Whole Foods’ Hippie CEO and the Lie of Enlightened Capitalism

For a guy whose memoir is titled Conscious Leadership, John Mackey lacks self-awareness.

Much ink has been spilled on Jeff Bezos and his role as a robber baron in our age of acquiescence. He has become synonymous with the problem of rising global inequality, particularly now as he steps down from his position as the CEO of Amazon to focus on fleeing our dying planet after making a cool $75 billion off the backs of his workers during a global pandemic. So rapacious is Bezos’ greed that when Senator Bernie Sanders put forward a bill to make large corporations pay a 100 percent tax on welfare benefits required by their underpaid employees, he called it the “Stop BEZOS Act.” Of course, this criticism of capitalism’s gilded elite is not unwarranted, but the focus on Bezos as the archetypal archvillain leaves out of the spotlight a cast of lesser plutocrats—some far more eccentric and interesting than the Amazon founder. Frying these smaller fish can provide some insights into the world of the nouveau riche more profound than the measure of their fortune against Bezos. 

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey offers just such a window into the New Age values of a more “conscious capitalism.” Acquired by Amazon in 2017, Mackey’s company has made waves in both the business press and left-ish media for failing to live up to its image as a champion of progressive values. For instance, in a recently published interview with the New Yorker, Mackey was asked about the role of purpose and profit in business, and whether the former could undermine the latter. He sidestepped the issue by replying that:

Purpose is important intrinsically, in its own right. Whether it makes a profit or not, purpose is important. However, purpose engaged in thoughtfully will also increase the bottom line, but it’s an end in itself. Treating people kindly is an end in itself. It’s not either/or. It’s not a trade-off. Purpose and profit, not purpose or profit.

Pointing to the contradiction in Mackey’s account, the interviewer highlighted the fact that in many ways the chain seems to have chosen the latter—which included slashing hazard pay for workers in May 2020, as if the danger of COVID-19 had subsided. Not only that, but the company has been embroiled in confrontations with current and former Whole Foods employees over the dress code policy imposed after an employee was fired for refusing to remove their BLM mask. One employee told Business Insider that “we’re worried that it’s leaning toward a more super-corporate, you’re-just-another-cog-in-the-machine kind of employee situation.” Many attribute this failure to the Amazonification of the company, and there is no doubt that the acquisition has transformed Whole Foods. But to place the blame solely at the feet of Bezos is to absolve Mackey of his role in shaping corporate culture for the health food chain. If anything, Mackey is more evangelical for the entrepreneurial ethos, spreading the good news that not only will the pursuit of wealth bring you fortune, it will save your soul. 

Just a week before Whole Foods announced that they would be cutting employee breaks down from 15 to 10 minutes, and requiring full-time employees to take mandatory unpaid time in the middle of their shift, Mackey was preaching the gospel of personal responsibility in the middle of a world-historic pandemic. In an interview for the Freakonomics podcast, Mackey waded into the debate over a public healthcare option by claiming, “I mean, honestly, we talk about healthcare. The best solution is not to need healthcare.” According to him, “the best solution is to change the way people eat, the way they live, the lifestyle, and diet.” While an excellent piece of P.R. for a store promoting healthy lifestyles, it is pretty tone deaf at a time when people need actual healthcare—and particularly when his own employees are on the frontlines making sure that healthy foods and lifestyle accessories are available for those who can afford to pay. And it is demonstrably cruel when you understand that only the year before the pandemic began, Whole Foods cut its health benefits for part-time employees even as it ramped up its strategy to hire fewer full-time employees so it could cut labor costs. 

Mackey’s ultra-libertarian views on healthcare are not surprising. He once called the Affordable Care Act “fascist” because it supposedly put the government in control of healthcare, when instead it aided insurance industry behemoths in tapping previously untapped markets. Mackey’s flawed understanding of flawed policy aside, his position that the solution to society’s problems can be found in individualism is nothing new. His embrace of a kind of therapeutic solipsism is just as much a product of his experience in the 1960s and 1970s as the cultural ephemera of his youth played in Whole Foods stores across the country. Any employee who has watched training videos which recount the history of the brand will know Mackey is quick to point out that he once considered himself a democratic socialist—a “phase” he grew out of as his business blossomed. However far he might have strayed from the politics of the New Left, by no means did he jettison all the lessons of his “radical” past. It is clear that “the personal is political” remains his North Star. 

It is easy to simply associate the radicalism of Mackey’s formative era with lifelong progressives like Angela Davis or Barbara Ehrenreich, but people forget that lapsed leftists like him are just as much a part of that legacy as the faithful. Preeminent historian and social critic Christopher Lasch presaged Mackey’s trajectory in looking at the inward turn many important figures of the New Left took over the course of the 1970s. In the Culture of Narcissism, Lasch argued that if a neurotic sensibility characterized the 19th century, narcissism was the general condition of the 20th. However, by narcissism, he did not mean what it has come to mean in today’s lexicon. Narcissism has become shorthand for someone selfish and self-absorbed, but for Lasch it was a reaction to the growing bureaucratization of life in the 20th century. Rather than a sense of self-importance, it was the awareness of dependence on the state and society that drove people to overcome feelings of insecurity by seeking “the attention of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma.” 

