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Are Consumer Movements Inherently Neoliberal?

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I am currently reading Finis Dunaway’s excellent 2015 book Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. Examining many of the most iconic environmental images of the last half-century, ranging from the Daisy ad and the Crying Indian to the development of the recycling logo and the nuclear plant cooling tower, he details how the emotionalism of these images have made the environmental movement whiter, more individualistic, and more consumerist. Concerning the Alar scare of the late 1980s, when Meryl Streep became the spokeswoman for the campaign to boycott the apple industry over the use of this chemical, he writes something that really got me thinking:

The Alar campaign also marked a pivotal moment in the history of green consumerism. Streep and the NRDC positioned consumers, especially the young, as the prime victims of pesticide exposure. The campaign sought to mobilize parental concern to demand that the US government protect its youngest citizens from the perils of Alar and other toxic agents in food. Alar’s demise, though, came not from government action but rather from the decision of its manufacturer–responding to public concerns and declining apple sales–to banish it from the US market. If American consumers were victims, they also seemed, in this case at least, to be neoliberal agents of change, using their purchasing decisions to alter corporate policy and create a healthier environment. This popular vision of environmentalism denied power relations an exaggerated the ability of individual economic actors to shape corporate priorities and patterns of resource use. Presenting the market as a realm of freedom where consumers could redirect production decisions by choosing to buy or not buy particular items, green consumerism seemingly became synonymous with political empowerment.

Does this mean that modern consumer movements are inherently neoliberal, focusing on individual solutions over collective action and empowered consumerism over collective solidarity? By this of course, I mean actual neoliberalism, not the 2016 definition used on the left meaning “anything a Democrat does I don’t like.” It’s a pretty compelling case actually. There are a lot of scholars who think about consumer movements in this way. Here’s an interesting academic article considering these issues from the perspective of environmental education. Many scholars have argued that neoliberalism is as much a political project as an economic goal. Yes, handing over Cochabamba’s water and shipping American jobs overseas while eviscerating the social safety net are neoliberal projects, but so is convincing people to think the government is the problem that can only be solved by corporate interventions or that when corporations are a problem, your individual consumer choices are the solution.

If you think of neoliberalism as an insult instead of a mode of being in the 21st century, you are probably already insulted. But even if you don’t this this way, you might say it doesn’t matter. Pressuring companies to get rid of toxic chemicals is a good thing. I don’t disagree. But this is a much larger issue than Alar. As I have discussed many times in these parts, the extreme consumerism of today’s politics, especially on the left, is highly toxic and leads to the worthless vanity third party purity campaigns of Jill Stein, for instance. I have long used the metaphor of people wearing their politics like their new tattoo, showing it off for everyone to see and rejecting candidates who do not conform to their specific issues, with little to no sense of solidarity with others. I have also compared this form of politics to consumer movements around workplace safety conditions, specifically around the worthlessness of boycotting brands that use sweatshops unless workers call for it as a solidarity action or, even worse, deciding you will shop at thrift stores so that you are not personally responsible for sweatshops. This all accomplishes precisely nothing except allowing you to tell your friends how righteous and pure you are.

But I had never thought of all of this as explicitly neoliberal before this moment. And of course it a form of neoliberalism and that explains why I recoil from all of these sorts of things. When consumer movements stop caring about pesticide exposure once new chemicals are created that don’t persist on the vegetables but hit hard and fast and thus poison farmworkers, which was one of the stories I discussed in Out of Sight, that’s a neoliberal aim. When parents move to the suburbs or put their kids in private school to save their children instead of fighting for better public schools where they live, that’s also a neoliberal aim. All of these things–including the Alar campaign, third party campaigns, pointless boycotts to make yourself feel righteous and good, claiming you are the problem because you take long showers even though 90% of water use is from industry and agriculture–prioritize the individual as hyper consumer with the power to change the world through consumption instead of doing the hard work of organizing for change. At best, these campaigns have the power to make small changes if enough of them care, but none of this actually challenges the power structures of oppression. And thus they all reinforce the power of capitalism to set the agenda in our society, more so ever day as the state is seen as a negative and business glorified.

