Social Politics and the ‘Home Front’ of Consumer Boycotts

3 Dec

During a recent BBC radio four program that hosted Rob Harrison, the editor of the ethical consumer magazine, I was left feeling a little frustrated as people phoned in to talk about  consumer boycotts (Call You and Yours – 21st November). The host, Julian Worricker, did a fine job in covering plenty of ground in the time allocated. However, there seemed to be a skepticism over what consumer boycotts could actually achieve. This became particularly apparent when Worricker suggested that it might be impossible to know if anti-apartheid boycotts achieved tangible success. Admittedly the show was tailored to fit the consumer topic de rigueure* (boycott action and divestment over tax evasion, by the likes of Google, Amazon and Starbucks), but I felt that a little bit of history would have gone a long way. Sarah Emily Duff, a South African historian,  does an innovative job summarizing some of this history on her website on food and power – tangerineandcinnemon.

*On the subject of tax evasion activism, see here for a video of a student action against the Starbucks branch on the campus of my university, Royal Holloway University of London, and here for geographer, David Harvey’s, theoretical take on corporate theft, where he argued in the aftermath of the London riots that as part of global capitalism’s feral instincts, mass dispossession and predatory practices…have become the order of the day.

But to return to Worricker’s question over evidence of the tangible effects of anti-apartheid boycotts, I have chosen three ways to address the problem. The first is to answer the question that was intended; to show why boycotts were important to anti-apartheid activism and to suggest that economically and politically, the boycotts had a significant impact on the apartheid economy. The second, is to show how seriously the apartheid regime took the threats of boycotts and other forms of non violent activism. My third response is to refute the question itself. Here, I point to the postcolonial ideology of Boycott Outspan Action, and I use Quaker and Swadeshi examples to show that the effectiveness of consumer boycotts can be measured in less instrumental ways, and in more proximate places.

On the importance of boycotts.

Had the BBC contacted a historian of the African National Congress (ANC) they might have heard how boycotts, sanctions and pickets outside of South Africa were considered essential by the ANC leadership to its initial eschewing of violence in favour of the doctrine of nonracial  internationalism, a position that was rejected by the Pan African Congress for giving too much power to whites. Moreover scholars of British anti-apartheid are united in their application of significance to the British Boycott Movement to the recruitment of activists, and globalization of anti-apartheid sentiment.

Christobel Gurney argues in The Origins of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement that the boycott movement’s coalitions, transnational networks and connections with the ANC gave anti-apartheid activism a popular appeal that wouldn’t be matched until the 1980s:

For a brief period, from January to March 1960, the Boycott Movement mobilized people in Britain to act against apartheid on a scale not seen again until the 1980s. It assembled a remarkable cross-party coalition stretching from the Communist Party, which although not represented on the National Committee was active in the London Committee and at the grass roots, to dissident members of the Conservative Party. Its links with the Congress Movement, and particularly the presence of Tennyson Makiwane as the representative of the African National Congress, gave it a legitimacy which it used to overcome the reservations of the Labour Party…The Boycott Movement established some key features, which were to characterize the AAM for the rest of its 35-year history. It built a structure that involved other organizations working in related areas but which made the future of South Africa its main concern. It established itself as a non-partisan organization that set out to appeal to people of any or no Party affiliation (Gurney, 2000: 144)

Anti-apartheid demonstration in Trafalgar Square, 1960. Image ©Museum of London and Henry Grant

Claudia Jones, author of An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman! (1949), addresses crowds at Trafalgar Square during the anti-apartheid demonstration, 1962. Jones, a Trinidadian by birth, was a civil rights and anti-racism campaigner  in the UK during the 1950s and 60s. Click on image to be taken to a video of a recent lecture dedicated to her legacy. Image ©Museum of London and Henry Grant

British Boycott Movement poster, 1960.

