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Activist Businesses: The New Left’s Surprising Critique of Postwar Consumer Culture

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This post originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The American Historian.

“Why does youth consider Big Business ‘immoral’?” the editors of Fortune magazine asked with palpable anxiety in a special report titled “Youth in Turmoil” in 1969. Speaking for many American marketers, corporations, and retailers, Fortune feared they might lose an entire generation of shoppers to growing discontent with American consumer culture. According to one study, more than half of American teenagers had been “favorably impressed with the business system” in 1951, but by 1971 that figure had sunk to just 35 percent. By the recession year of 1976, Conference Board, America’s leading organization of corporate executives, declared that “the immediate origins of [businesses’] difficulties lie in the social revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s.”[1]

Americans born in the years following World War II—the so-called Baby Boomers—had grown up amid an American consumer culture more dominated by chain retailers, national brands, and advertising than ever before. By the mid-1960s, television—what one historian has called the “first exclusively commercial medium in history”—made its way into 94 percent of American households and urgently beckoned young viewers to consume. From 1950 to 1970, businesses’ total expenditures on advertising in the United States nearly tripled. Especially for those who grew up in the suburbs, the dominant form of public space was the corporate shopping center, which had replaced the public square as the center of life beyond the city limits. In the quarter century following World War II, chains came to dominate American retail as their share increased sharply from about half to nearly three-quarters of all of general merchandising sales. With the help of a powerful new communications medium and the growth of chains, “big business” became much bigger in the postwar years.[2]

Government, labor, economists, and industry appeared to reach a consensus that bigger businesses produced better products, sold them more effectively than smaller firms, and provided more benefits to consumers than small companies could. Meanwhile, the idea that a mass marketplace could produce shared abundance and reduce social inequalities—what Lizabeth Cohen has called the “Consumers’ Republic”—held incredible sway for millions of American adults.[3]

Yet at almost the exact moment that tremendous postwar prosperity was reaching unprecedented numbers of Americans, some critics began to question the impact of this culture of abundance on the country’s stated values of freedom, democracy, and equality. In the second half of the 1950s, best-selling liberal writers such as Sloan Wilson, William Whyte, and Vance Packard depicted American business and consumer culture as unfulfilling, conformist, and manipulative. Leftist writers—careful readers of Karl Marx, if not necessarily Marxists—took these criticisms even further. They condemned modern American businesses and consumer culture for fueling a form of psychological estrangement much deeper than simple dissatisfaction. They called this condition “alienation,” a term they borrowed from Marx. Alienation, Marx argued, was a profound form of spiritual discontent and dehumanization that workers experienced in their lives as they sought to comply with the dictates of industrial work, class hierarchy, and capitalist bureaucracy.[4]

Although Marx located alienation primarily in the lives of industrial workers, radical thinkers in the 1950s and 1960s argued that virtually no one could escape the alienating effects of modern consumer culture. C. Wright Mills despaired of the “alienating process that has shifted men from a focus upon production to a focus upon consumption.” Herbert Marcuse, meanwhile, warned that “free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation.” [5]

Other thinkers on the left, without necessarily using the term “alienation,” also denounced what they saw as dehumanizing and psychologically corrosive effects of modern American consumer culture. This group included anarchist thinkers such as Paul Goodman, who condemned “the economic lunacy” encouraged by television in his best-selling work Growing Up Absurd (1956); Murray Bookchin, whose book Our Synthetic Environment (1962) was an early leftist criticism of the environmental dangers of corporate capitalism; E. Franklin Frazier, the African American sociologist and author of an incisive critique of African American business and the middle class, Black Bourgeoisie (1957); and the feminist and former labor journalist Betty Friedan, who in her work The Feminine Mystique (1963) denounced advertisers for “persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set, their nonsexual human needs unnamed, unsatisfied, drained by the sexual sell into the buying of things.” [6]

