Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The efficacy of Boycott movements, with a special consideration of their place in U.S. history

The United States of America is functionally a novelty in human history. Observing the material wealth at its disposal, its economy being four times the size of its nearest rival; its seemingly limitless reach of above seven hundred military installations cast to the wind like so many seeds to pollinate in some one hundred sixty odd countries across the globe; the luxuriant status its language holds in universities and cities at all points, even at protests denouncing its self-same functions - all point to its unprecedented arrival, never before witnessed in human history. Taking no other point as proof but the sheer scale of this government, at times exceeding the bounds of human comprehension, thus we should in no way underscore our participation, nor presume our elections at all innocent or in any way neutral.

Mirroring the world-encompassing scope of the U.S. government, there are examples of political struggles engaging in boycotts from all regions, all global corners. The most familiar recent international example may be as a tool of foreign policy for innumerable governments (such as regards apartheid South Africa, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or protest of the Olympics). Yet more examples are found in popular movements.

No less a figure than Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle to liberate India with his Quit India movement found in the boycott an essential strategy which critically expanded the challenge to British rule at the same time as magnifying participation (specifically drawing previously excluded women into the movement with the “home-spun” drive).

In fact the sheer array of groups who utilize the boycott is in itself astounding. From Feminists (albeit under the neologism “girlcott”), to the European revolutionaries of 1848, the LGBT community in California and its on-going opposition to Proposition No. 8, to the National “Negro” Convention’s boycott of slave-produced goods in the 1830s – all find empowerment and voice to their dissent through this tool. Such disparate groups as OPEC, American Second Amendment supporters, and anti-capitalists all agree in comedy the means to their salvation: the boycott.

But we do not need to go as far abroad to find such perfect examples. The revolutionary struggle which forged the independence of the United States, and should be counted as essential to its nature began with recourse to this same strategy as in March 1769, in opposition to "taxation without representation," merchants in Philadelphia organized a boycott of British commodities. Since the founding of the world-shattering republic of the United States we as a people have not let the boycott lie peacefully.

Indeed its use was put to spectacular effect by African Americans during the US civil rights movement (notably the Montgomery Bus Boycott). Yet not only did the boycott spark the social revolutions of the 1960s, but also in labor movements (the United Farm Workers grape and lettuce boycott) and anti-Semitic campaigns in the U.S. (the successful Jewish boycott organized against Henry Ford in the USA, in the 1920s; the Jewish anti-Nazi boycott of German goods in Lithuania, the USA, Britain and Poland during 1933).

From these few examples, not hardly exhausting the subject, we may conclude the boycott has been profoundly successful in the cause of virtually every conceivable human right. Now we propose to utilize this particularly American form to protest the stagnation in our own great country’s political system, and ultimately to realize the promises of political openness in our time.

We call on all American people to boycott U.S. elections until our collective demands for a fair and open electorial process are met.

There is no better method to derail the current power elite – a boycott is voluntary and nonviolent, thus it is unable to be stopped by the law. Only recourse to violence and coercion stand as obstacles.

Let this stale history lesson be not in vain. Let not the hallowed actions of the great past paralyze our present condition. Two questions remain, which shall be answered in the following week:

1) What we expect to achieve in present situation.

2) How to join.


  1. Like many on both the right and the left, you make a key mistake in applying the boycott, which as your examples illustrate is primarily used to put pressure on businesses to the government. Much like the Republicans who argue that government should be run more like a corporation--for maximum efficiency, and perhaps profit margin--I fear you assume that the two have more in common than they in fact do. The vast majority of the examples you give were indeed economic boycotts, from the Montgomery bus boycott organized by Dr. King to the Boycott of British tea organized by our forefathers, the goal of all of these boycotts was to hit corporations where it hurts--in the wallet. The economic pains felt by the boycotts listed above led to bending by the people--the business owners and workers, which THEN translated into government action.

    Governments are much less susceptible to such pressures. A boycott of the vote is not going to cause the USFG's profit margin to drop, as it would when African Americans stopped eating at certain restaurants or riding certain buses. In fact, your use of Proposition 8 as an example illustrates the greatest flaw in the boycott movement: someone else is still going to vote. LGBT demonstrators in California can and should continue to boycott companies that believe they do not deserve equality, but if they boycott the vote instead all it will achieve is an even more lopsided defeat the next time the issue comes up at the polls.

    It is actually a virtue that this is the way governments are run. Rather than seeking to run most efficiently, to ensure a tidy bottom line of expedient service, even our (admittedly flawed) two party system takes time to consider the views of all those who choose to voice their concerns.

  2. We owe praise and applaud for these sagacious insights into the deeper natures of boycotts, such finer points not being properly comprehended in our own poor survey. We must insist of our gratitude for challenging all too simplistic, flimsy representations of a delicate matter subsequently engendering a more robust conception to prevail in our thought as like the light shining down on the shadowy unexplored valleys of our conceits. We are humbled.

