What the world needs now is ... Soft Capitalism

While meandering around the Murray Hill district of Manhattan,  I was stopped dead by an intriguing sign: "Sal Anthony, famous Italian chef, has gone raw!"

An Italian Chef going raw? Is that like a Chanel shopper going Goth?

Delightful oxymorons scotch-taped in windows always sucker me in to find out the backstory. On stepping inside the pristine café, which reeked of fresh picked iceberg lettuce,  I spotted the man himself. He was dressed in full chef's regalia, crouched over a Magi-Mix instructing an intern about the correct way to process the unprocessed.

His food was good. Clever, in that offered more than the usual crudités and hummus variants and expensive dehydrator wafers, the usual standbys of raw foodism. But I'm not here to talk about the food.

A bit of Googling reveals a backstory - a community-minded restaurateur offering patrons a good deal ($14.95 prix fixe) falls victim to hard capitalism – the only kind of capitalism our self-serving society seems to understand. His rent octuples,  he's forced out. Concurrently, or perhaps karmically, he becomes interested in health and fitness. Not an automatic progression for an ossobuco maestro.  So he develops his own brand of yoga and opens a fitness studio, or in his words, a movement studio.

"They Inc." will tell you that when you get in touch with your body – and I don't mean slathering it with $200-a-gloop body lotion and dressing it in Prada - you ever so magically start to think of others.  

His self-styled movement salon tries to offer a good deal as well. 1.5 hour classes packaged come in at around $12.  I am reliably told this is a bargain in Manhattan,  even when it's no-initiation season at the skankiest gyms.

All this is what Anthony calls "soft capitalism".

Google "soft capitalism" and you land on some vaguely unsatisfying and nebulous definitions involving the words socialism and communism. Anthony's definition:

"Soft capitalism says 6 people sit down, I get up, I make all the money, you five make nothing. Soft capitalism is:  six of us sit down, we all make a couple of bucks and get on with our lives. It works, I've proven it."

So it seems. In his "Vanishing New York" clip,  he candidly states he's "very close to bankruptcy every day", but "I'm not starving, I'm living, I'm raising children, and I do it through soft capitalism." That includes running a raw food cafe, a yoga studio, a florist and two other restaurants,  and - perhaps the real test - he seems to be having fun.

I can tell when people are having fun. They're busy but they have time for you. Anthony didn't know me from a bar of soap, yet put down his large chef's knife, wiped his hands and came out from behind his blender to explain to me what his cause was about. He encouraged me to try his modestly priced carob, date and nut balls, but sensibly, didn't give out any free samples - remember,  this is soft capitalism,  not a charity.  A little bit of money makes the world go round.

"Make no mistake, I need money, I have to pay rent,  I have to feed my family, I like money," says Anthony, speaking for everyone on the planet except Carthusian monks. "I like capitalism, I don't like communism, I don't like socialism. Capitalism could work. But soft capitalism. Not raw capitalism."

Raw capitalism?

"Get the most, give the least, give the least, get the most. Where the hell are we going to go with that?  We're going to hell with that. We’re all on the same rowboat and it's going to sink."

When I rode my bike through Cuba, someone watching the government propaganda channel (the other channel screens nonstop Mexican soap operas) told me that Fidel Castro was heard to say, in essence, "Capitalism isn't the answer because it  destroys community. But Communism isn't the answer because it destroys individuality. What we seek is a way to achieve both." Whether that someone was just passing off his own private ideal as that of Castro I don't know, but I now feel there is a label for that ideal, and it's called, soft capitalism.

Anthony's message goes beyond yoga and uncooked food.  His Vanishing New York film project joins the chorus against the cancer of greed that is destroying the whatever community is still left in the streets.

He's talking of luxury condomania, the rents that wipe out beloved, 40 year old institutions in a single hike, increasingly long commutes to work and even longer hours at work, and questioning what will happen to us if we don't start tossing some tenderizer on hard capitalism.

