Power to the Corporations?: The Neoliberalization of Social Movements

A dominant misconception is that veganism simply means changing individual consumer habits and that this will lead to social change. However, this confusion of veganism with consumerism as a strategy for change is a fairly recent development that has its roots in the late 1970s with rise of neoliberal ideology; coming from outside of veganism.

Yesterday's post included a quote from "A Discussion with Tom Regan," printed in Ahimsa Oct/Dec 1987, where Regan says:

People think of activists as antagonists in confrontation, and so on. I think of activists in terms of people with a dollar bill in the wallet; that's the way I think of the real activists.

An activist is anyone who goes into the marketplace with a dollar in hand, who says "I'm going to buy this rather than that because it has something to do with the way that animals are treated."

This quote exemplifies the neoliberalization of social movements. While neoliberalization targets veganism, it targets social movements for change in general. For instance, the green movement also suffers from neoliberalization where we see "the real activists" as a middle-class consumer buying anything from a compact florescent light bulb at Wal-Mart to a Toyota Prius. This is in direct contrast to the green movement of the 1960s where mostly women from working-class communities and communities of color fought for environmental justice through public accountability and control over government and industry.

The neoliberalization of political movements is bolstered by rhetoric of "consumer power." This is the subtext of the Regan quote – that as consumers we have the power to create change by "voting with our dollars." We thus "vote" for "this rather than that because it has something to do with the way that animals are treated," or energy consumption, or whatever issue. But this "consumer power" is a myth.

In this situation the power doesn't reside in the consumer, but rather in the hands of the corporations that manufacture consumer goods. After all, consumers don't control the means of production, corporations do. So while corporations remain in control, the rhetoric of "consumer power" shifts the responsibility on to the individual consumer. This reinforces the neoliberal rhetoric of "personal responsibility" that is used to dismantle social programs created to address social oppression.

Furthermore, the rhetoric of "voting with dollars" hides through a rhetoric of "democracy" what is actually increased corporate control over our lives. Neoliberal politicians, both Democrat and Republican in the U.S., use this facade of "democracy" to justify reducing public accountability and control over corporations. So the neoliberal myth of "consumer power" in fact leads to a less democratic society. This has serious ramifications for social movements as more power is shifted from us collectively as "the people" to corporations.

Through a rhetoric of "democracy," new products are presented as contributing to "freedom of choice." But these new products don't actually offer a serious threat to the status quo. They are actually expanding markets that offer new space for corporations to make increased profits. And these new markets are only accessible to a privileged class of consumers with the means and willingness to pay.

The "choices" for less affluent poor and working-class consumers, as well as many consumers living in some rural or urban areas, are limited to the cheaper and more widely produced products respectively. This means these consumers won't have access to most of these new product and will be forced to consume the old products. Subsequently, under the rhetoric of "personal responsibility," these consumers become the subject of blame for their so-called "consumer choices." By focusing on consumer "choice" and "responsibility" the corporations and the structure of oppression that supports them go unquestioned.

Worst yet, we come to see these very corporations – rather than ourselves as a collective community – as the source of change and innovation. This leads to the erosion of our collective knowledge, power, and control over our own lives.

In terms of food, this reinforces the trend towards convenience and processed foods. Food is no longer something we produce ourselves as a culture and community, but something we acquire from corporations. In a response to a previous post on this last point, a commenter wrote:

So many aspects of modern society are "conveniences" we would not like to live without (i.e. libraries, running water, electricity). Where does one draw a line between convenience and standards of living? I don't think convenience and justice are necessarily mutually exclusive.

This is an extreme example of the logic of neoliberalism. The commenter (mis)identifies Boca Burgers, a processed convenience food manufactured by a multi-national corporation, as being comparable to publicly controlled and accountable institutions and utilities like libraries, water, and electricity. Important differences between consumer products like Boca Burgers and libraries, water, and electricity are distorted and go unrecognized. This underscores how under the ideological control of neoliberalism, libraries, running water, and electricity are under threats of privatization and corporate control.

The overwhelming effect of neoliberalization, couched as it is in the rhetoric of "consumer power" and "democracy," is to shift power and resources from we the people to corporations. Through neoliberalization, social movements seeking change become privatized, individualized, depoliticized, and marginalized. While rendering social movements ineffective, the myth of "consumer power" co-opts these movements in the process of strengthening and expanding structure of oppression.

As Kath Clement says in her book Why Vegan: The Ethics of Eating & the Need for Change:

It is in fact the ghastly pseudo-logic of economics which has produced starvation in a world of plenty. Surely we need to bring human and environmental factors into the equation. Our true resources lie not in gold bullion and "future markets" but in the richness of the land and the skill of the people.