November 21, 2011

Shopping Right (Wing): Lululemon’s Political Values.

While I’m completely opposed to the politics of Lululemon’s new “Who is John Galt?” shopping bags (which promote the views of right-wing heroine Ayn Rand), I like the fact that the company’s being so upfront about the values that inform it.

This is new. And I think it’s a positive change.

I’d much rather have Lulu aligning itself with a well-established line of political thought than an obfuscating soup of vacuous feel-good “affirmations” that make such underlying commitments difficult to see.

I’ve long been suspicious of Lululemon. The more I’ve learned about the company, the less I’ve been willing to take their chirpy self-help mantras at face value. I don’t want to rehash all the dirt that’s been dished. But for those unfamiliar with it, here’s some of the stories that led me to conclude that the corporate philosophy underlying the cheery “sing, dance, floss, travel!” image is really more brass knuckles than hearts and flowers:

Ending a policy of having “buzz worthy” store openings in which “the first 40 people who lineup and strip naked to the undies can get a free wardrobe of yoga-friendly clothes” only after buzz-killing feminists and Moms complained about impressionable young girls being given incentives to take their clothes off in public;

Pushing an intrusive and psychologically manipulative agenda on employees, such as attending Landmark forums (which many criticize as a cult) and insisting that they itemize and post their “personal, professional, and health goals” publicly; and

Having CEO Chip Wilson defend the practice of child sweatshop labor. (“According to those who attended BALLE BC conference, Wilson told the delegates third world children should be allowed to work in factories because it provides them with much-needed wages. They also say he argued that even in Canada there is a place for 12- and 13-year-old street youths to find work in local factories as an alternative to collecting handouts.”)

But now the “Who is John Galt?” bags have come out. And I find them oddly refreshing. Because these aren’t pretending to represent some innocuous feel-good agenda. (“Children are the orgasm of life!,” the “Lululemon Manifesto” asserts. Provided, I suppose, they’re not homeless or living in developing countries, in which case they’re better thought of as cheap, unskilled labor.)

Rather, they’re coming right out and proclaiming: Hey, we love right-wing heroine Ayn Rand!  And you should check her out – because more likely, you will too!

And who knows – maybe a lots more yoga practitioners will become Ayn Rand acolytes. I certainly hope not. But that’s their prerogative. And there are already many who’ve cheered on the new “Who is John Galt?” bags from what sounds like an informed “Objectivist” perspective (see comments on the Lululemon blog).

But it’s important to understand that this is a hard-core right-wing political position. Check out the Ayn Rand Institute website. It’s full of op-ed pieces like:

  • “We’re Running Out of Freedom, Not Oil”
  • “How About Tax Reparations for the Rich?”
  • “Commercialism Only Adds to Joy of the Holidays”
  • “Columbus Day Celebrates Western Civilization”
  • “Retire Social Security”

That stuff about kids working in factories is no joke. The more you embrace the sort of radically anti-social, laissez-faire capitalist mindset that Ayn Rand represents, the less room there is for any sort of political action designed to protect children, the environment, the elderly, or anyone else. It’s each man or woman for him- or herself. Whoever climbs to the top of the social heap has proved their “greatness.” The rest of us losers rightfully remain mired in our natural “mediocrity.”

Does this sound like the values of yoga to you?

It may. That’s your choice. But I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of Lululemon customers and ambassadors haven’t thought into the politics of the company they’re supporting.

But we have an obligation to do so. Because we’re in the middle of a crisis that turns on the question of whether we need to 1) reform government so that it will counter the power of huge corporations and empower ordinary working people, or 2) destroy government (except for the police and military – ha ha, little wonder why we’ll still need them!) and let the forces of unrestrained corporate capitalism run completely unchecked.

NPR just ran a story about how Ayn Rand’s philosophy has been gaining greater and greater traction in the U.S. Not too long ago, things like a social safety net, fair labor standards, environmental protections, public health programs, and anti-discrimination laws were widely considered to be the sign of a healthy society. Now, having any sort of socially inclusive vision at all is under relentless attack. The belief that we must work together for the common good is being trashed in favor of the singular value of untrammeled “individual freedom.”

When translated into real-world terms, this means insisting that the wealthy and powerful (i.e., the “1%”) are where they are because they’ve exercised their inherent “greatness” and therefore rightfully tower over the rest of us “mediocrities” (who should be grateful for the trickle-down benefits we receive from them, rather than churlishly demanding consumer protections, financial regulation, corporate accountability, progressive taxation, and so on).

As Peter Schwartz, a Distinguished Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California, explains in his op-ed, “In Defense of Income Inequality”:

 Criticizing income inequality is like complaining that a computer carries a higher price than a paper clip . . . in a free, capitalist system, income inequality represents something good. It means that exceptional individuals are free to do their productive best, and to reap their rewards. Whenever a Bill Gates arises to make his fortune, the income disparity between top and bottom increases–but so does everyone’s standard of living. If so, why shouldn’t we welcome an inequality–including a widening inequality–in incomes? And, instead of apologizing for this phenomenon, why aren’t our leaders denouncing the egalitarian enviers who want to level us all?

If you support this political perspective, then you can go ahead and shop Lululemon in good conscience. If not, then you might consider buying elsewhere  (and, if you’re a teacher, accepting sponsorship from a different company). Certainly, there’s other yoga clothing companies out there with values that are much more attractive to many, if not (hopefully) most yoga practitioners.

Lululemon has made it clear where they stand in terms of cultural and political values. And in a weird way, I applaud them for that.

But I wonder: How will the yoga community respond? Is it still going to stay so cool to support a company that endorses the right-wing politics that are destroying American democracy, with the top 1% having a greater net worth than the bottom 90%?

Or is it (I hope) time for a change?

For more coverage: Lululemon wants to know: Who is John Galt?

Occupy Lululemon.

And, In Defense of Ayn Rand.

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