21st century capitalism moves quickly and ruthlessly. Nothing enters the public consciousness which does not draw the attention of marketers and publicists (the eyes and ears of the leviathan). Wherever there is a commodity to be exploited, capitalism is always already there. I’m a little surprised by my own surprise when I realized how fast the reaction against Trump became a product. Cynical sharks smell blood in the water and descend. Consumers, when wracked with emotion, can be counted on to spend.
So, meet the pander bear, he’s a paragon of social justice and he wants you to prove you’re with him on the right side of history. And all you need do to experience all-day relief from guilt plus self-righteous contempt for the ignorant, apathetic morons who surround you is “put your money where your mouth is.” I mean obviously you don’t have time to actually do anything, so bundle your social obligations with your lifestyle purchases. After all, investment in social causes is as much a lifestyle choice as what kind of coffee you buy, at least in terms of the social currency they generate for us. “Not my president!” says the pander bear. “Buy the shirt and wear it home!”
Who really benefits from these campaigns though? Remember that people who have the time and finances to found and run these types of organizations are almost universally members of the plutocratic elite. They’re Silicon Valley billionaires and high finance kings of capital whose association with the socially oppressed gives them some perspective, but ultimately they lack any real connection to (and by extension, little sympathy for) the economically oppressed. Large-scale, private companies are heavily invested in understanding the spirit of the times and are willing to do just about anything to turn a profit on public sentiment. No potential sale is beneath them; they’ll even sell you the fantasy that you are somehow undermining the establishment. Look at Tom’s shoes or Starbucks, where the cost of offsetting the social/environmental damage of your purchase is helpfully packaged with the product itself.
The supply chain around socially-conscious products probably creates as much suffering and oppression (economically at least) as the built-in donation alleviates, if not more. The “Nasty Woman” T-shirt you just bought was likely made by a Southeast Asian teenager whose boss last week forced her to have a back-alley abortion or get fired from her job working 90 hours a week in an unventilated metal shack to feed her entire family. That might be an exaggeration, but honestly it also might not.
How does the equation balance out when most of the money you spend on your socially conscious consumerist buying goes directly into the very system that created the imbalances/environmental disasters/gross inequality of wealth distribution these campaigns exist to combat? And perhaps more importantly, how does the success of these campaigns change the way activist organizations operate? In a world where fighting for social justice means perpetuating economic injustice, does socio-economic justice even exist?
Socially conscious branding campaigns do two quite sinister things. The first is that they blur lines between for- and not-for-profit enterprise. These kinds of campaigns create a moral incentive for economic expansion in specific industries and the advancement of specific private business interests. The other issue, related, is that important social issues acquire economic value. As allegiance to a socio/political issue becomes a commodity, it becomes an object of desire. Packaging, controlling and selling access to progress on social issues becomes big business, and engaging in that business becomes the MO for charity organizations of all kinds, whatever their “mission statement” might say.
Often small shares money goes toward fighting the root causes of social and economic injustice. The symptoms get a band-aid but these can be generally symbolic at best and wholly immaterial at worst. The vast majority of the money that goes into the fantasy of consumer advocacy ends up in the pockets of people who oppose serious attempts at reforming society along fairer lines. As horrible as it sounds, there are plenty of people out there who want to take the fearful, the angry, and the resolute for suckers. You don’t wanna be a sucker, do ya?
The corruption of the charity industry, criminally underreported on, is a direct result of this confusion. The Komen foundation and certain other Cancer charities for example are organizations which wound up doing almost no work on their mission and instead served to funnel money to wealthy individuals and serve as a sales-driving label that retail manufacturers could hire out. Our system of consumer advocacy creates a perverse mercenary attitude where the most cynical are able to exploit the issues people care about for the most fun and profit. At the same time, those who mean well are able to participate in a highly suspect capitalist program of commodification and still feel they are doing the right thing – after all, at least they aren’t stealing from people per-se, just accepting the realities of a market economy.
A couple of object examples in the wake of the DT upset:
I recently came across an article in vogue magazine which seemed to think that purchasing expensive designer clothing incorporating safety pins was somehow an act of solidarity with economically and socially oppressed minorities. This is the dream of late stage capitalism–the total commodification of every part of life, all the way down to compassion and communication, the very quanta of human interaction. If these things can be commodified without damaging them, then fine I suppose. But I don’t think it’s possible to introduce a rationally driven economic model into something like protest or solidarity and not diminish the concept in some fundamental way. Both the economic concept and the social concept come away a little confused – something about the conflation ruins their internal consistency.
Even more recently I saw a Robert Reich post on facebook outlining a plan to run a giant concert opposite Trump’s inauguration. He was crowing about the fact that no artists save Kid Rock and the ‘Nuge are even considering playing at the ceremony on January 20th. He proposes that a star-studded “freedom concert” be held in parallel with the inaugural ball and that everyone should watch that instead. This seems like a horrific idea to me and illustrates the cynicism and myopia of the plutocratic elite, even the ones who claim to stand for justice.
Not that there aren’t some primarily economic protests that make sense and seem genuine. Planned Parenthood and like-minded organizations probably have more than their work cut out for them for at least the next two years, and possibly longer, while facing potentially existential threats from funding cuts and direct legislative action. They really do need your money and they tend to ask politely and only for very little. Plus also PP, like the ACLU or SPLC, are relatively transparent. There are a million charity watch websites (Charity Watch, Charity Navigator) that will explain exactly how much of each dollar you give is spent on what activity, operation or expense. If you really can’t do anything else, giving to people who can and will do something. Just make sure your donation does something for people beyond yourself and the plutocratic elite that occupy the upper echelons of the charity business.
If you want to think a littler harder, perhaps consider the plight of average people in Syria right now, especially Aleppo. The Russian/Turkish axis sweeps down upon the city with Euphrates Shield to consolidate the old regime’s position and gain a strong foothold to claim the nation as a whole. The Peshmerga are racing them there in the hopes of carving out a Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq and Syria, which they hope to leverage to tear Kurdish territory in southern Turkey out of Erdogan’s hands. ISIS fights for every inch of ground and every soul they can control and the “moderate” rebel factions keep citizens from leaving to protect themselves from the massive political interests they currently stand in the way of. The rebels are between a rock and a hard place in Aleppo, pawns in a game that will decide who rules in Syria and weather the Kurds rule themselves. The average citizen is in an even more hopeless position, living life as a safety vest, a human shield for a desperate and disintegrating alliance of young urban moderates and hard line Sunni Jihadists who oppose ISIS’ fascist vision of the Caliphate.
You want Justice? All you can do to support Justice is give a few bucks? Forget about the Starbucks coffee, the Tom’s shoes–send a little money to help bring the citizen of Aleppo food, water, and medicine. Help create opportunities for them to escape this crucible. Support The White Helmets (on the ground, politically-neutral relief), support refugees any way you can, maybe even go down to your local mosque and seek out someone who really knows what’s up and wants to talk about it. See what they think you should do.
Kiva.org is another good option. Loan some of your money to the people on the absolute bottom of the pyramid. The world is full of farmers and laborers for whom a $1,000 could make or break their entire year. You can pitch in $20 toward that $1,000 and you stand a darn good chance of having it paid back even. Tom’s will put shoes on their feet but come on, teach a man to fish you lazy person.
Let your reps know you worry for the average citizen in Aleppo. Demand respect for refugees as a human rights issue. Check out The White Helmets’ ongoing petition to remove barrel bombs via a No-Fly-Zone if necessary at whitehelmets.org