Notes from a philosophical Starbucks
Modern High Streets in the western world are dreary, wretched places. They’re all the same as each other – brash, jostling queues of the ubiquitous supranationals that are our real governors.
They’ve shut down the shops owned by real people. Each offers a ‘retail experience’ which is identical wherever in the world the shop is. That’s what we want, they tell us confidently. Customers, they say, are nervous, conservative creatures, who need to know that they’ll have the same taste in Des Moines as in Oxford. Eventually, and tragically, they’ll be right.
This hasn’t just happened, of course. It’s the result of a determined and aggressive policy. Real, unbranded people stand no chance before the corporate blitzkrieg.
But at least some people realize that there’s a war on. Here’s Paul Kingsnorth on the Reverend Billy, the founder and leader of the ‘Church of Stop Shopping’: ‘In his stentorian wail…..he will treat the assembled [Starbucks] customers to a sermon on the evils of ‘Frankenbucks’….He will tell them about the battles the company has engaged in to prevent its workers joining trades unions. He will tell them about Starbucks’ corporate policy of ‘clustering’ many outlets at once in parts of town where there are local cafes, and expanding the clusters until only Starbucks is left…’1
Stirring stuff. But something very similar is happening in the philosophical High Street, without much or any opposition.
Globalization entails a worrying concentration of power in a few hands, the suppression of individual voices, and a homogenization of product. We’ve got all of that in academic philosophy.
We tend to write what will be published, and to be published you’ve got to show that you belong to, and are conforming with the rules of, a particular school.2 There’s a cartel at work. The market will only tolerate products from a certain number of big philosophical brands. You’ve got to have the mark of the Beast to buy or sell. You can just about get by with a recognizable hybrid of two brands, as long as you wear their badges clearly.
I’m not talking here about institutional nepotism (where you only get published if you’re from the Ivy League, for instance). I’m talking about true intellectual branding. It’s fine to be a utilitarian, or a virtue ethicist: but something really new, or a really weird cocktail of the old with properties significantly different from the constituent elements? Forget it. Scholarship is perceived as the business of adding footnotes to footnotes to footnotes. Safe is good. A footnote to a footnote is safer, and therefore more scholarly and marketable, than a footnote.
It wasn’t always this way. Yes, of course there were plenty of ‘schools’ in the ancient and the mediaeval world. Pupils sat at the feet of Socrates. He stamped the imprint of his mind on theirs. But it wasn’t like a brand. Nobody was denied a hearing if he didn’t parrot the paragraphs of the Master.
It’s changed, and it’s serious. It undermines the whole philosophical enterprise. Platonic gadflies can’t possibly be sycophantic or fearful.
1. One No, Many Yeses, The Free Press, 2003, p. 129
2. Some of the blame should be laid at the door of the current peer review process: see The Deadly Dangers of Peer Review.