The Left Can’t Rely on Boycotts Alone

“Consumer brands are a leverage point for progressive politics because there’s no gerrymandering & marketers care more about young people,” Vox writer Matthew Yglesias recently tweeted. “Consumer marketing is almost the exact opposite of voting and a younger, more urbanized, and more female demographic carries more weight.”

Boycotts run the risk of prioritizing our identity as consumers, at the expense of our identities as workers and citizens.

But there are potential risks in leveraging economic tools toward political ends. Ultimately, progressives want to tame the outsized power of corporations. By relying on boycotts, progressives may be influencing corporate policy, but they’re not advancing their goal of restraining big business via democratically enacted regulations. There are other limits to boycotting. It runs the risk of prioritizing our identity as consumers, at the expense of our identities as workers and citizens. It can intensify individualism, rather than building the level of social solidarity that labor unions or political campaigns do. And in the age of social media, it can be ineffectual, sometimes demanding nothing more than adding our name to an online petition.

Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen considered these dilemmas in her 2003 book A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. “American’s identities as citizens and consumers are often presented as opposites,” she wrote. “Citizens … are assumed to embrace a larger public interest, as they must fulfill duties and obligations in the larger society to earn basic rights and privileges. Consumers, concerned with satisfying private material desires, are often denigrated for their personal indulgence.” The thrust of Cohen’s book, though, is that this simplistic dichotomy between citizens and consumers ignores the way the two identities interact. “Citizen consumers of the New Deal and World War II eras put the market power of the consumer to work politically … to safeguard the rights of individual consumers and the larger ‘general good,’” she argued. “In this effort they often sought the government as ally.”

By contrast, in our neoliberal era, the goal becomes not to have corporations limited by the public interest, but government subservient to the rules of the market. “We oughta run government more like a business,” Bill Clinton declared in 1993. The contrast is stark. “As the market relationship became the template for the citizen’s connection to the government,” Cohen wrote, “the watchdog, public-spirited consumers of the 1930s and 1940s increasingly were replaced by the self-interested government customers of the 1990s, who were encouraged to bring a consumer mentality to their relations with government, judging public services and tax assessments much like other purchased goods, by the personal benefits they derived from them.” Consider the shift in anti-trust activism. In the 1930s, monopolies were challenged broadly as a threat to democracy. By the 1990s, anti-trust arguments were framed simply in terms of making goods and services cheaper to consumers. The language of economic democracy had been lost.

If progressives are going to use boycotts, they need to be tied to broader agendas.

The older tradition of the citizen consumer offers an attractive model for progressives. The economic boycotts of the New Deal era were part of larger collective projects, often spearheaded by unions. Such efforts included rent strikes against slumlords or the boycotting of union-busting companies. Of course, organized labor is much weaker today. On the other hand, social movements on the left are on the rise, with groups like Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America emerging as powerful forces for change. Boycotts must move beyond their narrow focus on punishing miscreants (be they neo-Nazis, O’Reilly, or Trump) toward more ambitious civic goals. The DSA could organize boycotts of exploitive landlords, to help bring the issue of housing costs to the fore. BLM has been increasingly going down this path, with calls to use boycotts as a way of punishing jurisdictions that allow police brutality to flourish. Feminists groups could boycott tech companies to pressure them into improving their dismal gender inequality. If progressives are going to use boycotts, they need to be tied to broader agendas. If that can be done, the older ideal of the citizen consumer can be recovered.

Consumer activism is a powerful weapon in the hands of a resistance movement, and has already helped blunt Trumpism. But for a lasting legacy, these consumer boycotts need to be form networks that not only resist the president, but advance positive change. The next step for consumer progressivism is to come up with an agenda for controlling corporate power once Democrats take back power. In the absence of such an agenda—one that reins in monopolies and corporate money in politics—today’s current activism will lead to a paradoxical situation where progressives have weakened Trump but empowered big business.

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