Consuming Feminism: The Abusive Touch of the Invisible Hand
In full disclosure of my consumerist hypocrisy, I have a few t-shirts with feminist themes on them and a pair of Karl Marx sneakers. The shirts were free leftovers from political events, but I probably would have bought them anyway. All of these items were probably made in a sweatshop with the hyper exploited labor of mostly female garment workers. Thus, what I write is not from some high and holy place. It is meant to provide some sort of framework for understanding feminism and consumerism. This understanding is meant to be tactical for social movement building rather than a personal attack or call for confessions of consumerist sins. I sin. We all sin. Personal mistakes are inevitable and unavoidable. Social movement mistakes have more weight as it represents a collective error. Of course, social movements also make mistakes. One mistake is the embrace of feminist consumerism. While this was not part of the official organizing suggestions of the International Women’s Strike USA, some feminists promoted the tactic of patronizing women owned businesses on March 8th. Some feminists believe that by buying certain products, they are promoting a better society. I don’t wish to shame those feminists, but I do want to make an argument against that tactic. The following is why I am against feminist consumerism:
The Myth of Consumer Sovereignty:
Many activists believe that we vote with our dollars. However, like American democracy, market place democracy is a rigged system! The argument that we vote with our dollars assumes that we enjoy consumer sovereignty, or control over supply and demand. We lack full consumer sovereignty because supply and demand is confounded by such things as advertisement and government policy. The items that appear in the market place, our knowledge of them, our desire for them, and our ability to obtain them are all variables that we have less control over than we think. For instance, when we go to the store, we probably find one or two varieties of potatoes. These varieties are cultivated because they have desirable qualities such as durability, pest resistance, size, uniformity, or long shelf life. If we want a variety of purple potatoes or Russian fingerling potatoes, we may not find these at an ordinary grocery store. If we do, they may be more expensive because they are grown on a smaller scale or are harder to grow. Only those with more money, more time to search for this desired item, and knowledge can afford these specialty potatoes. And while, perhaps they are grown locally or non-GMO, the world is probably no better a place because of the purchase of these potatoes because the purchase of the potatoes does not, in isolation, challenge systems of globalization, environmental problems from industrial agriculture, etc. Further, this trend could influence companies to begin growing more of these potatoes, but may not challenge the working conditions or unjust systems under which they are produced. Justice materializes into the form of a potato, rather than the productive forces that go into the potato itself.
I think that this probably sounds confusing and my potato example may not have clarified this position. Basically, according to Marxism, we are all alienated from our labor. This means we don’t have control over how things are produced, our workplace, and where the fruits of our production end up. A potato grower at an industrialized farm probably does not know where those potatoes go or have much control over the length of their hours, their working conditions, the way the potatoes are grown, their wages, etc. Likewise, when we go to a store, we see thousands of products, but because we are alienated from labor, we have no idea where, when, and how they were made. So, if you order an order of fries at McDonalds, you have no idea if you are consuming GMO potatoes, potatoes grown with pesticides that cause cancer, or potatoes from Idaho, Minnesota, or even another country! This is alienation. Because we are alienated from labor, we are never really fully free to make autonomous and empowered consumer choices. Even if we researched the conditions and source of McDonald’s french fries, we would find our self blindly ignorant about a million other consumer choices. Thus, when it comes to the market place, were are never really able to fully vote with our dollars, since we are always alienated from production.
The Myth of Small and Local:
Because we don’t really have control over production, activists often try to seek out trusted alternatives to corporations. To this end, they often try to buy items locally and from smaller producers. Now, this isn’t a terrible idea. When a person buys locally, they may be more aware of the production process. For instance, if you bought locally grown potatoes, you could talk to the farmer or see the farm itself. It also keeps money in a community. Further, there may be less environmental destruction involved in production, since shipping is not over a long distance and may use less chemicals or produce less waste. Thus, seeking out smaller scale, local sources can be a reasonable alternative to buying from larger corporations.
Nevertheless, buying local or small scale is not the panacea to our social problems. All businesses, large or small, seek profits. From a Marxist perspective, profit is derived from the surplus value of labor. Thus, the sweatshop worker who I assume made my sneakers may have been paid a few cents an hour. The shoes were much more expensive. The company that made the shoes did not pay the worker the full value of their labor. In fact, they paid them a minuscule amount and kept the rest as profit. At a local level, businesses also want to profit. This is why the local business community has come out against Earned Safe and Sick Time. This would cut into their profits. This is also why some businesses have been against the Homeless Bill of Rights. These businesses do not wish to have homeless people in their shops because they don’t want to scare of their costumers, which they think would diminish sales. This is also why it has been hard to think of companies to support the HOTDISH Militia’s abortion fundraiser. Vikyre, which came out for equal pay, was afraid to publicly support the fundraiser. Why? Perhaps they thought it was divisive and would scare off other consumers. Even well meaning businesses, such as the Northern Waters Smokehaus had to abandon its no tip policy and reduce the wage of wait staff in order to remain profitable. When given the choice between profitability and failure, a business will always choose profits. This, of course, always hurts workers. Finally, if there is the opportunity to do so, most local businesses would expand and grow. Every large corporation began somewhere. Some began as small businesses that made it big. The profit motive is inherently inhumane. It is inherently inhumane since profit represents the conversion of the life of workers into the wealth of business owners. The exchange rate in this conversion always favors the capitalist. Thus, it is certainly useful to patronize small or local businesses, but this tactic is not going to end capitalism or patriarchy. It may alleviate some of the worst excesses of the system, but it does not challenge the laws by which the system operates. Worse, when social movements call upon individuals to shop locally, it can create an illusion that local businesses are our friends. They aren’t. They are not for $15 minimum wage. They don’t want to offer more benefits to their workers. They don’t want homeless folks hanging out. They don’t want workers to take control of their business and decide for themselves how things should be done or how profits should be used.
