Activism and Class

One of the issues which often goes undiscussed in the activist community is the intersection between activism and class. Simply put, people with a higher class status enjoy the privilege of being able to engage in acts of activism such as boycotts, walkouts, traveling for protests, attending conferences, and so on, while people of lower class status cannot engage in these activities, or find them an extreme hardship. Yet, people in all social classes can care about social issues, value activism, and think that activism is important. So, how do we craft activism which includes everyone?

I’ve been thinking about this especially in reference to the Nestle boycott, and boycotts in general. One of the big problems with boycotting evil companies these days is that they own a lot of stuff. So, if you decide that you want to boycott Nestle, first you need to find a list of the brands and companies they control. Then you need to come up with alternatives. Both of these things take time and effort which may not be available to everyone, and they can also require funds. Boycotting itself requires a personal commitment that some hardship an acceptable price for not supporting wrongdoing.

For some people, just buying another large generic brand might be enough. They’ve decided that Nestle is particularly unsupportable, and that they therefore do not want to give money to Nestle, but they may be ok with patronizing another brand. Others, however, might start to research the alternatives and learn that many of the companies which manufacture alternatives also engage in unsavory business practices which they do not want to support by buying these products.

And thus, you start getting into the realm of looking at alternatives which are fair trade, certified slave free, etc etc. And the thing about these alternatives is that they are great, but they also tend to be extremely expensive. And then you start to straddle a divide between luxuries and necessities, wealth and poverty, because while people in the upper class can pay more for the things they want/need to take an ethical stance, people in the lower classes cannot pay more for necessities, although they may choose to forgo some luxuries for ethical reasons.

Take chocolate. Chocolate is a luxury. Someone with less economic status who has decided to commit to buying ethical chocolate might go “ok, normally I would buy Evil Brand chocolate chips for $1.50 a bag once a week, so instead I am going to buy Ethical Brand chocolate chips for $4.50 a bag every three weeks. As a result, I will make less chocolate chip cookies, so I will be making a sacrifice, but I find that sacrifice acceptable.”

But what about something like a staple grain? You can’t suddenly buy a third as much rice, because then you aren’t making a sacrifice, you are starving yourself and your family. And if you’re on a fixed income, I’m sorry, but there is no way for you to decide to buy the more expensive rice because it’s the right thing to do. When every penny counts, doing something like tripling food expenses is just not an option. Even if you feel like a purchase is contributing to oppression and abuse, you have to make it, because there is no choice. Does this make people who are forced into such purchases bad people? Of course it doesn’t. It simply illustrates that something which seems simple often is not. Your gut reaction to “this product is made with slave labour” is “don’t buy it anymore,” but that’s not an option which everyone can take. If you can take that option, bully for you, and you should, because having knowledge and power means that you should act. But if you have knowledge and you are powerless, I fail to see how that makes you evil.

You might seek out the lesser of evils, and decide which major company which makes low cost products is the most palatable to you. And, you know, I think that’s a reasonable solution. I think that people do need to eat, and live, and be happy, and that while sacrifice is a reasonable thing in a boycott, extreme hardship, especially hardship which threatens health, is not reasonable. And it’s not reasonable to expect it.

Sometimes there are no alternatives. I was thinking about this the other day as I was driving alone (an act which I find morally questionable, incidentally) and I needed petrol, and it occurred to me that if I wanted a source of petrol which did not rely on the spoils of war or contribute to environmental degradation in places like South America, I probably would not be able to find one. I can’t think of any refineries/fuel companies in the US which commit to using only domestic oil, can you? And even domestic oil is problematic. I’ve committed myself to driving a car as a necessity, but I can’t take an action which might make it more acceptable to me. I am forced to do something which I think is not ok, because I need to in order to survive. Am I a bad person for doing that? I don’t think that I am. Even with the awareness that I am doing something bad, I am not a bad person.

