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In my research, I’ve been exploring neoliberalism and the biopolitics of charity. How do we understand consumption and activism in a society whose social/public safety nets are increasingly eroded?

I’m going to try to post a series of pieces on neoliberal practices.  This is the first. And there’s a fun snarky video at the end.

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Last month, I wrote an article about former financier Sam Polk, whose move from Wall Street to Groceryships has been celebrated as an example of the 1% awakening to a moral conscience.  Groceryships is a charity that gives “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms” in order, ostensibly, to alleviate their meager budgets for healthy foods. But the scholarships come with many strings attached: to swear an allegiance to want to be healthy; commitments to attend weekly nutrition classes, do homework, take cooking classes. More on Groceryships in my next piece.

In my original article, I suggested that this kind of charity was an instance of a colonizing mission akin to religious charities who deliver sermons along with meals to the poor. And…needless to say, I challenged the legitimacy of this mission.

Polk’s shift from being a trader to the director of this charity (and the existence of such a charity) represents but one datapoint in an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal society. He characterizes his past existence as about addiction: he was addicted to making lots of money, as he understands it. As Chris Maisano has discussed in an aptly named article, “Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul,” this kind of self-assessment is but part of a dominant therapeutic culture in which certain socially disapproved actions (e.g., excessive drinking/extramarital sex/public prayer/corporate plunder/civilian violence) are attributed to personal flaws. Therapeutic discourse individualizes the action and isolates it from larger, societal phenomena that are indicative of a certain worldview. It also locates anti-social practices in personality attributes that must be corrected and improved by the individual, presumably in ways that are easily visible to others.

This model underlies a range of consumer-activist campaigns: from spending a year producing zero trash, or without spending or shopping or driving or using toilet paper or electricity, or “voting with your fork.” The idea is that one’s politics is best enacted through what one consumes (or doesn’t).

Although the details of each of these various campaigns differ, there are some details that they have in common: each project centers on the individual as the locus of responsibility, thereby depoliticizing the issue at hand, and reducing it to an “individual” choice: to make garbage or recycle; to spend or not; to have a carbon footprint or not; to consume only healthy foods or not.

Such campaigns don’t take into account the context of the issue about which they drumbeat: whether it be waste management (such as where landfills are located, or the health impact of these landfills on surrounding populations), or trash production (involving the notable absence of regulations requiring companies to produce goods in recyclable containers).  The precise point of such consumer-activism is that larger social structures that induce ill impacts on a larger society can be ignored in favor of the “every individual can make a difference” model.  True: if 350 million individuals discarded their cell-phones, or decided to live off the grid, or stopped spending or producing trash simultaneously, we would certainly notice the impact right away. But this hope ignores several important things:

1. It is easier and morally satisfying to shame individuals about their individual behavior, even though it is not as effective as changing the choices they face.

2. It is possible to achieve changes in collective social behavior: by regulating certain practices and penalizing individuals who violate the law.

3. Passing legislation that compels companies to stop polluting, producing trash, (or encouraging them) to grow healthier crops, distribute whole foods widely, find alternative energy sources, etc., may be much more effective in reducing the overall destructive impact—though much more difficult—than changing collective behavior.

4. Consumer-activism reinforces the myth of choice and the neo-classical emphasis on free-markets by focusing on the individual as the locus of change rather than considering the role of social structures (such as the practices of corporations that benefit from the myth of free markets and individual choice).

In other words, the standard corporate response to individual-consumer activism can safely remain: Buy our products if you like them. Or don’t. It won’t really affect our profits or force us to change our practices if individuals act alone. Because hey, the state doesn’t really care, and it is the only force that can compel us to change or lose money. And they (Congress/Senate/President) won’t compel us to change, because we are among their major contributors.

Consumer-activism is but an expression of neoliberal society. There are multiple aspects to neoliberalism, but for my purposes here, a neoliberal society is one in which state support of citizens is evacuated in favor of the privatization of individual well-being. So if you want to be healthy, spend more money and eat better and join a gym, or (“less expensively”) buy sneakers/”cheap” workout accoutrements. If you want a better environment: recycle more, produce less trash. If you want to be less stressed: work less, get off the grid, go for nature walks in the woods across the street.

