I’m boycotting a half a dozen products! I’m buying my way out of capitalism!

There’s a meme growing on Twitter that unless Occupy starts calling for boycotts “against the 1%” it will be doomed to failure.

No, it’s the idea that a few consumer product boycotts will actually accomplish anything that’s a failed idea.

The ridiculously tiny minority that control a majority of the wealth in the US, and most of the rest of the world, do not simply control raw wealth. They also control the means of wealth production. That won’t change because you switch to a different brand of toothpaste for the length of a boycott; sure folks would feel like they’re “supporting” Occupy, but it ends there; buying brand Z instead of brand X speaks to the 1% in what particular ways? It fundamentally says we’re sheep and can be marketed to. The current status quo will only change if the political body – the state – that’s empowered to actually redistribute wealth through progressive taxation actually taxes the super-wealthy and funnels that resulting revenue not into yet another series of wars as security theater, but to actual progressive domestic spending. Boycotts may feel good, but in this case, they’re just feel-good consumerism.

The folks promoting this idea are well-intentioned, I truly believe, but utterly utterly naive. Do you know which companies Bill Gates is long on? How about Carlos Slim? How much of the rest of the 1% – and every single company they hold stock in – are you willing to boycott? If you’re only interested in symbolic boycotts against one or two individuals of the 1%, then my criticism of this strategy is all the more certain. Even if you could get them to disclose every company they hold significant positions in, you’re planning on boycotting every single one of those companies? If not (and, be realistic, in the real world, you’re not going to be able to do this as a practical matter unless you simply stop buying everything), which ‘targeted’ boycotts do you suppose will materially affect the 1%?

It’s just a meaningless attempt to buy one’s way around the flaws of capitalism. You can’t undermine and support capitalism at the same time. You might think your boycotts are meaningful, but in this case, this smacks of an awful lot of magical thinking.

Who should Occupy or its supporters boycott? What products? For how long? How will any of this – any of it – materially affect the 1%? If anyone can actually make a case for it, I’d support such a boycott, but thus far, I’m just seeing an awful lot of wishful thinking about the efficacy of boycotts in theory. Occupy’s real power – and real opportunity – is not to get the 1% to change in response to some consumer boycotts that won’t affect wealth concentration even a whit. The real opportunity at hand is to make the government more afraid of the 99% than they are of the ridiculously wealthy minority they presently serve. That won’t come because you switch brands of detergent.

If Occupy and its allies – and I’m an ally, I hope it’s clear I want Occupy to succeed  really believe that “Another world is possible,” which I hope they do – I hope that’s not just a nice, but ultimately meaningless chant – the opportunity here is to really critique capitalism while the general population is listening. Feel-good consumer boycotts aren’t going to do that.

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