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  • bizarroMike

    I certainly agree that “choose your own” environmentalism is toxic to real liberalism. It makes these things into personal moral issues more akin to religion than to collective action to solve a collective problem. Fold your hands, bow your head, and swear off meat rather than working for stricter feedlot runoff standards.

    I don’t know if the neoliberal label is helpful, though. The term has been debased lately so much that it may not be useful anymore. It is certainly correct, though. By making these problems a matter of consumer choice, collective action is headed off at the pass.

    • Yeah, as someone who writes about neoliberalism, it’s incredibly frustrating to see it misused, but it still describes a specific set of issues so I have no choice but to have this fight.

    • BobOso

      Fold your hands, bow your head, and swear off meat rather than working for stricter feedlot runoff standards.

      I think you hit the nail on the head. I think Eric talks about the UFW grape boycott in the thread below. We weren’t farm worker but my parents sure as hell did not buy grapes in support of the goals of UFW not because the did it in isolation.

      As an aside, a couple of weeks back before Lent, our Sunday School class discussed this very thing and how when giving up something is solely individualized without collective reflection and action, it is toxic. In this case, abstaining from meat for self righteousness does no good unless we reflect on why our neighbor does not have meat and what we can do about it.

  • diogenes

    I would certainly prefer government by the people to mediate/remediate our issues. When our government responds mostly to the donor class, we use whatever tool comes to hand.

    https://thinkprogress.org/study-the-senate-only-responds-to-rich-peoples-problems-5e47afa0ed1b

    Our long-term project is to reclaim our citizenship. If in the near term, we could effectively boycott corporate offenders and run them out of business, I’m down with that, too.

  • Dilan Esper

    Well, humanity is complicated. People have interests as both workers and consumers, and they sometimes conflict. This is one of the things that makes optimal trade policy a lot more complex than simply “protect the workers and keep the jobs here”.

    It seems to me that you have to evaluate the particular claims made by consumers against your own priors. I tend to sympathize a lot with poor people who shop at Wal-Mart, for instance. But I totally understand that other people may see those claims as less compelling as the claims of American workers who have seen their jobs go away and their pay stagnate.

    On the other hand, I don’t sympathize very much with the consumerist claims of elite college students and their parents (although there are exceptions where I sympathize more). But again, it’s completely legitimate to disagree with that and believe that people who pay $35,000 a year for what is essentially a consumer product should have more of a say as to what they receive.

    In any market economy, there’s going to be consumers, and they are going to make claims, and one of the roles of government is to determine when the claims should be credited and when they shouldn’t, and how they should be balanced against the claims of others. What you hope for is decisionmakers who will tip the scales in favor of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, and who will not tip the scales in favor of the rich and powerful in these disputes.

    • LeeEsq

      This is how I see it to. People are both workers/employees and consumers at the same time and these interests might diverse. A person can be injured as worker or a consumer by another group of workers acting as workers like in Transit strikes.

    • LeeEsq

      Another thing is that people aren’t either complete individuals or totally submerged into groups. People are both individuals with their own desires, needs, and wants and members of a variety of different groups based on class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, occupation, and nationality. There are going to be times when people are going to decide to go for what they want rather than what a particular group they belong to wants as a whole and other times they will sacrifice their needs or desires for the greater good of the group

  • Origami Isopod

    I don’t know. I think a case can be made for a consumer movement that works with the government to protect consumers from things like exploding Pintos or guts-eating swimming pool drains, so long as it works in tandem with the labor movement to protect workers from the same corporations. But that’s very different from the atomistic and heavily branded phenomenon you’re talking about.

    • Right–it’s not like the UFW grape boycott was neoliberal for instance. It was a solidarity action with affected people who had less power.

  • alercher

    It’s not that consumerism inherently serves the interests of the bosses. Consumer organization can be a way to organize people to fight for the their own interests. That’s the theory, and in some cases it has worked.

    Maybe the argument is that in the political context (“neo-liberalism”) of the 1980s and after, consumerism ceased being a way to organize people, and instead became a way of recruiting people for to work for others’ interests.

