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Confronting Brunch

Black Lives Matter and brunch collide in an analysis of the social and political meanings of the meal.

A sign from a "Black Lives Matter" protest march in Rochester, Minnesota. (Photo: Rose Colored Photo/Flickr)

On the first weekend of 2015, activists in New York and Oakland devised a novel target for the “Black Lives Matter” movement: brunch. Entering restaurants in affluent neighborhoods, they read the names of black civilians killed by police, to the visible discomfort of the predominantly white patrons who had expected nothing more than a Bloody Mary and an overpriced eggs Benedict.

Brunch patrons and their self-appointed media defenders played their assigned roles, expressing outrage at their momentary inconvenience in ways that made them look clueless, callous, or downright absurd. Social media erupted with often rascist vitriol. As one Baltimore Black Brunch organizer told MSNBC, “People acted like it was the worst thing that happened to them.” What made the protest action so powerful, and so irresistible to the curators of viral media, was the juxtaposition of the outrage of stolen Black lives with the perceived triviality – and whiteness – of brunch.

The choice to interrupt brunch, specifically, was no accident. The meal and the people who eat it have become metonyms for a whole complex of social phenomena, including gentrification, segregation, economic inequality and conspicuous consumption. Adrian Chen at Gawker calls brunch “a kind of decadence unique to our time.” Jule Banville of the Washington City Paper thinks it’s “phony” and “stupid.” Even the New York Times chimed in last year with an op-ed titled “Brunch Is For Jerks.” By late 2014, things had reached the point where a San Diego Reader columnist felt the need to defend the weekend pastime from a growing “anti-brunch movement.”

Read through a few of the anti-brunch diatribes, and it soon becomes clear that they belong to the same genre as that distinctive twenty-first century mode of cultural lament: complaining about hipsters. In both cases, there is the recurrent note of contemptuous familiarity. Many who denounce brunch, or hipsters, are the sort of younger adults in large cities, employed in media, academia, or other “creative” professions, who are most likely to themselves be called hipsters or invited to brunch.

Perhaps the most detailed elucidation of anti-brunchism to date comes from Toronto Star columnist Shawn Micallef, author of 2014’s The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure. Assessing a now ubiquitous urban ritual, he finds not harmless relaxation, but rather a “performance of leisure around brunch and other non-work activities” that, he fears, “clouds our understanding of our work, social and civic lives” [10]. The publication of his book preceded the events of Black Brunch, but I can only assume they brought a smile to his face.

The choice to interrupt brunch, specifically, was no accident.

They brought a smile to mine, too. As someone who moves through these same environments, I can certainly understand the instinct to roll one’s eyes at some of the trappings of contemporary urban culture – especially its culinary permutations – beginning with the trendy décor and its fetish for a disappeared industrial economy. It’s what Jordan Somers, in Fanzine magazine, calls the “hipster Cracker Barrel” aesthetic: reclaimed wood, rusting machinery, and the like. The workers who actually used this machinery decades ago had little interest in aestheticizing it during their time off. They were more likely to brunch, when they did so at all, in someone’s home or the splendor of a fancy hotel.

But when this aesthetic complaint stands in for social critique, we get what Anthony Galluzzo in Jacobin calls “the fucking hipster show.” Rather than identifying the forces of large-scale capital accumulation that drive inequality and displacement in the city, anger is displaced onto the visible signifiers of the process – the ostentatiously stylish or performatively tasteful “hipster” and the overcomplicated or precious brunch. Passed over are the landlords, politicians, and investors for whom these people are useful pawns, allowing cities to be portrayed as both transgressively hip and safely white, until the early gentrifiers can be displaced in favor of luxury condos for a better-paying clientele.

So just what is the trouble with brunch? There is, first of all, an essentially aesthetic objection: brunch is bad food, or a mindless conformism, or simply in poor taste. Micallef veers into this territory when he mocks patrons eating “the dregs of the week’s dinners under rich sauces” (7) or waiting for hours to sit in the one Buenos Aires restaurant that’s been “written up in the Wallpaper guide” (59). But this line of attack remains trapped within the same discourse it criticizes, knocking brunchers as clods or suckers without analyzing their underlying conditions of existence. Lampooning the fancy brunch in this fashion is easier than asking whether perhaps the problem isn’t the brunch, but the fact that only a certain stratum of people have access to this kind of leisure experience.

Passed over are the landlords, politicians, and investors for whom these people are useful pawns, allowing cities to be portrayed as both transgressively hip and safely white.

The aesthetic evolves easily into the ascetic, a Protestant rejection of brunch’s excess and gluttony, its “ritual intake of fat and grease” given “a defiantly rebellious air.” [9] This complaint, too, is troubling, and hardly one that leftists should embrace.

But the most substantial argument in Micallef’s book amounts to the claim that brunch represents what older socialist traditions used to call “false consciousness.” Along with other features of today’s urban lifestyles, it is a distraction from the real material conditions of the people who eat it – which are frequently neither as secure nor as affluent as the trappings of the fancy meal would make them seem.

Unusually for a leftist, Micallef writes sympathetically of Richard Florida’s notion of the “creative class,” which he tries to recover as the basis for solidarity and identity among the brunch set. Rituals like brunch, Micallef argues, allow today’s creative class to persist “in denial of what it is” [103]. Micallef argues that by defining ourselves according to where and what we consume – and, specifically, eat – we lose sight of what we share as workers, and hence our common class position.

