Monday, December 20, 2010

Brazil Declares Itself a Fair Trade Nation

While it merited nary a mention in any of the mainstream Western media, social and economic justice proponents have taken note of the recent announcement that Brazil has become the world's first Fair Trade nation. On November 17, President Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva, whose tenure ends at the end of this year, signed a decree formally establishing a National System of Fair Trade. At the same time he initiated a national business incubator network to encourage grassroots economic development. The actions continue the evolution begun in 2004 with the establishment within the Ministry of Work and Employment of the National Secretary of Solidarity Economics to liaise with federal government bureaus, local municipalities, and civil society organizations in developing policies and programs that foster economic and political equity and social inclusion in Brazil.

To better understand this event, one must distinguish between the concepts of Fair Trade and solidarity economics. The former is more commonly known to American consumers and entails a specific set of exchange practices. These include: pricing floors, living wages, long-term financing guarantees and purchasing agreements, profit sharing, community reinvestment, and the like, the costs of which account for the extra two bits or so one pays at the local coffeehouse for an "ethically sourced" cup of cappuccino.

Fair Trade is sometimes called alternative trade because it seeks to circumvent prevailing market transactions, especially those espoused under neoliberalism and the process of globalization. For reformers like Joseph Stiglitz, Fair Trade is a viable model for international development in that it advances "trade not aid" as the solution to growing global inequality. Yet Fair Trade has also been criticized as a new form of dependency, tying the livelihoods of Third World producers to the largesse of privileged consumers in the First World.

Solidarity economics encompasses much broader ideas of cooperative exchange. These include: unpaid labor and household provisioning exchanges, bartering systems, production and purchasing collectives, local currencies, gift economies, "freecycling," and regional reciprocity coalitions. Radical interpretations of solidarity economics foresee the end of capitalist economics and politics whereas more moderate views hope to simply negotiate a "humanizing" intervention within the existing market system.

According to a 2006 report by the ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, efforts to promote solidarity economics in Brazil actually date back to the 1970s. These initiatives occurred under the auspices of several mostly faith-based international NGOs that organized rural workers into collectives to make and export handicrafts for sale to an emerging cadre of "conscientious" consumers, initially in Europe and now throughout North America and beyond. These efforts continue today through the government-sponsored Brazil Handicraft Program and associated social entrepreneurs such as EcoArts and Brazilianas Handicraft.

By contrast, Brazilian Fair Trade seeks to develop an internal market for domestically produced goods and services. In this regard it's a potential move toward autarky and ultimately independence from the forces of free-market globalization. (Though at this point the investment is minimal in relation to Brazil's GDP.) The system of university-based incubators, harnessing the intellectual capital of researchers and students and marrying it to popular local knowledge, has the makings of a cultural revolution presumably without the severe dislocation (not to mention the brutality) of the Maoist "sent down" program.

The Fair Trade announcement comes on the heels of the election of Lula's handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, as Brazil's first woman president. Writing in The Nation, Kenneth Rapoza characterizes her election as a refutation of the Washington Consensus that prescribes privatization and so-called open markets as the path to success for lesser-developed countries. Fair Trade Brazil marks yet another step down a road less traveled.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who will lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Yesterday's Politico reported buzz about the possibility of Representative Melissa Bean (D-Ill, right) being floated as a potential nominee to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when it goes live in July 2011:

MELISSA BEAN FLOATED AS CFPB HEAD – Buzz on Friday had Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) possibly getting tapped as the first Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head depending on the outcome of her too-close-to-call reelection race, in which Republican Joe Walsh maintained a slight lead as of Sunday afternoon. But a possible Bean nomination is not sitting well with reformers on the left who say the moderate Illinois congresswoman is far too close to the banking industry. Said one administration official: “It’s not clear she would be acceptable to the reformers.”

On her blog FireDogLake, Jane Hamsher lists eight reasons why she believes it's "one of the most morally and politically bankrupt ideas of all time." They include the fact that on a number of occasions in the past couple of years she has actively worked to weaken consumer protection initiatives in the financial services market as well as fight better regulation of the financial services industry. Hamsher also noted the significant campaign contributions received by Bean from the US Chamber of Commerce and the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors. Perhaps most troubling is that Bean authored an amendment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau legislation (not adopted) that would have neutered it by giving an exemption to federally chartered financial institutions, in other words, the culprits responsible for most of the predatory lending practices in the first place.