The Myth of Labels:
Alienation makes production mysterious to us. One way to shed light on the mystery is labels. Labels are great. I want more labels. I like that it is an easy way to know the ingredients or nutrition value in a food item. It is an easy way to know where a shirt is made and what it is made of. It is a way to know if your tuna is dolphin free or your coffee is fair trade. I am for labeling GMOs. The more we know, the more capacity we have to make informed choices.
The main problem with labels is the false security they may provide and the way in which they reinforce the myth of consumer sovereignty. For instance, a person may be secure that their Starbucks coffee is fair trade. It has a label! But, the coffee could have been packaged by an inmate. There is no label for prison labor (which Starbucks has used in the past). Companies try to sell their products by shrouding themselves in labels and packaging such that is green “fair trade” “rainforest alliance” gluten free and breast cancer ribbons. Consider the recent debacle with Cheerios. The company was trying to market itself as concerned with bees, but in 2016 Cheerio’s tested positive for glyphosate, the bee killing pesticide produced by Monsanto. Critics also pointed out that some of the seeds that Cheerios provided are considered invasive or are not native to the U.S. Finally, critics also noted that the industrialized farming of cereal grains has destroyed bee habitat. The big idea here is that many companies know that people are mobilizing or at least aware of issues like environmental destruction, gender equality, globalization, cancer, etc. Labels and branding are used to attract consumers, but also to distract consumers from other unsavory business practices. I wrote about this before with the phenomenon of Trump washing. Nike came out against Trump. Suddenly, everyone loved Nike. Coming out against Trump is a way to seem progressive and draw attention away from sweatshop labor. Again, no company should be entirely trusted as all seek profits.
This piece may seem like it takes an impossible position. Obviously, we live in capitalism but we HAVE to buy something. Women must often shoulder the burden of both underpaid paid labor and under valued unpaid labor. While a person might be able to survive without buying, this would require a lot of labor!! Imagine weaving your own cloth, sewing your own clothes, producing and preserving your own food! The amount of time would not be realistic for most people. Further, it would force women to work harder at unpaid labor in the interest of usurping capitalism. Of course, there are benefits of making and growing or collecting and gleaning rather than buying – but these do not really have the collective economic power to liberate us from capitalist patriarchy.
I accept that some buying is inevitable. I accept that people should be mindful of what they buy, but that even this requires time, knowledge, and money. I accept that there are tactics related to buying that CAN be powerful. Collectively, we can engage in anti-buying campaigns. For instance, there are activists who are divesting their money from banks that support or benefit from the Dakota Access Pipeline. There are activists who supported boycott and divestment against apartheid South Africa. There are activists who currently support the same against apartheid in Israel. The labor movement often calls upon people to boycott companies which are not using union labor or to not patronize a business that is in the middle of a labor dispute. The International Women’s Day March called upon women to boycott sexist companies or avoid buying for the day. Boycotting and divestment is a useful tactic when it is collective and associated with a social movement. These movements use consumer power to collectively punish a business in the interest of creating social change rather than individually reward for doing something perceived as good.
Finally, the major flaw with consumer feminism is that it is focused on consumption rather than production. I get it. It is easier to focus on the consumer end of things. I can go to a store and as an individual choose what to buy. It is easy. The choice takes little time. With hope, others would do the same. However, consumer choices traps one in the logic of capitalism. It locks one into supply and demand and consumer sovereignty. It hopes that buy changing one company, the day will be saved. But, even if everyone chose to buy an organic, Whole Food co-op version of cheerios….and even if Cheerios went under…there would be other cereal brands and other issues with industrial agriculture. Capitalism is too massive and adaptive to be fought on its own terms and with its own rules. Thus, this is why ultimately tactics must be production centered. To this end, we must do the slow and tedious work of building the labor movement. Only when workers own and control the factories, fields, shops, schools, hospitals, etc. will we really have control of if and how things are produced. These choices can be thought of logically, with social and environmental good in mind. In the interim, we must support the struggles of workers for unions, greater autonomy, better wages, more benefits, etc. and connect these struggles to the struggles for racial, gender, sexual, disability, age, etc equality. The invisible hand will not liberate us. Capitalism is abusive to women. It is abusive to everyone who works. It is abusive to the planet.