Update: Your Wallet Can’t Vote For You

Cyrus Eosphoros, Columnist

This is the first part of a three-part series on consumption-centered activism in the U.S. The next section will be published in the April 10 issue of the Review.

Consumer action as a form of activism — as political behavior that affects the world on a scale beyond individuals — that is easy to employ is a fairly new concept. Globalization and modern technology mean it is immensely easy to circulate ideas and organize events. A boycott, for example, doesn’t even require people to be in the same state or to do something at a single time. Boycotts aren’t new, but they have been harder to execute in the past, requiring massive coordination and immense sacrifice. The sacrifice is ostensibly gone now; no matter what service or population we’re avoiding, there are alternatives available around the corner. The real life version of that model, as always, tells us the situation is much worse.

Any demand to avoid something that is an essential part of a person’s life assumes there’s a viable alternative available, whether it’s finding what they need somewhere else or forgoing it. We live in a world where food, shelter, healthcare and education are sold. This is fine, one of these organizers might say, and helpfully point out other ways to get what a person needed. But that means the way for people in these conditions, if they want to still be the movement’s definition of “virtuous,” are tasked with moving to a city with better schools or paying three times as much while driving twice as far for a week’s groceries or giving up medication that means they’re in a position to want to engage with politics at all. Or having magically known better than to live in the place they call home.

The current mess of Indiana’s exercise in religious liberty laws isn’t, on the surface, an economic issue or one of consumption. It’s political. We’re dealing with elected officials, laws and an entire state of America. The state of Indiana isn’t trying to sell us anything. But somehow, the very first movement to get massive attention was a call to #BoycottIndiana, spilling from some currently anonymous person to major officials. So far, the mayors of Portland, San Francisco and Seattle have withdrawn city funding for trips to Indiana. They are alongside many cultural actors, with churches, conventions and Wilco all dropping promised commitments to appear in the state. The demographics of people who approve these actions include politicians as well as most of pop culture. And in the case of the entertainment cancellations, there is a near-explicit threat: They’re taking away revenue from the state.

That’s a threat to the government of Indiana, yes, but an abstract one. The real ramifications would take years to kick in. What matters, what is getting reactions, is the part of this that is a publicity stunt. Actions taken in public involving fame, big numbers or the ideal mix of both, make excellent headlines. Politicians fear for their careers and reputations in a field where those are nearly synonymous. Losing out on millions of dollars that would’ve gone to businesses and workers from the boon of out-of-town consumers only matters if the businesses in question are big enough that they wouldn’t take a hit anyway. This level of the issue is played out on a theoretical battleground.

Who gets more than a stained reputation? The people living in Indiana, specifically the queer people living in Indiana, for whom everyone else is supposedly fighting. They are the people who are going to miss opportunities to do something they loved, who are going to work at businesses in unexpected decline, who actually have to deal with the state of the ideological battleground. As long as the argument is in terms of the kind of threats activists in our generation have learned work if you have the clout to back them up, the people who can’t pull that kind of weight get to be the casualties both sides are arguing over.

Activist Kimberly Lux, who goes by the Twitter handle @vivian_games, summarized what’s wrong better than I can: “Corporations give middle finger to queer folks not rich enough to leave Indiana, upper class cis gays celebrate the march of progress.” I don’t doubt that many in Oberlin will follow suit. Not out of malice or even ignorance, but because this is how we’ve been taught to think about progressive activism. But by endorsing capitalistic activism as the solution, liberal organizers ignore the very people they aim to help.