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Marketplace Activism

Marketplace Activism

Today, engagement in the marketplace is inevitable and involuntary. The transactions of day-to-day life are mostly unconscious; it’s easy for individual purchases and economic interactions to remain individual and equally easy for how our monetary habits shape the greater economic atmosphere of the country to get lost in the quotidian nature of materialism.

Yet, the recent presidential election has pushed the connection between the individual and the aggregate to the forefront of political activism. Many current protests are organized around exercising purchasing power or, more often, withholding purchasing power in order to make a political statement. This trend of moving protest into the marketplace, in a way of replacing political activism with consumer activism, has deep historical roots. And while asserting purchasing power as political power has been an effective strategy in the past, its growing prevalence today raises questions about the effectiveness of our democracy and the place of protest in future political narratives.

Presumably the United States offers equal political power to everyone. We know that this was not always the case. Minorities remained disenfranchised for over a hundred years after the inception of this country. Even after suffrage was granted on paper, subsequent voting laws made sure that the ability to cast a vote was no sure thing. Since actual political avenues were unavailable to minorities, the marketplace was the only realm in which these groups could exercise any power. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the consumer rights activism before that utilized minority groups’ importance in the economy as a tool to manipulate conditions where they were otherwise unable to do so. When it came to consumer protection, a cause mostly taken up by women, women recognized that their power was largely confined to consumption and consumerism. Controlling the “purse strings” of the household gave them the ability to change how consumption was viewed in the eyes of the United States government: the importance of consumption to America’s maintenance of the wartime home front, like strict adherence to the Office of Price Administration (OPA) “Anti-Inflation Shopping List”, gave women more political power as they remained the ones the most purchasing power. When housewives refused to shop at certain stores, their will was felt more strongly than through a traditional protest. The Civil Rights Movement encouraged this type of peaceful activism throughout the 1950s, 60s, and beyond. Sit-in protests denied profit to stores that refused to serve or hire African Americans. The most notable may have been the boycotts of entire cities’ transportation systems. Bus boycotts that lasted for over a year helped, in many cases, ensure at least partial adherence to demands. 

This idea of purchasing power as a legitimizing power for the otherwise disenfranchised lurks behind many modern political arguments. For example, there exists a justification of undocumented immigrants' rights to live and work in the United States based off of the importance of their economic power in the US economy. These arguments push the fact that undocumented immigrants stimulate the country’s economy and pay billions of dollars in taxes every year (Deporting any large percentage of these immigrants would cost the country a group of people who put most of their money back into the economy. While these arguments exist in contrast to conservative voices that claim the opposite and call for stricter immigration policies, they use logic that harkens back to this earlier era of activism in which minorities found ways to work around their systematic exclusion from political arenas and make their voices heard.

More recent activism echoes this. The “Delete Uber” protest that took place after President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration showed how purchasing power remains inherently political. Deleting the Uber app in protest of the company’s strike-breaking actions and the CEO’s presence on Trump’s advisory board is punishing the company, yes, but also makes the act of hailing an Uber inherently political. When a person posts a video of themselves deleting the app, they are making a political statement by withholding their purchasing power. Though Uber is not directly related to the Trump administration, this becomes a statement of disapproval of the administration's actions.

This kind of activism exists outside of the left as well. The boycotts of Starbucks and Target in response to “liberal” policies are similar to the “Delete Uber” protest. When Starbucks vowed to hire 10,000 refugees over the next 5 years, the response from conservatives was overwhelmingly negative. Target, reaching out to minority customers with multiple inclusive policies, including allowing transgender customers and employees to use the bathrooms of their choice, sparked a similar response. A massive boycott followed. Neither Target nor Starbucks backed down from their policies, but it seems that these types of protests and boycotts are not necessarily intended to only immediately punish the companies being protested. Rather, they also serve the purpose of discouraging other companies from adopting similar policies or taking similar political stances. It is well documented that this activism works, to some extent. But it has been half a decade since its peak. On the face of things, the context is not the same as it was then, which changes the way that the concept either succeeds or fails.

Consumer activism brings up two questions: how political can companies really be, and what does it say about our country’s political process that the marketplace has become a more common arena for political protest than legitimate political avenues?

More and more companies are taking political stances. This really does affect who purchases their products. But I question whether or not these political stances are genuine, or just taken because companies recognize how efficient this manipulation of purchasing power is. “Corporate social responsibility” gives the illusion of corporate activism, and consumers demand this: according to Harvard Business School, “38% of Americans believe CEOs have a responsibility to speak out on controversial issues, as long as they directly apply to the company’s business”.

 But any type of corporate activism is often an illusion in itself. The recent controversial Super Bowl advertisement put out by 84 Lumber demonstrates this (The ad followed a mother and her daughter travelling across Mexico to cross the border into the United States, only to find a wall, not unlike the wall proposed by President Trump to deter illegal immigration. When they cross through the wall and a slogan about opportunity follows, the viewer is given the impression that 84 Lumber supports immigration and has a negative view of Trump’s wall proposal. This is certainly how the ad was most commonly interpreted. Many Trump supporters called for a boycott of the company, while others thanked 84 Lumber for “being on the right side of history” (). Not only does this boycott demonstrate the consumer activism detailed above, but it also demonstrates some of the issues found within it. Boycotting 84 Lumber will not help the wall be built. Supporting the company will not in any way deter its construction. It would not do so even if the mainstream interpretations of the ad were correct- the company’s CEO Maggie Hardy Magerko herself supports Trump and his border wall. If 84 Lumber had in fact been taking a hard stance against the wall or Trump, the money that went into making the almost five-minute-long advertisement would have been much more effective if it had been donated to a myriad of organizations fighting the policies of the Trump administration in constructive ways. 

Given that the legitimacy of a company’s political stances is questionable, why do many feel that extending or withholding support for a company is a more effective mode of activism than other, more direct ways? By replacing political activism with consumer activism, are we exchanging our political agency for greater power of consumption? Engaging with the marketplace more than with our political system makes our government less relevant, perhaps encouraging disengagement with the political process. Our generation is vocal in its desire to enact change, but this may not be the way to go about doing it. A recent focus on more direct activism is a step in the right direction: calling your representatives, educating your peers, or donating to organizations. Disillusionment with our country’s political process is most likely one of the reasons behind the recent influx of consumer-based activism in the marketplace, but we cannot fix the structures of our political system that cause the systematic removal of citizens from political power if we work outside of the system. So while, in some cases, withholding support from a company can make a valuable political statement, activists cannot and should not stop there. Protests should move beyond the marketplace in order to be effective and worthwhile.


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