Many people in the middle and upper classes act like there’s only one right way to engage in activism. And it’s because they have the luxury to say “x or y is oppressive and I will not support it,” because they have status and power. How do you think it feels to lack that power and to feel morally bankrupt when you make a purchase which supports oppression? Having been in that position at various points in my life, I can tell you that it does not feel good. And it feels even worse when people are beating you over the head with the knowledge that you are contributing to something wrong, because no matter how matter times you say “I know, but I have no choice,” people will not listen.

Activism comes in many forms. You may be forced to make compromises in your ethics because you need to survive, but you can try to commit other good deeds which will bring your actions into balance, instead of giving up because some people don’t think you’re the right kind of activist. For example, you can educate other people about ethical issues, especially targeting people who do have the socioeconomic clout to do something about it. Hence the uproar over #nestlefamily. I can’t speak to the class status of everyone involved, of course, but I do think that a lot of people were educated by commentary from activists, and that some of the people speaking may have lacked (at least at some point in their lives) the ability to make the ethically right choice, so they were excited to connect with people who did have the power to make a choice like boycotting Nestle.

That’s also why so many people were disappointed with attendees. Here are these very powerful and influential people who supported evil by accepting handouts and agreeing to market on evil’s behalf. (I know that there’s some dispute over this, but people who attend a conference and are expected to “share with readers” are marketing. Not only that, but they’re not being paid for it, which is a really great deal for the corporation that manages to trick people into doing this.) Here were these people who could have taken a stance and said “you know, I researched your company, and I don’t like the way you do business, so I am not going to accept your invitation,” and they didn’t.

When I support things like boycotts and walkouts, I do so not only for myself, because I think it’s important to behave ethically, I also do so on behalf of others who lack the ability to do what I can do. When I buy Ethical Corporation rice, I like to think that someone who was forced to buy Evil Corporation rice benefits indirectly from my purchase: at least someone is able to make that purchase, even if ou couldn’t. Think of it as a form of sponsorship, as you will. If you’re one of my readers and you are forced to buy inethical products because you lack choice, know that I think of you when I buy ethical products, and that I am thankful for the opportunities which give me the power to do so. And that I am trying to work to make ethical choices more accessible to you, whether it’s through cost or physical availability (in terms of making sure that it’s made with ingredients safe for you to eat, making sure it’s on the shelves in your local store, etc), or both.

I think it’s important to avoid judging the activism of others. You cannot understand someone’s position until you have been in ou place, and everyone needs to advocate to the best of their ability. Not to the best of your ability, but to the best of theirs. For a person with disabilities living on SSI, that might take the form of writing a website to educate people, using a free service like Blogger. For a busy working mother, that might take the form of encouraging children to forgo some necessities and talking about ethicalĀ  issues; buying Evil Corp. rice to feed the family because the family needs to be fed, but asking the family if they are willing to give up weekly chocolate chips in exchange for buying from Ethical Corp. For someone in the middle classes, that might be committing to buy entirely ethically sourced products. For someone in a position of power, like a big name blogger, it might include shaming evil companies which attempt to buy complicity. All of these people are activists.

For me, one of the defining features of activism is education and the ability to make informed choices. And the decision to share information with others, whether it’s through letter writing, conversations, websites, picket lines, etc. How you choose to use that information and engage with the world as an activist, though, is not my business, and it shouldn’t be anyone else’s.

Of further interest: Chally recently wrote about activism and the tendency seen among some activists to dictate the behavior of others.

9 Replies to “Activism and Class”

  1. Oh yeah. It’s a little weird for me — much of my family is of higher social and economic classes than I am now so I’m familiar with the perspectives of upper-middle-class white America while being working class personally. (It’s one reason I have so little patience with unexamined privilege from that group; I’ve worked on mine — with help from some people to whom I am most grateful — so what’s keeping y’all?) So I don’t like Wal-Mart’s exploitive labor practices and really exploitive use of monopsony powers; it’s still the best option in terms of price and convenience available for a lot of people who shop there. Perhaps they do help shield Wal-Mart from being inconvenienced enough to change their ways, but they aren’t in a position to sacrifice more of what little they have (due in large part to more widespread exploitive labor practices). Blaming them for Wal-Mart is hostage logic: “If you don’t give me what I want I’ll kill a hostage and it will be your fault!”

