ok, access to and legalization of marijuana), and natural food.

Focusing largely on bookstores, small presses, head shops, and organic food markets, Davis argues that “activist entrepreneurs” reimagined “the products, places, and processes of American business,” and by doing so, laid the groundwork for an admittedly “less radical” vision but one that “lives on—albeit fragmented and diluted—in the language, products, and goals of countless American companies today.”[7] Despite Davis’ less optimistic view of the business landscape, it remains difficult to deny that the idea of corporate citizenship, at the very least in terms of rhetoric, today bears some relation to the efforts of Davis’ activist entrepreneurs. The irony of politically radical entrepreneurs establishing the, or perhaps more modestly, a template for the corporate citizen of today will not be lost on readers.[8]

Whole Foods Head Shops.jpg

The book traverses the United States. Davis carries us to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, and elsewhere. Activist entrepreneurs believed small businesses to be “the backbone of democracy” as “community institutions.” For example, Washington D.C.’s Drum and Spear Bookstore, specializing in works by black authors and promoting black nationalism and civil rights, operated as an arm of a non-profit. The owners of the Psychedelic Shop in San Francisco transformed a part of their business into a meditation room, “The Calm Center”, in an attempt to make the store “a headquarters for hippies seeking community and enlightenment as well as a refuge from the increasingly rough streets in the Haight.”[9] In this way, though not focused on the physical architecture like Longstreth or Leach, Davis explores these businesses as spaces of ideology and political engagement.

Throughout Davis navigates a variety of causes and businesses, most struggle with the same multi-armed tension: maintaining a successful business while critiquing capitalism and all it’s evils, promoting a political cause, and embodying the values of the social movement—be it feminism, the counterculture, civil rights, black power, or natural food—that served as its foundation. In some cases, most notably natural foods, labor practices and policies conflicted with business.

Resistance to entrepreneur activism not only came from without, but also from within. Many activist entrepreneurs endured attacks from the social movements they hoped to advance; distrust of capitalism by civil rights leaders, particularly among the black power wing of the movement, often led to criticism. “The central contradiction in activist business was that entrepreneurs who objected to capitalism still had to make money to survive,” writes Davis. They weren’t exploiting idealism and politics for financial gain, however. Davis’s activist entrepreneurs were grinders who “wanted their enterprises to survive in the long term.” There was rarely the opportunity to sell out for wealth and fame. “[T]he greatest threat to activist entrepreneurs was not being co-opted but simply going out of business,” notes Davis.[10]

Though the tension between dedication to the movement and the ability to stay afloat as a business tested all activist entrepreneurs, it manifested itself the most vociferously in the feminist movement. Granted, black bookstores initially struggled to win over some black nationalists, especially those who viewed capitalist enterprises warily, but by the late 1960s, most had embraced it.

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“Women are happening”, Women’s Interart Center, NY, NY, 1967-1978, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Within feminism, the idea of activist businesses proved more divisive. Susan Sojourner, owner of The First Things Bookstore in Washington D.C., noted that most “movement non-businesswomen” believed that activist entrepreneur enterprises sought to rip off, exploit, leach and profit from feminism. In this way, From Head Shops to Whole Foods documents the fault lines and points of disagreement among various movements.

In the case of feminism, some activist entrepreneurs clearly felt that too many feminists promoted a mythical womanhood. Lorraine Allen, owner of a specialty toiletry company Equation Collective, explained the plight of her fellow female activist entrepreneurs by skewering such ideas. “Just when the movement tried to perpetuate the myth that some women are somehow intrinsically, i.e. unmaterialistic [sic] here we come along with our balance sheets and income statements.”[11] Davis explores this dynamic through a number of feminist business including credit associations, book stores, publishers, and others. Efforts to create umbrella organizations that thread various feminists businesses together for economic and political gain, often met with resistance from critics inside the movement.

 

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Malcolm X, half-length portrait, seated, facing right, during press conference in offices of the National Memorial African Book Store, New York City, 1964, New York World Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Whatever the political gains achieved by black nationalist and feminist book stores, both contributed to the critical growth of each community’s economic base. Black and feminist bookstores increased the numbers of businesses owned by women and minorities but also nurtured customers’ interest in feminism and civil rights. Each contributed to an expansion of the public sphere that included a more diverse set of voices; however, both fell victim to their success. By the 1990 and 2000s, chain stores snatched up black and feminist authors. With declining readership that eventually shuttered the physical locations of even Barnes and Noble, most black and feminist bookstores soon closed their doors, unable to compete. For feminist presses, those that persisted shed or downplayed their affiliation to the movement. Due to the focus on both black and feminist entrepreneurs, these chapters put Davis in dialogue with Weems, Cohen, Deutsch, Glickman and others.

