Burt’s Bees Disappears

Capitalism Collapse Disorder

In October 2007, Clorox Company, the multi-billion dollar manufacturer of plastic bags, bathroom cleaners and laundry bleach, announced that it was acquiring natural cosmetics maker, Burt’s Bees for $925 million.

Of course, Burt’s Bees is no longer the tiny honey and beeswax candle business that Burt Shavitz and Roxanne Quimby founded in Maine in 1984. In fact, since 1993, the bearded Burt has not even owned the business that markets his face and his bees. More to the point, in 2004, 80% of Burt’s Bees was acquired by an investment group and by 2006 the company had grown into a professionally managed $250 million business selling lipstick, toothpaste and hand cream in grocery store chains throughout the United States and around the world. Thus, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, the brand will survive the Clorox acquisition even though the small cottage industry Burt’s once was will have disappeared like so many honey bee colonies around the world.

I cannot really condemn Burt’s Bees for selling out. For $925 million I, too, might consider letting Clorox use my name to market Zbig-branded cosmetics. On second thought, make that 925 million euros, because if, Gisele Bündchen, one of the world’s best known fashion models, refuses any longer to be compensated in devalued US dollars, I see no reason why classy products like Zbig’s Zlipschtik should be valued for anything less.

* * *

Burt’s Bees is just the latest example of the typical fate of “alternative” local businesses that make the big time. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, once the Vermont poster child of all things good and natural, was purchased by Unilever, the multinational conglomerate, in 2000. In 2001, Coca Cola purchased the California fruit juice company, Odwalla, for $181 million. You simply cannot tell from the package who really profits when you buy what you think is a small, natural, local or organically produced product.

In fact, according to the research of Associate Professor Phillip H. Howard at Michigan State University, a vast number of (apparently) small brand name packaged products – including organic dairy products, chocolate, soup, vegetarian packaged foods, soy products, beverages, cereals, tea, soaps, and condiments – are owned, directly or through holding companies, by the likes of Coke, Pepsi-Cola, Dean Foods, Heinz, Kraft, Nestle, and General Mills. Notwithstanding the comforting names of Horizon, Health Valley, Cascadian Farm, Celestial Seasonings, Naked Juice, Bearitos, TofuTown and others that line the shelves of your local “natural” food stores, behind these brands might lurk some very large, very profit-oriented enterprises, some of whom, for social or political reasons, a person might not wish to patronize. Even “organic” farm produce is often now grown on an industrial scale using petroleum based technology, financed by the usual channels of capital, and shipped all over the world using petroleum based transport. There are, at the moment, just a handful of national independent organic food producers, such as the cooperative dairy Organic Valley, and the few truly local farmers who are constantly under financial pressure.

From news media predators like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, to the 800-pound computer software gorilla, Microsoft, to omnivorous grocery store chains like Whole Foods, the trend is for large companies to gobble small ones and for a few giant corporations eventually to control everything. More than a century ago, Marx described that as the natural monopolistic evolution of capital. Nevertheless, we are not yet at the tipping point of capitalism collapse disorder that Marx predicted. We are not there – yet – because Marx did not fully take into consideration the work value of hydro-carbon energy sources, as in the cheap petroleum that has, heretofore, permitted western civilization to flourish for the past couple hundred years. As natural energy sources diminish, however, the oft prophesied demise creeps closer, and more and more people are feeling the pain that results from economies in actual contraction that is camouflaged as “growth”.

But sitting back and just waiting for the collapse is no more an option than waiting for a left wing version of right wing Christian rapture. Pardon my skepticism, but Christians – especially the militant and materialistic flavor of Christians who spend their moral capital praying for their own personal salvation and the divine slaughter of everyone else – can no more expect to be vacuumed into their eternally boring lyre-strumming paradise in the sky than wistful liberals can expect capitalism to voluntarily transmute itself from a raptor into a chicken.

Capitalism was, and still is, very powerful. Although rooted in rather primitive motivations of greed, acquisition and domination, capitalism remains one of the most successful, innovative… and virulent systems of human socio-economic organization. Capitalism is based on strong, if evil theory. In a Darwinian sense, like America’s Republicans and Democrats who seek to strangle every viable third party that threatens their hegemony, capitalism attacks and kills every potential political-economic competitor as it fights to replicate itself and to remain the king of the hill.

