Between & Beyond: Consumer Power

We all have heard someone reference the definition of insanity at this point, so much so it has become an adage of sorts: the whole idea of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Yet, we continue. It’s no secret that the majority of Americans has no time or interest in politics and is totally content to dedicate their lives elsewhere. For the people that do care about politics, there seems to be this pathological insanity of believing in the system before us. Again and again, we throw ourselves against the same wall. We continuously look toward the government and petition it to allow or grants us the world we wish to see.

We really should just be creating the world we wish to see and circumventing the routes of power. This idea is burgeoning in new and exciting ways. Crowd funding is my favorite example. It is a small good thing in this world and exactly the kind of immediate action we need. We need smart good people with smart good ideas and we need to give them as much resources as we can spare. But, it struck me the other day that maybe we should just rethink the avenues of power and redirect our efforts and energy.

I swear I remember an old episode of Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher’s show, in which the debate amongst the panelists was about whether or not lobbyists had any kind of influence over government policy. We have reached a point now where there is no doubt at all that the power of lobbyists remains supreme. It has become an accepted normal, yet we still petition the government in the same fashion we always have. Elections have become mainly about changing the stale bed sheets. The Republican climbs out of bed with Corporate American and the Democrat climbs in. Protest (as last week’s Robinson Jeffers poem puts it) is but a bubble in the molten mass as America settles into the mold of empire. Even any semblance of grassroots campaigning is about petitioning the government officials with phone calls and emails. It’s ironic: we send politicians pieces of paper with our wishes and desires on them. Lobbyists also use pieces of paper; ones called money and on them is written the desires and wishes of politicians. It’s not hard to see which one is more persuasive.

But, where is our power? Where does it lie? Do we have any left? Not much as money is now generated without even our participation with the revolving door of our taxes subsidizing corporate welfare and financial Ponzi schemes generating money out of thin air with our very livelihood at stake. But, corporate American is still a very sensitive entity. It still has very thin skin. We still matter a great deal to them. When something is deemed offensive, racist, or insensitive, corporations buckle immediately to public outcry. What would happen if we cut out the middleman? What if we petitioned corporations instead of politicians? What if corporations still need us? Could we just recognize them as the governing power that they are, but stake our claim in their existence?

Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation ushered in a whole new era of consumer awareness. I presented a class of mine with the introduction to the book as an example of informative writing, and they were mostly unimpressed. I realized how dated it was. “We all know it’s bad for us,” they claimed, but, of course, they still eat it anyway. At the end of the book, Schlosser establishes what he sees at the silver lining. If we demanded organic grass-fed hamburgers from McDonald’s, we would get them because McDonald’s is only concerned about one thing: making money. The corporate model has long seemed geared toward manufacturing our desire, rather than bowing to it. Perhaps that is because our desire has been lulled into such a dormant state. In this day of metadata, who we are still matters though, maybe more than ever.

What if we made it easier for them? What if we offered what we want clearly and up front? What if we didn’t wait for the hopelessly rusted gears of policy to turn? What if we petitioned CEOs the way we petition politicians? Let’s take the recent climate march for example. I think protest is always a good thing because it helps us remember that we are not alone. Ultimately, however, protest is entirely antiquated and ineffective, especially if we are going to do it on a day off and not make it truly disruptive. What if the 400,000 attendees wrote letters to all their favorite brands, and I’m even talking about the do-gooders, the organic food companies and biodegradable household cleaners, and demanded the reduction in the use of plastic now? What if we set the agenda? What if we created the timeline? I shop consciously. I buy organic food in reusable bags. I still look in my garbage pail at the end of the week and want to weep. We are drowning in plastic. It is a systemic problem. What if we demanded the heads of the system to fix it?