Resistance for Sale: Turning Anger Into Capital

My father and I had a long conversation recently about the similarities and differences between our generations, both of whom were heavily involved in protest movements, albeit in different ways. And both of whom failed in some ways while succeeding in others. One thing both of us noted was a sort of easy distractibility in both generations which allowed those in power to twist the outbreak of resistance in the public into a revenue stream, while at the same time placating people to keep them docile. In a masterstroke, the very institutions people were protesting found a new way to exploit them.

In my own generation, I look at the way online culture has grown considerably in the last decade, and how individual people have become both products and consumers. At the same time, there’s a rising commodification of resistance that rakes in significant profits; companies like Twitter and Tumblr generate revenue from users engaged in resistance, and those very users can be lulled into a sense of complacency and more limited social action. By participating on those platforms, they think of themselves as members of a resistance, even though that isn’t necessarily the case, and while they may not be creating lasting social change, they’re definitely generating profits for the parent company.

The flood of technology, too, is reflective of this larger ability to harness resistance, taking tools people develop to communicate with each other and build solidarity and turning them into products to be bought, sold, and traded. Smartphones are ubiquitous among many middle class people my age, for instance, and one reason many people like to use them is because they’re useful for ‘organising,’ but of course they’re also useful for playing games where you take care of fake animals, play an electronic version of pictionary, and take turns in a thinly-veiled replica of Scrabble.

Even as people claim it’s critically important to not only be in touch through technology but to have the latest and best, generating huge profits for tech companies, they’re not necessarily using their tech as tools of resistance. It’s also become entertainment, an opiate for the masses, a form of distraction, something to lose yourself in. The shift happens over time, and before you know it, you’re sunk more deeply into the fictional world of a farm than you are into the real world of the farms struggling to survive in the outside world around you.

Resistance becomes a product, and deft marketing firms find a way to commodify it; the classic illustration and one I’ve brought up many times before is the green movement. What was once a movement intended to reduce resource use and confront rising environmental problems is now a world where you show how much you care by buying the most stuff, and where participation is contingent on the ability to pay a very high price tag. Instead of acquiring fewer things and using them more responsibly, people are supposed to buy more things, and the companies marketing ‘green’ products are making the same array of disposable useless crap as their counterparts.

And the green branding has proved to be a very effective way to get consumers to pay higher prices. People who want to be socially and ecologically conscious are drawn to the branding without considering the products behind it and asking themselves if they really need those products or if there’s a better way to fill the need ostensibly served by that product. Like other firms, green companies have found a way to invent needs people didn’t even know they had in order to sell more products.

Thus, resistance to environmental problems, the desire to address the looming ecological crisis spreading over every corner of the earth, has been neatly commodified and turned into something that can be bought and sold. Thoreau would be so proud; especially after Walden Brand Nature Camps become a national chain. As people buy those specially-made ‘green’ products, they satisfy their need for resistance, tuning out for the hard work that needs to be done because at least they bought recycled paper towels.

It’s a fascinating collusion of capitalism and dominance. For the companies that profit from resistance, there’s an active incentive to seek out the next growing social movement and figure out how to turn it into a product; whether you’re marketing hip-hop or telling people they should buy Apple if they want to be involved in political activism. The capitalist urges driving the commodification of resistance are ideally dovetailed with the needs of those in positions of power who wish to maintain the status quo; you don’t even need to pass some token appeasing legislation when all your constituency is too busy opening up more social networking accounts, buying the latest iteration of the newest gadget, and arguing with itself on Twitter about the best shade of ribbon to use to express solidarity with the residents of a nation they didn’t even know existed until two days ago.

If I sound bitter about clicktivism, it’s because I am. I see online organising as a tool with tremendous potential, but I also see it as a massive trap, one that sucks people into a world where it’s easy to ignore the real world around them, and a world where they don’t need to take direct action. I see ‘online organising’ being turned into a ghost of the resistance it has the potential to be, and people being satisfied with that watered-down version of activism. Companies have bought, packaged, and resold resistance for an eager public which at times seems almost relieved to stop thinking, and just buy what it’s told to.

It’s the same thing I see with modes of resistance that became warped for my father’s generation; the singers and protest songs turned into commodities, the fashion statements turned into haute couture, the watered-down protests with lowered stakes packaged like a kiddie-park amusement ride.