Influenced by these thinkers and a range of social movements, many young Americans came to view business and consumer culture with deep skepticism by the late 1960s. The pioneering New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) articulated one of the era’s most significant critiques of American big business with its publication of the Port Huron Statement in 1962. Believed to be the most widely distributed document of the American Left in the 1960s, the statement is best remembered for introducing to tens of thousands of readers the concept of participatory democracy as a corrective to a calcified American political system. Less remembered but nonetheless influential was the statement’s criticism of America’s “remote control economy” in which an alliance of business, government, and labor elites “excludes the mass of individual ‘units’—the people—from basic decisions affecting the nature and organization of work, rewards, and opportunities.” The SDS instead proposed an economy in which “work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-direct[ed], not manipulated, encouraging independence[,] a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility.” [7]

SDS recognized that despite the supposed virtues of the mass marketplace, many Americans felt excluded and demeaned by a consumer culture that celebrated the white, suburban, heterosexual, and law-abiding family of four as the normative social and economic unit. Most flagrantly, African Americans were denied equal recognition in this consumer culture—refused service by some businesses, served but treated dismissively by other companies, and ignored and disparaged by advertising. Meanwhile, women of all races faced pervasive credit discrimination and endured a barrage of sexist advertising. Gay and lesbian Americans were virtually invisible in their nation’s consumer culture. Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans appeared only occasionally in advertising and usually as caricatures. [8]

As these contradictions became clear to many young Americans, some of them began to wonder what was lost in their country’s compulsion to consume. Amid a public discourse that celebrated the American “free market,” businesses’ cultural and social inequalities struck many people as deeply hypocritical. Yet not all of these critics rejected business wholesale.

Surprisingly, some of these critics decided to go into business for themselves. Operating in different areas of the country and selling different products for different reasons, these individuals shared a critical commonality: they established businesses in which they touted social and political change, not profit, as their primary objectives. Thousands of such businesses were established across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

I call the individuals who operated these businesses “activist entrepreneurs.” They emerged from social movements of the late 1960s and the 1970s believing that American society was sick from inequality, conformity, materialism, and hypocritical moralism. American businesses not only exhibited the symptoms of these social illnesses, they argued, but also reinforced and often created them. Activists from a range of social movements established politically informed, and often struggling shops to offer alternatives to what they saw as the discriminatory and spiritually bankrupt consumer culture of chain stores, mass production, and multinational corporations.

Four activist businesses in the 1960s and 1970s stand out for their prevalence and impact. Black booksellers positioned themselves as information centers for the Black Power and pan-Africanist movements. Meanwhile, activists involved in the women’s movement and burgeoning lesbian liberation movement launched credit unions, printing presses, and bookstores to promote feminism in the wider public and offer women economic independence from men. Third, natural foods stores, especially cooperatives, sold vegetarian and organic products with the goal of advancing environmentalism, animal rights, and pacifism. Finally, thousands of countercultural head shops selling paraphernalia for smoking marijuana or enhancing LSD trips promoted the antiwar cause and collaborated with the nascent movement to reform America’s drug laws. Although these were the most numerous and influential activist businesses, most of the era’s other social movements established small enterprises, too.

A few examples illustrate the range and diversity of activist businesses that operated across the United States. In Washington, D.C., veteran members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) opened the Drum and Spear Bookstore in 1968. In addition to a brick-and-mortar store specializing in works by writers of African descent, Drum and Spear ran a brisk mail-order distribution business for other Black booksellers and even launched its own publishing company, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. [9] In Minneapolis and St. Paul, members of the Twin Cities Draft Information Center began to establish co-ops at the end of the 1960s, helping to quickly transform the Twin Cities into a national leader in cooperative business. By 1972, Minneapolis and St. Paul were home to no fewer than ten co-op storefronts, including a bakery, a clothing store, a bookstore, and seven groceries. [10] In Baltimore, teenagers opened the Pratt Street Conspiracy, a nonprofit cooperative that employed young residents in the Hollins Market neighborhood. The co-op’s revenues came from sales, memberships sold to customers, and grant funding from the Community Action Agency, an organization funded primarily by the War on Poverty through the federal Office for Economic Opportunity. Any profits after salaries and operating costs were channeled back into two local community nonprofit organizations working with the store. [11] Meanwhile, activists in the women’s movement opened a dozen different feminist credit unions in the middle of the 1970s in such cities as Detroit; San Diego; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Charleston, South Carolina; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Feminist credit unions’ total assets were modest but reached an estimated $1.5 million (nearly $6.8 million in 2017 dollars, adjusted for inflation). [12]

