You Want that Social Conscience Expression for Here or to Go?

One of capitalism’s greatest virtues is the wide array of preferences it allows entrepreneurs to cater to—including the preferences of those who claim to disdain capitalism. I noticed just just how wide this week while attending an event on antiwar voters at Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets, a new establishment—combination restaurant, bar, café, and lefty bookstore—that seems to be trying to establish itself as a hub of left-wing activism and networking. Just the place to for bandanna-wearing college kids to unwind after an afternoon of hurling epithets towards the World Bank headquarters? Well, not exactly. The first thing I noticed about the place is how new, sleek, and busy it was. In fact, my first reaction was, “What a successful business!” Of course, the décor is self-conscious in its political identity, which is something else it’s selling—consumption as a value expression. Reason magazine’s Kerry Howley’s observation about an earlier iteration of such consumption-as-moral-statement, Fair Trade coffee, could just as well apply to this left-wing theme restaurant:

“Today, consumers are driving a market for coffee that transforms the act of drinking into a muted act of rebellion against a centuries-old system of exchange. Yet what is revolutionary about Fair Trade is not the brand’s focus on poverty but the suggestion that consumption is a moral response to inequality. ‘Instead of boycotting the wrong kind of wine or the wrong kind of rice,’ explains [Scott] Hamrah, the semiotics consultant [in the field of brand identity], ‘we can now buy the right kind, the moral kind, and buy more.'”

Which in the case of Busboys and Poets is all fine and well (Fair Trade coffee is not quite so harmless, but I recommend reading Kerry Howley’s article, linked above for more on that). It’s giving its customers what they want and it’s doing it well. And it doesn’t even need to stick to self-conscious niche; I found the locale comfortable and spacious, and the food and service both very good. I’ve even thought of a better name for it: the Hard Left Café.