As a newcomer to New York I wander around the city, concur with Curbed, and wonder if anyone has ever thought of developing even semi-luxury condos. That is, making a tropospheric rather than stratospheric profit, thus providing a service to their fellow man and really, helping to keep our street corners interesting.  I will grudgingly concur that Banana Republic, Starbucks et al have a right to exercise their hard capitalism – but does it have to be on every street corner?

A few short years ago I was fortunate to visit a unique little development called Pen Park Commons in Portland, where two guys got together and re-developed an old duplex into 6 ,1-2 bedroom condos and priced them from a very affordable $92, 000.

What makes this a seminal achievement in modern co-housing is honoring appropriateness in every respect.  Here is a renovation which left most of the modest but characterful fixtures, fittings and finishes intact – repairs were made where they mattered.  The entire complex was spruced up in the most delightful and livable way with paint and that magic ingredient – good taste. 5 single people who did not own a car, and 1 couple with a baby, were able to move in. We're not talking the usual restrictive co-housing scenario where you're required to sit through endless meetings leading to unimaginative decisions, suffer forced weekly dinners, and where the childless have to endure freewheeling screaming kids. We're not talking a bunch of weed whacking hippies in and out of each other's bean chairs and ice boxes, either. The residents are  professionals who simply live a simpler, Design (Actually) Within Reach lifestyle, and they get together as a community when they want,  and when it matters.  It's one of the few places I felt I would want to – and more importantly, could afford to – live.

Back to Anthony's $12.50 classes, which I am preparing for as I type this post.

So he can make money offering that kind of deal?

"I'd rather charge $60 and hour rather than $100 an hour, $12 a class rather than $30 a class. I try and keep things in keeping with what's going on, so we can sort of afford to stay healthy. I always say, what can we do, what can we afford to do, for ourselves and others?"

Even more affordable is the excellent free soup, bread and cake served daily to his yoga customers - soft capitalism owes its flavor to generosity.  

If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. If, like Sal Anthony, you can do it using soft capitalism,  we'll get out of this mess yet.

Social multimediaclast Galfromdownunder also interviewed soft capitalist and live foodist Peter Melov in Sydney. His message is similar – what can we afford to do, for ourselves and for others?
View the Gal UNCUT on Peter Melov and Sal Anthony
Watch the Gal's videos of Peter Melov's cooking class

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  • pablo_skils

    Your article points to a feasible way out of this terrible, unholy mess we've been dragged into by our corporate and political leaders. We just have to hope that it's not too late. You present great examples of sane individuals in Sal Anthony and the Pen Park project.

    Michael Moore's film "Capitalism - A Love Story" presents the Alvarado Street bakery, where production line workers can earn $65/hour and the CEO doesn't want (and cannot afford) to own a palace, etc. He also presents a taxi-cab co-operative in which drivers participate in management meetings and can earn more than 50% commission on their fares.

    Some might call this socialism, but ask the workers in these companies who are doing well financially and like their working conditions. If it's socialism, then these Americans like socialism.

    Subtle shifts, lip service, posturing and small gestures by the large corporations amount to nothing more than PR and propaganda. There are some glimmers of hope from sensible small businesses, but without a major shift in morals and values among the populace at large it is hard to see the large, profiteering corporations giving up what they've taken without a fight.

  • Vernon Martin

    I could almost sample the food in your writing. Pulled in by your descriptions and added notes, I thought about this concept of soft capitalism. Its concept is popular by many names. The drive of the concept is care for our neighbor or neighborhoods as the way to exist and survive. We can, as capitalist, see the needs around us and be responsible (able to respond) to our society. If Starbucks is on every corner, then it has a responsibility to that community. I use the example of Starbucks because I saw one on the corner of one of the poorer sections of Miami. After checking, I found out that it was part of a development plan where they built a whole complex and brought in local merchants, helping to build up the neighborhood. This is important to mention because there are companies that don’t want share. We live in a time where our survival plan must bring individuals and companies into a co-operative relationship, where the privilege to gain revenue from an area is coupled with responsibility.