For many radicals in the united states, creating an alternative subculture or lifestyle is the preferred choice of resistance to the effects of capitalism.* From greed to over consumption, from destruction of the environment to worker exploitation, a solution will occur with a simple process of alternative consumption or lifestyle. Daily consumers are convinced that where they spend their dollar counts in supporting various causes, or in not supporting others. I maintain this as a liberal (or, more precisely, the left wing of capital) option. Dropout culture, freeganism, veganism, bike culture and other personal boycotts of products still remain as supposedly essential to any resistance.**
The intention of these personal boycotts is to create resistance by not participating in the capitalist system. However, I believe this to be similar to other liberal concepts of change. Change is not something structural and based on generalized revolt, rather it is a result of conscientious consumption of alternative-looking products. Whether found in a dumpster or bought at a liberally conscious store, the same process is at work; consumption based on our current economy. You cannot buy capitalism away or garden it away — just as you can’t dumpster it out of existence, ride away from it on a bicycle, or compost it. Revolutionary change must be a qualitative shift in economic organization through generalized revolutionary consciousness and action, through revolutionary praxis.
All of these different ways of surviving within capitalism are not to be glorified or denounced. They are just ways to free up resources or relief of self-induced guilt. We need to use any resources we have and/or acquire to create resistance without limiting ourselves with consumer ethics (or lack of). These lifestyles can never be revolutionary because they rely on capitalism for their own existence.
Additionally, by focusing on alternative consumption habits within capitalism, one puts the blame of the problem on people who have no control of how those products are produced. Those who are simply trying to survive in this fucked up economic system and who couldn’t care less if they purchase X amount of product A or Y amount of product B. When we make judgments on others for their lack of cliquish boycotting, we are doing the work of capital to keep us divided in our resistance and focused on our consumption. This self-inflicted guilt is pacifying any real resistance beyond the constraints of ethical consumption. It is to the advantage of power and capital to have the blame diverted onto the working class, who have to buy fucked up products because they get shit for pay. It is important to live without guilt in personal consumption because the only choices we have are defined by capitalism. Until we bring some kind of revolutionary change, we will have no other choices. To think we have a choice is delusional.
Not only is boycotting non revolutionary, it is counter-revolutionary. It does nothing except obscure the many problems we face as it is structurally connected to an underlying whole. Due to a lack of theoretical commitment, our social confusion about what constitutes being radical and/or pro-revolutionary leads to our implicit assumption that we can have a consumer-driven revolution. There is no anti-capitalist negation in that sentiment and as such, it can only confuse potential militants away from revolutionary understanding. There are only two ways out of capitalism — revolution or death.
One may respond that a result of lifestyle boycotts is that you don’t have to work as much and, hence, are not producing the surplus necessary for capital reproduction. This is a problem because one does not take this position from a bird’s eye view. Not working is an impossibility for most people. Only a select minority can survive without working. This is not practical anti-capitalism, it is just temporary survival for a minority, with no threat to the whole problem of capital. Unless it is generalizeable (such as the case of generalized abandonment of work), it does not have the potential to cause structural change. Additionally, the surplus thrown out is nowhere near enough in volume to feed, clothe, or house the entirety of people. Most necessities must be produced, as they don’t materialize in dumpsters. That is why it will not sustain any type of revolt. This reality is often ignored by people in all likelihood because they secretly or unconsciously wish to keep the surplus for themselves, while living off the system and contributing less than average.
If this is the case, not only is alternative consumption misguided, it is actively co-opting any sort of actual resistance into a liberal understanding of the world, and potentially making the most militant of us into passive critics. This backs up our claim that alternative consumption and boycotting are not revolutionary and/or pro-revolutionary. They lead us into passivity with the system because we have found a nice escape. Just as the addict is able to coexist with daily misery, the radical is able to coexist with capital.
This passivity seems to have leeched into our lives where we reproduce the same behaviors and repeat the same seemingly-radical slogans while showing nothing of substance. Our easy survival off surplus production then contributes to our complicit apathy of the world. We forget in our privilege what we are against because we have no material connection to our suffering and exploitation, hence, the lack of need for struggle. Our very boycotting-as-struggle results in a boycott of struggle leading to pathetic notions of waiting for the “end” in whatever manifestation. To take the stance that pushing for anti-capitalist resistance and anti-hierarchical struggle is of no importance while waiting for the revolution and/or Armageddon and/or peak oil and/or global disaster and/or 2012, is a very privileged stance. We who are in prison, who are being deported, who are being shot, starving, suffering from mental illness, domestic violence, rent, bombs, torture, debt, assimilation, gentrification, rape, assault, houselessness, enslavement, etc. cannot simply wait idle for things to get better. To be passive to our oppression is to allow our world and its entire constituency — including ourselves, to be exploited, while apathetically waiting for some hypothetical end which may never come. None of us are free until all of us are free.
In conclusion, the best personal boycott that you can do is to kill yourself, and that won’t change anything.
In Death and Suffering,
We are Legion for we are everywhere.
*For my purposes, I define capitalism as a specific stage in a commodity-producing society characterized by exploitation of those who work for wage-labor by the purchaser of their labor-power (or capitalist) selling the workers product/service for more than their wage. This mode of exploitation is the form of social surplus production/appropriation in capitalism. That surplus produced by the workers self-expands through re-investment in machines, factories, or other financial assets, taking over new industries and countries providing the system with the need for competition and perpetual growth. Everything else falls into place in attempts to maintain this from the existence of the state to contain revolutionary class conflict or brutally expand markets to the non-capitalist world through warfare to financiers simply moving around money while skimming off extra into their pockets. This is the current economic system of united states and the rest of the colonized world. This means I define capitalism as based off of work. It is necessary to add that I do not define capitalism as mere greed or the profit motive as many do. These are merely bad manners in which capitalism expresses itself.
**For this article, we will define important terms as follows in order to avoid arguing semantics and confusing, implicit assumptions.
Freeganism – The practice of buying less for whatever reason as a response against the harmful effects of capitalism through some subversive means such as primarily dumpster diving, minor theft, road kill diets, squatting, charities, alternative “green” transportation (biking, vegetable oil fuel, train hopping)
Dropout culture – Not wanting to participate in the ‘system’ and, consequently, buying less or looking for other means of survival ‘outside’ the ‘system’.
Veganism – Boycotting animal products and by-products for ethical, dietary, environmental, or any other reason.