As Alice Bonasio tweeted live from the Lush Creative Showcase on 4 September 2017: ‘Jeremy Corbyn says he’s got no bath to use the bath bomb he’s made [in.] “Number 10 has a bath” replies Mark Constantine.’ Corbyn’s response to the founder of the cosmetics company’s comment then was: ‘sounds like a good reason to move.’ As was to be expected, the Labour leader popped up at a great many events over the summer, but taking this company “conference” as our point of departure can lead us into particular, interesting discussions at the intersection of business ethics and socialist politics.
Lush’s showcases are quite carnivalesque affairs; they bear resemblance in some ways to the interim parodic reversals that carnivals bring about, which in the Middle Ages in Europe were often states of affairs presided over by a Lord of Misrule (incidentally the name of one of Lush’s products), who was responsible for suspending the rules for a limited period, before returning things to their usual patterns of regulation. Lush showcases might then be said to resemble the kind of utopia that Fredric Jameson describes, made up of a supportive association of creatively individualised (although this is something that becomes normative in itself) ‘misfits and oddballs, in which the constraints for uniformization and conformity have been removed, and human beings grow wild like plants in a state of nature […] blossom[ing] into […] the flora and fauna of “human nature” itself’, which speaks somewhat to the company’s ecological ethos.
Lush extends its welcome to the event to all of its employees (although managers have an exclusive day to themselves. and the rest of the workers are allowed in at the same times as the general public, and now have to pay to attend), and there is an attempt to foster in this partial inclusivity a sense of closer relationship to the upper echelons of its hierarchical structure, and a claim to the company operating a little more laterally across its employee base than most others in the retail sector. Yet, like in carnival, hierarchical structure and vertical instruction organisationally remain and are renewed after the event’s dispersal. Alluding to this sense of attempting a deconstruction of ‘us and them’ barriers in the workplace, Corbyn stated at the end of his conversation with Constantine: ‘I like the idea of all the staff being able to get together – of a big organisation like this – and discuss what you do, and that sort of sense of doing things together.’ Yet, he was also keen to start the interview off with reminders of Labour’s dedication to workers and their rights, highlighting the guarantee and enhancement of the rights of workers which are enshrined in the statutes of European regulation, which the party is committed to. In this insistence, Corbyn showed awareness that such events as this, and the ethos they purport to, can only function usefully if accompanied by a proper programme for workers’ rights.
A simple initial point arises here in that if we look at things from the perspective of the modern worker, in the retail sector, within its structure – within which the candidate for work must look for a buyer for their labour; that is, for employment – some companies operate better than others, although the choice for workers in this matter is still often from a very limited range of companies (necessity so often prevailing over preference when the opportunity of work comes up). Indeed, ‘jobs’ is the key (empty) signifier on the right, which is so far removed from any notions of satisfying work. As a result, because of this laissez-faire corporate attitude, the option is made open to companies as to how their provision of jobs should be articulated, with most racing to the bottom (minimal expenditure, minimal employee care), whilst some others work towards better conditions, out of whatever sense of conscience, or even (financial) reward, underwrites them.4 Presumably, this is why Corbyn attended and spoke at this particular company’s event (he lauds Lush, in a comparative corporate sense, within his dialogue). What seems to be being articulated in this meeting of not-the-most-natural of bedfellows is an argument that, due to great gains in manufactured neoliberal recidivism, a step on the way to the reawakening of class consciousness is a recognition of one’s own working conditions, and how they may differ from others in the same sector. What is highlighted is thus an ideology that has become entrenched to such an extent as to have disenfranchised a great swathe of working people from this very rudimentary awareness, the reclamation of which must be aimed at.
Thus, in this set-up at the showcase, there were slight, although perhaps productive, tensions between Corbyn and Constantine. As well as his admission to his ‘lapsed vegetarianism’ (which will be returned to momentarily), Constantine stated: ‘I’m a capitalist; I believe in the free movement of goods, people, and capital’, and claimed that ‘the Conservatives have abandoned real businesses like ours’; asking Corbyn: ‘how can you help businesses thrive?’ This is where there arises something of a sticking point between the causes and campaigns that Lush dedicate themselves to and promote – through an unusual display of principle, even ethics, in the business sector – and the capitalist architectonic on which the business’s structure (and thus too the very materiality of its ethics) rests, which perhaps boils down to what the late Mark Fisher famously calls ‘capitalist realism’ (the blueprint of which Lush’s founder is seemingly building from, as per his above admission). For Fisher, capitalist realism describes the situation in which we live today, where capitalism presents itself as inevitable and sets the terms of conversation within its own logic, a situation on which Constantine’s question to Corbyn relies.
