In previous posts I’ve begun outlining my disagreement with large parts of the Integral community over political vision and approach.  In a nutshell, what is largely presented as an “integral politic” from the leading thinkers of the field is little-more than support for the neo-liberal bourgeois State, or a post-industrial “green capitalism” (at the furthest reaches, with a touch of European-style social democracy, i.e., a capitalist-socialist hybrid).  My problem is that capitalism, and the State in any form, is a pathological system; it is based on relationships of dominator hierarchies and exploitive holons.  The general consensus from the Integral community is that the cutting edge of capitalism- as represented by Obama’s internationalism, “green” products and technologies (a highly relative and dubious classification that should be examined in its own right), and a generally post-modern-esque orientation towards cultural relativism- will lead us to further heights of cultural consciousness and a sustainable socio-economic global order in which human development is increasingly at the fore of our awareness and priorities, both individually and socially.

But to use one of the Integral community’s own examples, I will look at the corporation Whole Foods, touted by Ken Wilber and Integral Life as “one of the largest Integral businesses in existence today” and both “successful and good”.  The question is, what are they successful and good at, and how does that fit into a vision for an “Integral politic” (by which I mean a political system, theory or process that not only allows for but embraces and encourages the highest degree of development for both the individual and society).

Whole Foods, of course, is a corporation- a chain of grocery stores, if you don’t know.  They buy food products (and of course the somehow related cosmetics, magazines, and assorted other wares) from producers or distributers (more often from a distributer) at one price and then sell it “on the marketplace” to consumers for a higher price.  Luckily for us- the consumers- their products are generally “healthy”, “environmentally friendly”, and even organically produced.  We should all strive to consume products that are so.  Luckily for them, the difference between what they pay for goods and what they charge us for goods is considerable and Whole Foods enjoys millions of dollars in profit every year (their just reported fiscal first quarter saw profits of $32.3 million on $2.5 billion worth of sales).   So where does all that money go?  Divided up among the +50,000 people who work in the kitchens, stocking the shelves, and operate the cash registers at Whole Foods’ stores?  Not exactly.  The 54,000 employees at Whole Foods (the vast majority we can assume aren’t executives or managers) make an average of around $32,000 a year, which adds up to about $1.7 million in pay for the workers.  So, from the just-ended fiscal quarter I’m wondering about the other $30.6 million in profits.

To be fair, it’s important for a healthy business to put some money into savings, especially if you hope to expand (I don’t believe in the exponential growth model of capitalism, but it is fair enough that if you’ve got a product to offer that you believe is valuable and important you’d hopefully want to expand that offering to as many people as you could).  Also to be fair, Whole Foods’ employees are paid an average of $16.51 an hour, a decent wage for sure.  And then there’s Whole Foods’ much-lauded CEO pay policy, which in the beginning of the corporation was capped at 8 times the average employee’s hourly wage, though over the past 20+ years has ratcheted up to be capped at a still relatively modest 19 times the average employee’s hourly wage (compared to the average U.S. corporate CEO who makes 431 times their average employee wage)- if you want the math, that means Whole Foods’ executives can’t be paid more than $652,400 a year.  Founder, CEO, and “integral thinker” John Mackey has opted for a salary of $1 a year; though here things get a bit tricky, because last year he also took home almost $400,000 in stock options.  While this is all pretty decent sounding, lets be clear that Mackey has made over $9 million since 2002.  It’s great to see that he recognizes that he’s got plenty of money and doesn’t need to hoard obscene amounts into a nauseating fortune.  While better is good, lets not confuse better for Right or desireable; and certainly not for fair, equal, or just.

