Last year, in the midst of the Senate's NATO enlargement debate, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream stood up and made his views heard. He convened electronic town halls and took out full-page ads; he denounced NATO expansion as a harebrained revival of the Cold War. Ganging up on a Russia that has abandoned communism made no sense, he explained. It was like Ben & Jerry's going all-out against a Haagen-Dazs that had quit ice cream for hot dogs.
Well, 18 months later, NATO has expanded, Russia is shelling Chechnya, and Haagen-Dazs still makes ice cream. Not only that, various rival ice cream firms are plotting hostile bids for Cohen's company. Corporate battles and real battles carry on. The guy who came up with a dessert called Peace Pop is looking somewhat isolated.
After the battle in Seattle, everybody sees that activists with money and modems can set the public agenda. But everybody needs to grasp the limits to this phenomenon too, and here Cohen turns out to be useful.
The ice cream man is a mixture of all the passions on display in Seattle. He is a liberal activist who has deployed a certain wacky media charm to decry military spending, the rape of rain forests and sundry other evils. He is an ardent localist, who insists on buying all his milk from expensive small farmers in his home state of Vermont, so defying global capitalism's homogenizing logic. When his firm went public in 1984, its shares were sold to Vermont residents only. Nearly one in every 100 families bought some.
But if Seattle made you think that the world was being taken over by Cohen and his ilk, listen to the next part of the story. It is Ben & Jerry's that may be taken over now: The firm is the object of hostile bids that come, rather fittingly, from all around the world: from Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch firm; from Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, an American rival, and (according to some reports) from Roncadin of Italy. Whether or not any of these bids succeeds, their mere existence shows that Cohen's way of carrying on cannot carry on much longer. Cohen wants to run a firm driven by social values, but investors want shareholder value. If they are denied, the stock bleeds--and sharks arrive from all quarters.
Indeed, Ben & Jerry's has been considerably homogenized already. Five years ago, with profits falling, Cohen and his co-founder, Jerry Greenfield, ceded day-to-day decisions to a hired suit: They scrapped the old rule that nobody could be paid more than seven times the lowliest worker and signed up a business guru from McKinsey, the global management consultancy.
When they tired of him they hired Perry Odak, apparently unbothered by the fact that his previous job was with U.S. Repeating Arms and Browning, manufacturers of "outdoor and recreation sporting goods," according to the official resum. Odak has eliminated the Peace Pop brand, which was not paying its way. He has nixed Cohen's scheme to market organic ice cream. He has roamed far from Vermont, developing markets in Europe, Canada, Japan, Peru and Lebanon.
Until Ben & Jerry's ran into financial bumps, it was hailed as the business version of the Third Way so beloved by the Clinton administration. It seemed to have reconciled right with left, to have married the capitalist ethos with the 1960s counterculture. It made profits while behaving like a nonprofit; it created a national brand by being fiercely loyal to its home community. "Our social mission adds to our profits," Cohen used to say triumphantly.
But the truth is that, so long as you make profits, the market smiles upon idealism, whether you are super-charitable Bill Gates or a Japanese firm promising lifetime employment. Stop making profits, however, and you're finished.
The Seattle protests proved that liberal activists can upset the plans of politicians. Ben & Jerry's proves that when liberal activism runs afoul of the market, it tends to get flattened. The greatest gains for liberal ideas have come from harnessing the market's force. Liberal investors dumped South African shares; liberal consumers spurn anti-environmental products.
Ben & Jerry's fans bought Rainforest Crunch because the label promised that "money from these nuts will help Brazilian forest peoples start a nut-shelling cooperative that they'll own and operate." But now the Wall Street crunch is here, threatening Cohen's freedom to own and operate his company.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.