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.