Boycotts and procotts are by now commonplace and predictable, the skirmishes involving a certain fast-food chain being only the latest prominent instance. This got me thinking about the boycotting impulse, particularly when it is aligned with social issues. It seems to reflect the breakdown of public reason. What I have in mind is the situation described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After Virtue. Unable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will. Of course, in a consumer society what other form could such action take than marketplace transactions. Perhaps we can describe it as the commodification of public debate. Like war, boycotting is politics by other means. It is weaponized consumption.
10 thoughts on “Weaponized Consumption”
Well, consumption is the one thing Americans share, right? Perhaps the only thing (okay, aside from the important stuff like free speech). And “weaponized consumption” has a long (and fruitful!) history in the US: the standard argument about the American Revolution places it directly in the context of consumption, most notably in T. H. Breen’s MARKETPLACE OF REVOLUTION. I linked that to “green” consumerism in a blog series a year or so ago.
Good point and very helpful series of posts. Regarding Goleman’s argument (as I understood it from your posts), wouldn’t it also depend on the sorts of things that Amazon reviewer found lacking? In other words, the data about the ecological life cycle of a product would only lead to a change in consumption for those who cared enough to adjust their consumption for the sake of ecological change. Consumer based action would need to be paired with ethical commitments and, presumably getting those ethical commitments would involve some reasoning and moral suasion.
As I’m thinking about this, it also seems there was a certain commensurability between the actions of the colonists and their grievances. Economic grievances issued in economic actions (or non-actions). That degree of commensurability seems to be lacking in recent instances of social issue or lifestyle boycotts.
In any case, still thinking about the whole matter, and with a little more clarity/complexity, thanks to the historical perspective. Thanks for that.
Hmm. You’re right in that colonists’ actions/grievances were more inextricably linked, more so than among, say, “green” consumers. BUT: it also seems that using boycotts (or “pro-cotts” — is there such a thing) could, over time, lead to same kind of linkage, forcing manufacturers to heed the voice of such consumers. And manufacturers would then, also over time, prod those who didn’t have the same “green” commitment to embrace that commitment. Or maybe not. I’m thinking out loud here. But I think your basic point is right on the money (no pun intended): Shared “marketplace transactions” are about all that’s left to us. We Americans have pushed “individualism” to such an extreme that we’ve inadvertently demolished all sense of “shared narrative” or collection of values. Sadly!
I am reminded of Aristophenes’ comedy Lysistrata in which the women from two states which are at war with each other boycott sex in order to bring about peace. The play was performed in protest after the Iraq war broke. In this case, the boycott is war by other means which is politics by other means.
This example certainly expands the field. Sex seems to belong to another class of action than those that include consumer transactions, but the tactic is analogous.
It’s this sentence that I’m wondering about: “Unable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will.” That implies that if we had that “broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life” we would be able to reasonably discuss these issues. I’m not so sure that’s what the problem is. I think the reason people resort to this weaponized consumption (and I think you’re so right on to characterize it that way) is because we do not feel (justifiably) that reasonable discussion can happen through mass media. It doesn’t. That’s not how it’s set up. And that’s the dominant way to communicate with wide audiences. That’s changing, but not quickly enough, it seems. So people resort to the kind of symbolic act that will get the most attention with the tools we have, and massive economic transactions will get on the agenda. People know that, and the organized groups encouraging both the boycott and the procott know that. The fragmentation of media channels may change the ways people choose to express their views on these issues. But maybe not. Maybe networked media will end up in the same place. We’ll see the same kind of coordinated marketing transactions organized over different channels. Well, if that happens, and I suspect it might, then I’ll agree with your explanation. :)
This is a really good point. I would agree that the media environment invites (demands even) this sort of symbolic consumer posturing. Not only because of its preference for spectacularity, but also because of the manner in which digital media (social media in particular) has drawn identity construction into the mix. Admittedly, consumerism has long been tied to the formation/performance of identity, but never has it been so easy to broadcast that performance. I’m also wondering about what comes first. MacIntyre traces the roots of the condition he describes to the eighteenth century, well before the advent of electronic mass media. It may be a case of media exacerbating already existing tendencies. I’m also tempted to throw Kierkegaard’s reflections on the press and the public into the mix. In any case, the result seems to be the same: whether because of conditions obtaining in our media environment or the fragmentations described by MacIntyre (in my view, both/and), the default means of meaningful action is weaponized consumption.
I think much of the problem is the conflation of identity with community. My most recent research has been about this, actually, though it involves public discussion rather than consumer action. It seems that national politics is more about identity, and local politics is more about community, and political discussion is conducted accordingly. But people conflate identity with community, so they engage in a symbolic act on a national scale that says “this is what I believe in” while confusing it with actions that would actually affect their community in ways they would like it to change.
Weaponized consumption/destruction was always the energizing paradigm at the root of American “culture”. And indeed of Western “culture” altogether – with its drive to gain complete power-and-control over everyone and everything.
Which is to say that in the case of the USA, in particular, violence is as CHristian as apple pie
All of which is summed up in the review of the sado-masochistic snuff-splatter movie reviewed at this reference