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Baristas of the Brave New Data State

Howard Schultz, the CEO of the Starbucks Corporation, was disturbed by what he saw around him: plywood-boarded windows, dilapidated homes, the spilling guts of suburban poverty in Ferguson, Missouri. Schultz toured the city the year after protests there captured nationwide attention. As he took in the scene of malign neglect, the coffee mogul declared, “We need to have a store in this city.”

That was last year. Now, Schultz claims, the Starbucks in Ferguson is one of the company’s best-performing new stores. As such, it’s ideally positioned to showcase the mega-franchise’s professed goal of doing well by doing good. And Schultz is promoting both the do-gooding and profit-making sides of his company’s mission with renewed verve. Recently, he announced that the long-term strategy of Starbucks is to “exceed the expectations of our customers and shareholders while using our scale for good to maximize our social impact.” With plans to open massive new “roasteries” with live roast-and-brew facilities around the world, Schultz is thinking big—which means, apparently, that the chain’s clumsy efforts to promote racial healing among its caffeinated client base last year (writing “Race Together” on cups) may have been a prelude to a full-on Starbucks-branded social-engineering initiative.

It has long been Schultz’s mission to leverage the Starbucks brand into service as a kind of cost-free philanthropic wish-fulfillment fantasy for guilty white liberals, according to Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University and author of a critical history of the coffee retail giant. The company’s past forays into self-advertised social responsibility turned this mandate into a simple, and often cynical, exercise in feel-good marketing: in 2006, for instance, Starbucks introduced a high-end coffee blend sourced from Rwanda and pitched it to customers as a way of providing Rwandan farmers with “a better future” following the genocide a decade earlier. The farmers, Simon found, probably never saw an extra penny. On other occasions, Starbucks social campaigns—which always begin with Schultz—have demonstrated cheery naïveté, like when, in 2011, it offered the “Indivisible” wristband for a five-dollar donation to “Create Jobs for U.S.A.” Simon maintains that Schultz is, in all likelihood, an earnest believer in the power of Starbucks—and businesses in general—to change the world for the better, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

But like most innovation-minded CEOs, Schultz is not deterred by past failures—and his latest project at Starbucks represents his most ambitious effort to date. In September, the company took a big leap in the world of branded original content with its new series, Upstanders, a collection of ten media pieces featuring “ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities.” These inspiring stories are presented as mini-documentaries (and, in true synergistic fashion, reformatted on other media platforms as podcasts and long-form digital features). At the start of every film, Starbucks informs us that we all have a choice: to stand by or to stand up. The stories follow one or more individuals as they persevere through adversity. There’s one group profile of injured veterans who rebuild their ravaged bodies at a gym owned by a former NFL player and opioid addict. There’s the saga of a young community organizer in Baltimore who mobilizes the city against a toxic incinerator, and the stirring tale of a former county sheriff who advocates “empathetic” policing to stubborn cops. In the world of Upstanders, positive social change is built one noble deed at a time, accomplished through the visionary efforts of daring, innovative individuals who fit the general personality profile of a driven CEO.

I first learned of Upstanders when I saw a trailer for the series at a screening of Oliver Stone’s Snowden. Plucky inspirational music moves us through scenes of regular folks smiling, cutting vegetables, hand-shaking, and hugging. The soothing narration hits all the right liberal buzzwords: community, opportunity, love, dreams, hard work, hope, a reminder that change isn’t easy. This placidly whiggish worldview is jarring to encounter at a movie theater, where you expect to be dazzled or surprised; instead, the trailer induced the kind of mental torpor you associate with a Bank of America ad touting the mega-lender’s selflessness. It’s certainly not what you think you’d see at the start of Stone’s biopic of America’s most notorious hacker-iconoclast, who became famous for flouting federal law (and, not incidentally, burning his former employer—the D.C. data, technology, and consulting behemoth Booz Allen Hamilton) in what he regarded as a higher moral pursuit. Whatever else Edward Snowden may be, he’s not a model corporate citizen.

Starbucks doubles as a brand of soft state power. Any flavor of liberation it has on tap will go down smoothly with the broader prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism.

On the other hand, it may well be that there’s no better audience for Starbucks to market Upstanders to than the one that would go to watch Snowden in theaters: it’s a rare chance for our corporate virtue-lords to speak directly to the kinds of people who may feel sympathy for the law-breaking advocated by the former NSA contractor. With a board of directors drawn from the pinnacles of corporate America—bearing credentials from McDonald’s, Microsoft, and an investment firm led by a close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama—Starbucks doubles as a brand of soft state power, which means that any flavor of liberation it has on tap will go down smoothly with the broader prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism.

One director in particular seems ideally suited for this sort of barista duty: former Secretary of Defense and national security veteran Robert Gates (old friend of Snowden nemesis and director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper, who claimed—oops!—to have merely forgotten about NSA bulk surveillance, after he falsely testified before Congress that it never happened). The recent recruitment of Gates to the Starbucks board should serve as a red flag, signaling the possibility of surveillance-state involvement in what at first appears to be a feel-good series of uplifting stories. It’s impossible to separate Gates’s past advocacy for soft power initiatives to help secure military gains in Iraq and Afghanistan from his branding work at Starbucks. And Gates’s corporate profile is particularly germane to the changing face of faux-caring commerce, now that America’s war for hearts and minds has shifted from the Middle East to the home front, where private advertisers—who are just as threatened by extremism as the government—dominate the public space.