Activist entrepreneurs re-envisioned the products, places, and processes of American business. First, they sought to introduce products that promoted progressive and radical politics as well as cultural pluralism in the marketplace. Second, these entrepreneurs conceived of their storefronts as political places or what they referred to as “free spaces” that incubated a culture of activism and solidarity. Third, activist enterprises re-conceptualized processes of doing business by promoting shared ownership, limited growth, and democratic workplaces. In turn, they advanced a vision of participatory economics that rejected capitalist norms of limited proprietorship, profit maximization, and hierarchical management.

Activist entrepreneurs’ harnessing of small businesses for political purposes represents a forgotten dimension of dissent in the 1960s and 1970s. For many thousands of Americans, activist business was a serious attempt to develop both new forms of enterprise and community as well as a new vehicle for political and social transformation. Critics alleged that activist businesses reduced collective struggles to individual acts of opting into political change while promoting lifestyle and cultural choices over direct challenges to structural inequalities. Most activist entrepreneurs, however, did not believe they had to make such binary choices. They hoped to bring about political transformation and a more pluralistic marketplace by operating small businesses in direct collaboration with, not instead of, collective social movements.

These businesses, in fact, exercised more control of their commercial possibilities than scholars have previously recognized. They were highly skeptical, for instance, of what Thomas Frank has described as Madison Avenue’s attempts at “the conquest of cool” and “hip consumerism.” Corporate efforts to capitalize on the era’s insurgent politics and sense of rebellion struck observers from the New Left and underground press as transparent, exploitative, and insincere. “You are beginning to talk like us, to sympathize with our frustrations,” wrote The Big Us, a radical underground newspaper in Cleveland, in an “open letter” to Time, Inc. “But it won’t work, man. We know what you’re up to. You are not joining us because we’ve turned you on to a better way of life; you’re joining us to lead us—lead us away from the left, back into the fold of capitalist apple pie Americana.” People involved with social movements and counterculture were well aware that their rebelliousness could be converted into corporate profits. Not only were they prepared to resist such attempts at co-optation, but they also believed they could create their own businesses that faithfully promoted the values of social movements and the counterculture. [13]

Activist businesses peaked in the middle of the 1970s, but most of them closed amid the decline of New Left movements as well as the deep recession of the second half of that decade. The numbers of African American booksellers, feminist businesses, and cooperative storefronts have declined dramatically, even as the products they pioneered have become more popular.

Today, activist businesses are largely forgotten but their influence is unmistakable. In recent years, a new generation of worker-owned businesses and consumer cooperatives has emerged under the banner of the “solidarity economy” to revive the activist business ethos of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet activist entrepreneurs’ most enduring legacy appears to be the language of liberation and social change they passed on to countless corporations that present themselves as social enterprises and “mission-driven” businesses. While many contemporary businesses maintain that their work is a means to a better world, not an end unto itself, few are willing to work in earnest for the goals of social justice and equality.

Half a century later we can see that activist entrepreneurs’ influence has extended far beyond the lives of their enterprises. Indeed, their vision has given rise to ever more widespread demands that businesses serve the goals of social justice and equality, not just financial gain. Activist businesses remain an endangered species in our contemporary marketplace, but they have left an indelible mark on how Americans understand businesses’ responsibilities to citizens and communities.