Capitalism survives precisely because there is not yet an alternative system of socio-economic organization that can survive the bruising, no-holds-barred competition with it. Feudalism gave way to capitalism because, in a hydro-carbon world, agriculture yielded supremacy to technology. Organized religion cannot compete. Instead, religion always enters into its customary accommodation with the economic lords of state. Nationalism cannot compete. It eventually morphs into corporatism or fascism. Centralized state communism could not compete. It succumbed to the very organizational rigidity that it championed. General notions of pacifism, love, community, primitivism, individualism, populism and progressivism cannot compete (or have not yet successfully competed) because they, and the like, are abstractions and aspirations, one or two dimensional expressions of an idealized vision, not fully developed systems of organization in themselves.

Systems of alternative and benevolent organization abound. However, none can compete because they have either inadequate theoretical underpinnings or inadequate means of replication. Equally as important, most “alternative” systems of organization lack adequate means literally to defend themselves against, and repel, such a heavily militarized, aggressive, supremely deceptive, thuggish, unprincipled and merciless competitor as capitalism. Still, capitalism collapse disorder approaches unrelentingly. The central problem for us all is to conceive the more benevolent substitute to replace the current decrepit system of socio-political organization.

There is great urgency in this because, if history is our guide, when social and economic systems start to thrash, the natural human tendency is to become more totalitarian, not more democratic; more mean, not less; nastier and more violent, not less; more intolerant, more irrational, more vicious, not less.

Embryonic systems of self-organization, such as exist in the sub-currents of the almost anarchic international community of free and open software (FOSS), or the massively collaborative Wikipedia, offer some hope (which is precisely why the capitalistic, proprietary technology interests seek to squash them)… if only one knew whether and how these models could work with anything other than computer software. So, for now, these are just that – embryonic ideas, and something more mature is desperately needed.

These are the phenomena of our time: the rapidly alternating pumping up and deflating of stock or real estate bubbles; pyramid schemes of collateralized debt obligations; massive inflationary infusions of money into a system paralyzed by a loss of confidence in its own institutions; manic manipulation of interest rates to save the worlds interlocked stock markets; the danse macabre of banks, insurers, hedge funds and the financial services industry inextricably digitally tangled in the morass they made for themselves (thanks to the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act under Alan Greenspan’s and Bill Clinton’s administration); and the intensifying reliance on military force to monopolize the last vestiges of a depleted world’s energy and natural resources. All of these phenomena signal a socio-economic system in deepening crisis.

In the absence of thinking through the details now of a new, probably hybridized, possibly mixed system of social and economic organization, life could get more brutish, rather than less so when capitalism collapse disorder finally occurs. One senses that time is short. Out of the ashes of collapse we could reap… ashes.

Burt’s Bees could not resist the capitalist system that swallowed it. Nor can anything or anyone resist for too long without a theory as powerful as the capitalism that would consume it. It is imperative to concentrate time and energy on the development of a new, viable, alternative theory of social and economic organization before capitalism collapse disorder occurs.

Zbignew Zingh is a writer whose articles are CopyLeft, free to distribute, copy, reprint or repost in full with proper author citation and with the "Copyleft" designation. Read other articles by Zbignew, or visit Zbignew's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Thomas Victor said on November 11th, 2007 at 2:54am #

    This was valuable reading for me since I shop in organic food stores – so Odwala is owned by CocaCola – wow!

    I’d gone today to a new Whole Foods store that just opened in downtown Oakland, CA. It was so huge and OPULENT – yes, it’s allegedly organic, but why do we need so many many types of food? I’m pretty sure there is waste on a gigantic scale.

    But regarding the domination of ‘capitalism’ – I don’t agree at all. It starts from the bottom, from individuals.

    “I cannot really condemn Burt’s Bees for selling out. For $925 million I, too, might consider letting Clorox use my name to market Zbig-branded cosmetics.” Why? If you are OK, financially, have a place to live in and enough money to not have to suffer from malnutrition, then why sell your major accomplishment in life to companies like Clorox and CocaCola? Burt’s Bees was a success already, that’s what Clorox bought it. Burt and Roxanne were already quite wealthy. So unless they had really expensive coke habits, why sell? Because that’s the current materialistic view of life, go for the max. Self interest with no limits rules.