The years 1969-73 witnessed a proliferation of anti-apartheid sports and cultural boycotts. In 1969-70 the Springbok rugby tour of Great Britain and Ireland was received with widespread negative publicity and the game at Landsdowne Road was played behind barbed wire. Current MP for Neath, Peter Hain, chaired the UK  Stop the Tour anti-apartheid cricket campaign  that successfully persuaded the England Cricket Council to ban South Africa from touring England until apartheid had ceased. The BOA were keen to draw from the success of the sporting boycott and in 1973 they hosted Peter Hain as a keynote speaker alongside Ruth First and James Phillips at their Boycott Outspan International Congress in Leiden, 1973. The sporting consumer boycotts were supplemented in the 1980s by widespread pickets outside South African embassies (the most famous being the London Non-Stop Against Apartheid Picket that ran interrupted from 1986-90), and pickets outside store branches of multinationals that continued to operate in South Africa.

Picket outside of Barclays Bank in Dublin, 1986. The anti-Cape logo is an adaption of Rob Van der Aa’s 1972 BOA design, ‘Don’t Squeeze A South African Dry’.

On the role of the media in the emergence of a global anti-apartheid public sphere, Hakan Thorn summarizes the economic and symbolic importance of boycotts:

Several analyses (Klotz, 1995; Crawford & Klotz, 1997; Massie, 1997) have shown that the pressure of an increasingly globally visible anti-apartheid movement, of protesting citizens, and boycotting consumers, did have a substantial effect on the disinvestments of global corporations and the sanctions imposed by supranational organizations such as the EEC and the OAU, as well as by nation-states- measures that finally brought apartheid down. (Thorn, 2007, 913).

The cultural and consumer boycotts of the 1960s and 70s made the more widespread imposition of corporate disinvestment and supranational sanctions during the 1980s possible. Klotz (1995) and Thorn (2007) insist that the global anti-apartheid movement cultivated a visible public opposition to apartheid that in combination with a hardening of diplomatic relations post Soweto, could not be ignored by corporations and sovereign states in the 1980s. The economic effect of sanctions and disinvestment was to decrease the net capital movement out of South Africa from 9.2 billion Rand in 1985 to 5.5 billion Rand in 1988 (Knight, 1990). But this statistic infers only a small part of the story.

Battling over hearts and minds

During the 1970s the South African National Party under John Vorster displayed an awareness of of the need to cultivate its economic and cultural relationships abroad. Boycotts were seen by the party as threatening to the continued reproduction of the racialized economy; this much was implicit in a speech by Vorster:

Every time a South African product is bought, it is another brick in the wall of our continued existence. (J.B. Vorster, speaking at an Agricultural Show in Pretoria, 1972).

As I’ve argued in an earlier post, Boycott Outspan Action used this quote to highlight the importance of export trade to the South African government, and to make clear the potential damage that consumer boycotts could have on the apartheid economy.

However, the BOA recognized that the citrus boycott entailed more than intimidating the Apartheid state; it was an attempt to register disapproval and discontent on a global scale, a gateway into anti-racist activism in the Netherlands, and a means of  making connections between European and South African organizations (SACTU, the ANC). The boycott of citrus enabled a far-reaching network for shaming (‘the harvest of shame’, ‘blood-oranges’) and ridiculing (the Inspan Girls) apartheid trade and capitalism. The oranges offered a material segue into a battle over ideas, representation and culture with the capitalist products of apartheid, the Dutch Den Uyl government, and the consuming Dutch citizen.

In Sanctioning ApartheidMzamane (1990: 389) writes, within the white community there is a desperate need for international recognition. The need for trade and approval, or at least political apathy, from outside South Africa was crucial to apartheid’s continued success. Fully aware of this, the National Party secretly financed several covert projects carried out by the Ministry of Information based in the Netherlands. Headed by Eschel Rhoodie (the press officer for the South African embassy to the Hague, and key figure in establishing Israeli-South African military relations), the organization was instructed to wage a propaganda war with anti-apartheid movements and unsympathetic sections of the European media. South African History Online write:

The Department of Information, which Rhoodie headed, launched The Citizen, a daily newspaper, and other publications and front organisations like ‘The Study of Plural Societies’, the ‘SA Freedom Foundation’ and the ‘Foreign Affairs Association’. During this time the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) created the ‘Committee for Fairness in Sport’ to counteract South Africa’s exclusion from international sport.

