BY Comrade Black
It really pisses me off when I hear some punk kid or anarchist claim they are boycotting Nike (or whichever other giant corporation). Not because I think they should be supporting Nike, but simply because it shows a lack of any understanding of what a boycott is. And if we desire to be effective, we need to have a clear understanding of what different tactics and strategies actually are.
Boycotting is a non-violent consumer tactic which is based on withdrawing support (usually financial) as a way to force ones enemy/oppressor into a compromised position in which they must negotiate with you or meet your terms in order to regain your support. So simply not participating is not the same as actively boycotting. Thus going Vegan is not a boycott of the meat and dairy industry for example.
There are many problems with the idea of some patched up crusty claiming to be engaging in boycott tactics against major corporations. The first of which is that in order to take part in a boycott, you must first have support to withdraw, meaning you need to be a client or customer of the target company who financially contributes to them. Even further, you need to be open to reinvesting that financial support one the target has complied with your demands. This differs greatly from the DIY punk ethos of making our own shit rather than giving them our money, which is actually more about creating an alternative economy, or perhaps an alternative to economy.
A second problem is that for a boycott to be effective, it needs to be strategic, meaning in part it needs to be an organized and concerted tactic. Boycotts work when a whole pile of people (customers/clients, or other contributors) simultaneously withdraw their support, while also letting the target of the boycott know their list of demands for support to be reinstated. So stating to Nike that you are organizing a boycott against them until they increase the wages to their sweatshop employees, then organizing the mass scale withdraw of support starting at X date, would be a boycott; and if you have enough people who already do buy their product who join in they may well be forced to increase that wage out of a fear of a greater loss of profits. Based on this, a boycott should truly be understood as a tactic based on economic sabotage, similar to a general strike.
This leads to the next issue I take with this… I don’t want Nike to increase wages in it’s sweatshops. I want Nike to not exist, and I want a world without sweatshops. I don’t want KFC to treat their chickens better, I want them to go bankrupt along with every other corporation and business based on selling the fried flesh of animals murdered for profits and sold back to us as poison. I don’t want my oppressor to negotiate with my demands, my only demand is that they quit existing! I want a world free of oppression and oppressors! Until the last CEO is hung with the entrails of the last priest, until the Lion lay with The Lamb, until we build the new world on the ashes of the old!
But seriously, a boycott if understood properly is a tactic which does not challenge the existence of the oppressor, but rather seeks to place their queen in check. If we seek to destroy the machine, then a boycott can not do that, although in some cases it could be part of a larger strategy that also incorporates other tactics as well. By its very nature a boycott can never truly challenge the existence of our oppressor, as its goal is to leverage that oppressor into a place of hearing our demands.
So when exactly is a boycott an appropriate and effective tactic?
Well I can think of a few examples. A while back a local health food store was the target of a boycott because they continued to sell products made of dead Seals even after many animal rights activists had tried other means to get them to go Seal Free! In this case many of the activists (who all happened to be vegan) shopped at this store, and thus they had money to withdraw. Considering how small the store is, they were a target that could be effectively attacked. I do however need to question if a small health food store in a city full of fast food restaurants, butchers, and many other businesses who profit primarily from selling animal products is truly the most appropriate target and best use of ones time and energy? I mean, we have a restaurant in Victoria called PIG which sells very little other than meat, and these activists never targeted that business. Anyways, I digress, the health food store may not be the worst animal exploiter in town, but they were one in which the participants could actually have a real effect on, and actually had a real chance of winning.
Boycotts work most effectively when the party on the attack has the ability to negatively impact the target. So a bunch of DIY crusties might not be able to get Fat Mike to change his money making schemes of selling crap marketed as ‘punx’ to 13 yr olds, but those same crusties could probably force PE collective into changing a policy if Profane ever started doing stupid shit. The difference is a question of leverage.
So basically, when the target is someone who relies on our continued support, then a boycott may be an effective tactic, but when the target is a multinational corporation who doesn’t give a shit that we exist because we are not part of their target market… We need to instead employ other tactics that have a greater chance of allowing us to impact those companies. And there are many other tactics to choose from; some of which are legal, others illegal, some are completely nonviolent, some are based on property destruction or economic sabotage, and others could even include some types of violence. In the end, before we can begin to discuss which tactics have the most potential to be effective and are the most appropriate, we need to understand what those tactics actually are, how they function, what they require as well as what the potential risks are.
The inspiration for this article took place last night when I went to a show at a local punk house. A couple straightedge bands from Seattle were playing; Clarity, Growing Stronger, and Not Sorry. One or two of the guys in those bands were wearing Nike shoes, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I grew up in the punk scene where name brands were so outright rejected that the idea of wearing something like Nike even second hand is seldom considered. On the odd occasion when it is, the wearer would usually at least do their best to cover or remove the mark of the beast first. These guys were all edge, and mostly vegan, so I was a bit taken back. I approached the dude at the break between bands “I got a question for ya’, and I don’t want it to come off as an attack it is just a honest question… You guys seemed to stand for something, so why the Nike shoes? I mean Nike is a horrible corporation.” His reply was a bit disheartening, he told me “sure, but all corporations are bad… Anyways I just write songs about girls and straightedge.” At least he was honest about it… As disappointed as I was, I can only hope that I may have planted a seed, and that maybe, just maybe, sometime in the future he will consider looking for alternatives and embrace the anti-corporate or DIY ethos of punk, and maybe he will find some Clarity, so our movements can truly begin Growing Stronger.
For those interested in strategy, I would suggest looking at various effective campaigns, such as the Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty campaign. Or perhaps some of the ALF/ELF actions, many of which have been quite effective, while others have done little to change anything. The urban guerrilla group known as Direct Action (the Vancouver 5) also had some interesting insights into strategy, as did their sister group the Wimmins Fire Brigade.
Thanks for writing this. It’s a thoughtful response to a strange interaction that you had with this musician. I think many people don’t take a strategic approach to activism/radicalism