Friday, December 29, 2006

The case against boycotts

Talking of Lenin, one of his epigones has been discussing New Year's Resolutions. It's an interesting post which contains a useful discussion on boycotts, prompting me to write one of my final pieces on the matter before it goes to the public vote (if you don't know about my 'reality blogging' experiment click on the boycott label below to see previous posts on this).

Companies do respond to pressure, but they don't pack up and go homeLenin rightly says that "Boycotts should be a determinate political strategy for applying pressure in circumstances where it is likely to have an impact... It is a tool."

I also think he puts it rather well when he says "boycotts are all too often encouraged as moralistic ventures, Beautiful Soul narcissism, keeping one's hands clean - whereas in fact, one's hands are already dirty. How could it be otherwise under capitalism? There is hardly a good to be had that isn't produced under exploitative circumstances, whose underside isn't drenched with blood. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."

I guess the hardest argument for me to deal with over boycotts is not simply 'are they effective', but also am I doing more harm than good by giving the appearance of doing something without actually achieving anything? All the potential boycotts on my list are ones where there are genuine campaigns and, hopefully, wouldn't take much explaining to a right on crowd - but there is certainly no consensus on the actually tactic of boycotting itself.

By boycotting coke I'll just drink PepsiCampaigns of vilification (including but not confined to boycotts) certainly do have an effect on the behaviour of companies, and if the tactic is to make the world better boycotts have their place.

MacDonalds, Starbucks, BP, Nestle, Microsoft and the Tory Party have all responded to their image of being "nasty", sometimes with a PR makeover and sometimes with something slightly more substantial. These responses are victories for our side, but can also lead to taking the pressure off without having achieved the intended goal.

If the tactic is to destroy the company/industry boycotts have a much higher mountain to climb, after all no company will go bust from moral pressure alone, it takes a campaign that will effectively destroy the economic base of the organisation in question. No mean feat to achieve and I can't think of one campaign that has done this. Likewise if the tactic is to achieve a free, equal, sustainable society then boycotts simply cannot make that happen, although like everything they could be part of the solution.

If you think boycotts sow illusions and simply lead to a moral smugness then it's your duty, when the vote comes, to vote against me boycotting anything at all and I'll do my best to shop as unethically as possible - but I can't guarantee it will be easy.

1 comment:

James Grieves said...

What of Hellman's Mayonnaise? No official boycott was even declared, but their losses from ethical eaters were so substantial that they opted to take the pricier option of buying free range eggs in order to appease the consumer.