    When people are like that, there is no hope. There will be pockets where self interest results in a few people buying produce locally – mainly I find due to health concerns especially fears of breast cancer.

    Capitalism is just a tool, a method of organization. And the West isn’t really 100% capitalist it’s a mix of socialistic subsidies to the really important wealthy people and wealthy corporations mixed in with capitalism for most others. The powerful western powers combine their vast military power with with their monster corporations – Citibank, Chevron,Microsoft, Lockheed-Martin, ConAgra, Monsanto Google etc. and are constantly psuhing to control more and more countries and to devour more and more natural resources. In a way the big corporations are public sector units – they do what the Government wants them to do and the Government will not let them fail.

    Opposing the West is really just Russia and China. Others like Venezuela, Iran etc. would have been crushed instantly had it not been for the military power of Russia and China. I see their resistance as nationalistic/tribal. The higher ups in China, for example could sell out, but only a few million would find places in the Western juggernaut, while hundreds of millions of Chinese would be enslaved – so they fight on. So I think.

    Russia had a short frightening experience of how it would be under control of the West with Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But now with nationalist Putin has regained control of it’s natural resources and it is resurgent economically and militarily.

    Both Russia and Chine are using a similar “Military Power + Large Corporation” approach as the US. There it is more obvious that the largest corporations, like Gazprom, are under Government control.

    But the whole approach is similar. Why? Because it’s the only way to avoid being crushed by the Western juggernaut. A country, say India, cannot be pacifistic and hope to survive. That’s a plain fact that many choose to ignore

    You hit the nail on the head with ““alternative” systems of organization lack adequate means literally to defend themselves against, and repel, such a heavily militarized, aggressive, supremely deceptive, thuggish, unprincipled and merciless competitor as capitalism”

    Except it isn’t capitalism. At the world level it is “The West’.

    At a local/personal level it is ‘materialistic self interest’. If we lived much simpler lower-income lives the the power of the thuggish competitors is diminished. If you read Orwell’s 1984, there IS a life outside the system but it’s a scruffy low-income life.

  2. Ray said on November 11th, 2007 at 3:09am #

    That was a fantastic post Thomas, I’m very happy to have stumbled across it.

  3. Max Shields said on November 11th, 2007 at 10:40am #

    Thomas, I echo the note; fantastic post.

    I would also note that it might even be worth it to buy from a non-organic superstore whose suppliers are local farmers rather than Whole Foods who is part of the new organic agribusiness model and ships in (at untold costs of fossil) to their many outposts.

    I think there are clearly sound sustainable economic models that needn’t be stained by old paradigms of socialism/capitalism. A model of entrepreneurship whereby entrepreneurs provide start-up and instead of turning the reigns over to “professional managers” they sell shares of the business to the workers is an excellent means of collapsing the notion of employer/employee pathological relationship (parent/child).

    I recommend the works of economist Jane Jacobs, Ralph Borsodi, and Henry George for sound alternatives and analysis.

    I completely agree that the problem should be focused locally, at the grass-roots. We spend far to much energy and resources on a national cause which is beyond human-scale and thus we make no in-roads to transforming the beast. At the local level we can begin the process of transforming our culture, economics and polity at the human scale; re-inventing our relationships and changing the domination/aggression paradigm. Old top-down leadership models are the problem. The concentration of power at the “top” has been deeply institutionalized. It cannot be confronted head on with any hope of change.

    You are also right, capitalism is not the issue – GREED, DOMINATION, and FEAR are.

  4. Ron Horn said on November 11th, 2007 at 11:07am #

    I think that you are absolutely right, Zbignew, the times demand that we come up with new social-economic systems of organization. Certainly it is not blueprints that are needed, but ideas; because a new society will have to come from the bottom up. But the “bottom” needs new ideas which will be available to them to test and implement when capitalism disintegrates. What comes to mind is the system called Parecon and elements of the Bolivarian Revolution with its efforts to develop the “bottom” through community assemblies. But much more work is needed and imaginative people with an interest in designing a healthy, truly democratic social system must be engaged in this critical effort.

