Boycotts and the fight for social change

Erima Dall examines the strategy of boycotting to achieve social change

Two boycotts have drawn the ire of Australian political leaders—both Coalition and Labor—recently.

An artists’ boycott of the Sydney Biennale arts festival over its ties with Transfield Holdings achieved rapid success in March this year. The company owns 12 per cent of sister company Transfield Services, which has the $1.2 billion contract to run the Nauru and now Manus Island offshore detention gulags.

After the public shaming, the Biennale cut all future financial ties with Transfield, and Transfield director Luca Belgiorno-Nettis resigned from the Biennale Board. Attorney General George Brandis blustered that the boycott was an “appalling insult”, “preposterously unreasonable” and “arrogant and shameful”.

The Coalition is also at war with the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The smears against BDS began under Labor. In keeping with the tradition of branding any criticism of apartheid Israel anti-Semitic, Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd shamefully likened BDS to the Nazi Kristallnacht and joined a Murdoch press witch hunt against Sydney’s Green-dominated Marrickville Council for supporting BDS.

Now Murdoch and the Coalition are after University of Sydney academic Jake Lynch. Lynch is currently in court defending his right to implement the academic boycott, after a Zionist law firm took him to court for his refusal to sponsor an Israeli academic, Dan Avnon.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has even raised the idea of cutting any government funding to academics or institutions supporting BDS.

A Sydney Staff 4 BDS group has formed, whose first aim is, “to exert pressure on the University of Sydney to withdraw all institutional and financial support from Israeli academic and research institutions”.

In both cases, these boycotts have pushed the movements for change—for refugees and Palestine respectively—forward, and propelled the issues into the spotlight.

These successes, particularly the Biennale boycott, have sparked discussion about the strategy of boycotting as a way to advance social change.

Boycotts themselves have a long and varied history, and the word can be used to describe a variety of different actions. Generally speaking, a boycott means withdrawing support in some way from a company, country or organisation as a punishment or protest. Boycotts initially gained prominence in the abolitionist movement in Britain, when activists refused to buy slave-produced sugar or rum from the West Indies.

Boycotts are a double-edged sword within any movement—even with the best of intentions, they don’t always take the struggle forward. This is because they can tend to emphasise the power of individuals acting alone, or as consumers in the market, rather than collective power in protest actions, strikes and occupations.

Inside the campaign against apartheid Israel, for example, there’s a tension between a mass campaign of protest and international solidarity and encouraging people to participate simply by not buying products with an Israeli barcode.

Consumer boycotts

NGO and environmental groups often push consumer boycotts as a way to win change. But they are the weakest and most dangerous form of boycott and almost entirely ineffective.

The web site Ethical Consumer lists scores of companies and nations with boycotts declared against them—a who’s who of the world’s corporate criminals, from Amazon to Coca-Cola to manufacturing giant Unilever and the world’s biggest oil companies, BP and Shell.

It’s common sense to argue that we can change the world by making choices about what we purchase. The environment movement promotes the idea that we can fight climate change and the treatment of animals by choosing better light bulbs and dolphin-free tuna. We can buy off our conscience by purchasing “fair trade” coffee and chocolate, support women by funding breast cancer research when we buy a bottle of water, and shop at LGBT-friendly businesses.

But this is part of an illusion that ordinary people influence or control the world market and the economy with their purchasing power. The problem is that the mass of wealth is not concentrated in the hands of individual consumers.

A recent Oxfam report on global inequality showed that the richest 85 people in the world have a combined wealth ($1.8 trillion) equal to that of the poorest half of global population (3.5 billion people). Such facts make a mockery of the idea we can “vote with our dollar”.

A tiny number of companies control the food, goods and services we purchase. For example, Coles and Woolworths control 80 per cent of retail grocery sales in Australia. Decisions about what to produce, where, and why are made by this tiny elite of business owners and governments who support them. There is no democracy in the free market.

