This series has been based on my conviction that green products, pink ribbons, rubber bracelets, political t-shirts, and Oprah give-aways are NOT going to bring about social justice. The consumer activism mindset that has taken hold in US society will not end genocide, war, poverty, racism, or anything else. In fact “consumer activism” is largely an oxymoron. Although one can be a “conscientious consumer” (and take an activist stance via NOT shopping/promoting certain corporations (i.e. Wal-Mart)), I don’t believe a socially just world cannot be bought – no matter how much is being spent.
Further, although many social justice organizations need money in order to do their work, donating money will not in and of itself bring about equity. Such donations are important no doubt, but what is just as necessary (if not more so) is using your voice, your brain, your pen, your keyboard, your body to PROTEST those things that are wrong in our world. (And NOT buying can certainly be a form of protest.) Besides, throwing money at a situation never works – it may make things look better on the surface, but dig a little deeper, and the problem will still be there.
In spite of this, justice through consumerism is being sold to the world citizenry at an alarming rate. Donate to this politician and your country will be saved. Buy this car and the environment will be healed. Purchase products with pink ribbons and breast cancer will disappear. Send money and the ravages wrought by Katrina will be fixed. Order a box of Thin Mints for a soldier and ameliorate the damages of militarization. These are the types of messages that we are inundated with. They vary in type and urgency, but all, at their core, have the same purpose: to make us, as humans, believe that through consumption we can make the world a better place.
This mass-delusion keeps the wheels of advanced corporate capitalism spinning us happily towards our doom as we go about lives driven largely by consumerist desires. Even more abhorrent though is the way the consumer mindset has infiltrated activist/social justice movements. I imagine many earlier visionaries are rolling in their graves. Emma Goldman certainly would take issue with consumerized voting movements such as Rock the Vote. Karl Marx would hardly endorse the push for re-usable bags over and above the push for worker’s rights (after all, how many of those Whole Foods shoppers with their cloth bags are thinking about the exploitive labor that picked that organic produce?) Virginia Woolf would see right through pink-washing. And I doubt if Sojourner Truth would be quick to buy a rubber bracelet claiming “Ain’t I a woman?”
Part of the reason that this consumerist mindset has taken such a strong hold is that consumerism has become the new one world religion, as discussed in parts 1 through 5 of this series. We are encouraged that with shopping comes salvation, that buying is the best form of worship. Yet, in spite of the ways consumerism has infiltrated every facet of life, including not only religion but also activism and protest, there are a number of indications that the world populace is beginning to question justice through buying. Sites like Enough.org are good signs “enoughism” is gaining appeal. Enoughism, a concept that Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown describes as “a threshold of wealth and consumption above which no one needs more…a threshold below which no one can thrive” seems to be the type of system that combines socialism with capitalism in a productive way – a system that would allow for capitalism with a social conscious and a collective world view (Brown quoted in Ms., Winter 2009, p.37). Perhaps one positive outcome of the global economic crisis will be more people saying “Enough!” to the corporatist greed that got us here. Perhaps it will lead people to break their ATM habits, to a switch from a consumerist mindset to an enoughism one.
Meanwhile, I believe that instead of heading to the ATM, literally or figuratively, we would do better to spend time, rather than money, doing the following:
Reading/Writing: We would be better served by educating ourselves about the many problems in our world rather than running out to buy green/pink products. Reading about the complex history behind the problems that plague human society is vital. We cannot hope to change the world without doing our research first. Writing is the next part of this equation – whether it is writing a blog post, a letter to an editor, or a missive to Dear Aunt Hilda. The pen (or keyboard) is indeed mightier than the sword.
Thinking, an activity that is woefully under-rated, must occur both individually and collectively. We need to think about the changes that need to be made, examine what prevents these changes, and consider how we can make change a reality (rather than merely a rhetorical stance peppered in speeches). Buying is easier than thinking, hence many opt to purchase something in hopes this will bring about change (i.e. a politically hip t-shirt or a rubber bracelet) rather than THINKING about what really needs to occur for change to happen.
Talking, or raising awareness, is crucial. We cannot hope to change the world until the masses wake up from their slumbering sheep-state. However, as the conversation is currently controlled by the corporate owned BIASED media, most of the ‘talking’ that takes place on a societal level works to maintain and perpetuate things as they are. We must interrupt this conversation and CHANGE the subject(s)!
Listening to ALL kinds of ‘others’ regarding how to make the world a more socially just place is vital. Everyone deserves a place at the table, and the more diverse the voices the better. We must listen to others as their experiences will be different from ours – even if they share the same sex/gender/race/class/sexuality/belief etc. This is one of the reasons the big umbrella labels we use can be problematic – not all women are the same, not all queers are the same, not all trans people are the same. Each person, no matter how many ‘social positionings’ they share, will bring something new and different to the conversation. We must keep our ears open for to ALL types of voices coming from all types of places. We need to seek out others to listen to who have different “lenses” or experiences from our own.
Acting in ways both small and large to bring about the socially just world we envision is the essential culmination of these five steps. If we do the first four, and forget about the fifth, not much will be gained. We need to take action regarding all of the above, continually asking ourselves “What actions can I take to change things? What activism can I be a part of?” What we do NOT need to do is act in more ways that our bound up with consumerism!
(And, for a list of sites that encourage NOT buying, go here to find a number of great sources compiled by Dervish.)