  5. rosemarie jackowski said on November 11th, 2007 at 1:55pm #

    Good article and great discussion here. Thomas, thanks for mentioning Monsanto.
    Ron, you say the bottom needs new ideas. I think that there are plenty of good ideas around. The problem, as I see it, it one of the inequality of power. Think about what Monsanto has done to farmers who have a seed blow on to their farm. Those on the bottom will have to find a way of gaining power. I believe that any attempts to do that will be met with violence from those who would lose their favored status under a fair economic system.

  6. Max Shields said on November 11th, 2007 at 3:25pm #

    You could be right about the ultimate violence. But that should not deter a movement of community building and using the ideas which (as you say exist) to create sustainable economics. I’m not sold on Parecon because it is too prescriptive. Change needn’t (shouldn’t?) come in the form of manifestos or Das Capital blueprints.

    I would not expect “power” to be handed over from on high. Instead, rather than a violent revolution, the need is to nonviolently transform what is. I can conceive a power shift happening which would mitigate the dominate class from reacting to such a transformation (like the frog in the slow boil water).

    As far a change, the key attactors are there but need to find voice and narrative to make them real in our various communities. I do think the Bolivarian experiments hold promise and many are usable here.

  7. Jeremy Wells said on November 11th, 2007 at 8:51pm #

    I have to disagree with sentiments such as:
    “You are also right, capitalism is not the issue – GREED, DOMINATION, and FEAR are.”
    Read this magnificent analysis to understand the latest barbaric permutations of U.S. and global capitalism.
    THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.

    “It is imperative to concentrate time and energy on the development of a new, viable, alternative theory of social and economic organization before capitalism collapse disorder occurs.”

    Marxism has always been the basically an attempt at scientific analysis of capitalism. The collapse of the Soviet Union (Stalinism) did not negate the insights of Marxism. Nor did it end the global opposition to rampaging capitalism.

    The first step to liberation perhaps to throw away the television. The corporate capitalist corruption of television is so intense that this radical measure is essential to start regaining your ability at independent and critical thinking.

    Some web-sites and periodicals worth examining:

    World Socialist Web Site: http://www.wsws.org Excellent daily source of news and analysis from an international and socialist perspective.

    Monthly Review Magazine http://www.monthlyreview.org (monthy mag
    independent socialist magazine since 1947.
    Follow the links to Monthly Review Books, mrzine (online journal)

    Znet Z magazine http:www.znet.org Parecon

    International Socialist Review http://www.isreview.org

  8. Max Shields said on November 12th, 2007 at 7:37am #

    Generally I find Naomi’s thesis compelling. But when she had a chance to rebut the languid Allan Greenspan with his neo-classical/liberal bull shit, she was slack jawed. And yet the cogent answer for one as adroit as Ms Klein is – but Mr. Greenspan your economics is NOT SUSTAINABLE.

    Jeremy, my point about it is not capitalism per se was as Thomas had framed it. I’m not an apologist for capitalism, but what is at work in the West is not a pure economic system of capitalism. I think Thomas was saying that corporate capitalism is not “pure” Adam Smith. I won’t further explain because Thomas did just fine. So, I advise you take a look at what he said.

    As far as Parecon, it’s interesting but it is a blueprint when in fact we have great working models of workers’ coops, local sustainable economies and land use rent which is both progressive and economically sound on every count.

    I appreciate the desire to create a visiion but a detailed blueprint is doomed from the get go and that is my problem with parecon. It says too much when what we need is a transformation of our culture, economics, polity. And this is done by the stories we begin to tell that are alternatives to TINA – try LOIS (local ownership and import substitution) coupled with a progressive land rent.

  9. AJ Nasreddin said on November 12th, 2007 at 8:18am #

    I wish I could be as optimistic as those of you who have posted here. My take is that America has never done anything until it absolutely must. It has been said that we have the technology and know-how to have clean, non-fossil energy, but because the price would bite into the American lifestyle “comfort zone,” nothing is done.

