Friday, December 01, 2006

I'm in the Market for Shoes Made Out of Soapbox

So, due to a lot of stupid reasons I would summarize as old-car-smash-and-go-boom, I've spent the last week trying to buy a car. Early on in this whole process my mom made a comment about not liking one of the car dealers we went to because she knew him in high school and he traded his wife in for a "newer model" a few years ago. It struck me how in our capitalist world, I can draw some weird parallels between buying a car and choosing a significant other. There are a lot of factors to consider about the car/person you want. Some people have snazzier features than others, some people are more high maintenance and less reliable, some are more attractive while others have more substance, some will fuck you up more than others if you get in an accident. But then I felt kind of gross. If people are like consumable products, no wonder divorce rates are so high.

It makes me wonder if maybe anti-capitalist activism is a more important component of the radical feminist agenda than I usually want to admit. It seems to me that if women are seen as consumable, if porn, prostitution, sex clubs, and plain human trafficking is big business, maybe that is all part of the larger fall-out of a system where people build their identities based on the objects they buy and perceive the people in their life as defined by the objects they buy. At what point do people stop being people and become things? When does the character of what we own, characterize us altogether? In a certain light, it's a good example of identity politics at its worst. And I think that its a large part of what fuels the modern boycotting tactics that I see used with so much frequency among my peers.

To me, boycotting something is not an effective or particularly impressive form of activism because it rarely, if ever, is successful unless it is organized on a massive scale. And even if it does manage to accomplish some of it's goals, I'm still unconvinced that the best way of acting out politically is by abstaining from an action. It seems to me that you'll do more for sweatshop workers by organizing a campaign to send them aid or to lobby congress than by refusing to buy ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING from insert-outrage-of-the-week-here, only shopping at thrift stores, or dumpster diving all the time. But thinking about boycotts in the context of our consumer-identified culture, I realize that often it's not about helping workers or changing the system at all; it's about identity. By NOT owning or consuming product X, you and your identity can somehow stay untainted of the blood that is on this entire country's hands. The logical fallacy in question? If you are what you buy, what you do NOT buy is what you are not.

To be fair, I realize that it's really difficult to deal with the guilt, frustration, and powerlessness of being an American with a conscience. There are definitely times when I feel totally demoralized about my ability to do anything about where this country is going. Sometimes I wish that I could drop out of it entirely, stop buying, stop eating, stop existing, stop stop stop. I want to shut my eyes and lock my door and pretend that if I don't do anything, well at least I won't be hurting anyone. The truth is though, other people, the planet, animals, fucking FUNGI suffer because of things I do on a daily basis. I can only boycott so much and the general population isn't willing to give up hardly any of the comforts they enjoy. I don't blame them. We are raised feeling entitled to them. We can no longer really conceptualize our lives without them. And knowing these things, I feel like the only way to push out of the rut we're in is to be pro-active, to DO, to give time and effort and money and not just withold those things when we come across something we don't like.

7 Comments:

Blogger spotted elephant said...

I agree with you about boycotts only being effective if they're undertaken on a massive scale. But I still can't bring myself to buy (necessary) things from certain places-it feels like I'm condoning their behavior.

What's really tough is fighting the feeling that proactive behavior doesn't matter unless it happens on a massive scale. I know that's not true-you can make at least small differences through proactive action, but still.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Sam said...

"It makes me wonder if maybe anti-capitalist activism is a more important component of the radical feminist agenda than I usually want to admit."

I was a liberal, pro-pornography feminist on my way to anticapitalism when I tripped over radical feminism. The first radfems I read were talking about the tyranny of corporate control over people's lives and I found out nearly two years later, when I began critically looking at my pornography (ab)use, of their anti-pornstitution stance.

Capitalism's dominance in the Western world is a huge part of why women like the editors of Bust and Bitch can profit from selling pornography and prostitution like the middle madamegment they are without other Western feminists batting a $20-per-eyeshadow-color eye. Free markets are next to godliness, consumer and worker choice are the epitome of democracy, and other capitalist craptasticity abounds. 'Tis capitalism's colonization of all our minds that allows prostitutes to be sold in newspapers in the modern "women's classifieds" sections of weekly papers next to the used car classifieds.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is difficult to deal with the guilt and frustration but the challenge that I face is to not allow myself to sink into your attitude that individual actions don’t matter. I’m interested in environmentalism and the parallel there is that yes we are destroying the earth probably irreparably but if I can do something, even one small thing like take a five minute shower instead of a ten minute one and if that, my restraint, saves even one species after the coming crash, then it will have been worth it. Because I’m sure that species appreciates it and more importantly, it’s just. Also, collective action starts with and is composed of individual action. So I object to your idea that boycotting is ineffective, but then I realize that maybe we have different ideas of what is effective. I consider success whatever good can be done. This allows me to keep going without being disappointed that a revolution hasn’t happened. So it’s true that organizing a campaign to send workers aid or to lobby congress might be more effective but that doesn’t mean that boycotting isn’t successful at all.