It’s unclear just why Schultz brought Gates to his company, but the former Pentagon chief has been a strong creative influence on Schultz during his time there. In 2014, Schultz produced a book spotlighting U.S. veterans’ struggles in collaboration with former Washington Post senior editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who also happens to be Schultz’s coproducer on the Upstanders series. The genesis of the book, Schultz said in an interview with Fox News (with Gates sitting alongside him), came from the “friendship and mentorship” of Gates. Schultz and Gates also coauthored a pledge stating that Starbucks would make the “strategic business decision” to hire more veterans in the interest of the company’s shareholders. Before Upstanders, the veterans book was Schultz’s most involved social stunt. Now that Gates is signing off on company policy, Upstanders may represent a quantum leap forward in Schultz’s social-branding playbook.

Gates got his own chance to “stand up” when he was handpicked by George W. Bush to take over the Defense Department in 2006, after toiling in the national security apparatus for decades. “If the President thinks I can help, I have no choice but to say yes. It’s my duty,” he reports telling former national security advisor Stephen Hadley when he got the call, in his memoir Duty. Although he had not served in the military since the 1960s, he was tasked with marshaling political will behind the flailing counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. After stepping down in 2011, he joined fellow Bush administration alums Hadley and Condoleezza Rice at a consulting firm for multinational businesses. (His Starbucks appointment was announced a week later.) Like Gates, both Hadley and Rice had landed plum appointments to major corporate boards: the former at Raytheon; the latter at Chevron and Hewlett-Packard.

Through Hadley and other surveillance-minded associates in the national security world, Gates cultivated a direct relationship to domestic anti-terrorism initiatives, whose influence is clear in Upstanders. Beyond its promotion of up-by-the-bootstraps resolve, the series makes the case for the liberalism central to the ostensibly meritocratic corporate state. This is the most important message Starbucks wants to get across, and it’s part of a wider effort by governments and their partners (corporate and non-governmental organizations) across the world to challenge the influence of so-called extremists adept at using social media for recruitment. Leading such efforts in the United States are organizations like the Institute of Peace, a “soft-power” organization chaired by Hadley and other veterans of the defense establishment (including another key Gates ally from the Bush years, former ambassador Eric Edelman). USIP champions what’s known as the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy in nations like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, but it’s the domestic application of the CVE agenda—packaged under the Obama administration as a compound of counterinsurgency, anti-radicalization pseudo-science, and community policing—that’s received the most media attention.

As its heart, CVE is a top-down attempt by the federal government to engender values of tolerance and political moderation via a faux-communitarianism facilitated by local police. People, particularly Muslims, are encouraged to watch their neighbors and children for signs of “radicalization”—which can include behaviors as innocuous as logging on to a computer for hours on end, or being overly critical of “the West”—and then report the suspicious conduct to law enforcement. The CVE approach in larger cities like Los Angeles and Minneapolis has sparked a popular backlash. But one of its first and most emblematic applications took place in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a longtime CVE advocate piloted a program to build a sense of community through networking events among different faith congregations, often with heavy police presence and involvement. It’s the spirit of this smaller program, with its soft-state-facilitated model of interfaith and interracial collaboration, that shines through in Upstanders. This kind of close partnering with law enforcement in everyday affairs has the added benefit of appeasing advocates of the vaguely defined “community policing” strategy, a favored panacea of left-center policy thinkers in response to America’s long-running patterns of racist police violence.

The domestic version of CVE also represents a neo-Orwellian prescription for “repairing relations” between police forces and their client communities that a businessperson like Schultz, who says he has relationships with police chiefs in America’s major cities, could get behind. One Upstanders episode follows former King County, Washington, sheriff Susan Rahr, a member of Obama’s task force on policing and a regular on the CVE-speaker circuit, as she goes around the country promoting a “guardian role” for police. (On October 21, two sheriff’s deputies from the King County Sheriff’s Office—where Rahr was chief until 2012—killed a pregnant mother of three on an Indian reservation.) Another one tells the story of how congregants at a mosque and a church in a suburb of Memphis learn to get along, in the mold of the CVE program in Montgomery County. The rest of the series highlights the successes of nonprofit organizations such as YouthBuild, whose boards of directors and advisers include powerful names from the finance world like Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan. Taken together, the episodes promote a doctrine of social change that works hand in glove with corporate power, while embracing the civic aims and policing authority of the security apparatus that protects it.

None of which is to say that individual citizens don’t do heroic things for the social good, or that the stories told in Upstanders aren’t actually inspiring. There is, of course, nothing wrong with religious tolerance or helping people overcome tough odds. But a potential soft-power propaganda offensive to delimit the proper scope of political action in tight accordance with the whims of corporate America is troubling. Standing up is all well and good, but we should be paying much closer attention to the data-driven arbiters of social peace that are standing by, behind the scenes.