Unlike bookstores and printing presses, head shops and organic food outlets exhibited a slightly different arc: ideologies mattered less, lifestyle mattered more. Each began as alternatives to “America’s dominant consumer culture.” In the case of head shops, many activist entrepreneurs believed consumerism to be “alienating, conformist, puritanical, and ‘plastic.’”[12] But head shops also did not operate as “ideological clearing house[s] for radical social movements” or serve as collectives or cooperatives.[13] That being said, politics did seep into the scene; anti-war activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s influenced both head shop entrepreneurs and their customers. In general, however, head shops grew out of the counterculture’s distrust of materialism, an interest in Eastern religions, and tendency toward self-exploration (chemical and otherwise).

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The modern day descendent of Davis’s 1960s head shop activist entrepreneurs; “Window of the Space Cowboy Smoke Shop, which calls itself ‘the highest head shop in the world,’ in Breckenridge, Colorado”, Carol M. Highsmith, August 8, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When the 1980s arrived with Reagan’s War on Drugs and the efforts of parents groups like Dekalb Families in Action (see Michael Massing’s The Fix for a good composite of the anti-drug parent movement of the late 1970s and 1980s), head shops faced public criticism and legislative marginalization. Eventually, entrepreneurs allied with the marijuana legalization movement and free speech advocates. It was a narrower activism than the anti-materialism and anti-war politics of the 1960s and ‘70s, but activism nonetheless.[14]

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Photoprint used by the U.S. Treasury Department to document the increasing traffic in marijuana, 1943-1945, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What most head shop owners did not highlight in this fight was the racial inequality at the heart of the War on Drugs. Instead, they often adopted a “color blind analysis of drug laws” that failed to highlight the criminal justice systems implicit racial bias. NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) also stood guilty of such sins of omission, and Davis cynically describes how NORML found it “politically effective to celebrate marijuana and its young white users as innocent, everyday Americans instead of challenging the prevalent stereotypes of African American drug users as dangerous criminals.”[15]

 

Like head shops, natural or organic foods began without being tethered to a single ideology. Rather, the natural food movement operated as a Rorschach test—the cause you ascribed to it said much more about you than the enterprise itself. “Environmentalism, pacifism, animal rights, anarchism, and the counterculture—all contributed to natural foods’ ideological profile in the early 1970s,” argues Davis. The embrace of numerous movements rather than a single one enabled activist entrepreneurs in the industry to “recast their business as a form of political resistance against powerful corporations, environmental degradation, and even war and animal cruelty.” Still, while this gave activist entrepreneurs a broader appeal it also meant they lacked the kind of frenzied attachment to their business enjoyed by those counterparts wedded to a single cause.[16]

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A modern day non-Whole Foods natural food store, “Talal Cockar’s 2011 mural “Tierra y Libertad” fills much of a wall on the Big Hollow natural-foods store building, part of the Laramie Mural Project in downtown Laramie, Wyoming”, Carol M. Highsmith, June 6, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Considering the dominance of Whole Foods over the past decade and its recent buyout, it would not be surprising if Davis’ work on organic food draws the most attention from the media and general public. The natural foods movement did not begin with Whole Foods, but rather sprang from the ideas of Japanese writer and spiritual leader George Ohsawa. In his book Zen Macrobiotics, Ohsawa advised readers to eschew sugar, canned goods, produce grown with nonorganic pesticides and fertilizers, and almost all animal products. His followers established Erewhon in the mid-1960s in Boston while promoting the macrobiotic lifestyle. Despite running afoul of the FDA, Erewhon gained its economic footing and by 1971 reported annual sales of $1.8 million. With locations in Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto, it laid the groundwork for a transformation of the grocery industry.[17]

Labor practices bedeviled many natural food stores. “Some of the most successful businesses resisted efforts by employees or activists to organize unions,” writes Davis, “rejecting the idea that organized labor should play a role in securing workplace democracy.”[18] Labor difficulties aside and in terms of economic growth and presence in the American marketplace, organic foods prove the most successful of Davis’ examples. However, whether in spite or because of their success, the industry endured the criticism from a variety of constituencies including accusations of “cliquish dogmatism,” excessive prices, and “hostility toward people of color, the poor, and organized labor.”[19]

Just as feminist businesses attempted to create umbrella organizations and associations that might bind them to each other more tightly, both politically and economically, similar efforts were made among natural food producers. The formation of the Organic Merchants (OM) “counterculture trade association” sought to create a network of activist entrepreneurs as a means to address distribution problems. Many of these entrepreneurs argued that corporations would never be effective in the natural food business. Paul Hawken, the co-founder of OM, disparaged efforts by corporate America as too opaque, too focused on profits, and too dependent on what and he others viewed as corrupted advertising. “If you are in a truly meaningful business, there is no need to promote yourself other than being open, honest and communicative to your customers,” he would tell journalists. “[T]here is nothing truthful in advertising.”[20]

Cooperatives also arose in the mid-1970s as a means to increase inclusivity and democratic organization. Having lived in NYC for nearly a decade I can’t even tell you how many oddball stories about the famed Park Slope Coop I heard from friends. Now a resident in one of the nations’ most liberal suburbs, Takoma Park, I’ve witnessed Coop politics first hand, sometimes rational and thought out, sometimes not. At the very least, cooperatives raised questions about just what made for the best, most just, business model: “the cooperative model of shared ownership, the spiritually informed and consensus driven management model of companies such as Erewhon, or labor unions?”[21]

Whole Foods emerged from this activist ether. After studying earlier natural food stores like Brookline, Massachusetts’s Bread and Circus and Los Angeles’s Mrs. Gooch’s Ranch Market, John Mackey opened the first Whole Foods market in Austin, Texas. Mackey aggressively expanded the business; unlike his counterparts, Mackey sought to acquire competitors and later sold large portions of the business to venture capitalists, hence facilitating this growth. Such decisions represented a clear break with the more democratic impulses of the movement.

