The Atlantic: Boycotts Can’t Be a Test of Moral Purity

August 3, 2020 Anti-Monopoly Policies & Enforcement

For some people, when they hear about some bad corporate practice, their first reaction is to consider cutting ties to the company. So it is not surprising that each time I discuss the democratic dangers of Facebook, Amazon, or Google, people always bring up personal consumer choice. Instead of policy (antitrust, data rules, outlawing arbitration), the conversation veers quickly into pride or guilt. One woman worries she can’t leave Facebook without leaving her social life. One man sheepishly says he quit Facebook for a few weeks and crept back when he missed his friends. At the heart of this conversation is a thesis: Using a service is an endorsement of its business model. Or more pointedly: If someone is not strong enough to boycott, she lacks standing to object to the behavior of lawmakers and petition them for change.

This belief is wrong, bad strategy, and dangerous for democracy. It is based on a confused idea of our obligations as consumers. This belief does not lead to more boycotts, but radically dampens activism: Guilt gets in the way of protest, and complicated chains of self-justification take the place of simple chains of democratic demand. This consumer model is most problematic when it comes to the biggest monopolies. Most people can’t boycott them, precisely because they are governmental and provide infrastructure services. We don’t ask people to boycott libraries in order to change library rules; we don’t ask people to boycott highways to ask for them to be safer; we don’t demand that you buy only bottled water while protesting water-utility governance.

Of course, a strategic, organized, well-thought-through boycott with political goals can be transformational. And there is nothing wrong with people personally quitting products when they can. However, ethical consumerism has taken too central a role in progressive thinking, and we shouldn’t require people to boycott essential communications infrastructure such as Facebook and Google in order to demand that they be broken up. The railroads were regulated by anti-monopoly protesters who depended on the railroads, and the same can be true for the next generation of trust-busters. Boycotts can play a crucial role in political change, but not when they serve only as tests of individual integrity.

The reason for this is that boycotts replace tension in the political sphere with tension in the private sphere, putting the central axis of tension between the firm and the activists. Will they or won’t they change practices? As such, boycotts can lead to small changes, or tangential promises to provide other kinds of community support that are not in line with the initial purpose of the boycott. As author Nicole Aschoff recently argued in Jacobin magazine, “When consumers and environmental NGOs channel their desire for environmental justice through the firm, their desires get absorbed into business strategies for growth and expansion.” In this way, ethical consumerism relies too heavily on partnerships with corporations to make change rather than challenging the leverage they have in our monopolized economy.