    And Americans are a bit fickle anyway – look at the whole SUV thing. While a lot of the world went on about saving themselves by creating better energy efficient stuff, Americans bought very inefficient, fossil guzzling SUVs in order to take all their stuff some place when the End came. Where were they all going to go? What we saw with Katrina was that you couldn’t get gas and you had to leave your SUV and all your stuff on the side of the road.

    Well, things are going to go on as they have been, in my opinion, for most people. Clearly the US government is doing things to prepare for something really bad. I haven’t read an economist for quite some time now who thinks that the American economy is going to get better. I can’t imagine the rich and powerful are not preparing themselves to remain rich and powerful. So what about the rest of us? People tend to keep to their habits unless they must change. Americans have a strong individualistic spirit – with the greed, materialism, etc. that comes along with it. And change isn’t happening any time soon.

  10. Dave Patterson said on November 12th, 2007 at 10:09am #

    I think to say something like ‘..capitalism is not the issue – GREED, DOMINATION, and FEAR are…’ is something like saying he died because his heart stopped beating, not because of the bullet to the brain… – capitalists are masters of greed, domination and fear, and simply to survive, their subjects are required to adopt these traits to some extent – but I do not believe it is the norm for most humans (and I think capitalists, who are simply humans who prey on other humans, lacking some kind of gene that the rest of us have which encourages us to work together, to help one another rather than prey on one another). I believe a better world, a much much better world, is possible if we start to work together to achieve it – I think one of the prerequisites for doing this, perhaps the most important prerequisite, is for those of us who understand the problem to try to wake up the apparent masses who seem to not understand the problem, but who are thoroughly indoctrinated in capitalism, and do not question things they are not supposed to question – and they, and we, will never be free until they not only start to question some things, but start finding some answers. Else those of us who do have at least some understanding are going to be swept along with the lemming herd over the rapidly approaching abyss. I write more on this in a book I have just written, which I hope will help open a few eyes, and doors, called ‘They’re Building a Box, and You’re In It’ – which can be found at http://www.rudemacedon.ca/dlp/box/box-intro.html .

  11. Max Shields said on November 12th, 2007 at 11:06am #

    Dave I give you Joseph Stalin and the state dominated, fear generating, greed of the few known as the former Soviet Union. Was that Marx’s vision?

  12. Glenn said on November 12th, 2007 at 6:25pm #

    A very interesting discussion here. I would like to add a couple of points.

    First of all, it is important to realise that large corporations now transcend government. They influence governments through various strategies. And if they are uncomfortable with domestic policies or law, they can in a moment transfer their centre of operations, and redistribute their current & future wealth to other more favourable environs.

    You cannot achieve wholesale change without changing the governing philosophy of these organisations.

    Secondly, I believe it is partially true that capitalism is based upon greed, domination and fear. Capitalism is essentially about wanting more. More of everything. That want comes from our innate self-centredness. Even those of us who try to empathise, to step into anothers shoes, cannot fully succeed. Whilst seeking that viewpoint we still retain our own baggage of ideas and experiences.

    Because we cannot truly understand the other persons viewpoint, we cannot completely shrug off a degree of self-centredness or self-interest.

    I believe in the past a sense of community, developed through close and frequent interaction with our peers, has ameliorated our natural preoccupation with self. But in our modern society, with the advent of electronic communications and reliance on the motor vehicle, we have lost that sense of community. How often do you see your neighbours? Do you know their names? What do you know about them? How often do you engage in a substantive conversation?

    It’s a bit like divide and rule. Because we no longer relate to one another (just another face in the crowd), we become more inward, more self-centred, more selfish. And then we all become a soft touch for capitalism, consumerism, wanting more. And yes, that fantastic medium of television tells us just how much we don’t have, shows other people living lives we aspire to, or using the latest gadget that would make our life so much more fun/enjoyable/easy/rewarding.

    I think, Zbignew, if we want change, a move away from unbridled capitalism, it must indeed come from the bottom up. From each of us, changing how we interact with each other, having more respect for each other at a grassroots level. And then electing people to government with a mandate to apply the same principles on a national and international scale. Government sets the rules, but all of society must take responsibility for determining how we behave.

    But that’s only half of the equation. The same must be demanded of our companies by the shareholders. The real people with power in this world are the shareholders – individuals and institutional (though they often are fragmented, and don’t exercise that power). Without a change in them, and action from them, nothing is going to change.