Once consumer boycotts  motivate a widespread politics of denunciation and shame, they commonly open up spaces of contest for perception and feeling; for influencing hearts and minds, and following this, policy and governance. As James Jasper writes in the Art of Moral Protest, successful boycotts tend to elicit a reaction from their target(s), who may respond with violence. In the case of the Montgomery bus boycott the backlash to the widespread shunning of racially segregated buses by blacks in Alabama included increased membership to the White Citizens Council, the deployment of the structural violence of a racially biased judiciary (which accounted for the arrest of many non-violent women protesters, and the remarkably lenient sentences given to whites who had committed violence), the bombing of activist homes and Baptist churches, and drive-by shootings.

Iconic image of the bus boycott. Many protesters turned to hitching rides or taking cabs journeys for a reduced fee of 10 cents as an alterative to using the bus service

Iconic image of the  Montogomery bus boycott. Many protesters turned to hitching rides or taking cabs journeys for a reduced fee of 10 cents as an alternative to using the bus service.

Although less  conspicuous,  the reaction by Apartheid authorities to non violent direct action in Europe in the 1970s was also prone to brutality. Throughout the 1970s the Ministry for Information was a hub through which the South African government, embassy, and secret police worked. It is probable that Rhoodie also had contacts in the Dutch domestic secret service (the Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst – BVD – who according to Sietse Bosgra closely monitored the activity of several Dutch AAMs, especially the Comité Zuid-Afrika and Anti-Apartheid Beweging Nederland). The Dutch Ministry of Information was part of a clandestine pro-Apartheid global network that contested,  discredited and destroyed anti-apartheid information through a variety of subversive means. In practice this meant obtaining intelligence  from agents who had infiltrated anti-apartheid organizations, conducting a campaign of fear and intimidation on key activists, committing theft, arson and bombing on ANC offices (South African History Online write,  the apartheid government would go to great lengths to attack the ANC where ever it could, as demonstrated by the 1982 bombing of the London headquarters of the ANC abroad)launching smear campaigns on activists (the BOA’s leader, Esau du Plessis was targeted in 1973), destroying anti-apartheid archives, and in several cases harming and killing particularly influential campaigners.  All of these activities point to a central anxiety; the Apartheid regime felt threatened by European consumer boycotts and other forms of non violent direct action.

Interior economies and the ‘home front’ of consumer boycotts

In The Art of Moral Protest (1997), James Jasper writes that what is unusual is that campaigns are usually called boycotts even when boycotting is only one tactic among many. In other words the term boycott is commonly used to broadly describe a collection of different activisms. Jasper describes the other forms of activism that accompany consumer boycotts as companion tactics. For Jasper, boycott companion tactics are essential to the formation of a successful movement; tactics give boycotts a voice and create places or  activities for boycotters to congregate. He states that tactics range from pickets, letter writing and protests, to congresses and media involvement. These, and many other activities become part of the formation of a collective boycotting identity.

BOA event, Rotterdam 1976. Organizer, Theo Veerman to the right.

BOA school event, Rotterdam 1976. BOA secretary, Theo Veerman standing to the right.

The BOA set out to impact the taste, predilections and racial preconceptions of the Dutch consumer, just as much as to influence fundamental shifts in the racial division of power in South Africa. The ‘Home Front’, (as du Plessis, coined it in a 1988 lecture at a Dordrecht workshop entitled, Apartheid there, Racism Here), was the fight against everyday forms of racism, and an ongoing critique of the perception of Apartheid and Nazism as somehow anomalous  and separate to European liberal thought and development.

Esau du Plessis, 1976. Courtesy of du Plessis, 2011.

The Dordrecht lecture recalls some of the argument on liberal humanism’s complicity with Nazism made by Aimé Césaire, who thirty years earlier in Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on colonialism) stated:

Whether one likes it or not, at the end of the blind alley that is Europe, I mean the Europe of Adenauer, Schuman,  Bidault, and a few others, there is Hitler. At the end of capitalism, which is eager to outlive its day, there is Hitler. At the end of formal humanism and philosophic renunciation, there is Hitler.