Later Mackey adopted a libertarian politics that eschewed organized labor and government intervention. In retelling the company’s history, Mackey conveniently neglected to mention that Whole Foods once accepted a critical loan from the government following a damaging flood to its Austin store in the 1980s. The company’s environmentalism aligned with the libertarian ideal advocating for businesses to adopt a social consciousness rather than depend on government regulation of the environment.

“[U]nlike most activist businesses, Mackey emphasized individual fulfillment at the expense of social equality and workplace democracy,” notes Davis. In Mackey’s estimation, inequality was natural, struggles for equality were manifestations of national selfishness. While Mackey outwardly embraced social causes like environmentalism, he always kept his eye on the capitalist prize: “We must make sure that we do not become so involved in social/environmental/global issues that it negatively affects our ability to serve our stakeholders,” he noted in a 1988 handbook for Whole Foods.

Davis is right to lament the dissolution of entrepreneurial activism, but at the same time, the efforts of all his subjects also helped bring their movements and the issues that animated them into the mainstream. The decline of black and feminist bookstores, and independent bookstores generally, deserves to be mourned. However, the fact that both brought black and female authors to the broader culture such that big chains began to stock them also merits some level of celebration. What was lost, perhaps, was a sense of community and the store as a space for political debate, reform, and resolution.

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Our more traditional idea of 1960s activism, [Anti-Vietnam war protest and demonstration in front of the White House in support of singer Eartha Kitt], Thomas J. O’Holloran, January 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
At least in some small way, what happened to black bookstores parallels the fate of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs spent decades educating black America, and doing it well, only to witness declining enrollments with desegregation as African American students chose schools that had previously denied them admission due to race. At the risk of sounding simplistic, both deserved better but in capitalism we often don’t get what we deserve—rather, we get what the market dictates. Such observations hardly count as revelatory, but since From Head Shops to Whole Foods is the newest addition to the History of Capitalism series from Columbia University Press, it seems appropriate.

Relatedly, the cooption of entrepreneurial activism by companies such as Whole Foods demonstrates capitalism’s consistency regarding commodification. For example, organized labor and workers pushed the idea of “industrial democracy” during World War I as a means to break up the autocratic control of big business over their labor. After the war, employers soon adopted the same phrase and attached it to mealy-mouthed company unions that failed to deliver anything like the gains workers made during, and then lost after, the Great War. Here too, the reader encounters similar processes at work. Yet, and this remains just one testament to the complexity of Davis’ work here, if this co-option resulted in better corporate citizenship and more activist consumers, then activist entrepreneurs undoubtedly contributed something vital to American capitalism.

 

If there are aspects of the book to critique, as there are with any work, one might point to the lack of any transnational perspective. Despite the fact black nationalists and feminists circulated ideas internationally, there is no real attention to this facet of any of the movements. Secondarily, in moments, it feels as if Davis jumps from example to example and that one unifying thread for each chapter does not always emerge. These are pretty minor quibbles.

In the end, Davis book makes a valuable contribution to the study of American capitalism and consumerism. It reveals some well-worn paths in American history but in new ways, while also establishing some of the ironic origins of today’s corporate citizens.

[1] Elaine Lewinnek, “Modern Architecture, Consumer Citizenship, and the Fate of American Downtowns”, Journal of Urban History 43. (July 2017): 526.

[2] Robert E. Weems, Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century, New York University Press, 1998; Lawrence Glickman, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, University of Chicago Press, 2010;

[3] Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, Princeton University Press, 2006; Tracy Deutsch, Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the New Deal, University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[4] William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage Books, 1993.

[5] Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, M.I.T. Press, 1997; Richard Longstreth, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Space in Los Angeles, M.I.T. Press, 1999; Richard Longstreth, The American Department Store Transformed, 1940-1960, Yale University Press, 2010.

[6] Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture During the New Deal, University of Chicago Press, 2008; Andrew M. Shanken, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front, University of Minnesota Press, 2010; Kathy Piess, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Temple University Press, 1986; Susan Bension, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890 – 1940, University of Illinois Press, 1987

[7] Josh Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 4, 8.

[8] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 245.

[9] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 58,94

[10] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 31.

[11] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 149.

[12] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 84.

[13] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 85.

[14] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 120.

[15] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 121.

[16] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 191.

[17] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 171.

[18] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 179.

[19] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 180.

[20] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 195.

[21] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 203.

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