And now my little side story: Literally 10 feet outside of the city I grew-up Whole Foods bought-out the locally-owned (and thriving) health food store about 8 or 10 years ago.  I worked at that store once upon a time- it wasn’t the greatest job, but it was fun sometimes and the people working there certainly formed a neat little community of sorts.  Generally socially conscious-minded folks with plenty of hippies (I was one then) and the like.  We got paid pretty well and had as many “good” managers as asshole managers.  The people who worked there were generally people who believed in the product (healthy food) and took the job because it was more morally rewarding than working at the Grand Union instead.  When Whole Foods bought the business (long after I was no longer there) almost the entire staff- literally, with just a handful of exceptions- changed over.  Some quit because they didn’t want to work for a corporate giant (those morals again) but most were simply not offered jobs as Whole Foods immediately closed the store and re-opened 100 feet down the road in a space tens, if not hundreds of times bigger.  At the new and expanded Whole Foods store their the worker’s are almost 100% minorities, many immigrants, bused in from way across town.  Now, I mention this not because the people there don’t deserve the jobs or any nonsense like that- for many of them (from the projects and other ghetto neighborhoods) it is probably one of the best paying jobs they’ll be able to find and probably offers a good degree of financial stability, relatively speaking.  Primarily I mention this for two reasons: the first is simply the disgusting spectacle of a nearly 100% colored, impoverished work-force working in an extremely expensive health foods store serving a customer base that is nearly 100% white and who generally live in the neighboring town of Westport- one of the wealthiest (and whitest) towns in the country.  The second reason I mention this is to illustrate the race-class divide here.  When the store opened a huge union drive was launched by the Teamsters, who conveniently have their regional office just a block up the road.  Employees who supported the union (including the last holdouts who had moved with Whole Foods from the original health food store) were all fired.  While visiting my family several years ago I had stopped at the then new store, encountered a small picket on the sidewalk outside the store, and proceeded to be harassed and eventually kicked out by the cops along with the rest of the picketline.  When I returned the next day to check it all out, I recall some workers were wearing buttons that said “I Love My Job” and fliers in the entry way described that a union was unnecessary because employees there are treated so well.

Kind of the “I’m healthy so I don’t need health care” outlook on life.

Now, it’s clear that Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey is a decent guy with good intentions and the willingness to buck the most greedy and deplorable practices of the typical capitalist.  I have no doubt that he genuinely wants to treat people fairly and genuinely wants their to be a relative sanity to pay levels for both executives and employees.  But just like the slave labor conditions of Toyota’s Prius plant in Japan, feeling good about something slightly better than what’s bad is simply setting the bar too low.  Why such a militant anti-union stance? why not pay worker’s relative to the overall profit margin rather than slave wages (albeit nominally higher slave wages)?  The executives of Whole Foods (and every other corporate enterprise) live extremely comfortably, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, while the people who do the hard physical labor which sells the products and makes $30 million+ a quarter go home with a barely adequate $30,000-something?  While Mackey gets the luxury of “developing his personal spirituality” tens of thousands of people who work for him take long bus rides across town to put in exhausting hours and come home to dangerous neighborhoods, dismal school systems, and just enough time to develop their own personal growth by worrying about how to come up with rent next month.

This is not a suitable vision for an “integral” business, politic, economy, or anything else.  This is exploitation, even if dressed up to look prettier than most others.  This is a system of dominator hierarchies, which though by no means created by Whole Foods, is used by them.  I do commend Mackey for his creativity and personal commitment to doing “good”- I just wholly disagree with the conclusions he (and most of the integral community) draws about what “good” actually looks like in this matter.  

If Whole Foods really wants to sit on the leading edge of social progress, really wants to put itself at the fore of “integral practice”, I’m here to help: Socialize the means of production.  Don’t pool the profits of 270 stores into one corporate pile, but let each store exist within its own community and keep the resources (in this case money) of those communities right there.  Give ownership of each store- or of the entire corporation collectively- equally to each person who works there, whose life (time, energy, labor) makes Whole Foods and its profits happen.  Pay everyone based on the time they work, and the degree of responsibility, difficulty and/or skill of their particular job in relation to other tasks at the store.  Even syphon-off a certain per cent of profits from each store to a corporate body who could work at branding, location development, and whatever else corporate executives have to do- just as long as that amount is reasonable in relation to the money staying in the store itself. Let the worker’s of each given store elect their management, and be sure any worker who is so inclined run for election to those management posts.  If someone who is under-qualified for a position is elected to it, we would assume that either work conditions or sales/profits would suffer, and the workers themselves will know to vote that person out and someone with better credentials in.  None of this would be quite as “easy” and slick as the top-down model of capitalism, but it’s well-established that democracy is a bit more sloppy than dictatorship (of the hard or soft variety).

In operating in a directly democratic manner, all of the worker’s of Whole Foods would experience a tremendously high level of quality in their lives; they would be healthier, have better access to higher quality education, their stress levels would decrease, and their overall happiness would soar.  They’d even be able to afford to shop at a place like Whole Foods.  And they’d experience an increased sense of self-worth and communalism in the process of participating in on-the-job matters- nothing is more demoralizing to the spirit than being helplessly ordered around by people, and nothing is more empowering than knowing your voice actually matters, even at work.  With their newfound socio-economic stability and their increased personal sense of worth and value, they’d be freed and likely inclined to explore the whims of their desire and expand their personal growth.  This is an integral vision, this is an integral politic- working on our own personal development is Beautiful, but working to give others the expanded ability to do the same is Good and True.