Some would argue that while consumer boycotts might achieve little, “every little bit counts”. But there is also a danger that consumer boycotts shift the blame from those making the decisions about what to produce, or those implementing the policies, and focus instead on individuals’ behaviour.

Collective power

Of course, not everyone who advocates boycotting Israel or boycotting the detention system is advocating consumer boycotts. BDS itself was inspired by the successful international solidarity, involving boycotts of goods, in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

Boycotts were also used in the struggle for Indian independence from colonial Britain and in the US civil rights movement.

These boycott actions were part of mass, collective movements that directly involved the working class taking action. The power of workers is key to winning real social change—and to transforming the capitalist system itself.

Workers under capitalism have a special power because they are the producing class. Workers are the ones who make the giant corporations run and who set the government bureaucracies in motion with their labour. When workers take collective action, they can stop production and hit profits. While a tiny minority control the world market, they are powerless without the workers who produce their wealth.

The most powerful social movements in Australian history, such as those against the war in Vietnam and for Aboriginal land rights, drew on the power of the working class. Tens of thousands of workers “stopped work to the stop the war” and joined huge weekday demonstrations.

In the fight against apartheid in South Africa, international solidarity provided sustenance to apartheid’s gravedigger—a mass movement of near-revolutionary strikes and demonstrations by black workers.

Boycotts against Barclays Bank, South African apricots, and South African sporting teams like the Springboks helped shame apartheid internationally and show those fighting in South Africa that the world was with them.

Protesting businesses and governments who dealt with apartheid South Africa was not about saying consumer choices could end apartheid, or targeting individuals, but part of turning South Africa into a pariah state and bringing the connections between the apartheid regime, Western governments and major corporations into the spotlight.

Naomi Klein, writing about BDS, has said, “The reason the strategy should be tried [on Israel] is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work”. But the economic damage a boycott can do is minimal, especially for Israel, which the US has been willing to prop up economically when necessary.

What BDS can do, however, like the anti-apartheid movement, is build international support for Palestine, put pressure on implicated Western governments, and counter-act Israel’s propaganda push. (Known as “Brand Israel”, the Israeli state has gone to great efforts to try to create an image of Israel as a modern, fun, gay-friendly tourist destination).

BDS helps cut against some of the conservatism of nationalist Palestinian leaders, who have taken a negotiation-based approach in trying to win a Palestinian state and sought alliances with neighbouring Arab leaders instead of mass movements in the region and around the world.

As with Israel, boycotting companies like Transfield, G4S and SERCO, who profit from the misery of detention, won’t by itself bring Operation Sovereign Borders to a halt. The Biennale artists rightly targeted the Biennale and Transfield itself. But it would have been a mistake if plans to protest individuals attending the Biennale had gone ahead. The artists’ boycott achieved an important moral victory for the campaign against offshore processing.

It didn’t however, inflict an economic wound on the detention system. Corporate profits are not the main driver of the bipartisan ideological assault on asylum seekers and the obsession with border protection. The detention network “supply chain”, often referred to, is a consequence of the border regime, not its motivating force.

This is not to underestimate the culpability of these corporations. As Antony Loewenstein points out in his book, Profits of Doom, outsourcing allows governments to wash their hands of responsibility for the horrors of the detention regime. As with any privatised service, it creates a motivation to cut corners and skimp on necessary equipment and care, so as to increase profits.

Actions like winning union votes, as has been done in the National Tertiary Education Union and Australian Services Union, calling on superannuation funds to divest from companies involved in profiting from detention, are effective in building an argument against refugee detention, committing workers to opposing the horrific treatment of refugees, and building their confidence to take action.

At their best, boycotts can help sway public option, build solidarity, and win new recruits to movements for change. In that case they can be a valuable tactic.

But left as an action for individuals, or targeting individuals, they are ineffective—and can weaken the fight by drawing attention away from the main enemy and attempting to substitute for the strikes and mass action that have the real power to force change.

It will be the strength of ordinary people working together in mass movements, like those that ended apartheid and the war against Vietnam, that will one day close the refugee detention gulags and bring freedom closer for Palestine.


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