    Nope, it’s still always and ever the fault of the person with the gun who chooses to pull the trigger. It is no one else’s.

    Have I mentioned that I like your work?

  2. Sometimes the rank classism I see from supposed social justice advocates makes me cry. I grew up extremely poor, and while I may be considered middle class income/education wise, I definitely identify more with the lower classes than the middle classes. Although I have spent a lot of time among the upper classes and in fact my extended family is extremely wealthy (I grew up poor because, you know, black sheep, etc etc). So I have a pretty good view of many class perspectives, is what I’m getting at.

    And the kind of rhetoric I see…it shows an astounding level of density when it comes to examining privilege. Like making fun of people who shop at Walmart. Like policing people who feed their families at McDonalds. Like suggesting that the poor are “too ignorant” and “stupid” to “know what’s good for them.” Horrific. And so not productive or helpful. You want people to stop shopping at Walmart? Address the labour practices which force them to shop there because that’s all they can afford. You want people to stop using McDonalds as a major nutrition source? Make other nutrition sources equally accessible in terms of location, cost, and ease. And don’t fucking tell me that the poor are ignorant. The poor? A lot smarter than most people in the middle/upper classes seem to think. They know full well that they are being exploited by people in the middle/upper classes and that those selfsame people criticizing their lives are directly profiting from their exploitation of the poor.

    I think “Deer Hunting With Jesus” should be required reading for people who have not experienced, actually lived, life in the lower classes.

  3. Like policing people who feed their families at McDonalds.

    Oh, this one drives me completely crazy. Eating at McDonalds is a very good rational decision for many people given the circumstances and the availability of resources. The supposedly super cheap home-cooked food that the anti-fast food people advocate is super cheap only if you don’t pay the cook. Who do they expect to provide all this uncompensated labor? How is anyone supposed to cook without the capital outlay needed to acquire and equip a kitchen in the first place? Not everybody has access to one.

  4. Since it apparently needs to be said already, if comments demonstrating a profound lack of understanding about class issues are left on this post, they will be deleted. Unless I find them really funny, in which case I may leave them up as an illustration of exactly what I am talking about.

  5. The last time I shopped in the UK’s Asda/Walmart, the checkout chappy told me it was a “not for profit” organisation. Sorry, I was dumbfounded, aka gobsmacked, so had no answer.

  6. Interesting thing about Wall-Mart

    I don’t like it myself (plus, we don’t have one), but shopping in Big Box Stores of a similar nature is what we need to do. They’re completely wheelchair accessible, and allow service animals. They have wide aisles.

    I would love to be able to buy all my stuff local (we have a huge Buy Local Push going on here) but Don and I can’t get into most of the stores.

  7. I agree with this article, though I also think its kind of obvious. It’s surely what many more ‘workerist’ lefties have always said about what they would sniffily call ‘lifestyleism’. Ethical consumerism can be just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of finessing higher income into a claim for the moral high ground.

    Still, I’m middle-class enough that I get into dilemmas about it myself.

    One issue that could be added is how the big supermarkets are wise to this, and appear to actively use ‘ethical’ issues as a way to increase profit-margins on sales to middle class people. When I find myself trying to decide whether to get the ‘fair trade’ coffee brand, or the ultra-cheap sort I usually get (that costs about 1/4 of the price) I can’t help being a bit cynical about the way one has to make a large charitable donation to the supermarket in return for making a relatively small one to the coffee growers. On many occasions I’ve just decided to forgo coffee entirely rather than make a decision.

  8. One of the issues with things which are “kind of obvious” is that they rarely are, unfortunately. It seems obvious to people who are experiencing those things, but it is clearly not so obvious to others, or they wouldn’t keep doing it. See:oppression.

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