Boycotts Result in Obsolete Forms of Activism

Cyrus Eosphoros, Columnist

This is the third and final part in a series on consumption-centered activism in the U.S.

The previous two entries in this series were about the pitfalls of boycotts as they happen today: how the idea of boycotting the entire state of Indiana punishes authorities via publicity and actual Indiana residents — especially poor and queer people — via real-life deprivation, while boycotts focused on multinational corporations either succeed as a PR smear or fail to make a dent in their profits large enough to justify layoffs. Despite this, boycotts are still one of the first tactics activists, who are high-profile enough to have their suggestions matter, promote. So why do we keep thinking they’re a good idea, even when proven otherwise?

As far as I can tell, part of the problem is that they’re deeply embedded in the identity of American activism. The iconic success is still the Montgomery Bus Boycott — safe, successful and as non-confrontational as talking about a social movement can be. There are two models people are referencing when they talk about boycotts succeeding. The first and overwhelmingly likely one is an idealized model that can be traced back to popular conceptions of the Civil Rights era.

The second is an idealized version of how we’re seeing modern boycotts operate. It’s an active desire for the model we’re seeing on a week-to-week basis: the idea of a boycott gets wide traction, crowds of people swear they’re going to participate, and companies and other entities react as soon as it makes a major news story.

That first way of thinking is utterly obsolete. The second is deceptive. I’ll go further than that: holding to either seriously can only, over time, be actively harmful.

Why? Two easy answers: multinational corporations and GoFundMe.

Instead of reacting to the drawn-out effects of a boycott, people are reacting to the threat of it, or the high-profile news stories a couple days in. This is appealingly immediate gratification, and certainly looks like we’re achieving a lot in a short period of time. So what’s the issue?

We’re teaching ourselves to react to boycotts instead of following through on sustained protest. Which would be fine, if we were just getting what we wanted. Instead, this immediate response makes it easier to accept surface-level change and platitudes, as well as incentivizing shooting for much smaller goals and then celebrating them anyway.

That is, when the “boycott” succeeds.

The huge amount of news coverage that makes the threat of a boycott meaningful can also kill the initiative before it begins. Unless people are seeking to boycott a completely unsympathetic opponent, some group is going to want to defend the attempted boycott’s target. These supporters, too, will be reacting to the publicized threat, not the economic follow-through that hasn’t happened yet. This means that businesses we see suffering high-profile backlash for whatever blunder or bigotry got them in the news will also be receiving a wave of supporters. That group will try to compensate by immediately throwing their money at the business they’re supporting, before a boycott could even have any effect. GoFundMe has become almost synonymous with this, with the now-infamous Memories Pizza as the most recent example to be known nationwide. Even when the businesses themselves don’t capitalize on their new fame to raise funds, some supporter will open an account for them.

And a completely unsympathetic opponent is likely to be one of the faceless multinational corporations that can largely shrug off the hit to everything but their PR. The damage on that level is superficial even when it looks like it hurts. At best, you win some policy changes and an impressive press release. At worst, it means — well, nothing, but more realistically all the bad reputation will result in is slightly more enthusiastic versions of PR campaigns that were already in the works.

What other options do we have, if we’re looking at a political situation from the point of view of people who have some money to throw around but not much else? Whether we’re viewing from a distance or just as people who aren’t in a position to throw in with the people who are managing to physically protest or agitate full-time, what can we do?

My opinion at least is very, very strong: Support people on strike. Currently, low-income workers are constrained by not having the options boycotters do: They can’t vote with their wallets, even for their own sake, because they’re still beholden to the forces they’re fighting. People who are directly affected can’t afford to leave their jobs or strike or even spend too much time organizing. People who have money to act with have the missing piece affected workers lack, though they can’t always directly engage in protest. Can you imagine if, instead of talking past each other, these two groups combined resources? Think of the potential for crowdfunded strike pay, picking up where our current systems leave off.

Want to make a difference to individual people — as workers, in terms of money — who are up against something larger than them? Think of what we’d be able to do if people could actually afford to keep fighting.