    • FlipYrWhig

      Maybe that’s a partial answer to what I just wrote below. I feel like “consumer” and “taxpayer” are terrible terms because of this atomizing aspect — but in a capitalist society, shouldn’t there be a role for using “woke” consumption to nudge the needle?

      Maybe the difference is between “neoliberalism” and “consumerism.” The former is trusting that markets lead to the general good, and the latter is a dedication to getting and spending.

  • FlipYrWhig

    Does it matter if it’s “neoliberal” or not if it results in less poison going into people? I’m not following. What about the movement to boycott sugar as a protest against the slave trade?

    • It matters if it means, as it often does in these situations, that less poison goes into wealthier and whiter people but not poorer and darker people.

      • FlipYrWhig

        I didn’t think that was particularly related to the concept of neoliberalism but I suppose it makes sense.

        • If the market solution is to protect those who can afford to protect themselves, it’s textbook.

          • FlipYrWhig

            It just sounds like elitism or failed intersectionality, which are troublesome regardless of whether they’re being linked to market behaviors or not. Is organizing to get a traffic light put on a dangerous intersection in a white neighborhood but not a black one “neoliberal”? It seems like a dick move but not all dick moves are neoliberal, even dick moves that happen under capitalism.

            • William Berry

              Neo-liberalism, as I understand it, is a philosophy of the operation of “markets” (forgive the scare quotes; I have difficulty writing the word any other way).

              I think the centrality of “markets” is essential to Erik’s argument; your traffic light example isn’t particularly analogous.

  • Brett

    At best, these campaigns have the power to make small changes if enough of them care, but none of this actually challenges the power structures of oppression.

    They punish companies and organizations that deviate from widely accepted norms and beliefs about how people and companies should behave in society. That has a tremendous amount of value in its own right, because laws and norms are only as solid as the willingness of people to defend them.

    Slight side-note, but the typical Cochabamba story makes me mad. It always ends with the water concession being withdrawn (hooray, we’ve defeated privatization!), while the city itself promptly went back to the terrible public water service that remains bad even to this day. What was the victory?

    • The victory is that poor people could actually afford what water they were going to get.

      Obviously, it did not solve the problems of water in that city. But allowing Bechtel to come in and profit off the water was much worse than this.

      • Brett

        The victory is that poor people could actually afford what water they were going to get.

        Which was almost nothing from the public system for most of them, and they went back to relying on for-profit water trucks afterwards.

        • Which is better than Bechtel.

          Remember, it wasn’t outsiders who created that movement. It was an internal uprising by the people affected. They aren’t idiots. They knew what was better for them.

  • UserGoogol

    Wait… so does this make Ralph Nader the real neoliberal?

    I mean, no, in so far as Nader’s activism focused on pushing for government intervention instead of consumers leveraging their buying power. It’s a different kind of consumer activism, in that sense. But if you’re looking in a broader sense, the fact that the most infamous Green Party nominee wrote Unsafe at Any Speed is relevant.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      As is Nader’s fervent anti-unionism and pro-unpaid-internship-ism in his own organizations. And in the 80s he was really into the idea of buyer’s cooperatives. I worked for one briefly.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        I meant “As are,” LFC (see below)

  • NewishLawyer

    The reason people tend to turn off at the phrase neo-liberalism is that it has more or less become a general insult like you described above. It no longer represents a specific set of policies but is often used by leftier than thou types as a way of insulting anyone who is not as far to the left as them.

    People are complicated and often have conflicting desires. Our needs as workers might conflict with our needs as consumers and getting them to mesh is very hard.

    And as I’ve mentioned before, you can critique the system but in a representative democracy like the United States, you have to give people actual options about what they can do and a good amount of people on the further left don’t quite realize how strident and impractical they are being.

    I agree with you that the way we set up education in the United States is horrible and discriminatory but you need to give people options beyond “You are bad and should feel bad.” When you and others discuss these issues, it is often with such a stridency that everything a white, middle-class or above person does is bad that they are going to shut down.

