Boycotts Can’t Be a Test of Moral Purity

This tactic does little to challenge monopoly power.

Getty / The Atlantic

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.

This post was excerpted from Teachout’s recent book.

Boycotts do have widespread appeal. The Vox columnist Matthew Yglesias has taken a look at why, writing, “Consumer brands are a leverage point for progressive politics because there’s no gerrymandering & marketers care more about young people. Consumer marketing is almost the exact opposite of voting and a younger, more urbanized, and more female demographic carries more weight.”

This logic may lead to a short-term sense of empowerment, but to longer-term disempowerment—the more progressives lean into their consumer power as the key point of leverage, the less they focus on exercising their political power, the less long-term collective power they will amass. In other words, boycotts allow people to import virtuousness into their life without the struggle of organizing and building a coalition.

Additionally, consumer politics is certainly less complicated than actually wielding power. The University of North Carolina sociology professor and Atlantic contributing writer Zeynep Tufekci argues that people “want to stay out of politics because they fear corruption and co-optation. They have a point. Modern representative democracies are being strangled in many countries by powerful interests.” But, she points out, the long-term impact of dropping out of politics may be to make individuals cleaner and the system dirtier.

Today, there are hundreds of boycotts every year, and most do not have any appreciable impact. People lose interest, don’t maintain a public presence around a boycott, and the number of people involved is typically too small to make a market difference. What difference is made typically revolves around “the more modest goal of attracting media attention,” not the loss of income, the University of Pennsylvania professor Maurice Schweitzer says.

The Chick-fil-A boycott, one of the largest in recent memory, came about when the Chick-fil-A CEO made anti-gay marriage comments. Organizers staged kiss-ins, and mayors said Chick-fil-A was not welcome in their towns. But Chick-fil-A ignored the protests, people forgot the comments after a few years, and little changed. As one commentator put it, “It is hard to stay mad at a ubiquitous and powerful brand.” While, in theory, people did commit to stop eating at Chick-fil-A until it changed its posture on marriage equality, the company outlasted the protest; it still rates a zero on the Human Rights Campaign’s Buyers Guide, and LGBTQ people are not included in its nondiscrimination policy.

Ethical consumerism—and its close relatives corporate accountability and corporate social responsibility—is especially poorly suited to monopolized economies, and a tragic misfit for disciplining companies that play a quasi-governmental role. By accepting big corporations as partners, and not challenging their legitimacy as our rulers, the consumer-boycott model allows for short-term victories that appear to be progressive, while the partner corporation is building sufficient power to become boycott-proof.

If Chick-fil-A was hard to boycott, think about what boycotting Google would mean. First, imagine a one-person boycott, someone angry about, say, Google-enabled job discrimination. He would have to get rid of his Android phone and switch from Gmail. He’d have to stop using Google Search and Google Maps. He’d have to refuse to watch anything on YouTube. He’d have to get rid of Nest. If he owned a business, he’d have to avoid Google ads, which he might rely on to reach customers. He’d have to refuse to use municipal Wi-Fi in cities where Google is behind “free” Wi-Fi. If he had children, he would have to tell them to refuse to use the technology required to interact with their teachers.

And even if he succeeds in doing all these things, Google will not boycott him. If he uses the internet, he will necessarily see Google-served ads, and his responses and nonresponses to those ads will feed into Google’s data bank. Google will still collect information about him when he walks by a LinkNYC kiosk. Google will still collect his tax dollars in subsidies.

Now try imagining an effective organized boycott of Google, large enough to actually dent the company’s profits. There are more than 5 billion Google searches a day. Can we really imagine enough people switching to an alternate search engine or going without asking their question? Google will continue collecting information on those people regardless, and Search is just one part of the Google behemoth. As if that weren’t daunting enough, imagine a sector-based boycott of the data-collection practices of all the big tech companies—Facebook, Google, Amazon—for their shared behaviors.

