bowling aloneIs capitalism only relevant when it drives prices downward?  If one chooses to purchase an item that is more expensive than its competition, for whatever reason, have we crossed a threshold to complacent pretension?  A recent New York Times article, by Anand Giridharadas, purports that activism through purchasing power, lovingly referred to in the article as ‘buycotting’, is somehow disengaging us with real political activism.  Going on to say that today’s fancy consuming is a “sign of how corroded citizenship has become that shopping is the closest many of us are willing to come to worrying about labor laws, trade agreements, agricultural policy.”  The article also conflates the purchasing of green energy offsets with humanely raised wool, which are obviously two disparate forms of consumption.  Instead of a slippery slope to political inaction, the very existence of a value minded consumer proves that capitalism (a word mysteriously missing from the NYT article) is evolving into a more humane form of economics.

The freedom to pay more for something should foster the same form of capitalism as paying less.  In fact, it may signal a turning point in our connection with consumption, in that we realize products embark on a long, usually costly, journey before they reach our shopping cart.  This ‘buycotting’ is proving that we, in fact, do care about how product’s raw materials are extracted, shipped, cultivated, processed, packaged, and sold.  We are informing suppliers and manufacturers of our dissatisfaction with their business model or ethics (not politics) and will buy elsewhere until conditions improve.  This sounds more like capitalism then activism.

‘Buycotting’ also warns us to “be wary of the 21st century’s new noblesse oblige that replaces the efficiency of tax-funded programs and transfers in improving health equity with a consumption-driven ‘chartitainment’ model”.  While iPod’s RED campaign, which helps to battle HIV/AIDS in Africa, does resemble a passive form of activism through consumption it also exposes a global problem to a potentially unaware consumer.  The campaign, marketing ploy, or not, will spark further interest in a problem that may otherwise be unknown and may result in future, unprovoked contributions.  There is no reason to think that less tax funding will be channeled to fighting a problem because of the actions of corporations.  Conversely, tax dollars are more often channeled to fix problems caused by corporations.

To say that paying more equates to political activism shows just how blurred the lines are between politics and corporations.  Consider also that the interests of multinational corporations are often put ahead of the people’s by lawmakers.  Thus making our purchasing power an outlet to actively regulate corporate industry by affecting their bottom line.  With less money, a corporation has less capital to lobby Congress, thereby, decreasing their influence on regulation and subsidies.  This could cause a much needed destabilizing shake to an unsustainable industry (I’m looking at you, corn subsidy).  More than “assuaging [consumer] guilt a little”, this consumer power makes us very active participants in how businesses operate.

The real culprit for our lack for community activism has more to do with the way we live than what we purchase.  In Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone, Putnam rightly points the finger at suburban culture, changes at work, family structure, and television for our disengagement with society and political activism with nary a mention of the way we shop.  In fact, if we all consumed according to our beliefs we would increase the chances of forming social connections with the like-minded, which would only result in more activism, not less.  While shopping centers should not be a substitute for public parks and plazas as places to mingle and share ideas with others, they could create a much needed revolution towards intelligent capitalism.