Césaire believed that the brutality of fascism could be found mirrored in colonialism, and that racism continued to define, structure and augment European society. Boycott Outspan Action amalgamated this line of francophone anti-racist thinking with practical elements of anti-apartheid activism. The writing’s of Césaire’s student, Franz Fanon, had a significant impression on du Plessis who read Fanon in London in the 1960s and during his time studying sociology at the Centre for Non-Western sociology at Leiden University; what I like about Franz Fanon is he really knew racism, colonialism and slavery as one indivisible thing (interview du Plessis, 2011). During his lecture at the Dordrecht workshop, Du Plessis stated:

We should be deeply conscious of how fully racism is rooted in Western civilization; and how Nazism and Apartheid are its comparable fruits. Besides, we should be aware of the fact that Apartheid and racism are not just remote phenomena, so that we have a moral obligation to fight them, here as well as there.

We must not limit our understanding of consumer boycotts as actions that influence distant outcomes, but also consider how they impact on the more proximate social relations of the ‘home front’. An often overlooked aspect of consumer boycotts is their contribution to the development of cultural dissensus, political questioning and perceptual change among the communities in which boycotters operate.

Each boycott, as a collective movement, is often peopled by individuals with conflicting motivations, desires and interpretations (individuals who are often involved in other forms of political protest and activism, see Barnett et al., 2006) -but as individuals they are buttressed by a form of communalism, of shared beliefs and values over the use of boycott rhetoric and practice (Bekin, 2007). A communalism which in some cases will form communities, communities active in creating places of progressive potential through harnessing the latent symbolism and practice of boycotts (Littler, 2005).

In other cases, these communities will have less of a place based focus, and exist across wide distances in the imaginative realm of shoppers, and use facebook twitter and youtube to appeal to the individual consumers’ desire to act conscientiously toward distant others. In the minds and the mouths of shoppers, the desire to consume in recognition of distant suffering by individually boycotting or buycotting commodities is negotiated with the politics of shopping as a form of love for the near and dear (Miller, 1998). Even though these actions lack the disruptive embodied presence of pickets and the face to face intimacies and connections formed in place based protests and congresses, shoppers still act within a communal context where they feel part of an imagined community of similar minded people (Bekin et al., 2007). With the development of social media these forms of boycotts can apply concerted pressure to corporations and brands, although they still work best when accompanied by performances and events on the ground that are mediatized and disseminated across networks.

Hilton (2006) suggests that the truly banal forms of consumer politics have received little attention by scholars. Borrowing from David Harvey’s analysis of local banalities and the Indian sociologist Satish Deshpande’s understanding of Hindutva, Hilton points to the spatial aspect of banality, the sedimented banalities of neighbourliness – the long term, ‘live- in’ intimacy of residential relationships among persons and their local environment  (Deshpande, 1998: 249-283, in Hilton, 2006: 7). The point here is that through collective acts of banal and inconspicuous consumption boycotters form communities, places and networks (T.Jackson, 2005). Recent literature in political consumption and business and marketing studies shows an engagement with alternative consumption communities (Kozinets, 2003; Micheletti, 2003, Bekin et al., 2007), where communitarian values are formed around resistance to perceptions of political disenfranchisement, cultural homogenization and disconnection with producers. Too often these communities are theorized through reductive terms such as power and resistance, and their desires are described through binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  In her paper, Beyond the Boycott,  the media critic Jo Littler articulates that there is a cultural economy to anti- consumerism that moves away from studying celebrations of its resistance (Littler, 2005: 227) and instead seeks to understand the complex motives and reflexivity of its actors. She suggests that there are ‘interior economies’ to activist motivations, economies that romanticize forms of activism as pure, and work to reconfigure sets of identity politics. by thinking about the work of these economies we can open up a critique of boycott movements; we can assess their work as having a range of affects. But I’d like to take a slightly different tact here – in later posts I will critique some of the less positive affects of contemporary chocolate activism.

If we begin with the more commonly received understanding of economy as the means or apparatus for the distribution goods or wealth, this idea of an interior economy is something I find particularly interesting. Let’s start with a quote from New York based Reverend Bill Talen:

There is an economy in the interior of a person. We need to find a new kind of vivid privacy (Bill Talen, The Church of Stop Shopping, 2003: 83, in Littler, 2005: 228).

