Magazine | October 31, 2011, Issue

Revolution, Inc.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Ben & Jerry’s, the hippie-dippy Vermont ice-cream makers, have come out in favor of “Occupy Wall Street.” Or as their press release puts it:

We, the Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors, compelled by our personal convictions and our Company’s mission and values, wish to express our deepest admiration to all of you who have initiated the non-violent Occupy Wall Street Movement and to those around the country who have joined in solidarity.

Ben & Jerry’s is a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever. What’s that? It’s an Anglo-Dutch multinational (stand well back) corporation. They produce a big chunk of everything in your kitchen and bathroom. Twelve of their brands have annual sales of over a billion euros per product, and, as I’m sure I don’t need to point out, a euro is well north of a buck these days. Unilever’s various billion-euro brands include Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Sunsilk shampoo, and Flora margarine. They’re the the biggest ice-cream manufacturer not just in Vermont but on the planet: They have a zillion factories churning out Popsicle and Breyers and brands you’ve never heard of but which are the biggest-selling cones and sundaes in Singapore, Pakistan, Belgium, and Lithuania. Unilever is about as corporately corporate as you can get.

They brought in a Unilever guy from Norway to be Ben & Jerry’s CEO, and neither Ben nor Jerry holds an executive position with the company, any more than Uncle Ben (no relation) and Aunt Jemima do with their respective corporate masters. I suppose they could have renamed the operating unit UniBen or JerryLever, but instead they decided to keep the whole tie-dye peace-pop cherry-Garcia vibe going. One might think this inherently preposterous, in the same way that one would assume even gullible music fans would guffaw at a label called “Maverick Records” that is, in fact, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. Warner Music Group was, at the time of Maverick’s launch, itself a subsidiary of Time Warner, but today it’s cast off both Henry Luce and the brothers Warner and is instead a subsidiary of Access Industries. What’s that? It’s an industrial group that specializes in the exploitation of natural resources and chemicals. “We’ll never sell ourselves,” promised the band Story of the Year on their Maverick single “We Don’t Care Anymore.” And if you can’t promise not to sell yourselves when you’ve signed to a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a company that sells more polypropylene, polyethylene, and other polyolefin products for use in consumer packaging than anybody else on the planet, when can you?

Long before Ben & Jerry’s, the record companies established the general esthetic. The music business have been humbugs since 1955, when Bill Haley and Elvis Presley put them in the permanent-revolution business: As the Beatles sang, “You say you want a revolution?” Sure. Agitating for permanent revolution proved the best way to ensure corporate continuity: That’s why Bob Dylan’s on Kate Smith’s old label. “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” even if the record companies aren’t. And, if you can make it work in the rock biz, why not in ice cream? Indeed, the default political position of your average CEO — “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” — was pioneered by a generation of Brit rockers raising awareness for fashionable causes while sheltering their royalties beyond the reach of Her Majesty’s Treasury.

#page#So today we have maverick corporations expressing solidarity with the oppressed . . . well, I was going to say “workers” but that doesn’t seem quite the word for “Occupy Wall Street,” does it? Non-workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your six-figure college debt! I was on the air in Boston with Michael Graham discussing the general groove of America’s lethargic inactivists when he revealed that a friend’s son had recently graduated with a degree in “hip-hop music management.” The last time I followed “hip-hop music management” was back during the East–West rap wars when “music management” involved ensuring your vocal artiste had enough security to avoid being fatally shot by one of his fellow Grammy nominees. After all the pseudo-revolutionary posturing of rock ’n’ roll, there was something quaintly appealing about the rap crowd: As my old Daily Telegraph colleague Tony Parsons once observed, when Elvis sang, “If you’re looking for trouble, look right in my face,” you couldn’t help noticing he was wearing a bit too much mascara. But the rappers meant it. Rare the hip-hopper who lived to celebrate 50 years in showbusiness. As hip-hop aficionado John Kerry sagely observed, it was authentic, it was about “anger” and a “reflection of the street.”

But now, if you want to make a career in authentic street anger, you can go to middle-class college for half a decade and pay a quarter-million bucks — just as with everything else in our over-credentialized society. Slap up my bitch, shoot that cop, go into debt for my muthaf***in’ bachelor’s: It’s the American way. It would be heartening to think that a few years hence unemployed hip-hop “managers,” lavishly credentialed but profoundly embittered, will be flooding the Top 40 with rap ditties threatening to whip the p***y a*s of the dean of admissions who suckered them in to Shakedown U.

Yet it seems more likely that the frisson of ersatz radicalism will continue to work its magic. Rockers pretend to be revolutionaries, then tenured professors do, and then CEOs of multinational subsidiaries for whom solidarity with deadbeats they’d never dream of hiring offers an electric tingle that the Rotary Club lunch can’t match. Let’s hope the polypropylene market is lucrative enough to support it all.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

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