Can Capitalism Be Caring?

A case study of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc.

by Kurt Reymers



A project submitted to the Graduate School of the State University of New York at Buffalo
in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Master of Arts in Sociology.

1995 Kurt Reymers.





Introduction: The "New Corporate Concept", Ethics and History


I1..................Caring Capitalism and its Antithesis

I2..................Capitalism and the Renaissance

I3..................Enamoring Individuality: The Free Trade Argument

I4..................Neo-Classicism and Economic Science

I5..................The Irrationality of Rationality

I6..................Ben & Jerry’s: The Anti-McDonald?

I7..................From Ice Cream Socials to Social Responsibility


II8.................Rationality Creeps In

II9.................Growth and Fast Capitalism

II10...............Will the "Real" Ben & Jerry Please Step Forward?

Conclusion: Can Capitalism Be Caring?





This paper discusses the "new corporate concept" of socially responsible business that has made its way into capitalistic economic structures over the past several decades. This new "caring" style of capitalism is defined in relation to the values held by mainstream corporate culture. Empirical issues based upon the interrelation of the institutions involved in this economic dichotomy are quite prevalent in the case of well-known socially responsible business Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., a Vermont-based ice cream manufacturer. Evaluation of these issues will reveal the prospects for a significant change in the development of capitalism in our society.




The "New Corporate Concept", Ethics and History


On Saturday, May 5, 1978, two young men named Ben and Jerry, originally from Merrick, New York, started an ice-cream business called Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. in Burlington, Vermont. They began with only $12,000 and a great liking for food. Over the past 17 years they have become internationally famous (and, it is worth mentioning, rather wealthy).

Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. is thought of in the business world as the perfect example of the classic entrepreneurial success -- two guys go into business with only a very small investment, work extremely hard and end up as kings of the ice-cream mountain. What makes Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., stand out from the entrepreneurial crowd, however, is that on the way to the ‘top’ they have advocated a business philosophy that they call "caring capitalism". Indeed, this philosophy is purported by many to be the most significant factor in their successful climbing of ‘the mountain’. While certainly not the founders of social responsibility in the business world, they are perhaps the most well-known representatives of those business people who have joined with (and equally inspired) a recent movement in economics which quite outwardly promotes a "new corporate concept of linked prosperity" (B&J’s 1993 Annual Report). This "new concept" places an equal emphasis upon both the repercussions a business has on its surrounding society as well as the conventional economic priorities of a business (survival in a competitive market).


The theory of this philosophy of "linked prosperity" is rather simple. As Ben & Jerry’s outlines in their Annual Report, as well as in pamphlets that are available to the general consumer at all of the Ben & Jerry’s franchise outlets (or "scoop shops") entitled "Ben & Jerry’s on Caring Capitalism and Linked Prosperity," linked prosperity is the basic notion of a reciprocal relationship between consumer and producer that is based upon a cooperative ethos. Ben Cohen has from the beginning maintained that "business has a responsibility to give back to the community." This quote was established during the early days of Ben & Jerry’s and it embodies the idea that their business will prosper as the community around them prospers.


As I deem dialectical thinking important to critical sociological inquiry, it seems crucial to ask the question, If a "caring capitalism" exists what would be its negation? If Cohen and Greenfield can advocate a "caring capitalism", what is their basis for comparison? The answer, and a comparison of both the question and the answer, is what the bulk of this essay will analyze. The answer is, of course, not simple: it lies in a deep web of philosophical and historical thought and circumstance that precedes this most recent version of socially responsible business. Cohen, Greenfield and other socially responsible business people have established a code of economic conduct that draws its foundation from the dilemma that has consumed philosophers for ages: the ethical dilemma between the individual good and the societal good, between arguments for and against the relative rights of the private and the public sectors of society. This dilemma is at the core of the beliefs of a great number of thinkers, whether their interest is manifestly political or economic, religious or socio-cultural.


Recalling my topic of socially responsible businesses, the value of discussing why we should integrate past history and the biography of Ben & Jerry’s is clear. Underlying Ben & Jerry’s social responsibility is a history of similar thought as expressed through the writings of philosophers who have in their own time reflected upon this topic of moral sensibility in relation to economics, labor and wealth. An examination of these developments in historical thought since the eighteenth century (namely the social and philosophical thought that has led to the specific economic actions taken by the legislators, politicians, and the cultures of past eras that have, in turn, shaped our present situation) may cast insight onto the nature of the seeming entrapment in which we are snared: the dilemma of the social contract, or the "prisoner’s dilemma", as we will come to see it called.


But why start with the eighteenth century? Why not proceed back to the Middle Ages, or to the classic Greek analysis, or perhaps even to ancient Babylonia? Chronological proximity with respect to the relationship between ideas and action is one reason not to over-theorize, but it does not stand alone among the reasons to begin the analysis prior to the Industrial Revolution. It is also generally recognized that a great change occurred in social thought during this period of history. "The ideological transformation crystallized in the French Revolution which bequeathed us one prime intellectual legacy - irrevocable, as it were - in the mentality of our modern world [was] the concept that social change was ‘normal’ " (Wallerstein, 1988: 527). This idea that change was to be expected, that it was even to be encouraged, fed a multitude of new social theories and ideas about the social contract between men that regarded the specific shape of economic and political structures. It fostered the idea that progress was inevitable. It was the eighteenth century equivalent of the "intellectual common denominator" of which Mills speaks (1959: 13-18). It was also a catalyst for a distinct change in the notion of the public and private spheres of life, that the individual was to be differentiated from the social. This idea was recognized by Durkheim as the movement from mechanical to organic solidarity.


