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Can consumer boycotts work?

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Issue 1684

What do socialists say?

Can consumer boycotts work?

By Sam Ashman

WHY SHOULD we give our money over to line the pockets of vicious multinationals? Surely we should boycott these firms to stop their destruction and naked exploitation of both the environment and their workers? That is a view being put by lots of people opposed to the destruction caused by global capitalism. Consumer boycotts and the campaigns that often go with them have undoubtedly scored successes.

Pepsi pulled out of Burma as a result of a college boycott and campaign about the country’s regime. Multinational Shell wanted to dump its Brent Spar oil rig at sea because it was cheaper than dismantling it on land. Greenpeace’s campaign forced Shell to change its mind. Thousands demonstrated at petrol stations. In Germany Shell reported a drop in sales of between 20 and 50 percent. “The worst we have ever experienced,” said the head of Shell in Germany.

Across student campuses in the US there is a “No Sweats” boycott of companies like Nike and Reebok because of how they treat workers in the Third World. Nike pays its workers in China just 13 pence an hour. In this country people in colleges and workplaces have organised to ban Nescaf coffee from their canteens and offices because Nescaf is owned by the giant multinational Nestl.

Nestl is responsible for selling deadly baby milk to women in the Third World. Socialists are part of any such campaign. These campaigns recognise that people need to act to challenge these corporations. Individuals do make a difference. Otherwise why bother to be a socialist and to argue and organise? These campaigns can also be important in developing political consciousness. Many people boycotted South African goods in the 1980s because they did not want to buy goods that were tainted with the racist apartheid regime.

Such activity can lead to wider involvement in movements against the system. Those attracted to consumer boycotts hate the system they see all around them. Many don’t see it as just an individual thing. They recognise that people need to act collectively against the system. There are, however, more powerful weapons of protest. Numbers are our greatest strength as a movement. Demonstrations, pickets, protests, occupations, strikes-these are all more powerful than a boycott. That is why the most successful campaigns have not been limited to consumer boycotts alone, but have combined them with other forms of protest.

So multinationals like Monsanto were worried about the campaign against genetically modified food which involved a consumer boycott and the destruction of various crop trials. There are some examples, however, of when consumer boycotts are suggested as a deliberate DISTRACTION from the best way to fight. For example union leaders involved in the fight by the sacked Sky Chefs workers at Heathrow Airport preferred to argue for a consumer boycott of Lufthansa airlines rather than call solidarity action by other workers. That was because solidarity action would have meant breaking the law. So instead union leaders took out an advert in the Financial Times appealing to the bosses not to travel on Lufthansa!

For the most part those attracted to consumer boycotts are not union leaders, but ordinary people disgusted by capitalism. The key question is, how do we get rid of capitalism and stop the destruction it causes once and for all? Consumer boycotts can be effective campaigning tools, and can raise people’s awareness. They will not bring down the system. In fact it is impossible to boycott the system as a whole-how can you feed and clothe yourself without coming into contact with capitalism? If we want to build a movement that can bring down capitalism we need to look to the working class.

Workers have the power to stop the multinationals. They have the potential power to take over the factories and to transform what is produced, and how. That power applies to workers in China and the Third World as well as those in Dagenham or Detroit. To secure a better world we need to build a movement that is oriented on the power of the workplaces because, as the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg said, “Where the chains are forged, there can they be broken.”

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