I think you’re giving up on boycotting and individual action too fast, is what I’m saying. Your activism doesn’t have to be fruitful to your satisfaction to do good.

Another thing I’m confused about is this: “But thinking about boycotts in the context of our consumer-identified culture, I realize that often it's not about helping workers or changing the system at all; it's about identity. By NOT owning or consuming product X, you and your identity can somehow stay untainted of the blood that is on this entire country's hands. The logical fallacy in question? If you are what you buy, what you do NOT buy is what you are not.”

Why is it a bad thing to not want blood on your hands? Do you not recognize that individuals are responsible for their actions? If people who buy blood diamonds, for example, are guilty of funding injustice in Africa then why is it a logical fallacy and why is it a bad thing that not buying those diamonds puts one on the side of refusing to take part in that injustice? And why is it a bad thing that one sees that as part of one’s identity? Are you saying that any actions we take in capitalism are bad if we connect them to our identity? That it’s bad to use political action like boycotting to define one’s values (justice)? I personally don’t think so.

-dani

7:09 PM  
Blogger Vicky Vengeance said...

Dani-

I like your response and the questions you raise. I think in some ways you're right: not wanting to participate in certain behaviors is not a bad thing. And I also think you might be right in pointing out that maybe it explicitly SHOULD be seen as a part of one's identity and what defines one's values. And really, in general, if that's going to get more people to do the right thing, what am I even doing criticizing it?

Where my hesitation sets in is when people I know take on the label of "activist" in a very intense, self-righteous way. They prove their commitment through a laundry list of things they don't do, instead of taking the time and effort to do one or two proactive things.

If people want to boycott stuff, if that makes them feel better about who they are, that's great. I'm glad they're doing it. But I also want people to be aware that their choice to boycott something is often not so much about anonymous sweatshop workers in anonymous third world countries, anonymous species in anonymous rain forests, as it is about their own egos and agendas.

Living in a more responsible way and trying to make more responsible choices is great. But in my mind, that is just the first step on a long road. At best it doesn't really impress me much because that is probably something we should ALL be doing and at worst it feels like laziness and apathy parading as commitment and action.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous pignut said...

Saying you aren't going to boycott something because hardly anyone else is is like saying the US shouldn't cut greenhouse gas emissions until China does. Maybe 99% of the public don't give a shit, it's still better to support the 1% and try and make them 2% than to slag the 1% and support the 99%.

I don't agree that boycotts are only effective on a massive scale. Corporations spend huge amounts of money on advertising, to get new customers, more sales, or even just to keep their share of the market. Boycotting is negative advertising.

There's no point writing to congress, sweatshops are in other countries and free trade agreements are largely out of their hands. If you gave charity to the sweatshop workers, the employers would use it as a reason to cut their wages still further. A really horrible situation.

I'm a dedicated anti-capitalist, but I've been wondering lately, maybe more of us need to go into ethical business. If clothes, coffee, grain etc. are produced so cheaply in the third world, and sold at such vast profits in the west, why aren't they cheaper, and why do you have to pay more for fair trade stuff (so people on low incomes don't buy any fair trade stuff at all) when it should be quite easy to offer higher fairer prices to the producers, lower prices to the customers, put the corporations out of business and then buy a (fair trade) yacht? Brazilian Expresso costs about 10 cents a cup in eastern europe. Go figure

2:34 AM  
Anonymous Jessie K said...

"I'm still unconvinced that the best way of acting out politically is by abstaining from an action." How do you feel about nonviolence?

And, I agree with what vicky vengeance (comment above) has to say about boycotting "in my mind, that is just the first step on a long road". This is a good point and to me is the strength in choosing not to participate in something I don't agree with because it forces me to find alternatives that I do agree with. It forces me as a consumer in this capitalist society to put my money where my mouth is. To put money towards a cause while I take money away from something I don't agree with.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Craroline said...

I get really distressed about the free-market system and women's rights as well. Especially when it comes to equal pay.

I keep taking jobs which more women than men apparently have a knack for (in special education, substance abuse counseling, etc) and feeling pissed off that, even though I have a B.A. and shitloads of various work experience, I get paid $24,000 a year, while drones in the male-dominated financial/ paper-pushing sector are making twice that, even though it seems to require a lot LESS skill to me. You know, to talk on a phone and do the same thing all day, take money from this account and put it in that account, after doing the same old calculations, whoop-dee-doo. No one breaks your nose or tells you to fuck off and they didn't want their baby anyway, and you have to think on your feet and deal with that.

And it occurs to me that one way of making pay go up in a field is to attract more men, whereas a way of making pay go down is to attract more women (being a secretary was a very respectable, high paying job before mostly women started doing it in the early 20's. the same shit happened with human resources jobs in the 70's-- more women, less pay).

So, should I be a total sell-out to the capitalist system, and start being an activist towards getting more men into psychology- and education- related fields, so that one day, I can get paid more, or at least my daughters and granddaughters can get paid more? i mean, money speaks a lot louder than i ever could.

12:41 AM  

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