This model ignores the class dimension of “choice”: one doesn’t just decide to eat better, work less, use less electricity, spend “less,” in a vacuum. In fact there is an invisible context for each “individual” decision, which because it is invisible becomes depoliticized. That context requires an indefinite supply of time or money, preferably both:

1. Money and time are trade-offs. One often spends money in order to save time. One may eat out to save the time of making and packing lunch. On the other hand, it is much easier to eat better—especially in US society (where street and fast foods are often greasy, fried, and/or made of low-quality ingredients)—if one has the time to cook whole grains and unprocessed foods at home.

2. Money buys access to better resources/ingredients: organic, chemical-free, exotic unseasonal foods that are often grown across the country and shipped to one’s local health food/Whole Foods Market-like store.

3. Time is a scarce resource for the professional-class, working-poor, and the indigent. For different reasons. Some of them have to do with “labor-markets,” in which our job hours are not regulated by the state, or by other factors such as job-precarity (I may lose my job if I don’t work the longer hours my employer quietly/implicitly demands).

4. Those with limited access to money must make up for it with time:  For the indigent and working-poor, time poverty is further exacerbated by bureaucratic demands and long waits at social service organizations (public health clinics, etc.), long distances from and public transportation to areas where higher-quality/lower-cost goods can be found; time-poverty is also exacerbated by limited access to affordable child-care (when it cannot be outsourced to a private nanny or day—care center) among other constraints.

By contrast, those with money but limited time can buy their way out of politically, socially, economically exploitative situations. Likewise, those with money, to differing degrees, can buy their way out of limited choices, such as:

-Low-quality food (and thus move to more-expensive foods)
-Low-quality or resource-constrained health care (public medical clinics)
-Child-care constraints

Those with time (and a lot of money, or some money but other abundant resources, such as large plots of land, clean water, decent housing, and robust social networks) can “choose” to grow their own food, can preserves, eat organically, etc.

While this group may contain poor folks, these are often those who have been able to “downsize,” from a wealthier life. These (I’ll call them “Downsizers”) should not be confused with those who are forced to live frugally because of forced unemployment, limited employment, disability, or other imposed financial constraints (“Forcibly Poor”).

The “Forcibly Poor” do not necessarily have time in the way that “Downsizers” do, since they can’t trade in their time for money (They can’t just pick up a paying job or liquidate some of their stocks in order to access money). The corollary to this is that those who are forced, but do not “choose” to live frugally, are also treated with less dignity.

I suspect this is because those forced to live in poverty are seen as hapless, incompetent, and unable or unwilling to “choose” to have money. Therefore, they are treated as lesser rational beings, like young children, who must be instructed, guided, disciplined and ushered along.

This assumption, too, is part of the ideology of free-market liberalism: Those who are wealthy or actually choose to live frugally, are more rational than those who are poor. And those who are poor just don’t know how to live a good life. Their poverty is presumed to be an expression of their lack of desire to live a good life. This logic follows straight from John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government: God has given the world to all men (sic) in common. Since the earth is accessible to all, then property (wealth) can be acquired by all who choose to labor.

How else, then, to explain poverty, except by lack of rationality? The poor must be irrational (insane/idiotic/criminal/indigenous), because otherwise they could have used their God-given intelligence to labor and acquire a sufficient share of God-given resources.

If these assumptions make sense, then it seems that several things follow:

1. Consumer Activism is a certain way of comporting oneself in the world so as to appear politically conscious, without necessarily being effective.

2. Charity organizations that distribute various goods/services to the Forcibly Poor with various strings that require behavior modification, are enacting a certain mode of Consumer Activism and imposing it on the Involuntarily Poor. But instead, without the accompanying discussion of the evacuation of public safety nets, or the reasons behind the lack of money and time, such models of Charity become normalized and celebrated as the primary means to “help the (forcibly) poor.”

3. Imposing Consumer Activism on the Forcibly Poor, as Sam Polk does with Groceryships, looks a lot like colonizing/civilizing the poor. More on that in my next post.

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*An earlier version of this article discussed the “Forcibly Poor.” In this version, that term has been changed to the “Involuntarily Poor.”

**The phrase “Involuntarily Poor” has been returned to its original “Forcibly Poor.” It’s more accurate.