    A related tendency is that a small but very vocal number of environmentalists and leftists seem to think people should stop breeding. This strikes me as something most are going to ignore.

    People like creature comforts and very few are interested in radically burning down modern life. You can either create policies that work with the material desires of people or just go screaming in the wilderness as being unreasonable.

    There is a tendency on the extremes of politics to utopianism and this often comes with rejecting the good for the perfect.

    • I agree with you that the way we set up education in the United States is horrible and discriminatory but you need to give people options beyond “You are bad and should feel bad.” When you and others discuss these issues, it is often with such a stridency that everything a white, middle-class or above person does is bad that they are going to shut down.

      No. What this says is that you should organize and fight to help everyone. Feeling bad is no end game. White flight is an end game, but a discriminatory one.

      And if white rich people shut down when their privilege is challenged, well, rich white people also vote Republican and the crying rich white people, including liberals, engage in when their privilege is even mentioned, not to mention challenged, is something that must be dealt with head on if positive change will ever result in this nation.

      • FlipYrWhig

        I still think it’s far easier to derogate _consumerist_ solutions and _individualist_ solutions than to lump those in with _neoliberal_ anything. We already had perfectly good vocabularies for talking about selfishness and the limits of reifying freedom as “choice.” This strikes me as muddying not clarifying, though you seemed to have the reverse reaction.

      • Murc

        What this says is that you should organize and fight to help everyone.

        That’s all well and good in the long term. What are people meant to do in the immediate term without being told they’re bad people and should be ashamed? Are they obligated to live in places where the ground and air will literally poison their kids because leaving just means someone poorer and browner than them will take their place? Because a lot of the time it kinda seems like you’re saying exactly that.

        I’m bang alongside with telling people “If you do X you should be ashamed of yourself.” I could give a fuck about how strident I am or am not perceived as.

        I’m less of a fan of telling people “Nothing you can possibly do is correct, you will always be bad and you should always feel bad.” I know that when people say that to ME, I regard them as people I should no longer pay attention to. You do have to give people an out.

        • So out of curiosity, what is your out for Trump voters? Because this sounds like a white liberal version of the same phenomenon. White people don’t want to be challenged for their whiteness and privilege, news at 11.

          • Murc

            So out of curiosity, what is your out for Trump voters?

            Renounce Trump and his works and start voting Democratic. That’s their out.

            Plenty of former Republicans have exercised that out. Echibit A is John Cole.

        • Pete

          And are parents who choose — when buying their first home or moving somewhere — to buy in a neighborhood with good schools for their kids somehow evil because they did not stay in place — or perhaps intentionally move to a neighborhood with poor housing stock, in a food desert, and with lousy schools but then fight to improve them? Even if the efforts are successful, such a project generally takes far longer than a child’s elementary and secondary education. The Leftist Yahwehs seem to ask quite a lot when imposing such sacrifices on one’s children becomes the price of virtue.

          I take Erik’s point about the evils of atomistic politics, and the selfish or self-centered thinking that goes along with environmental NIMBYism and consumer virtue-signaling. I’ve also learned a lot about the history of the labor movement from this blog; it makes me wish I’d known enough to ask questions and talk more about it to my grandfather who I believe was one of the early organizers of the CWA at AT&T in Chicago back in the 1930s. [Before (per family lore) the company promoted most or all of the local union leadership to junior management after a successful strike.]

          But there are many ways to make a positive difference in the world, and not everyone can fight every fight. I recall a couple of posts here rather mocking some movie reviews — written from a Socialist perspective — published in Jacobin(?). Who wants to be that reviewer, always viewing the world (and even acceptable leisure pursuits) through that lens?

          • Pete

            And sure, I’ll freely admit that I can afford to do “X” because I am white, male, cis-gendered (I think that’s the correct word), well-educated, ex-military, and now pretty well-off. I am about as privileged as you can get in this society without being born filthy rich or with parents in high government positions. We had very little money when I was as a small kid, but I had plenty of advantages and chances — that many, many other people never had — and I took them.

