The rage of hip consumers
When Ben & Jerry’s, owned by Unilever, offers support to Occupy Wall Street, you know this ain’t no revolution.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has not only been endorsed by celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore - newspaper columnists are also cheering it on and a number of leading Democratic figures have expressed sympathy with the disgruntled Financial District campers. But the real proof that OWS is now the flavour of the month came with a statement of support from Ben & Jerry’s. The quirky, ‘ethical’ ice-cream company has become the first corporation to endorse the movement.
The Ben & Jerry’s board of directors said: ‘[W]e realise that Occupy Wall Street is calling for systemic change. We support this call to action and are honoured to join you in this call to take back our nation and democracy.’
But hang on, isn’t OWS all about challenging ‘corporate power’? Isn’t it about helping 99 per cent of Americans to wriggle free from the stranglehold of the Big Business one-per-centers? After all, the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City states that corporations are a threat to democracy and that OWS is a movement for all those who feel wronged by ‘corporate forces’.
Evidently, this is a shrewd PR move on behalf of Ben & Jerry’s, a company owned by the British-Dutch food conglomerate Unilever. It wants to show that it’s not one of those Evil Corporations, that its image as a local, family-friendly business committed to fairtrade, sustainability and pun-tastic slogans still holds true. But in any case, its endorsement makes perfect sense and chimes, rather than jars, with the OWS protesters’ anti-capitalist message.
The anti-corporate agenda that is so central to the OWS movement is actually largely about defining which kind of consumption is acceptable and which isn’t. So, organic food – good; genetically-modified food – bad. Locally-sourced products – good; stuff made by multinational companies – bad.
In essence, OWS is a campaign for consumer politics. It’s about a belief that we can change the world by making ‘smart’ consumer choices. It’s about expressing your politics and your identity through what you do and do not eat, where you shop and which brands you refuse to wear. So while today’s consumption critics love to hate chainstores and big corporations, they always choose to direct their ire at companies that make stuff they don’t like (McDonald’s, Shell, Wal-Mart) rather than at companies that make stuff they do like (Ben & Jerry’s, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods).
While the hipsters of Zuccotti Park would not be caught dead eating a battery-bred chicken, they believe the majority of Americans are not as well-equipped to make the ‘correct’ consumer choices. As the OWS website says, ‘The masses are incessantly encouraged, even conned, into consuming, even if it is beyond, or way beyond, their means.’ The 99 per cent of Americans that the OWS protesters claim to speak for are portrayed as feeble-minded, goldfish-like creatures who will just keep consuming the wrong kind of stuff until they – and the planet – explode.
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When Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek addressed the so-called General Assembly at the OWS headquarters in Zuccotti Park on Saturday, he made a very polite plea for abandoning consumer politics. Doing things like ‘recycling Coke cans’ or buying a Starbucks cappuccino because a small percentage gets donated to the Third World doesn’t challenge the system, he suggested. At the mention of Coca Cola and Starbucks he was cheered, but when he suggested that buying organic food may also be classified as a ‘pseudoactivity’ the audience was displeased. There was an audible gasp among the crowd, and Zizek interjected ‘It’s good to buy it! But isn’t it the case that many of us buy it because it makes us feel good?’
In fact, for the hipsters of Zuccoti Park taking part in the OWS movement is itself a feelgood activity. There’s a carnival-like atmosphere, with drum circles, live blogging, workshops, a soup kitchen and a library. Far from posing a serious challenge to capitalism, they are exercising a shallow form of politics that easily lends itself to fashionable posturing.
So a coffee shop in uber-hip Williamsburg in Brooklyn tries to draw passers-by in by offering ‘coffee for the 99 per cent’, and online a number of companies are now selling tops with OWS slogans. One even offers t-shirts with glow-in-the-dark text so you can ‘get noticed even at night’.
When the New York Times fashion section did a report on ‘what to wear to a protest’, some OWS supporters said this was typical of the shallow ‘mainstream media’, which dumbs down the message of the protest and tries to compress it into headline-friendly soundbytes. In truth, the anti-capitalist politics of the protest itself is so dumbed down and superficial that the NYT fashion reportage ended up being the most revealing account of the protest so far.
Rather than posing a challenge to corporations, the left’s obsession with ‘ethical consumption’ has become a very profitable focus for a range of companies. And meanwhile the masses - those 99 per cent - are castigated for their tacky and irresponsible taste. This disdainful attitude that comes with the Ben & Jerryfication of left-wing politics may be in vogue, but it isn’t cool.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.