Shopping is not activism.
Let me state that again: a targeted, organised, specific boycott, like the United Farm Workers No Grapes boycott of the 1980’s is activism. Because it has specific goals and is part of a larger protest movement. But buying only locally produced, organic produce from your local co-op is not activism. Because shopping is not activism.
Now, it could be very good for you and beneficial for your community to buy organic produce from your co-op, but that doesn’t make it activism. Similarly, you can use voting as a way of mitigating negative political change in your area, but voting isn’t activism either.
There are images going around facebook that suggest the “real” way to occupy Wall Street is by shopping at the right stores. I want to pick apart some of the problems with that.
Many of Walmart’s shoppers are poor. they shop there because they can afford the produce there. It might not be great produce or an altruistic retailer, but they’re eating better than they would be if they shopped someplace else. While it’s true that their communities would be better off if there were more independent retailers, in the mean times, you’re asking them to sacrifice feeding fresh fruits and vegetables to their kids. This is not reasonable. Also, by implication, the people who shop at Walmart become responsible of the bad effects of that retailer, when, in fact, they tend to suffer more keenly from those same effects.
Let’s say you go to an independent shop to buy clothes. Good for you. What are you going to buy? You decide to avoid the cardigan made by sweatshop labour. Good for you. You decide to avoid the one made with polluting synthetic yarn. You decide to get one made from only ethically treated animals. And decide to mitigate pollution by only going for organically fed animals. So you buy a llama hair cardigan made by a local hippie who grew his own llamas locally, feeding them only locally grown organic feed. You have successfully avoided Wall Street, kept your carbon footprint low, bought a sustainable cardigan that will last for several years and keep you warm even when you get soaked by the rain. Good for you! That cardigan probably cost $200, every penny of which stayed local and was invested back into your community. This was a good choice of how to spend your disposable income.
However, buying your hypothetical cardigan was not activism. First of all, although it was a wise investment in your own clothes and the community, this was really not affordable to most people. Walmart shoppers cannot afford to buy your clothes. Buying that cardigan is certainly an ethical act, but it’s not an accessible act. If you want to protest income inequality and economic injustice, this protest could not possibly come in the form of expensive personal purchases.
It’s disappointing that voting and shopping are not actually enough to change the world in a meaningful, positive way. These things are, quite literally, the least we should do. And we should do them. Those of us who can vote should take that responsibility seriously and if you have enough money to be ethical with your purchases, then certainly do it, but don’t make these things out to be bigger than they are. If you want to occupy Wall Street, then you’re going to have to vote with your body, not with your money and not with a check mark in a box, but by physically participating.
Our consumer culture of predatory capitalism has gotten seriously out of control and fixing it requires people of different social classes working together. If your activism is not accessible to the poor, it’s not in common cause with them. Anybody can stand in a mass demonstration. And we need to stand together.
I know we’ve been told our whole lives that consuming stuff is voting with our money, that we have choices that empower us through buying stuff and that we can build our identity (including our moral sense of self) by what we buy, but all of these ideas came from advertisers who want to sell us stuff. It’s been drummed into our heads since birth, but it’s not true. It’s propaganda to keep us buying stuff and docile. The purpose is to prevent protest, not empower an easy for of it.
Activism is a group activity. If it’s done at the mall, it comes with a risk of being escorted out by security. It is visible. It is disruptive. It is what we need.
Shopping is not activism.