  13. Dave Patterson said on November 13th, 2007 at 9:59pm #

    “Max Shields said on November 12th, 2007 at 11:06 am #

    Dave I give you Joseph Stalin and the state dominated, fear generating, greed of the few known as the former Soviet Union. Was that Marx’s vision?”

    Max, since I don’t think Marx has been mentioned in this discussion at all, and I don’t refer to him anywhere at all in any of my writings, I am not sure what the point of the comment was, unless you’re one of the well-indocrtrinated masses who have been thoroughly conditioned to believe that anyone who dares speak against the great god Capitalism is some sort of raving Marxist, and the only alternative to Capitalism is a Stalinist or Maoist Communist dictatorship. Both ‘ideas’ are obvious nonsense, too obvious to bother getting into it all in a short discussion like this. But as far as I know of Marx and his writings, the answer to your question is no, Marx would have been as appalled at what became of his writings as you are, he hoped for a social-democratic type of society, where workers controlled their own production – although this may have been the Communist propaganda, I don’t think it was the reality, any more than ‘capitalist democracy’ is a ‘reality’. And as far as the ‘greed’ goes, I never said Capitalists had a monopoly on it, just that they exhibited that trait as good as anyone ever has, and that the serfs in any society must assume at least to some extent the traits of their rulers, in order to survive.

  14. grace said on November 17th, 2007 at 4:30pm #

    Love the article and the articulate p.o.v.’s!

    Creating a new socio-economical frame (assuming global) would probably be best left until after a collapse since it’s hard to tell what or whom would be left in its wake.

    The majority of human beings operating in world prefer the ignorance and comfort of someone else’s lead (so as to blame others when things go wrong) – isn’t this why we have frames of government to begin with? We’re too busy, too important, too dumb, too poor, or too “whatever” enough to work together within a self-governing meme.

    Substantive change will only occur after a devastating shock – whether a revolution or collapse; individually and collectively- speaking.

    How to start a revolution? The Stamp Act was a pisser of an example…
    But for what? To create another of the same: Rome, England, America, China,______ (fill in the blank). Singapore is notable exception, but it still needs to operate within the global trickle-down.

    The issues aren’t hurting us bad enough, yet. In America alone, the poorest of us are still too well off to care – if only with buying into the “dream”; the elite are prepared (wasn’t that what “Globalization” was for?) for whatever happens (space colonization as a worst-case scenario).

    I say let it cave in – there’s always a phoenix in the ashes. The Earth will shake us off like the fleas that we are, gobble up the leftovers, or blow up… maybe one day we’ll “get it” ?

    I would prefer to live in a self-sustaining, conservative and enlightened democratic-socialistic egalitarian society much like a global tribe/family versus the myriad of institutions created by imperial, aristocratic, parliamentarian, republican, communistic-socialistic, totalitarian models we have or have had. “You may say I’m a dreamer . . .”

  15. Max Shields said on November 22nd, 2007 at 5:06pm #


    I’m simply saying that fear and domination and greed are not characteristics created by capitalism.

    I have posted many times about alternatives to both super-corporate capitalism and Marx in the hands of imbeciles and sociopaths.

    I think it is a very shallow argument to say that capitalism is based on fear and domination (or greed for that matter) any more than Marx’s ideas was ever based on anything remotely resembling a monolithic adherance to a one party system and militarism.

    I’d suggest a closer reading of classical (19th Century) economics rather than your neo-classical M. Friedman.

  16. World_Guru said on September 17th, 2008 at 11:33am #

    I sent an email to the writer of this article but unfortunately bounced back to me. He probably got too many emails! 🙂

    Anyway, Capitalism will pass away just like ALL other systems the human mind was allowed to try. A variable has changed though that the earlier systems did not have to deal with:

    Global Climate Change –

    Our world is about to start suffering major convulsions and humans will finally start understanding what the game is about, not about our silly egos, not about our silly laws, governments and customs but actually about the smallness of ourselves.

    A new consciousness is developing, proof of this is this great article but unless we bottom out AS A CIVILIZATION, we will not go anywhere.