Joshua Clark Davis is an associate professor of history at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (2017).

[1] Scott Ward and Greg Reale, Student Attitudes Toward Business and Marketing Institutions and Practices, working paper (1972), 3; Youth in Turmoil: Adapted from a Special Issue of Fortune (1969), back cover, 8, 11–12, 17–19, 29–30.

[2] Lawrence R. Samuel, Brought to You By: Postwar Television Advertising and the American Dream (2001), xiv–xvi; Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003), 302, 257–90; Business Statistics—18th Biennial Edition (1971), 55, 58–59, 64.

[3] Stanley Buder, Capitalizing on Change: A Social History of American Business (2009), 421–23; John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State (1967); Lawrence Glickman, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (2009), 189–254; Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic, 13.

[4] Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955); William Hollingsworth Whyte, The Organization Man (1956); Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (1957); Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,” in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1964), 106–19.

[5] C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951), 283; Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1991), 8.

[6] Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (1960); Murray Bookchin, Our Synthetic Environment (1962); E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie (1957); Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1997), 245, 270.

[7] Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS: The Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society (1973), 69; James Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987), 78–79, 332–34.

[8] Joshua Clark Davis, “For the Records: How African American Consumers and Music Retailers Created Commercial Public Space in the 1960s and 1970s South,” Southern Cultures (Winter 2011), 81–82; Paul Kramer, “White Sales: The Racial Politics of Baltimore’s Jewish-Owned Department Stores, 1935–1965,” in Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore (2001), 37–65; Shaun L. Gabbidon, “Racial Profiling by Store Clerks and Security Personnel in Retail Establishments: An Exploration of ‘Shopping While Black,’” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 19 (Aug. 2003): 353–56. On advertising, see Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1994), xvii–xx, 115–18; Louis Hyman, Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink (2011), 192–202; Steven Lysonski and Richard W. Pollay, “Advertising Sexism Is Forgiven, but Not Forgotten: Historical, Cross-Cultural, and Individual Differences in Criticism and Purchase Boycott Intentions,” International Journal of Advertising, 9 (no. 4, 1990): 318–19; Daniel Delis Hill, Advertising to the American Woman, 1900–1999 (2002); Katherine Sender, Business, Not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market (2005), 24–28; Arlene Dávila, Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People (2012), 24–26; Minjeong Kim and Angie Y. Chung, “Consuming Orientalism: Images of Asian/American Women in Multicultural Advertising,” Qualitative Sociology, 28 (March 2005), 73–75; and Stephanie Molholt, “A Buck Well Spent: Representations of American Indians in Print Advertising Since 1890,” (Ph.D. diss., Arizona State University, 2008).

[9] Joe Elam, “Drum and Spear: When the Smoke Cleared on 14th St., a Bookstore Came,” Washington Afro American, Feb. 15, 1969; Seth Markle, “Book Publishers for a Pan-African World: Drum and Spear Press and Tanzania’s ‘Ujamaa’ Ideology,” Black Scholar (Winter 2008), 16–26.

[10] “From the Beanery Paper,” Scoop, May 1975, p. 32; “North Country Co-op Profile,” East–West Journal, June 30, 1972, p. 1.

[11] Jo Ann Harris, “The Pratt Street Conspiracy Is a Boutique,” Baltimore Sun, Feb. 7, 1971, FA15; Clementine Flatbush, “S.W. Baltimore Conspiracy,” Harry, Jan. 8, 1971, p. 9; “Pratt Street Conspiracy,” Harry, April 24–May 7, 1971, p. 16.

[12] Kirsten Grimstad and Susan Rennie, eds., The New Woman’s Survival Catalog: A Woman-Made Book (1973), 29; “Lib Loan: Wasn’t Easy, but Women Get Credit Unions,” Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 27, 1976, D18.

[13] Thomas Frank, Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (1997); Paul White, “Time Has Come,” The Big US, Oct. 28, 1969, p. 7.