In a comic New York Times article, one reporter chronicled the social-media accounts that pushed boycotts using products from the companies they were boycotting. A quarter of the people who tweeted #boycottGoogle (a campaign organized to protest Google’s firing of the engineer James Damore) did so from Android phones. And people boycotting Amazon kept shopping at Amazon-owned Whole Foods. Cher protested Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal by leaving Facebook but remaining active on Facebook-owned Instagram. “I don’t know if I can get out of the ecosystem,” said one activist. “Where am I supposed to go?” said another. “I wish there was something else.”

In 2019, the city of Richmond, California, ended its contract with Vigilant Solutions, a data-analytics company that does business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The city of Berkeley, following suit, debated boycotting all companies that provided services to ICE and Customs and Border Protection, including Amazon, because these federal agencies rely on Amazon Web Services. The Berkeley city manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, argued against boycotting Amazon, because it “would have a huge negative impact to the citywide operations.” Amazon helps manage city documents, and hosts housing and mental-health programs, and Amazon servers host many other tech companies that provide services to the city. People unwittingly using the thing they are supposedly boycotting to advertise their boycott can seem funny. But the lack of choice facing all boycotters actually represents a serious narrowing of the window of moral political behavior.

The change in effectiveness can be confusing for people who remember the successful boycotts in the 1980s and ’90s of companies such as Nike, which came under fire for using sweatshops. Companies have reorganized their supply chains in a way that insulates them from liability and protest. Garment manufacturers no longer have direct relationships with big companies, who build systems of deliberate ignorance into their purchasing. According to Professor Richard Locke’s research on Nike, workplace conditions in almost 80 percent of its root suppliers remained either the same or worsened between 2001 and 2005, though the company’s records may appear better on paper. Most important, every part of Nike’s supply chain is monopolized, with just a few major players, so boycotters have nowhere else to go. A serious boycott would involve buying no foreign-manufactured garments, rather than targeting particular companies.

Growing consolidation of power interacts with the rise of social media, leading to more boycotts that are less effective and shorter-lasting. As Tufekci has argued, these actions tend to the ephemeral and episodic, instead of the effective and persistent. The result is a combination of hyperactivity online and decreased power. Boycotts gin up social-media presence on an almost daily basis. Unlike a demand for legislative action—where inaction by a lawmaker grows in meaning over time—the longer a company does not change in the face of protests, the more powerful it gets. The lawmaker becomes vulnerable to a primary challenger; the company has proved that it is strong.

There are also strong class and social elements to boycotting something like Facebook. It may not be essential for an upper-middle-class man living in New York, with an existing strong network of friends who appreciate his eccentricities, to use Facebook or Instagram. But a young person looking for work, let alone friendship, might find it hard to check out of all Facebook-owned properties, because they are so central to social life, and the web of job connections. The human cost of social isolation is enormous, and while some people may have sturdy offline social networks, many people do not. I met one anti-monopoly activist who guiltily confessed that she stayed on Facebook because she wanted to check on her grandmother’s health.

Yet we have somehow inculcated a belief that if someone fails to boycott a company, she lacks standing to object to political behavior or to petition Congress for change. People feel guilty about not boycotting, and that guilt gets in the way of full-throated political protest. In law, there is a doctrine called “exhaustion of remedies.” It prevents a litigant from seeking a remedy in a new court or jurisdiction until all claims or remedies have been pursued as fully as possible—exhausted—in the original one. In politics, consumer supremacy has led to a kind of exhaustion-of-remedies thinking, through which people adopt a hierarchy of modes of resistance, and feel they must first boycott, and only then ask lawmakers for change. It places consumer obligations over civic ones.

We need to change the current habits of protest in a way that places public, electoral politics at the heart of how we interact with corporate monopolies. If your local pizza parlor starts treating workers badly, sure, boycott it. But when a monopolistic drug company hikes up prices, or a social-media goliath promotes political lies to make more money, the right response is not to beg Google or Facebook for scraps, but to march to Congress and demand that the practices be investigated and the power of these companies be broken up. And if your representative fails to act, don’t boycott her. Replace her.

This article is adapted from Teachout’s recent book, Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money.