According to Lasch, the New Left correctly identified the ways in which modern culture had tended to diminish capacity for individual growth while it simultaneously created a cult of youth and eroded the household’s place as a “haven from a heartless world.” At the same time, the predilection toward understanding how society shapes the self eventually gave way to a focus on finding one’s self—forging the new socialist man from the inside out, raising consciousness one mediation session at a time. 

The example par excellence for Lasch was Jerry Rubin. As one of the cofounders of the Yippie movement, a group of young radicals who emerged from anti-war activist circles focused on forging an anti-capitalist counterculture, Rubin practiced politics as Kabuki theater. He specialized in spectacle meant to shake the audience from complacency into joining the revolution. On trial for his involvement organizing the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he helped turn the courtroom into a stage for the Chicago Seven’s tragic comedy by showing up dressed in a judge’s robe, among other hijinks. Rubin made this theatrical political strategy explicit during testimony to the court when he claimed:  

We are on trial because we are trying to wake America up. We are on trial because we are trying to wake it up emotionally, because it turned us all into machines, it turned us all into marshals, reporters, judges, prosecutors; it’s destroyed our humanity. So the people at this table are trying to wake it up, and the only way we can wake it up is by screaming, yelling, standing on our heads. 

Eventually though, as the failure to incite revolution became a distant memory, Rubin found himself a Wall Street insider and successful businessman, but one concerned with giving capitalism a human face. Rejecting his anti-capitalism as a symptom of youthful idealism, Rubin said: “I know that I can be more effective today wearing a suit and tie and working on Wall Street than I can be dancing outside the walls of power.” It is no wonder that Lasch wrote of Rubin before his transformation from Yippie to Yuppie, “he succeeded only in exchanging current therapeutic slogans for the political slogans he used to mouth with equal disregard of their content.” Rubin failed to realize that his insights were correct—people had been turned into machines—but neither political theater nor therapy could deprogram them. Only through their own actions could people become aware of their ability to change society, not through making more conscious consumer choices or through watching an acting troupe play at revolution. 

Rubin’s embrace of marching through the institutions of Wall Street to make a better world set the mold for entrepreneurial activists like Mackey. Rubin’s belief that the market could realize the desire for equity and individualism was able to bridge the gap between his radical past and his future task of marketing a kinder, gentler capitalism. In founding Whole Foods, Mackey embraced a vision that the market was capable of creating the more equitable and fulfilling existence that they had failed to achieve through more utopian schemes, a conversion chronicled in his latest book Conscious Leadership. At the heart of this transformation was a resignation to the status quo dressed as pragmatic realism. Before Whole Foods became Whole Foods, it was a less successful enterprise called Safer Way. It only sold natural food, and few staples associated with the average grocery store. According to Mackey, he and the other Safer Way founders let their “sense of purity overshadow other important concerns.” 

Eventually, they began to provide the amenities of a more traditional grocery store, and with that change came a shift in strategy. Instead of “trying to remake the market,” they began to “engage the market.” After this formative experience of seeing the failings of Safer Way and the success of Whole Foods, Mackey began to see the market as a set of transmission belts that could send new ideas across society, shifting cultural mores and beliefs slowly over time. However, the market’s position as the distributor of the wealth of capitalist society could not be questioned. 

For Mackey, this was just one stop in his personal journey to individual enlightenment. His role as entrepreneur completely intertwined with his lifelong goal to find his true self. Viewing his business in this light, Mackey’s employees, customers, and the communities where they live are merely a means to finding his authentic self—tools to be picked up and discarded as long as they move him forward on his long trek toward self-actualization.  

Conscious Leadership, then, is at one and the same time written as a memoir chronicling Mackey’s life, and a self-help book meant to assist the would-be ethical entrepreneur along their own path to enlightenment (and profit). He sets out guiding principles for supposedly moral leadership in business, providing examples from his long career at Whole Foods and from other “conscious” leaders, along with tips for how to apply them in day-to-day operations. In this respect, Mackey has done nothing new. He is well within the modern self-help tradition initiated by Victorian reformer Samuel Smiles. Both men viewed individual improvement as the key to success—those who fail to achieve greatness have simply chosen to squander opportunities for personal growth. As Smiles wrote in 1859, “fortune has often been blamed for her blindness; but fortune is not so blind as men are. Those who look into practical life will find fortune is usually on the side of the industrious.”

