You Are What You Buy

Here’s a small moment of truth I faced, just days ago. Here in my neck of the woods, these motherfuckers were busted not too long ago for — are you ready — enslaving homeless people to work at their potato farm. According to the indictments, they would kidnap winos, keep them hopped up on crack, and place armed guards on their living quarters to keep them from hauling ass. So my wife-to-be and I were in the San Sebastian winery in St. Augustine — maybe fifteen miles from Hastings, where these bastards operate — when she spotted a display rack with their potato chips. "You want to get some, and see what they’re like?" The response didn’t come from my cerebral cortex. It came from out of the pit of my stomach — faster than my cerebral cortex could catch up. "Hell no!" Those bastards aren’t getting one red cent of my money. Likewise, I don’t shop at Walmart or Food Lion, and I don’t drink Coors beer. I won’t even drink one of yours — because that would hasten you running out, and going to buy more. You see, I’m not even willing to participate in helping you spend money to buy Coors. Will it do any good? I doubt it. I haven’t bought Coors in fifteen years, and they appear to be staying in business.

But that’s not the point. This is the stock argument against boycotts — one I have used myself [except in the case of Coors, where I just simply got out of the habit of drinking it years ago, so my personal boycott is easy to maintain]. That argument is "it won’t do any good, so why bother." It is a disempowering argument, one that tells you how insignificant you are to the corporations who furnish you with whatever it is that you need or want. But what difference does that make? It’s not about your impact on them — which impact exists, however insignificant. It is about who you are. It’s about who you choose to cooperate with. You see, commerce isn’t primarily about competition. It’s about cooperation. Every transaction you make benefits you in some way, and benefits the person you are dealing with. If you buy a car, they get your money, and you get their car — and the money you spend on the car will be less than the benefit you derive from owning it. In other words, when make a purchase, you are supporting and enabling — in however small a way — the behavior of the other party to the transaction, and everybody in his supply chain right back to the manufacturer.

Here’s where it gets good. A few months back, I posted a link to a site called Gaping Void. This site is operated by a freelancer in advertising. His site includes generous helpings of alienation from the corporate world he works in, on the one hand. On the other, it is also abundantly clear that he still buys in to the underlying ideology of the "rat race." For this reason, I put him the category of "still-full-of-shit-but-reachable."
At any rate, being in advertising he is keenly aware of the power of advertising and public relations — including the psychology of consumers. He’s got this post, for example, about this desire people have for a "connection to the cosmos." And he’s absolutely right about that psychology. In fact, it is summed up in the yuppie’s fabled belief that the things they own and display "says something about who I am."

So let us, Conceptual Guerilla style, turn that idea on it’s head — in support of that most elementary form of satyagraha noncooperation known as the boycott. Because you see, Madison Avenue is absolutely right. What you buy does say something about "who you are." Oh, and by the way, if your individual purchasing decisions are "insignificant" why do corporations advertise — influencing your individual decisions, one consumer at a time. There’s your question to the person who says, ‘it won’t do any good." "Really. Then why does Madison Avenue spend billoins of dollars a year on advertising aimed at influencing my individual purchases?" And of course, they frequently peddle an image about "who you are" to hawk their products.

So let’s just take a look at "who you are" as reflected in who you CHOOSE to do business with.

If you buy Nike tennis shoes, you are supporting the owners of Indonesian sweat shops. So that’s what YOU are.

If you buy Coca-Cola, you are supporting the murderers of union organizers in Colombia. So that’s what YOU are.

If you buy Coors, you are supporting people who ruthlessly bust any union organizing, and furthermore, you are supporting the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.

If you shop at Food Lion, you are supporting more union busting, and in addition, you are supporting a "reverse lottery" where your "low prices" are paid for by the consumers injured every year on their premises, because they don’t hire sufficient numbers of employees to police their premises.

If you shop at Walmart, you are supporting Chinese prison labor, and furthermore, you are supporting the destruction of local merchants.

Maybe you’re not convinced, just yet. Maybe you like the taste of Coke and Coors. Maybe you like the "extra low prices" at Walmart and Food Lion. Maybe you really believe that Nike tennis shoes will make you the next Michael Jordan. Maybe whatever ephemeral pleasure or sense of image driven self-esteem you get from your purchases, is more important than whether you are supporting and enabling the behavior of the people you buy from. Maybe you figure, why "deprive" yourself for something that won’t make any difference.

Sorry to disappoint you, but that rationalization also says something about "who you are." For one thing, it says that you really don’t give a shit if goons are killing Coke’s employees in Bogata. It says that saving a few pennies for yourself outweighs lifting a fucking finger for another human being. It says you are so pathetically weak that you can’t muster the minimal self-control and discipline to do a single god damn thing to advance the cause of justice. It says that you find the lure of "low prices," "Rocky Mountain fresh taste," and other Madison Avenue bullshit imagery to be simply irresistable. Some people give their lives to the cause of freedom, equality, and social justice. You can’t even pay a little extra to support local merchants — where the money stays in the community, and eventually finds its way back to you. You can’t even develop a taste for Budweiser — which is made by union labor.

Oh, and having decided that saving a few sheckels at Walmart outweighs their destruction of local competition and outsourcing jobs to China, you will turn around and bray about how corporations put profits before people — the same way you do. In short, you will validate the cheap labor conservative ideology that says that naked "self-interest" reigns supreme, and that we really are — you really are — a bunch of selfish pricks, who will throw our brothers and sisters under the bus because, hey, we like Coke better than Pepsi.

So how about it? Is that who you are?

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