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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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