What sets Mackey apart from his mid-19th century counterpart is that while Smiles saw himself as writing to improve the lot of the working class through thrift and perseverance, the audience for Mackey’s book is clearly other executives looking to achieve an enlightened despotism for their workplace fiefdoms. Though workers (“team members” in Whole Foods parlance) figure into Mackey’s equation, they are merely another stakeholder to be appeased by the conscious leader. They are only as useful as they fill their roles as workers, fitting into the divine plans of the business tyrant as instruments to achieve loftier ends. While both Mackey and Smiles sought to counter the encroachment of the state in the lives of citizens, preferring a hands-off approach government, Smiles was no laissez-faire absolutist. He believed that the government had a role to play in public health and education. Compared to Mackey, even one of the progenitors of bootstrap ideology proves progressive next to this guru of the Second Gilded Age.

A vulgar individualism is the key ingredient in the snake oil Mackey is selling. He boils everything down to the will to wield power, outside forces be damned. For Mackey, organizations are limited only by their leaders. To change the nature of business requires, then, a cultural revolution which will empower new leaders. Here Mackey’s experience of the counterculture shines through—he is more Maoist than the Maoists. In fact, it is clear that he aspires to be as beloved as the long-departed chairman, comparing himself to both Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln at one point in his book. Central to achieving that end is to “put purpose first,” as Mackey says, and “lead with love.” Looking at the way Mackey has led during the pandemic and using his own business metaphor of marriage, his idea of love is that of the abusive husband. Indeed, if Mackey intended for his employees to read this book, it was with the intention of gaslighting them.

Mackey is a proponent of “win-win-win solutions,” and the impossibility of such an arrangement helps explain  the mixed messages coming from Mackey’s mouth. “Win-win-win” means that the key to success is finding solutions that please employees, customers, and shareholders (regardless of the fact that their interests are often at odds). Still, including employees in the calculation may seem progressive and democratic on its face. In practice, though, it is a tactic to obscure authoritarian structures of work. Despite Mackey’s lip service to employee participation, Whole Foods cut profit-sharing for its employees as it was being acquired by Amazon in 2017. Not only that, but Mackey is explicit about the role of employees when he breaks an organization’s stakeholders into an inner circle and an outer circle. His prime example of members of the outer circle is unions. According to Mackey, unions are not organizations that represent the genuine will of his employees, but rather an outside entity to be neutralized by throwing occasional scraps to employees when they start to organize.

Government regulators are another type of stakeholder relegated to the outer circle. Mackey writes that “no regulatory restriction could ever accomplish what the intrinsic power of leaders with honor and integrity make possible. The quality of the entire community is elevated.” What he misses in this statement is that Whole Foods is not separate from the communities they operate in, nor is the government that seeks to ensure the wellbeing of the company’s employees through safety regulations. It is easy to overlook interdependence when you see everything through the subjective lens of the individual. One does not need to submit to an individualist/collectivist binary to see the interaction between the individual and society and vice versa, but Mackey’s potent combination of Randian libertarianism and pseudo-spiritualism prevents him from seeing this.

Mackey’s aversion to any kind of state intervention plays into the myths he uses to explain his own success. Once again playing up countercultural bona fides, Mackey claims that innovation is to be found outside the “establishment” in the “marginal,” explaining that jazz arose as an artform outside the mainstream of music. He goes on to say that the technological dynamism of Silicon Valley sprouted in a similar fashion away from “the more staid business institutions from the East Coast, less caught up in the existing traditions, customs, and social hierarchies of the American corporate establishment.” Removed from the stifling culture of East Coast elites, the “garages, basements, and dorms rooms became the birthplace of HP, Intel, Google, Apple, and so many others.” Of the contemporary Bay Area, he claims “today, money, power, and status flow… like a gusher of never-ending cash,” where “happy millennials from top colleges stroll through futuristic campuses.”

 In painting this picture, Mackey completely ignores the gross inequality of Silicon Valley, where the top 16 percent hold 83 percent of wealth, while the bottom 81 percent hold just 2 percent. As for his supposedly smiling tech employees, their cost of living is so high that they have begun renting sleep pods and at least one chose to sleep in the back of a truck. Most importantly, Mackey ignores the real history of Silicon Valley. Rather than a product of individual entrepreneurial genius, it was long-term state subsidy of research and development that produced the innovations which were then privatized for the tech industry to exploit for profit.  

Such facts complicate the simple stories Mackey tells in Conscious Leadership: a good leader finds success by following the road to self-actualization. Spiritual growth of the conscious leader raises the spirits and well-being of those they lead. If “we walk this path with integrity, purpose, and love… our lives, our organizations, and our world will be better for it.” No matter what those abstract principles might mean for “prosaic realities of our businesses,” staying true to these higher aspirations will be reflected in the realm of material success of all stakeholders. The success of the leaders means success for society. It’s hard to find better examples of magical thinking with capitalist characteristics.

Mackey has not strayed far from the path of the “personal is political” viewpoint that some factions within the New Left made famous. But for him it is not about finding the New Man through therapeutic sloganeering. For him, it is about finding New Leaders to replace the cigar-chomping and money-loving capitalists of old. Being beholden only to the bottom line belongs to a kind of corporate capitalism that he seeks to replace with his brand of conscious capitalism. The question for Mackey remains: can the profit motive be reconciled with these higher-order goals? If his career is any indicator, the answer is no. 

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