Photo by Goami
Artillery Row

The rise and fall of an anti-capitalist café

What if — and I hope you’re sitting down — capitalism works better?

With the exception of Katherine Ryan and Nickelback, I have always looked up to Canadians. From the Pacific to the Atlantic, they share a collective mindset that embodies a spirit of self-reliance and resilient individualism. Having spent a lot of time in small fishing villages around Nova Scotia myself, I know this all too well. It is no exaggeration to say that Canadians are the product of a harsh environment. Temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees, and the polar bears will leave you alone if you have a gun.

So, I sympathise with Gabriel Sims-Fewer in many ways. This ambitious young Canadian had dreams of opening his own coffee shop in downtown Toronto. There’s nothing wrong with that. Entrepreneurialism is admirable. It’s refreshing to find a driven, passionate man who believes in unfashionable virtues like discipline and hard work. Plus, who doesn’t want to have a damn good coffee?

If it’s that good, why aren’t other companies doing it?

Sims-Fewer’s dream came true in March 2022. However, there was just one small problem. In an effort to save Canada from the pervasive forces of malevolent capitalism, Fewer adopted a rather unconventional business model.

The Anarchist Cafe at 190 Jarvis Street described itself as an “anti-capitalist, anti-colonial cafe, shop, and radical community space on stolen land”. If it is stolen land, should he not give it back? The strangeness doesn’t end there. Here we have an entrepreneur who starts a business under the pretext of rebelling against capitalism.

The Anarchist Cafe encouraged customers to pay what they can afford — at least for filter coffee. Other items, such as espresso, tea and baked goods, were charged at full price to offset lost revenue.

Somehow, this did not lead to unqualified success. The store will close permanently on May 30, according to the company’s website. Who would have thought a politically divisive, ultra-progressive company would go out of business in just one year?

Well, there were signs. Ostensibly The Anarchist was a worker-owner cooperative where every employee received equal pay, all business decisions were made democratically, and the organisation was free of institutional hierarchy. All this may sound great, but it raises the question: if it’s that good, why aren’t other companies doing it? There must be a reason why participatory, egalitarian economics is not a popular business model.

Capitalism isn’t the problem here, but government

According to some on the left, it is because bosses are evil — greedy fat cats who are out to exploit the proletariat. That can be true, but ultimately bosses cater to the demands of their bosses: the consumers. If consumers are unhappy, they will go elsewhere, as it seems they did. (Who knew that a café with such an explicit political stance that it served a coffee called “The Marx and Engels” would have niche appeal!) Besides, the “pay what you can” model violated the laws of supply and demand. The price cap on Fewer’s coffee artificially boosted demand. It was a noble but unsustainable model.

Fewer’s business model strikes me as embodying all that is wrong with leftist economics. Amongst the radical books and t-shirts for sale at the café were also tote bags, imprinted with the slogan “people over profit”. Where does this dichotomy come from? If a business makes a profit, that shows the business has been acting in accordance with consumer demand. If your café makes a profit, in other words, people like it.

Granted, cafés, restaurants and bars with more traditional business models are struggling too. They close every day. A rebuke to capitalism? Not necessarily. some of them were just unpopular — serving the wrong products or setting up shop in the wrong places. Others, though, have struggled because of the state — failing to weather COVID restrictions and being forced to raise prices too high because of taxes. Capitalism isn’t the problem here, but government.

Did Fewer do the right thing, swallow his pride and take responsibility? Of course not! He blamed it on capitalism. According to a statement he wrote on his website, the closure was due to “ethically bankrupt sources” of capital and the “lack of generational wealth”. (Those, famously, are the only determinants of small businesses’ success.) Finally, he provides an example of the inclusive and tolerant thinking we expect from social justice advocates: “Fuck the rich. Fuck the police. Fuck the state. Fuck the colonial death camp we call Canada.” Now that’s the sort of attitude you want to be faced with when you buy your morning coffee.

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