Politics as consumption

After a boycott announcement, a buycott day, and a same sex kiss-in, the consumption thread of the battle over same sex marriage has taken a new turn.  Yesterday (August 7), the front moved from fast food chicken to milk-saturated coffee.  (Opponents of same sex marriage can buy their coffee elsewhere, although that outlet might be owned by Starbucks anyway!)  Meanwhile, several celebrities tweeted in support.

Equally Wed, a magazine devoted to planning same sex weddings, announced National Marriage Equality Day, which would be marked by shopping at Starbucks.  Starbucks then asked the group to expand the effort to include all sorts of companies that have been promoting marriage equality.  Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos, donated millions to a referendum effort in Washington, quickly made the list.  But there are so many more companies that it’s extremely difficult to find a comprehensive list: Nike and Microsoft also endorsed same sex marriage in Wasington;  JC Penney hired Ellen DeGeneres as its spokeman; Bank of America offers same sex partners of its employees benefits.  Kraft produced a rainbow flag image of Oreos.

The examples go on and on and on.  Indeed, when its president rejected same sex marriage, Chick-Fil-A identified itself as something of an outlier among national companies; most want to attract all the customers they can, and, like virtually everyone else, gays and lesbians eat cookies, drink coffee and buy clothes. (Adam Smith and Karl Marx would agree that discrimination is bad business.  Even Chick-Fil-A is adamant in proclaiming that it does not discriminate in service or hiring; they’ll sell anyone a chicken sandwich.)

So, yesterday, if you wanted to support marriage equality, you could buy a book online, drink a latte, buy sneakers, or install software–things you might do anyway.  Or you could do any of those activities because… you do them anyway.

Of course, none of these businesses will survive, much less flourish, because of their political stands–and even if you approve of, say Microsoft’s stance on marriage equality, there will be something else the company does that you don’t like.

More than that, doesn’t consumption as politics make expressing support so easy to do and hard to track as to be virtually meaningless?  Activist groups work hard to provide something for their supporters to do, and buying something, posting something, or tweeting can easily set the most modest level of engagement.  But the $4.50 you spend on a latte at Starbucks would do more for the cause if contributed to, say, the Human Rights Campaign, which helpfully offers a comprehensive buying guide for its supporters.

In providing easy access to minimally disruptive or effective actions, groups hope to provide a rung on a ladder on which the aspiring activist could climb.  But in defining politics in terms of buying behavior, shopping can easily become a substitute for marginally more difficult–and possibly more influential–ways to support political claims.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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