Bold and imaginative activism is difficult to find precisely at a time when we need it most. However, it is not the case that activism in general is in short supply; one finds, in fact, that activist ideals and vocabulary have securely made their way into everyday life. However, this leaves society fundamentally unchanged when the messages communicated by activists are distorted and then used to reinforce the social realities that they were originally devised to change.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the co-optation of activist ideals can be seen in the supposed embrace of the concept of sustainability by the corporate world. Oil companies long ago discovered the public relations benefits of describing their operations with the use of phrases such as “sustainable development” and “sustainable growth.”1 Following the extraordinary rise in the consumption of plastic
bottled water, the soft drink industry used the same PR technique to advertise “eco-friendly” bottled water – or so companies like Nestlé, which eagerly promotes the fact that its bottles now contain “25 per cent less plastic,” would have us believe.2
The watering down, emptying out, and distortion of activist ideals has been helped along by activists themselves. For one thing, they have been willing to ignore the social dimensions of the problems that confront us, believing instead in the idea that the actions of autonomous individuals have led us to our current impasse. Confronting Injustice offers a corrective to this faulty outlook. In the book, I argue that social realities, in particular those created to meet the needs of our economic system, constrain and direct the actions of individuals. It is these social realities, therefore, that must attract most of our attention when we struggle to create change, even when the reorientation of individual behaviour happens to be our ultimate aim.
Changing the World Through Changing Your Lifestyle?
It is no coincidence that so many of us have adopted an individualist outlook while living within a social system dominated by the market. The routine of market exchange between individuals driven by self-interest conditions us to see human society as a collection of disconnected and primarily self-interested individuals. What is troubling is that so many activists have reconciled themselves to this vision of society and are now working to reinforce it through their activism. They have come to champion the values and features of the existing arrangement. In other words, those who have set out to change the world are instead helping to keep it from changing.
The most common way in which people try to address social problems is through changes in their individual lifestyle choices and by encouraging others to do the same. By making changes as “conscious consumers,” we can make positive change in the world. Along with lowering our overall levels of consumption, we are encouraged to consume organic, fair-trade certified, and locally-produced goods. We are told that this will benefit the environment, farmers in poor countries, and our individual health and spiritual wellbeing.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a statement often invoked in support of lifestyle-centric activism. Although these words are regularly attributed to the wise Mahatma, there is no documentary evidence to support that they are in fact Gandhi’s.3 Even if the statement could be attributed to Gandhi, however, it is easy to demonstrate that it was not meant to be a prescription for activism.
While Gandhi’s lifestyle choices were a large part of who he was, he understood that the adoption of a minimalist lifestyle would not bring about the change he wanted to see in the world. Creating social change, Gandhi recognized, requires social struggle. In his autobiography, he exhibits keen awareness of the fact that an individual on her own cannot make a difference. He gives special attention to organizing. For instance, while studying for the bar in London, Gandhi started a vegetarian club in his community. He writes that “this brief and modest experience gave me some little training in organizing and conducting institutions.”4 He sent telegrams, wrote and printed literature, and toured. He took his first meek attempts, and saw eventual improvement, at giving speeches to gatherings of people. In his book, he offers advice on managing the finances of organizations, and throughout he stresses the need for “agitation.”
Conscious Consumerism Plays Into the Hands of the Market
Agitation is impossible through individual consumer action within the marketplace. We are asked to “vote with our wallets.” We are told that the demand we generate will cause producers to offer more and more ethical products over time. Such exhortations misleadingly use popular language associated with democracy to talk about an area of life which is fundamentally undemocratic. In the marketplace, some people have bigger wallets than others, and hence, there is an unequal distribution of “votes” among consumers; but perhaps more importantly, producers are not accountable to consumers in any way that resembles democratic institutions. Consumer sovereignty, the idea that independently derived consumer demand drives production, is inconsistent with reality.
In Looking Backward, the 1887 novel by Edward Bellamy, the main character makes his way to a utopian future where the profit motive no longer exists. He
surmises that the new arrangement must save “a prodigious amount of lying.” He explains this to an acquaintance from the future: “when one’s livelihood and that of his wife and babies depended on the amount of goods he could dispose of, the temptation to deceive the customer – or let him deceive himself – was wellnigh overwhelming.”5
There is a word we use to describe this kind of “lying” and efforts to “deceive the customer”: marketing. Producers are vastly more powerful in comparison to consumers. A tremendous amount of effort is expended in order to convince consumers to purchase goods and services. In 2010, global spending on advertising amounted to more than $500-billion.6 The process of production is strongly tied with the process of marketing of what is produced. Producers bring into existence a large part of the demand which they then fulfill. Writing on the “myth of consumer sovereignty,” the economist John Kenneth Galbraith asks whether “a new breakfast cereal or detergent [is] so much wanted if so much must be spent to compel in the consumer the sense of want?”7
Justice, unfortunately, is not something that comes in the commodity form. Campaigns focused on ethical consumerism have managed to achieve as much success as they can hope to find: the creation of niche markets for especially-conscious and wealthy consumers. While strategic uses of boycotts and other consumption-based initiatives as part of wider campaigns can help bring about progress in certain circumstances, they must be part of a bigger vision of change to matter.
Rejecting Individual Approaches to Social Activism
On its own, there are many good things to be said about cutting back on what we consume and living in a way that is not grounded in petty materialistic values. Living a clutter-free life is a wonderful thing, but it is not in itself the same thing as working to create social change. Indeed, it should be recognized that those who have the ability to make token changes in their lives while retaining, or even enhancing, their standard of living is the result of their position as a privileged minority in a system which overtaxes the environment and exploits the poor. We cannot simply look inwardly and change our individual consumption choices while continuing to benefit from the overall social arrangement.
When faced with this critique, lifestyle-centric activists often counter with the argument that conscious consumerism is a good “first step.” In my experience, however, those who endorse that idea have a hard time moving on to anything else. Year after year I have seen those engaged in promoting lifestyle changes remain stuck in place. Their object has become to convince more and more individuals to become vegetarians, purchase fair-trade coffee, carpool to work, etc. And for most of those who sign on to this approach, the only “next step” they seem inclined to take is the intensification of their engagement with conscious consumerism – finding endlessly greater ways to reduce their individual carbon footprint, compost and recycle, eat less meat, etc.
It seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between embracing the individualism that defines lifestyle-centric activism and recognizing the social dimensions of the problems we face. The former is not a bridge to the latter, but a distraction away from it. It is a step in the wrong direction. If anything, the first step to social activism should be an open rejection of individualist approaches. •
This article is based on slightly-modified selections from the introduction and first chapter of Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism (Haymarket Books: Chicago 2016).