So, what is this interior economy that must affect a personal or individual distribution of wealth? And how can a new kind of privacy become vivid? Extant scholarship on the anti-saccharites shows how the Quaker practices of self-sacrifice and economic simplicity were tied to the boycotting of slave produced sugar. In a recent article on the Palestinian Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement (the BDS) Quaker campaigner, Ecumenical Accompanier and boycott advocate Jane Harries suggests that boycotts and withdrawing financial support are a means of speaking truth to power (as an interesting side-note on the BOA’s boycotting heritage, the BDS handbook, Towards A Global Movement refers to the BOA’s citrus boycott in the section on strategies and tactics). 

In histories of Quaker activism, to boycott, to shun and to ostracize are often exercises of self restraint and denial. In short, when speaking truth to power, one first must speak truth to yourself. The phrase, speaking truth to power has a fascinating history in Quakerism that dates back to Cold war activism; however prescribing to a life of truth has been ingrained in Quaker testimonies from the religious group’s formation in the mid-seventeenth century. The truth that the Quakers refer is not an objective truth that can be deduced or fashioned from scientific method, but a personal truth; it is about being true to oneself and true to one’s convictions. From their inception Quakers were sometimes referred to as children of the light, or friends of the truth. Quakers have been attempting to speak truth to power over slavery since the mid-eighteenth century through abstaining and withholding purchase, by lobbying slave owners, through  boycotts, pickets, petitions. Quaker abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick’s treatise Immediate and not Gradual Abolition is a superb example of an early feminist voice reprimanding (male) plantation owners and abolitionists alike. The Birmingham Female Society for the Relief of British Negro Slaves was founded in 1824 with abstention and ethical modes of consumption planted firmly in the center of its globally orientated resolution:

That this Society, convinced that abstinence from the use of slave cultivated sugar, is one of the best modes…to express its abhorrence of the system of colonial slavery, and that the exclusive consumption of the produce of free labour is the most effectual means of annihilating the existence of that scourge of humanity in our West India Colonies, but also in other parts of the World- earnestly desires…to promote the exclusive use of the productions of free labour (1824, in Sheller, 2003: 93).          

The Bengali independence movement of the early twentieth century had a different way of expressing truth to power. The Swadeshi campaign that boycotted British textiles was concerned with an nurturing an individual economy of disassociation, self sufficiency and autonomy from the parasitic British empire that had drained India of over four fifths of its estimated GDP during the 19th century (Dutt, 1897).  In distinction from anti-saccharite pronunciations, the boycott rhetoric was neither philanthropic or rights based, but instead adapted German idealism and two strains of Hinduism – Shaktism and Vaishnavism – to frame the boycott in the language of material renunciation, autonomy and organic purity.

Proto-national ideas of equality and freedom were based on a critique of existing consumption forms and practices (Sartori, 2003). Historian Manu Goswami (1998) points to several key consumer transitions that the movement encouraged. Swadeshi, he argues, attempted to reconstitute Bengali consumers’ social taste from Manchester cloth to coarse handloom. Swadeshi persuaded Muslims and Hindu’s alike to boycott foreign goods (even when it was less profitable – especially for Muslim peasants), and it encouraged consumers to systematically shun and ostracize other consumers who bought foreign commodities. Swadeshi valorized indigenous products as materially suggestive of a heroic traditionalist past entirely seperate from the British intervention, and it scrutinized consumption practices for indicators of nationalist persuasion. The transitions enacted by the Bengali consumer often went against individual self- betterment and profitability.

Quaker and Swadeshi applications of the consumer boycott were used for very different ends but both center on local and self transformation as a means of affecting more outward power dynamics of economic and cultural interdependence. This is how I interpret the significance of Bill Talen and Joe Littler’s ‘interior economies’. I must apologize to you readers who have got this far –  in this post I have covered much ground, perhaps at times in a rather rough-shod fashion. But by utilizing some detail on the BOA and Dutch anti-apartheid, I’ve argued why boycotts have been, and continue to be important to a range of different social movements, and I’ve set out to broaden the sorts of outcomes and politics that we may search for in ‘successful’ boycott campaigns.

Sources and suggested reading

Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., Malpass, A. (2005) Consuming Ethics: Articulating the Subjects and Spaces of Ethical Consumption. Antipode 37 (1) 23­-45.

