As Crikey first reported Friday, brewer Coopers has appeared to place its product into parliamentary hands. The South Australian beer manufacturer now denies that it sought video endorsement by Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson; apparently, the pair toasted democracy, in close-up and within Parliament House, quite by accident. As Josh Taylor suggests, the company may have issued its refusal in order to make clear there had been no breach of Canberra’s rules on sponsorship. Almost certainly, Coopers, whose support of a Bible Society “debate” on same-sex marriage has not been well-received, also wishes to avoid consumer boycott.
It’s probably a bit late for that. Perhaps no brand can retain a wide clientele after putting itself inside Hastie’s mouth. Vegans, inner-city dwellers and, really, anyone without a very strong stomach, will move on to another Hastie-free ale. Perhaps something boutique with a name like Gender Fluid.
Personal distaste for this or that brand is a fact of the market. Despite fondness for flavoured milk, I, for example, am unable to drink the perfectly potable Big M version of it due to an advertisement aired when I was a child. The vision of Big M strawberry-flavoured milk emptying first out of one woman’s full mouth then all over another woman’s full bosom has been a primal matter for address by me and my psychologist for many years.
There is an argument to be made that most acts of consumer abstinence are like mine: you boycott for your personal benefit. Whether it is to avoid feeling physically or ethically unwell or to mark yourself as an ally or opponent of a particular idea, the act of boycotting is one that chiefly addresses the self.
The inward focus of consumer action is easily detected in moments like this from popular writer Dan Savage who urged US drinkers to shun all Russian vodka to show their intolerance for Putin’s reported homophobia or the insistence by US Representative Bob Ney during the Iraq War that all House cafeterias would no longer sell French fries but “Freedom Fries”. In both cases, these activists made the case only for the power of awareness-raising and pride.
It is more difficult to see the very limited potential for change built into something like the Coopers boycott. Advocates for this will say that punishing a company for its potentially conservative views will “send a message”. The people who will receive that message first and most brutally are likely to be low-income workers. Laverne, Shirley and the Squiggy who drives the Coopers truck will feel the pinch long before whatshisname who runs the company. That guy has bibles and assets to keep him warm.
Now more than 10 years old, Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy is held as a model of consumer political action. The logic goes that if a consumer becomes aware of the consequences of purchase of an Israeli product, this will raise international awareness of the unconscionable treatment of Palestinians. BDS has been successful, as was intended, in engaging the interest of many younger US citizens who now recognise Israel as an apartheid regime. It has also been successful in nibbling at some Israeli company profits, which have the keenest consequences for Israeli Lavernes and Palestinian Shirleys. While BDS is widely held as an act of Palestinian self-determination, and is something I am compelled by my gut to observe, it is, like those sanctions applied to South Africa, never itself going to result in the end of racial segregation. This is not to say that one should not observe it. It is to suggest that we overestimate our faith in the reforming power of the commodity.
People mean well when they boycott commodities with a visible trace of exploitation. Yet, they allow other commodities to remain perfectly mystified. A two-dollar shirt from a discount store is unacceptable, but a pair of trousers from a gentleman’s outfitter do not bear the same scrutiny. The fact that both these commodities were made in a factory like those at Rana Plaza is not the point. The point is to “raise awareness” about the origin of one commodity, in order that we no longer bother to calculate the hard human costs of all the other commodities.
Not only does the eco-choice coffee serve to make the human suffering built into so many of the items that we purchase less visible, it can have the effect of what is sometimes called moral self-licensing. A noble decision is often found to be followed by a really shitty one. This explains both why I was very curt with the lady who sold me my organic muesli last week, and how Bill Gates can arse around owning a nation’s worth of money and still believe he’s a good guy for giving some of it to diseased orphans.
I sometimes wonder if op-ed writers at the Guardian kick puppies after hitting submit on their compassionate pieces, most particularly Laurie Penny who last week urged us all to boycott Uber. Not because it is an exploitative behemoth with open plans to divest itself of its low-paid contractors, mind, but because the CEO was caught on camera acting like a dick.
She says with Uber head Travis Kalanick, we are dealing with a new class of monster. Perhaps she has never taken time to read the correspondence of Henry Ford, anti-Semite and sworn loather of dark skin. Perhaps she, like all the good people boycotting bad companies, has never stopped to consider that business stills behaves like business, even if its representatives manage to hold their tongues in public.
Back at school, I had this particularly annoying 2pm anthropology class. The guy, clearly an old commie, would ask us every Tuesday where our lunch was sourced from. He would not accept “the cafeteria” or “my backpack” and pressed us to trace the origins of each ingredient. The point being, of course, that it was impossible for even the most vegan and leftist among us to account for the ethics of every commodity inside it.
This is not your moral licence to buy a Pale Ale SodaStream, by the way. It’s just a reminder that there’s no boycotting one’s way out of our intricate systems of exploitation.