Bean's name is being floated as a "more mainstream" alternative to Harvard legal scholar Elizabeth Warren who currently services as a special assistant to President Obama and an advisor to Timothy J. Geitner, Secretary of the US Treasury. Warren has thirty years of research experience in consumer finance and has largely been responsible for creating the legislation that is intended to bring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into existence.

Here is a clip of Warren being interviewed recently on the Rachel Maddow Show:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Elizabeth Warren named to head Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a creative move by Obama

The White House announced yesterday that Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren would be named assistant to the President and special advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury charged with setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In his statement to the press, the President noted of Warren:
She’s a native of Oklahoma. She’s a janitor’s daughter who has become one of the country’s fiercest advocates for the middle class. She has seen financial struggles and foreclosures affect her own family.

Long before this crisis hit, she had written eloquently, passionately, forcefully, about the growing financial pressures on working families and the need to put in place stronger consumer protections. And three years ago she came up with an idea for a new independent agency that would have one simple overriding mission: standing up for consumers and middle-class families.
Naming Warren to lead effort, even though accomplished by a backdoor measure intended to sidestep the political battle of a full Senate confirmation which was surely to occur, should be viewed a victory for those who support government-regulated consumer protection. Although it hasn't been remarked upon by the press, setting up a bureau of consumer protection is another milestone for the Obama Administration. It culminates nearly a century of activism on the part of citizen consumers to establish a standalone office at the Federal level, the most recent effort of which was the failure to establish the Consumer Protection Agency in the 1970s.

Warren didn't make a comment beyond thanking the President and Secretary Geitner at the time of the announcement. She released a statement separately, which was distributed by the Alternet.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Target Flashmob protest

In January of this year, the US Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be limited under the First Amendment. Recently, consumers mounted a protest of Target Corporation for its donation in July of $150,000 to the campaign of conservative Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and favors Arizona's anti-immigration law. Best Buy also made a $100,000 contribution to Emmer campaign and protesters vowed to take action against them too.

One of the more creative responses is the flashmob action on Aug. 17 at a Target store in West Seattle. (See video above.) While some 250,000 people signed a petition to boycott Target, this video, which went viral, both for and against, arguably had a higher profile. YouTube records more than 1.2 million views since the video was posted two weeks ago.

As Monroe Friedman notes, in his classic study Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and Media, boycotts are one of the most frequently used tools of political action of the disenfranchised. And certainly the average consumer no doubt is feeling increasingly disenfranchised after the Citizens United decision, which overwhelmingly tilts the share of voice in political dialog to those who can afford to buy the biggest megaphone.

There are two types of boycotts in Friedman's analysis. The first are those which attempt to regulate the "target" by economic sanction, the classic boycott strategy as most people understand it. The second seeks to tarnish the target's reputation, drawing sanction from negative public opinion typically through the media. Friedman further notes that the latter strategies have become increasingly popular with the rise of so-called new social movements.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized to employees for any distress the donation may have caused in a message posted on the company's website on Aug. 5 (before the flashmob action), although it didn't rescind the decision.

The conflation of citizenship and consumption is direct in this case. The question is how effective it will be. One of the findings in Friedman's study, which more than ten years after publication remains definitive, is that consumer boycotts unfortunately have limited success over the long term. A major reason is the difficulty of maintaining the action when relying on individual attention and dedication. At some point, the formal political process must engaged.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Another reason Elizabeth Warren is the one to lead the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau

This article by William Grieder is another reason for naming Elizabeth Warren to head the newly legislated Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Grieder story basically outlines the history of the financial industry meltdown and subsequent taxpayer bailout and the overwhelming influence of insiders in the whole mess. A key statement Grieder makes is that throughout it all the people footing the bill (i.e., us) had no representative at the table. What's happened has affected citizen-consumers at a broad level. Credit is less freely available and, in the case credit cards at least, far more expensive. Most devastating has been the loss of equity in retirement savings and property values. People work and buy as part of a social contract Lizabeth Cohen terms the "Consumers Republic." Warren has studied the erosion of that contract for years. She isn't beholden to the special interests that created the disaster. Her work as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel is how all of this information is seeing the light of day. Most of all, vested interests don't want her. That seems like the best reason of all to give her the gig.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Solidarity Economics in the Erstwhile Motor City

Yesterday, The New York Times Art & Design blog carried a story about artists working among the ruins of postindustrial Detroit. One of the featured items was a monthly artist-run dinner/community funding project called "Soup."

