Consume This! A Capitalist Culture & The Sympathetic Consumer

Boycott? Buycott? Why, or why not? In this post, Tad Skotnicki summarizes the main contribution of his first and new book, The Sympathetic Consumer, and ties it to recent incidents in the news where people voice political concerns in consumerist terms. 

– Michaela DeSoucey, section chair


Consume This! A Capitalist Culture & The Sympathetic Consumer
By Tad Skotnicki

A glance at the news suggests that many things can trigger a call for consumers to spend or withhold their money on some product or at some store for political reasons. Recently, for example, we have been treated to the spectacle of conservative pundit Ben Shapiro buying a solitary wooden plank from Home Depot—ostensibly because the corporation, based in Georgia, remained silent on a controversial new law that curtails voting rights, where many others released critical statements on the new restrictions. Elsewhere, there was confusion as Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama distanced themselves from a proposed Amazon boycott organized in support of their unionization drive. Supply chain politics have placed some global brands at the center of a moral tug-of-war between U.S. and Chinese consumers (and their governments). U.S. consumers and human rights groups, troubled by conditions of Uyghur laborers involved in the production of cotton in the Xinjiang region of China, pressured fast fashion companies H&M and others to seek out alternative cotton sources, while Chinese consumers have responded with calls to boycott these same brands for capitulating to scurrilous Western fear-mongering. These are anything but isolated incidents.

The swiftness with which such calls come and go—and the lasting impressions that they often fail to make—lends credence to the meme-able exhortation: “there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism!” Comparing people’s consumer behavior with their stated ideals, some have argued that the ethical consumer is a myth. But in our haste to litigate whether people actually buy ethically or whether ethical consumption is possible, we bury the lede. Instead, we should consider why people voice political concerns in these consumerist terms repeatedly. Moreover, it is worth exploring why these concerns assume an eerily similar form over time and across space. These are issues that I take up in my new book, The Sympathetic Consumer: Moral Critique in Capitalist Culture (2021, Stanford University Press). I argue that the sympathetic consumer—one who “feels with” often invisible people, things, and institutions through their purchases—emerges again and again as people struggle to make sense of buying and selling in a capitalist society. What is it, then, about capitalist buying and selling that enables people to make their sympathies known through purchases?

Rather than the frenetic present, however, my book looks back to several historical eras when efforts to organize people as consumers in this way left more of an impression. In the late eighteenth century, abolitionists in the British Empire pioneered a popular effort to abstain from sugar made by enslaved people in the Caribbean colonies. Nearly one century later, activists in the United States and England developed organizations of consumers that they hoped would usher in a more just world. Despite their varied backgrounds, intentions, and forms of organization, these activists leveraged what they saw as the consumer’s privileged position in chains of production, distribution, and exchange to transform the conditions under which goods were made and sold. In other words, by inviting people to imagine and engage with the world in their role as consumers, they pursued a project that resonates with the contemporary examples above. 

Are these similarities merely superficial? Can we say that they are informed by the particular character of buying and selling in capitalist societies? To answer, consider three aspects of the sympathetic consumer. First, the sympathetic consumer refers to an ideal or vision. Abolitionists and turn-of-the-twentieth century activists alike imagined the consumer as a figure with decisive moral and political power. One abolitionist implored consumers to renounce the purchase and use of Caribbean sugar, “Take away the cause and we all know that the effect will cease. Abstain from Sugar, and Slavery falls.” Such claims were common. And these activists weren’t fools. They didn’t believe that individual consumers could turn the tides of history on their own. But they grounded their sense of consumers’ political potential in a system of commerce organized around the profit motive. This was a system that many of them glimpsed, even if only obscurely, in the sale and purchase of goods from sugar and tea to blouses and boots. Just as important, their activism asked people to reflect on what these purchases really meant. 

But this wasn’t a mere ideal or vision. The sympathetic consumer refers, secondly, to a set of practices—explicit efforts to cultivate ethical purchasing and broader political engagement through consumption. These activists invited people to see and imagine the conditions under which goods were made, delivered, and sold. At the turn of the twentieth century, working-class British co-operators often advertised products like boots and cocoa as originating from “the best conditions of labor.” Further, they published articles and reports to expose these hidden conditions of labor—the good and the bad—so that others might reflect on and change their purchasing habits. Such tactics were shared by abolitionists and many subsequent consumer activists. In this way, they organized their activism around an exchange process wherein goods, by necessity, cannot reveal the conditions of their making or their worth. And activism has often reflected this.

Finally, the sympathetic consumer refers to the assumptions that have informed activists’ arguments as to why people should purchase “ethical” goods. It turns out that the manner in which activists argued for sympathetic consumption reflected the specific conditions of capitalist buying and selling. Florence Kelley, leader of the turn-of-the-twentieth century reformers the National Consumers’ League, told a story of white cotton underwear manufacturers: one utilized a “well-ordered factory” while others utilized home-work undertaken in “wretched,” crowded tenements. But the catch was that these differences didn’t present themselves in the price or appearance of the underwear. Someone needed to bring them to light. By tracing the supply chain, Kelly both justified the Consumers’ League’s existence and sought to motivate sympathetic consumption. Such arguments made sense because they mirrored the supply chains through which these goods traveled. 

Ultimately, I argue that these aspects of the sympathetic consumer—visions, practices, assumptions—depend on specific capitalist tendencies and phenomena. All of the goods that these activists concerned themselves with were produced systematically to turn a profit. Many argued or assumed that profit could be reshaped to serve the common good. Furthermore, they depend on the aura of mystery that enshrouds these goods—this dependence manifests most directly in the effort to expose something not otherwise apparent about certain goods, manufacturers, or sellers. But, in addition, they also depend on the familiarity of everyday buying and selling. It is easy to take the profit-oriented production of goods and services for granted. In different ways, all of the activists or would-be activists mentioned here do this as well. As consumers, we have a particular kind of claim on different organizations and people that rely on profit to survive. It is this claim that consumer activists have exploited time and again.  

To be sure, there may be many variations on the sympathetic consumer, as time progresses. The work of abolitionists differs in some important ways from efforts to boycott H&M in China or Amazon in the United States. Moreover, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that such efforts can produce some changes. Yet, when we ask only whether people actually buy “ethically” or whether it is even possible to buy ethically, we overlook the persistence and form of the myth itself. Once we begin to understand the myth of the sympathetic consumer, we may recognize the ways that our visions, practices, and assumptions—in a word, culture—sometimes assume a uniquely capitalist form. This form may manifest not only in competitive individualism, but also in compassion and care. To account for these phenomena, we should trace the development of such myths in relation to identifiable features of the capitalist world. It is a matter of our interpretations and the systemic order that makes them possible. We can and must take heed of both. That is what it means to explore consumption in a capitalist culture. 

About the Author:

Tad Skotnicki is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of North Carolina Greensboro. His research centers on the dynamics and of capitalism, alienation, and culture, looking from the past through comparative historical methods and to ideas about the future with theory. He received his PhD from the University of California, San Diego in 2015.

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