Micallef responds with a dubious proposal for a more self-aware, self-critical use of our leisure time. But he also acknowledges that real class consciousness largely belongs beyond the brunch table. Micallef expresses the necessary shock of recognition he felt when he first saw his work referred to as “intellectual labor” [50], and he suggests that many of his peers have difficulty regarding what they do for money as work at all. The runaway success of Miya Tokumitsu’s 2014 Jacobin essay debunking the exploitative exhortation to “do what you love,” regardless of economic considerations, demonstrates that, in this regard, Micallef may have a point.

For all their hip tastes, and for all that they may be relatively advantaged compared to more marginalized workers, brunchers too can be part of an exploited class. As such, they might benefit from a bit of class struggle on their own behalf.

Micallef asks us to turn our focus away from the trappings of contemporary middle class consumption and toward “the erosion of what made the middle class so desirable: stability, a good work/life balance and genuine leisure time” [101]. What he is trying to reclaim, it would seem, is the kind of middle class existence he grew up with, predicated on strong unions and welfarist social policy. But this nostalgia for the postwar social-democratic class compromise, shared by many liberals, is disingenuous.

For all their hip tastes, and for all that they may be relatively advantaged compared to more marginalized workers, brunchers too can be part of an exploited class.

While the strong unions and rising wages of that time certainly look appealing from our present vantage point, to romanticize them is to ignore the internal contradictions that unmade that order. Micallef, the son of a mid-level manager at a whiskey distillery in Windsor, Ontario – Canada’s Detroit – portrays his father’s negotiations with the distillers on the shop floor as basically congenial, with management-labor tension “smoothed over” by the mutual conviction that “the ultimate outcome of labor relations would likely be reasonable” [18]. This idyllic class harmony, in his telling, extended into the broader community, in which workers and managers sent their children to the same public schools, and to their leisure time, when they bowled in the same leagues.

Histories of Canadian labor from the period, however, tell a different story – of a working class chafing against a life chained to the assembly line, the occasion for what in the 1970s was commonly called the “blue collar blues.” In 1966, as Sam Gindin reports in The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union, company time lost to strikes hit a twenty-year high. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, workers became increasingly militant, engaging in wildcat strikes against speedups and compulsory overtime.

All of this happened not in spite of the relatively stable, full employment macro-economy of the day, but because of it. Workers resisted the boss secure in the belief that, as Gindin quotes one worker, “If they canned you in the morning you could just go down the street and get another job before lunch.” The inverse of this audacity is the quiescence of the urban creative proletariat: they can’t be nearly as sure that if they contest their conditions of employment, they’ll be able to pick up another gig before brunch. That structural facet of our working lives won’t be wished away by lectures about conspicuous consumption.

If Micallef’s ideas about work are rather uninspiring, so is his vision of leisure in the form of a re-imagined brunch. He cites as a model a group of Portland residents and their “Joy Brunch Club,” which attempts to recapture brunch as a truly leisurely and relaxed enterprise. But what it mostly seems to consist of is a lot of rules. Don’t go anywhere that’s too crowded. Meals must begin at 10 and end no later than noon. Brunch time should be used to “process the things that we’re looking forward to, the things that we’re going to be doing,” in the service of generating a “productive brunch.” Some of this could be defended as a solution to a collective action problem, pre-committing members to a set of rules they would like to adhere to, but can’t enforce on their own. But it mostly just sounds like the sort of self-flagellating lifestyle politics that Micallef elsewhere dismisses, geared to produce mostly self-satisfaction and sanctimony rather than collective action. The solution to the blurring of the lines between leisure and work, it seems, is to make leisure more like work.

The desire not to be defined by work is, at its heart, a liberatory impulse, one that points to a world beyond the prison of wage labor.

“Nothing’s too good for the working class,” Big Bill Haywood supposedly said, and surely that includes brunch. It seems improbable that class consciousness will arise from attacking a leisure activity that can be a respite from time spent hustling gigs – or working as a server on the other side of the brunch relation. And no amount of self-conscious, mindful brunching can overcome limitations which emanate not from the meal itself, but from the larger social circumstances of its patrons. As with so much else, the trouble is not some kind of vague “consumerist” malady, but the way consumption and leisure opportunities are limited to certain people only, and even then are inadequate to overcome obstacles in our wider lives as workers and citizens.

The desire not to be defined by work is, at its heart, a liberatory impulse, one that points to a world beyond the prison of wage labor. The trouble arises when that desire is manipulated to obscure the ways in which the vast majority still do find their lives defined by overwork, underwork and dependence on the boss. Brunch and other consumer leisure experiences are often treated by leftist scolds as a new “opiate of the masses,” as Marx once said of religion. But Marx went on to say that religion was also “the heart of a heartless world,” and so too, for some of us, is brunch. Asking people “to give up their illusions about their condition,” he said, “is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” Demanding that we give up brunch and other consumer illusions – rather than demand more, for ourselves and for others – is unappealing for those of us who aren’t hair-shirt ascetics.

Class consciousness, in other words, needn’t preclude unlimited mimosas. Indeed, without them, it’s not my revolution. The Black Lives Matter protests were effective not because they showed the trouble with brunch, but because they exposed the obliviousness of many white brunch-goers. More politically engaged brunchers wouldn’t find the appearance of protesters threatening. Instead, we would put down our forks for a moment and join in – and then perhaps invite the interlopers to join us for a drink. That might at least be the first step toward joining the struggle against the social divides that have made brunch such a potent symbol, rather than simply ignoring them.

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