Basically, what happens is someone volunteers to make the main course and others then donate side dishes and such. People pay $5 each to attend and then vote on proposals submitted in advance for using the proceeds from the evening. More than 100 people attended the event last Sunday, which took place above a bakery in the southwest Detroit neighborhood known as Mexicantown. (Pictured right: Voting booths @ Soup. Photo credit: Louis Aguilar via iPhone.)

This is an excellent example of the merging of citizenship and consumption. The proposal selected for funding was a plan to improve a small park located in one of Detroit's rebounding residential communities, Woodbridge, which dates back to the 19th century. Volunteers will use the money to buy materials for repairing playground equipment, upgrading the site, and other clean-up consumables.

Click here to read a more extended post on the evening published on another blog I edit, Motown Review of Art.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Grace Lee Boggs & Immanuel Wallerstein @ USSF 2010

In case you weren't there, one of the highlights of the 2010 US Social Forum was the dialog between longtime Detroit community activist Grace Lee Boggs and world-system theorist Immanuel Wallerstein.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Conscientious Consumption Comes to OU

Received an announcement through the campus email that one of schools at which I teach, Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, has two Altagracia items for sale. (See my previous post on anti-sweatshop victories for the production facility, which is located in the Domican Republic.) Pictured left is a hoodie (available in Oxford gray and black). A t-shirt is also available. The items are priced in line with other similar merchandise but produced under conditions in which workers receive living-wage compensation. It'll be interesting to see if altruism has any value added in this case. Research published in Labor Studies Journal suggests that there is actually a premium associated with conscientious production and consumption.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Elizabeth Warren is the right person to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

In the early of Air America Radio, a regular guest on the Al Franken Show was a little known Harvard Law School professor who seemed to understand better than anyone I'd ever heard the dire threats to the security of the middle class in Post-Reagan America. That professor is now at the center of hot debate over the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is of course Elizabeth Warren.

The fact that Wall Street, the US Chamber of Commerce, and some of the more wonkish players in the Obama Administration are seeking to block her nomination is reason enough to support her.

But as Paul Krugman says in a recent blog post, there are plenty of other reasons. First there's the fact that she essentially built the thing. Second is the fact that it would send a good message to citizens, consumers, and business. Third is as opposed to what her critics say, she really gets it.

I encourage you to check out her own thoughts on the subject. Then make up your own mind.

Political consumption victories in two anti-sweatshop campaigns

Two recent stories that ran in The New York Times detailed victories led by the Workers Rights Consortium and United Students Against Sweatshops in using consumer power to regulate corporate activity.

The first story describes the living wage experiment being conducted by clothing company Knights Apparel in Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic. The company, which is the leading provider of logo-imprinted apparel to American universities, has promised to pay workers in its factory there wages of $500 a month, triple the prevailing region's rate. The company has also promised to upgrade the facility to improve safety.

The second story describes a much less-willing Nike Inc., which bowing to pressure from several universities and the USAS agreed to provide help for laid-off workers in Honduras who lost their jobs when two of its subcontractors closed their facilities.

Both stories highlight an important aspect of political consumption as I am coming to understand it. Specifically, it seems to work best when organized into some kind of structure through which efforts can organized and deployed.

In the case of Knights Apparel, the corporation works closely with the WRC to certify that workers are treated fairly. Nike, which was founded on the principle of exploiting the value of disaggregated production, had to suffer the threat of economic sanctions in order to do what many consider to be the thing. (Even still, the company disavows any responsibility for ensuring its contractors meet their financial obligations to their workforce.)

But in both cases it was the combined efforts of the WRC, which monitors the production practices of suppliers for 186 universities, and the USAS, which organizes the purchasing power of students across the nation, to muster the critical mass to be effective. Political consumption practiced at an individual appears to be far less so, as many studies have shown.

In a recent article posted on Alternet, John Goekler used the term "constructive networks" to describe new sociopolitical structures he sees emerging from the increasingly inoperative nation-state system. These "post-national" systems are not unlike what others have termed solidarity economies, networks through which mutual interdependence flows outside the formal politics of the state on the one hand and the private sphere on the other, but embracing elements of both. How effective these structures can be over the long run remains to be seen.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The citizen-consumer in American history

Many activist groups in American history have claimed the mid-18th-century colonial tax revolts against Great Britain as precedent, the much-vaunted and so-called Tea Party movement being only the most recent. But historian Lawrence B. Glickman in his 2009 book Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America shows that the link between citizenship and consumption is more prevalent and consistent in American life than most people think.