With Lush, there has been some dissent on the front line – that is, the shop floor – from employees who, as part of their job description, must make their customer-base aware of the company’s ethico-political campaigns (supporting fox-hunting saboteurs, or opposing fracking for instance) whilst having been on a retail wage (the company has now adopted the living wage) no different from other (so-called) ‘apolitical’ companies who are ‘only selling their produce’, and (ostensibly) not proselytising (notwithstanding all the alienation inevitably involved in the production of said produce – in the Marxist sense, that is – cloaked as it is in the invisibility of (capitalist) ideology).
However, it may very well be at this intersection that the taking of a more negotiatory and mediatory viewpoint – that is, in the intersection, the gap, between class theory and its lived experience – is made necessary, at least provisionally (that is to say, for whatever term necessary to gaining a platform from which socialist change can begin to be brought about). What Corbyn gives in this respect here – in his own words – is congratulation for what Lush has done, ‘for what [they] have achieved in growth as a business, and the support [they] have given to so many really good and important causes[, such as] the bath bomb supporting Andy Tsege’ (a constituent of Corbyn’s Islington North who has been illegally imprisoned and put on death row in absentia in Ethiopia, following his kidnapping, for opposing the country’s political regime), and the anti-bloodsports, pro-fox-hunting-sabotage, and voter registration-encouragement campaigns.
From the other side; as Bonasio puts it in her article on the showcase, ‘How Soapbox Politics is Good Business’:
Lush’s Founder might well describe himself as a “wishy-washy liberal,” but the liberal left is getting increasingly angry as they watch progress in areas such as diversity, worker’s rights and environmental protection being eroded by current policy, and companies like his are becoming a beacon through which people feel they can channel some of that anger, even if it’s by purchasing a nice bath bomb.
(It must however be kept in mind that political moves on the part of such corporations, even if they have a socialist tint in themselves, could be framed as yet other capitalist realist corporate tactics (comparable with Fair Trade at Starbucks, for example), which entrench the brand in an ideology of political choice.) Further to this, Bonasio gives details of her own pre-Brexit route of career development through working at a Lush store in the UK, the possibility of which in today’s climate would be jeopardised by the referendum result and its ensuing implementations.
To digress momentarily – before reconnecting these strands – a question (dear to many Lush employees’ hearts) raised about Constantine’s being a ‘fish and chipocrit’, due to his lapsed vegetarianism, and the possibility of Corbyn’s seeing his own vegetarianism through to veganism, brings us to another intersection at which negotiation and mediation are to some extent required to set the course of the future on the right track. Indeed, as Ian Parker explains in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left:
An increasing number of activists, our comrades, are turning to veganism or vegetarianism as an ethical choice that we respect as we struggle alongside them. That choice is itself tangled with consumerism, middle-class privilege and new niche markets, but it is, they know, an ethical choice that is actively seeking to disentangle itself from those things. We sense, even though we may not have taken that step ourselves, that they are anticipating what it will be like to live in another ecosocialist world beyond capitalism, a world in which we are part of nature instead of alienated from it.
It is this prescience that is required for elements of socialist struggle to come to fruition through intersectionality (its foresight is echoed in an amusing anecdote about Jacques Derrida’s turn to vegetarianism at Avital Ronell’s suggestion, which he incorporated into his theory, expanding his nemesis concept to ‘carnophallogocentrism’; however, when he was once caught eating steak tartare, and was upbraided about it by Ronell, he said she was acting like ‘a cop’. What’s at stake (excuse the pun) here, though, is that Derrida foresaw and got on board (as an activist) with the importance of the stance, facilitating its further dissemination, through which exposure it can only be hoped its futural implementations might come about).
Therefore, in our own ethical disentanglings – taking place during the steady socialistic march of progress (in the stead of – or as we wait for – fully automated luxury communism) – we can posit that it is not disingenuousness (but rather class consciousness) for the working class under capitalism to realise the inescapability of the compulsion ‘by social conditions to sell the whole of [its] active life, [its] very capacity for labour, in return for [its] customary means of subsistence, to sell [its] birthright for a mess of pottage’, as Marx once said. That is to say, unless, or until, we all become truly revolutionary, and able to bring about a new working-class dimension, we all must work, and this in an increasingly autonomised job market where the rein on companies’ exploitation is loosed. Thus, through the kinds of intersectionalities discussed, and advances made – even in the service-sector heartland of the high street – the transformation of the marketplace of labour can at least begin by ensuring that competition between its bidders becomes more geared to being one fought over ethics – across all social, ecological, and (one fine revolutionary day) economic fields.
This piece first appeared in The New Socialist.