Corporatization of Activism
Don’t Lose Your Rebellious Soul
We’ve all been watching what’s been happening from 2008-2012: The Arab Spring, Indignados, Tikkunists, Occupy Wall Street through to Idle No More, One Billion Rising and Occupy Taksim/Gezi. Though the alleged apocalypse—December 21,2012—has come and gone, the signs are still everywhere that a Gloabl A-Ha Moment is on the horizon. Meanwhile, as revolutions, riots and coups percolate around the globe, business as usual continues the same. And to those of us who are really paying attention, we can see that some things are actually getting worse. Enter the corporation.
For decades corporations have been co-opting rebellion into their brand identities and selling it back to the mainstream. Look at what’s happened to Punk. Look at the Occupy imagery in car and bank commercials. Look at the greenwashing advertisements of oil and pipeline companies like Enbridge, Keystone and Northern Gateway Pipelines whose TV “commercials” entail slideshows of the most breathtaking Nature imagery their marketing department can find with their logos slapped on at the end. Look at the allegiances between NGOs like Amnesty and WWF with multinationals that then create those cool Save the Animals T-shirts we all love to wear around the house. These corporatized NGOs do a lot of legwork to appear well meaning but their very existence conveniently achieves the following effects: grassroots movements are tamed, demonized, marginalized, weakened, and disillusioned whilst corporate power is enhanced and the public’s faith in corporate-sponsored “solutions” grows.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the corporatization of activism is growing increasingly rapacious alongside the swell in social movements and insurrectionary activity. Indeed, “social unrest might well increase as NGOs and consumer activist sideline more radical activists and ideas, and as counter-movements to corporatized activism emerge,” write Dauvergne and Lebaron in their seminal book, “Protest, Inc.” Celebrate the idea of a Global Spring if it buoys your spirits but know this: corporatization is robbing activists of their teeth.
In “Protest, Inc.” Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve Lebaron describe the widespread and increasingly normalized phenomena of the corporatization of dissent. These days, the average Joe is more likely to hear socially-conscious clichés like “do your part” not from activists groups, but from corporations. In propagating these messages, corporations are redirecting the locus of change from corporations and governments to the individual. Dauvergne and Lebaron describe several “corporate policies and programs that fortify the individualization of responsibility.” Some are these are common place and straightforward, like “recycling, charging for plastic bags, giving a rebate for returning plastic containers, tin cans or glass bottles.” But most widespread and most contentious are the awareness and advocacy campaigns sponsored and launched by corporations themselves. Dauvergne and Lebaron describe how manufacturers and retailers promote these corporate initiatives as socially conscious programs that are “advancing ‘sustainable consumption’ and ‘fair trade’ thus demonstrating the value of voluntary corporate responsibility over further government regulations.”
What all this achieves is what I like to call The Whole-Foods Effect: the corporation appears super friendly, humane, ethical, progressive, but all of this is just a scheme to sell more stuff. As Dauvergne and Lebaron admit, “at the end of the day [such tactics] are designed to profit from selling an easy morality — one that does not require any tough lifestyle changes.” Worse than that, is that they put up a huge marketing smokescreen that draws attention towards the significance of the individual’s choices and away from “the downsides of capitalism.”
While many anti-capitalist movements have surely rocked the boat in the past five years, they have been but single, lone waves of resistance when what we need is a tsunami. In this atmosphere, Dauvergne and Lebaron’s grim prognosis seems straight on point: “the corporatized activism of today is doing far more to uphold the world order than mass protests and grassroots activism are doing to transform it.”
It’s rough out there for activists these days (besides the fact that everyone and their dog thinks they’re an activist without actually ever having contributing to a movement in real life). There’s increasingly invasive surveillance, police brutality and crackdowns. The marriage between activism and corporations, like WWF and Coca Cola, has become so common place and routinely justified that activists are made to feel ashamed for even thinking that its not okay when a corporation that rapes the planet is in bed with an NGO purporting to save it. Every day, activists are accused of being self-righteous or impossible to work with, out-of-touch, naïve and overly-idealistic, even “divisive”. So it’s no surprise that many activists have internalized these criticisms and are slowly giving up, and resorting to armchair activism to satisfy their indefatigable conscience.
Most would-be (or retired) radicals “like” movements online without ever putting their asses on the line offline. There’s hundreds of blogs, articles and essays that support the mutualistic relationship between social media and social movements. But there’s a problem with online friendships and online activities increasingly seem to reflect not a correlative of genuine communities but a substitute for them. What is activism but building relationships? Relationships—intimacy, empathy, eye-contact, listening, trust, camaraderie, brotherhood, sisterhood, shared experiences and memories—these were and are the true lifeblood of all the movements that have ever worked.
In this world we're living in, it’s just so easy to lose your edge. Idealism collapses under necessity. Even the most dedicated activists have to feed their kids and unless they have lots of money they will eventually have to negotiate, compromise and make sacrifices. Its not that these people are weak-willed, unethical or traitors to the cause who have lost their morale: its the totalizing 24-7 consumer-capitalist world we live in that forces us to put our heads down and work for money to eat to live.
Those who are privileged enough to have the choice to give up the fight most often do so. The most marginalized folks have no such choice: if they want to survive, then they will have to engage in a constant battle for voice and recognition, for equal opportunity and representation, for healing and justice. They cannot give up. They have no choice but to dedicate their life to passionate resistance. And 'passionate resistance' is not some edgy, exotic lifestyle trend you select à la carte: it's the only way to stay alive. And just who do some of us think we are, as their kin in the human family, to even consider giving up and spending the rest of our lives pursuing if not vanity and self-fulfilment, then comfort and security alone?
Don't sell out your rebellious soul. Don't swallow your anger. Don't lose your chutzpah. Don't give up. Not because anyone has righteously called-you-out or shamed you into it, but because of the evidence of how much power we have. That corporations create such elaborate campaigns to subsume and quell activism is a sure sign of how much of a genuine threat we are to the capitalist system.
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