There has been some recent research that links political consumption of the present day with the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain, starting in the late 1700s and culminating with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. One such study is Adam Hochschild's book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (2005), detailing the many techniques of what social movement theorists call "resource mobilization" pioneered during effort that continue to be used by today's social justice activists. One such device is the "buycott" campaign of medallions -- "Am I Not A Man and A Brother?" -- designed by Josiah Wedgewood (shown in this blog's inaugural post) that appeared on everything from brooches to music boxes.

Glickman's assertion is that in fact the influence comes from America, then migrated over to England. It has persisted here throughout our nation's history.

One effort that seems particularly relevant for today is the free produce movement, which started as part of the abolitionist effort in the 1790s and lasted until the 1860s. The "free" in this case refers not "to without cost" but "not enslaved." In a precursor to today's Fair Trade, free produce was a "buycott" encouraging conscientious consumers of the day to shop for goods made by those who received wages for their work.

Among the subsequent expressions of the synergy between citizenship and consumption are the "white label" campaigns of the late 19th- and early 20th-century anti-sweatshop movement. In these campaigns, the "look for the union label" mark became a way for women in particular to express political solidarity in times before they could vote. Another example is the "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns against retailers in Harlem and other areas with high African American populations.

According to Glickman, it was really in the postwar era that the rise of the consumer movement as specifically concerned with consumer safety separate from social justice was solidified. While Glickman doesn't take note of this directly, the eclipse of the progressivist agenda was certainly connected to the rise of what Lizabeth Cohen terms "the Consumers' Republic" of Cold War consensus. Even in this case, the link between citizenship and consumption was forged by the acknowledgment, especially on the part of workers, of the broad distribution of goods as the right of every American to enjoy.

Recent years have seen the growth of what some term "postmateriality," the emphasis on things other than pure marginal utility in the operation of markets. The social science underlying this idea comes from World Values Survey, a longitudinal study conducted over the last several decades by Ronald Inglehart at the University of Michigan. Essentially providing the statistical evidence for Abraham Mazlow's hierarchy of needs, the World Value Surveys shows an increasing emphasis on self-actualization as a valued good as societies become further and further removed from having to provide for day-to-day material sustenance.

One way self-actualization gets expressed is through what have come to be termed moral markets. That is, transactions involving consumers whose identity is in part connected to their purchasing decisions based on values rather than simply value, justice and fairness rather than mere price. These transactions are conducted under rubrics like Fair Trade, green, blue, eco-conscious, etc.

More and more this identity (in social science speak, "subjectivity") is being seen in the American context, though the US lags behind contemporary Europe in this regard. The recent economic meltdown may have helped forge a stronger link between the identities of citizen and consumer with the creation, as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even though some critics see it as falling short of where it could have been.

Image above right: The New Negro Alliance of Washington DC boycotting People's Drugs in the 1940s to protest its discriminating employment practices. Go to for more information.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Introducing the Citizen-Consumer

For the most of the modern period, citizenship and consumption have been considered antithetical to one another. From Thorstein Veblen at the turn of the twentieth century, to the culture industry critique of the Frankfurt School later on, and even more recently in the writings of social critics such as Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch, the propagation of consumerist values has been seen as having a derogatory effect on civic and cultural life.

This can be understood as rooted in large part in the conception of citizenship as public and consumption as private, a reflection of the ideal distinction between polis and oikos that goes back to the ancient Greeks.

But with the postmodern turn, the subjectivities (that is, the social roles and experience personae) of citizen and consumer have moved closer together. Along with the rise of neoliberalism on the one hand, has been the perception increasingly of the citizen as a kind of consumer, an individual user of state services guided by self-interest. With the efflorescence of new social movements and identity construction on the other hand, has come the idea of the consumer as a political agent, leveraging marketplace sovereignty into legislative sovereignty of a sort, the conduct of politics by other means.

This blog intends to investigate the intersection of citizen and consumer, reflecting on the theories behind and current and historical practices of political consumption. In particular, it will look at representations of political consumption in a range of communications media and how they are used to mobilize citizen-consumers into action.

Image above: Josiah Wedgewood, Am I Not A Man and A Brother? (1787). Created as part of the anti-slavery campaign under the British Empire.