Bekin C, Carrigan M, Szmigin I (2007) Communities and Consumption. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. 27: 101-105

Cherrier, H (2009) Anti –consumption discourses and consumer-resistant identities. Journal of Business Research 62: 190

Dutt, R (1897) England and India 1785-1885. London: Chatto & Windus

Fanon, Frantz (1968) The Wretched of the Earth, trans. C. Farrington, New York: Grove Press

Friedman, M (1999) Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and the Media. London: Routledge

Freidman, M (2006) Using Consumer Boycotts to stimulate Corporate Policy changes: Marketplace, Media and moral considerations, in Micheletti, Follesdal, Stolle (Eds.) Politics, Products and Markets. London: Transaction Publishers.

Goswami, M (1998) From Swadeshi to Swaraj: Nation, economy, territory in colonial South Asia, 1870-1907. Comparative Studies in Society and History 40:4, 609-636

Gurney, C (2000) ‘A Great Cause’: The origins of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, June 1959- March 1960. Journal of South African Studies. 26, 1, 123-144

Harrison, R (2005) Pressure Groups, Campaigns and Consumers, in Harrison, Newholm, Shaw, eds. The Ethical Consumer. London: Sage, pp 55-67

Hartwick, E (2000) Towards a geographical politics of consumption. Environment & Planning A: 32: 1177-1192

Isichei, E (1970) Victorian Quakers. London: Oxford University Press

Jackson, P (2001) Rematerializing social and cultural geography. Social & Cultural Geography. 1:1

Jackson, T (2005) Live better by Consuming Less? Is there a double dividend in Sustainable  Consumption? Journal of Industrial Ecology. 9: 1-2

Jasper, J (1999) The Art of Moral Protest: culture, biography and creativity in social movements. Chicago: University of Chicago

Klotz, A (2002) Transantional Activism and Global Transformations: The Anti Apartheid and Abolitionist Experiences. European Journal of International Relations. 8:49

Kozinets R, Handelman J (1998) Ensouling Consumption: A Netnographic Exploration of Boycotting Behaviour, Advances in Consumer Research. 25

Kozinets R, Handelman J (2002) Adversaries of consumption: consumer movements, activism and ideology. Journal of Consumer Research 28: 1: 67-88

Littler, J (2005) Beyond the boycott. Anti Consumerism, cultural change and the limits of reflexivity. Cultural Studies, 19: 2: 227-252

Low W, Davenport, E (2007) To boldly go…exploring ethical spaces to re-politicise ethical consumption and fair trade. Journal of Consumer Behaviour. 6, 336-348

McGowan, A (2006) An all consuming subject? Women and consumption in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Western India. Journal of Womens History: 18: 4: 31-54

Micheletti M, Follesdal  A, Stolle D (2006)“The Market as a Site of Politics”, in Micheletti M, Follesdal  A, Stolle D (Eds) Politics, Products and Markets. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers

Micheletti, J (2006) Anti- Sweatshop & Anti- Slavery. The moral force of capitalism. Paper for the conference of Citizenship & Consumption. Unpublished

Midgley, C (2007) ‘Evaluating Women’s role in the slave sugar boycott’ , in Feminism and Empire:Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790- 1865. London: Routledge

Miller, D. (1998) A Theory of Shopping. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Misra, M (2005) Vishnu’s Crowded Temple – India since the Great Rebellion. London: Penguin

Sheller, M (2003) Consuming the Caribbean. London: Routledge

Smith, N (1990) Morality and the Market: Consumer Pressure for Corporate Accountability. London & NY: Taylor & Francis

Trivedi, L (2007) Clothing Ganhi’s Nation – Homespun and Modern India. Indiana: Indiana University Press

Thorn, H (2007) Anti-Apartheid and the Emergence of a Global Civil Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave

2 Responses to “Social Politics and the ‘Home Front’ of Consumer Boycotts”

  1. hughcrosfield December 3, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    Reblogged this on Landscape Surgery and commented:

    Hugh Crosfield on the ‘home front’ and politics of consumer boycott campaigns


  1. « Landscape Surgery - December 3, 2012

    […] December 2012 Leave a comment […]

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