    In our response we only ask for what patience you deem appropriate to grant a few comments as a reply to these inquiries.

    The intent of this piece, as with all, was to stir discussion and on that head we may be granted some efficacy, displayed in your pointed response. Yet more specifically a history of boycott-movements was intended to demonstrate the organization of popular movements under the banner of the boycott as a common trend in modernity among diverse peoples and thereby to a degree universal to our condition.

    To your question of the applicability of the boycott to governments we hold two responses:

    1a.) What we did not sufficiently explicate, as was so finely highlighted by yours, was that in all of the cases cited they were as much organized for the advancement of political as for any other rights, the latter being only a degree of the former. This may be comprehended when considering that all of these popular movements are as easily directed to government intervention as to business practices themselves. This conflation of the two may be further understandable as often it was that business and government held a synergy of policy in these cases; as with the Montgomery Bus Company and its compliance to local ordinances (the bus company actually spurned business in lieu of political interest); in the cases of the American Revolution and the Quit India movement the business involved was coterminal with the government. That popular movements manifested in economic terms does not mean they had no effect for the political sphere, for truly these instances must be admitted political repercussions. Ultimately to posit that each of these conditions be hermetically sealed away from one another in analysis does not hold up to the reality principle. To deny the impact of boycotts to governments in light of these considerations is repugnant to reason and pure folly.

    1b.) In this distinction drawn between boycotts of governments and corporations there appears a falsity on a second level. For not only in interest have the two natures overlapped so thoroughly as to become indistinguishably entwined, but necessarily so in their organizing principles as well. We may consider the expansion of the state and corporations in the last century and remark on the singularly of means to achieve this by each – in a word the proliferation of bureaucracy; so-called alphabet soup agencies to one as diversified multinationals to the other. In this we see a marked unity of function and response between Government and Corporation, the underlying basis being both in their nature represent over-developed bureaucratic structures. Accepting of this, when the masses are trammeled on by various bureaucratic structures of modernity and we may find success in organizing people in response to one said structure, is it not reasonable to attempt this strategy with the other? Thus we present our conceit as a logical extension and even repetition in the history of boycotts.

    To the question of what effect may be expected of a boycott of government we hold two responses:

    2a.) With due consideration for your distinction in the nature of Government and Corporation we affirm it is warranted at the existential level of each. Corporations perpetuate on the basis of profit margins to access financing yet with deficit spending in high-form now we see Government does not obtain its financing in such a way. We may rightly ask what maintains a Government? Even as they operate above and possibly a priori to finance (there are cases where they do or do not face demise when lacking finance) they do not exist solely on air for they certainly are mortal. The key to perpetuation of Government, and specifically such a representative-democracy as the U.S., is its legitimacy both domestically and abroad. In lieu of this we have what are called “failed states.” In these cases we may note what depends on the legitimacy of Government: from comparably germane issues of compliance to law and regulation, to adherence to bureaucratic structures, to reception in the international community and formation of treaties, to collection of taxes and maintenance of the military. In short every function of consequence hangs on the perception of Government wielding greater power than it does on will alone.

    More to the point: what exactly is at stake for a government facing boycott? That voter turn-out in particular is seen as essential to the USFG’s legitimacy is conceded by both parties in their bipartisan support for the “Get Out the Vote” movements (see our earlier essay on this topic).

    Even if we have not carried the existential nature of legitimacy persuasively with you, when we consider the economic functions of government there are impacts which may be leveraged against its operation that agree to the traditional status you grant of a boycott as an economic weapon – these would involve tax revenue, other fees collected by the Government, PAC organizations in reference to parties and politicians, and so on.

    2b.) It must not be discounted that boycotts function in more than strictly an economic sense, for contained in its nature is an organizing principle which our original essay attempted to prove the efficacy of in history. Invariably what has begun as a boycott of economic entities has in every case to date flowered into a larger body of opposition to the status quo. We admit of needed further meditation in consideration of this point.

    3) The focus on the special conditions of the Proposition No. 8 vote owes a separate consideration. Given as a long awaited recognition of a natural right by the state this is posed as the strongest inducement to vote rather than boycott. Yet we must be diligent to the facts. As a direct referendum to the people this particular vote falls outside of the two-party system. There is no candidate running here.

    Even if it may be ascribed to this system in some abstruse way, we must not take the few scraps offered within the system in lieu of total control over our political rights (this accomplished through the proliferation of parties) and as such the fountainhead of every other right. It is true that issues will arise within the two-party system that we hold dear, yet we must remember dogmatically that they will not carry out any true reform any more than an autocrat practices restraint; nor must we turn a blind eye to what we concede to the parties when we accept our demands piece-meal: for they can dole out just enough to continue our dependence and hope – we are assured they have mastered this formula as a science.

    It appears we have gone on longer than decorousness may admit. We now offer up the stage and microphone to yours, come what may.