Book Review: Protest, Inc: The Corporatization of Activism
Protest, Inc: The Corporatization of Activism by Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014. 200 pp., £50.00 hardback, 9780745669489; £15.99 paperback, 9780745669496; £10.99 e-book 9780745681191
The corporatisation of nearly every aspect of existence has long been documented and critiqued, but what has happened to those aspects of social and civil life that involve sentiments not immediately compatible - on the surface of it - with the more ruthless end of market values? Here we could include protest, dissent and opposition but also altruism, philanthropy and selflessness. This useful and descriptive book looks in detail at the ways in which activism, from its spikier end to its gentler, more reformist aspects, has not only been co-opted by the market, but also how activist movements and charities have themselves internalised market values. ‘Over the last two decades,’ the authors begin ‘activist organisations have increasingly come to look, think and act like corporations’ (p.1).
Anyone who’s ever been involved in a small political campaign where money is non-existent and people volunteer their time for free might baulk at the authors’ suggestion that ‘many activists are now defecting to the winning side’ (p.155) or that ‘activism is less “radical” than it was forty or fifty years ago’ (p.4), and it is clear that in the main the authors are not talking about the underground end of activism - anarchist groups working on prison abolition, for example, or more spontaneous political actions. The authors are careful in this regard to distinguish ‘grassroots’ activism from ‘NGO’ activism: the book’s focus is mainly on the latter, though it also seeks to describe a general trend whereby a combination of state repression, the privatisation of everyday life and the disintegration of social networks has led to a combination of widespread fear of the consequences of speaking out with the infiltration of corporate capitalism to every sphere of life.
What all this means is that radical activists, ‘those who challenge political and corporate authority and call for structural change to alter the outcomes of markets and policies’ (p.26), have been marginalised and assimilated: either rendered ineffectual or dispirited or sucked up into the relentless corporatization of contemporary activism. Quoting Warren Buffett’s infamous point - ‘there’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning’ - the book paints a dispiriting picture of crushed radicalism and its replacement by hegemonic big-brand campaigns. The authors point out that previously unthinkable activist alliances, ‘partnerships with big-brand companies - Walmart, McDonald’s, Nike - are now common, even expected’ (p.1). The impact of these corporate agendas on activist work is perhaps predictable: ‘the agendas, discourse, questions, and proposed solutions of human rights, gender equality, social justice, animals rights, and environmental activist organizations increasingly conform with, rather than challenge, global capitalism’ (p.3).
It is in the details that this book really excels, and in many ways it is more useful as a series of well-researched facts about the ways in which corporations have subsumed activism and how activism has become more corporate and tepid rather than as a more theoretical argument as to how and why this has happened and what can be done about it. The authors’ definition of ‘activism’ itself is loose and at points a little too imprecise: ‘Activism, as we define it, includes protests; yet most activism emerges out of and takes place between protests .... Activism requires sustained collective action with a political purpose’ (p.7).
This broad definition allows the authors to include everything from the World Social Forum, to nature and ecological groups such as Greenpeace, cancer charities such as Komen for the Cure (who cut an unpalatable deal with KFC) as well as Amnesty International and human rights groups. The authors admit this definition has its potential downsides as it ‘softens the meaning to embrace groups that accept, and in some cases are even part of, prevailing power structures’ (p.8), but the breadth of the definition does allow them to point to broader tendencies and trajectories in the story they tell about corporatization, while avoiding getting bogged down in fine details about which groups are ‘revolutionary’ and which ‘reformist’ for example.
But carving out the differences and crossovers between NGOs and charities, political campaigns and health and environmental projects would have generated some interesting tensions, particularly around question of nation states and global enterprises - are charities such as Greenpeace multinationals in the same ways as corporations? How do activists from these groups deal with asymmetrical state repression in different countries? Are NGOs and charities dealt with differently than more confrontational activist groups? While the authors devote an important chapter (‘Securitizing Dissent’) to looking at the ways in which states around the world have cracked down on protest in the past twenty years, it would have been useful, and more directly relevant to the overall argument, to have covered in more detail the relationship between, for example, police spies who simultaneously inform on activists both for the state and for corporations, as well as to examine what happens to those activists who directly challenge corporations - the decade-long UK Mclibel case, for example, in which the state, police and McDonalds colluded to undermine activists from every possible angle.
Nevertheless, the facts here are certainly convincing and the authors make a good, if highly depressing, case for the de-radicalisation of activism and the rise of institutionalised ‘causes’: ‘Who, fifty years ago,’ the authors point out, ‘would have thought that one day most of the world’s human rights and environmental activists would be marketing causes and reporting back to corporate donors?’ (p.109). Discussion of the links between the ultra-rich and philanthropy are particularly useful in laying out the financial stakes as well as the ‘need’ for activist groups to engage in branding and marketing, as is the brief history of fair trade in the overall picture of market-driven ‘good’ consumerism. The authors succeed in presenting a coherent, convincing picture of a stifling and widespread tendency which more than achieves its overall goal of sending ‘a warning shot across the bows of corporatizing activism’ (p.156).
Dr Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton, London. She is a founding member of Defend the Right to Protest, formed in the wake of the police violence and mass arrests of the UK student fee protests of 2010.