Ethical Shopping: Neoliberalism’s Greatest Victory

Neoliberalism has had no greater victory, I suspect, than in the trend of highly selective consumption among leftists.

Many leftists I have met both online and in real life — myself certainly included — now spend a great deal of time and effort carefully choosing what brands to buy from. Someone I follow on Twitter, for instance, quipped earlier that on the one hand, IKEA was founded by a Nazi sympathizer, but on the other, he’s a student and needs to furnish an apartment. I consider this dilemma a no-brainer, as the IKEA table my keyboard rests on will readily attest.

Replacing the convenient omnipresence of such giants as IKEA (or Amazon) is no mean feat, especially on the kind of budget most people have to deal with. But that energy — and money, which costs working people oodles of energy — would be better spent more actively struggling against any one of these industry giants, rather than diffusely depriving each of a profit margin here and there.

Don’t get me wrong — boycotts are undoubtedly a powerful tool of political action. The boycott has proven itself time and again and I am by no means calling on the left to abandon the boycott. I’m not talking about boycotts at all. Individually cherry-picking your consumption is not a boycott. A boycott — an effective boycott, at any rate — is an organized action, rooted in organizations and networks with the mass to give it economic weight, enforced by collective mutual discipline to make it count, and backed by concrete demands voiced by organizers so that the boycotted entity has the possibility of caving in and handing them a victory.

A few leftists taking their business elsewhere will never change the politics of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, who is dead. His competitors in affordable furniture, who by necessity must employ many people and cut many corners to keep prices low, are far likelier to be Nazi sympathizers (or at least conservatives) than they are to be any kind of leftists.

There is in fact something deeply detached from leftist analysis in even looking at the specific moral and political failings of large businesses and their owners. The jury is already in on their moral and political stature, and shocking as they might find it, they are without a single exception exploitative, immoral reprobates, whose success is made possible only by fleecing the very people on whom it depends. And this is not their personal fault nor failing, it is how the system is set up. If they stray too far from amorally sapping the productivity of thousands of working people, they will be out-competed — and this too will not be changed by a handful of well-meaning middle-income folks choosing to do business with them.

Leftist…Neoliberalism?!

While this approach to consumption is completely alien to any kind of leftist analysis of the market society, it is perfectly in tune with the right-wing’s most well-funded and entrenched alternative theory: neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism holds that consumer choice is a pure expression of democracy. In fact, neoliberalism seems to put forward the notion that consumer choice is democracy, more so than actual democratic decision-making. After all, neoliberalism denounces most or all attempts by democratic states to limit private enterprise (such as pesky environmental or consumer safety regulation) or influence consumer preference (such as rating and labelling schemes) — often citing the consumer’s freedom to choose harmful products, seemingly assigning this dubious freedom more importance than the democratic process itself.

Through a neoliberal lense, consumer choice is not only an appropriate avenue for affecting social change, it is the appropriate avenue for any such attempt. Anything else, neoliberalism will hold, would be pure coercion. And questioning the system itself? Why, “there is no alternative.”

The architects of neoliberalism would be, and likely are, overjoyed to see leftists focusing such efforts on choosing the “best companies” to buy from, rather than organizing to shut down the abusive practices common to most if not all points of production in the market economy. This is an absolute victory in their attempt to restore the balance of class power to approximately how it was a century ago, before revolution, world war, and cold war/post-war compromise put the owning class on the defensive. After all, if the left is busy choosing who to buy from, the worst that could happen is a corporation or two shutting down (and that’s quite a long shot). The system making the rich richer still remains firmly in place, no danger in sight.

Speaking of the rich getting richer, let us remember the fatal flaw in neoliberalism from a social justice perspective: If money is the primary avenue of political expression, the poor — whether or not they keep getting poorer — are effectively disenfranchised. Our game of “find the least awful scoundrel to give your money to” will never be relevant to the interests of those with little money or energy to spare for such lofty considerations, to those whose primary concern is feeding themselves and their families and making it through another day, another week, under the grindstone of economic growth.

So by all means, organize boycotts. Boycott companies, boycott multinationals, boycott entire industries — but do so within an organized campaign, with goals, structures, and discipline. The rest of the time, don’t give your individual time and energy to the market’s “self-correction” efforts when you could much better spend them building alternatives to the dictatorship of the market — or attacking it in ways that hurt, rather than help it.