            Only a fool would deny the existence of privilege, racism, sexism, classism, and gross structural inequalities. But while living in this world (i.e. not moving to a desert monastery or commune), I can’t buy the view that I should intentionally give myself or my family a crappier life (yes — that’s subjective).

      • LeeEsq

        The idea that you can organize and fight to help everybody assumes that deep down every individual and group wants the same thing and is not in conflict. This isn’t true.

        • Pete

          The idea that you can organize and fight to help everybody…

          What you say is true, but the word “everybody” was not meant literally. Instead, it means fight a broader fight to make the world better, particularly including support for those with less power and fewer resources

    • LeeEsq

      And you have to allow people to be good rather than simply less evil.

    • djw

      I agree with you that the way we set up education in the United States is horrible and discriminatory but you need to give people options beyond “You are bad and should feel bad.”

      I’ve read the post twice and I have *no idea* what this is referring to. Perhaps it would help me understand your complaint if you could point to the precise moment where Erik is guilty of telling you this. It seems like you’re bringing in some prior dispute here, or at best responding to tone and not actual analysis.

      Take away the ruminations on the various meanings and applicability of the term “neoliberal” and what you’re left with is an argument that takes the following form:

      “People sometimes pursue goal (X) by means (Y). But means (Y) is often an ineffective way to pursue goal (X), and also potentially produces unintended negative consequence (Z). If you care about achieving (X) and avoiding (Z), you should consider alternatives to (Y).”

      The responses to such a message available to grown-ups, it seems to me, really are pretty much limited to “OK, I’ll consider alternatives to (Y)” and “For the following reasons, I don’t find your analysis persuasive.” To learn that the manner in which you’ve set out to accomplish a goal turns out to be ineffective is, naturally, disappointing, but it’s disappointing in a pretty ordinary kind of way that really shouldn’t cause this kind of defensive, emotional response. Such disappointments are a pretty unavoidable part of life. To reject bad news because it makes you feel bad is essentially to give up on being an adult. It’s entirely reasonable for third parties to react to such a response–essentially, “let’s talk about my emotions rather than X/Y/Z”–by questioning the depth of your commitment to achieving (X) or avoiding (Z).

  • heckblazer

    I feel compelled to note that there’s nothing particularly nuclear about hyperboloid cooling towers. Plenty of non-nuclear plants like this natural gas power station have them, while plenty of nuclear power plants lack any sort of cooling tower.

  • LFC

    I know EL is busy, writes at high volume and speed, and blog posts produced at this rate are not polished pieces of writing; they will contain mistakes and one should generally let them slide.

    All that said, this drives me crazy:
    he details how the emotionalism of these images have [sic] made the environmental movement whiter

    No. The subject of the clause here is “emotionalism,” not “images,” so it has to read:

    “he details how the emotionalism of these images has made the environmental movement [etc.]”

    You don’t have to be a grammar wonk or ‘grammar fascist’ to spot this kind of mistake. You probably don’t even need to know the rule that the verb has to agree with the subject. All you really need is a good ear. “The emotionalism of these images have made” just sounds wrong.

  • John Revolta

    Are we talking about the LBJ “Daisy” ad from the ’64 election? Because I wouldn’t call that an environmental image; although “Vote for my opponent and he’ll blow up the world” is a kind of environmental message, I guess.

  • Donna Gratehouse

    As I have discussed many times in these parts, the extreme consumerism of today’s politics, especially on the left, is highly toxic and leads to the worthless vanity third party purity campaigns of Jill Stein, for instance. I have long used the metaphor of people wearing their politics like their new tattoo, showing it off for everyone to see and rejecting candidates who do not conform to their specific issues, with little to no sense of solidarity with others.

    I also find it funny how many of the same people with this view of voting also claim to loathe identity politics.

    • Origami Isopod

      Projection is not limited to reichwingnuts.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    This all accomplishes precisely nothing except allowing you to tell your friends how righteous and pure you are.

    Almost exactly Pretty what Dick Cheney said about personal environmental choices. Though here it’s to allow Loomis to scold all those people for doing environmental concern wrong. I guess challenging other white people’s privilege isn’t posturing if your motives are better than everyone else’s.

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