While the French Revolution crystallized this new common denominator in the political arena, the Industrial Revolution brought it into our everyday existence on the economic stage. By understanding this past history that formed conceptual precedents for current political and economic actions, we can more thoroughly appreciate the context in which Ben & Jerry’s exists. We will benefit from the study of history and therefore should endeavor to uncover pieces of the heritage that has led up to the contemporary version of "socially responsible business".


This history has everything to do with the concept of "progress", a primary ethic of our time. What does it mean to us to "improve" or to "benefit"? The answer to that question will show how we have defined economic and political "progress" and the accompanying changes in the relationship between the society and the individual. While examining the aforementioned dilemma, it will be essential to address the more fundamental issues of human nature and ethical justification. How would the "classic social analysts" have made such an address? Mills responds that they would ask questions such as, "What kinds of ‘human nature’ are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in this period? And what is the meaning for ‘human nature’ of each feature of the society we are examining [e.g. socially responsible business]?…The sociological imagination [is] the capacity to shift from one perspective to another" (Mills, 1959: 7). A corollary of this idea is that we can trace our own current perspectives on reality and what place we should take within it to those concepts embedded in our forefather’s perceptions of their history, and so on back into the past. This multi-perspectival frame of mind expresses itself in an integration of the particular moral positions that change over time, so that we may create a new, more diverse perspective. This is the engine that empowers dialectical analysis from Plato to Hegel to Kuhn. The nature of this multi-perspectival focus is historical and it is based on a notion that we have previously discussed, namely that social change is ‘normal’. Change is embedded in circumstance and circumstance is essentially historical. As Mills once again explains, "you cannot understand the underdeveloped, the Communist, the capitalist political economies as they exist in the world today by flat, timeless comparisons. You must expand the temporal reach of your analysis. All sociology worthy of the name is ‘historical sociology’" (1959: 151,146).


Thus, a portion of Part I of this case study will recognize thoughts regarding human nature and morality expressed by philosophers who have reflected upon the history that has so strongly influenced the workings of present world political economies. The basic format of this retrospection will be in reference to the three parts of Ben & Jerry’s "Statement of Mission." Unfortunately, since no such analysis can be exhaustive, the scope must be limited to specific thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith, whose writings represent the 18th century classic liberal free-trade position that has been addressed and reissued in many different ways in contemporary capitalism. A portion of Part II, in turn, will reflect upon the relatively more recent writings of Marx, Weber, Arendt, Habermas, Lyotard, Ritzer and a great many others, of course, who critically perceive this entrenchment of the neo-classical liberal perspective in the modern world, and note the contradictions and social problems that follow with such an entrenchment. To be complete, any discussion of socially responsible businesses in our capitalist society must also take into account the sociological discrepancy between liberalism and communitarianism, between the themes of private and public good.


Moving the discussion back to the present then, the next question to ask is, How are these same themes of private and public good captured in the recent surge of socially responsible businesses (i.e., what is the empirical circumstance of the dilemma)? Interestingly, when Cohen and Greenfield began their business in 1978 they did not care to think of themselves as "businessmen." For example, when they had worked out an arrangement at the original ice cream shop which meant that Cohen would be firing employees (primarily for over- or slow-scooping), he reacted quite adversely:


It wasn’t easy for Ben to be a boss. The closest he had come to supervising anyone up to that point in his life had been his dog Malcolm. Ben had spent his entire life questioning authority, and resented being told what to do by others. The thought of now being in the position where he would have to do unto others what others had done unto him was disconcerting (Lager, 1994: 27).


Both Cohen and Greenfield held the values of the 1960’s counter-culture; they have been labeled as "hippies" and their business shared this anti-authoritarian , yet communitarian identity. Indeed, the social movements of the 1960’s had an influence that motivated the decisions made by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield on how to run their business. These movements raised important questions regarding issues of work, the division of labor, and the rise of finance and corporate capitalism that developed rapidly from the onset of the military/industrial culture surrounding the Cold War. These issues, in conjunction with a more detailed description of the operations of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. and of the problems they have had in instituting their "new corporate concept", will round out Part II of the discussion.


Using the concepts developed from past and present history, then, I will endeavor to establish the analysis of a particular socially responsible business, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., with a discussion of many of the salient factors that have contributed to the business’s history. The issues raised in studying the case of Ben & Jerry’s in economic and political terms will emphasize both the dualistic and didactic nature of their business. A study of the actual case of Ben & Jerry’s will reflect upon how they have tried to integrate many "perpendicular" perspectives, that will come to be called, alternately, competitive and cooperative, caring and non-caring capitalism, individualism versus conformity, liberalism versus communitarianism, all of which eventually synthesize down into the issue of the private versus the public good, the issue of society. The final analysis will reveal the entangled nature of this synthesis and shed some light upon the question, Can Capitalism Be Caring?


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