The Politics of Pressure in a global context

Image © Adam Weiz for SumOfUs.org

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`We have to pick campaigns that are not too big and not too small. And the target of eight is large enough that as long as we vary our tactics from campaign to campaign we should be able to begin to see patterns about what`s working and what`s not. That’s the science strategy and as we learn more about how to change corporate behaviour we will be able to ratchet up the difficulty of our campaigns`. Taren Stinebricker-Kauffman 

The idea that 70% of the population has no input in the democratic process has profound implications for some of us. Professor Chomsky who cited this statistic was referring to the USA, while pointing out it`s not very different elsewhere. It`s a depressing situation, made worse when we consider political power resides with the super-rich. According to Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, its concentrated in the hands of corporations – `more than half of the world`s largest one-hundred economies are multinational corporations not governments or countries`. These institutions behave like `sovereign political entities` who regulate government as much as governments regulate corporate power. However, there is a democratic deficit as big as the corporate bail out nestling at the heart of this arrangement. While governments are mandated to perform a regulatory role, corporations have no democratic legitimacy. Corporations do not require the consent of the governed, they function in the narrow interest of the wealthy shaping domestic and foreign policy in the process. The impact of Philipp Morris on Australian domestic policy is good illustration of this.

These leviathan corporations take a `moon`s eye view` and when necessary demonstrate remarkable flexibility, in avoiding government regulation. Adroitly moving their factories to another country where the government is weaker, allowing free reign in a myriad of areas including the environment and in the regulation of labour. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman paints a depressing picture but she also sheds a beam of light on the situation, whilst providing possible solutions and a co-ordinated empowering strategy. SumOfUs is a campaign group challenging corporate power and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffmann is the CEO and founder. The pressure group operates from the premise that while mega trans-international corporation influence has grown so has the power of consumers. By harnessing consumer power SumOfUs are attempting to project a humanitarian and progressive agenda. As paradoxical as it may seem, it’s argued that corporations are more receptive to the mood of the people than our elected political representatives are. Consumers it seems are undergoing a learning curve realising that they can influence policy through their consumer position, especially when they are combined with others throughout the world. There is nothing new about the application of consumer pressure to bring about social change. Indeed, the Progressives were calling for the regulation of corporate interests many years ago in the USA. Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s tackled monopoly capital famously upsetting J.P. Morgan – who felt he was on par with the President of the USA. It also motivated the Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs just over a hundred years ago.

What is different today is the context, and at the heart of this process is the internet. Early in its formation SumOfUs had an e-mail following of 650,000 people. And by marshalling this support has already demonstrated what can be achieved when people recognise that their consumer position has a political dimension. One of the first campaigns conducted by SumOfUs was in support of a coalition of Florida agricultural workers. Lowly paid tomato pickers often forced to work without adequate heat breaks, in conditions that have led to accusations of slavery. The coalition gained a great deal of corporate support to sign their fair foods programme however they were unable to secure the signature of a major USA company Trader Joe`s to join the campaign.

SumOfUs got involved and began to apply consumer pressure to Trader Joe`s. Their followers are customers of the store and they `don’t want to buy tomatoes picked by slaves`.  It co-ordinated its supporters via the internet resulting in 65,000 messages going directly to the CEO at Trader Joe`s. This approach was followed up by thousands of people personally handing in letters to managers of their local store – whilst out doing their weekly shopping. Very quickly Trader Joe`s signed the agreement. As Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman points out this victory illustrates the incredible organisational power of the internet aligned to consumers acting together. As she says fifteen-years ago such a campaign would have required huge resources yet this campaign `took my staff about one week of person time. The internet has dramatically changed the way that consumers interact with corporations`.

Currently, SumOfUs are campaigning on a range of issues. They are attempting stop Coco-Cola and Pepsi supplying companies involved in land grabs against indigenous people. SumOfUs are running separate campaigns involving Google, to stop them selling ivory through its website. SumOfUS are also focussing on the American Legislative Exchange Council a campaign involving Google. The most recent campaign just posted concerns Coca – Cola asking people to sign a petition encouraging the company to speak out against Russia`s anti-gay laws. The Coco-Cola hierarchy meets this week, they happen to be a principle sponsor of the forthcoming winter Olympics in Sochi.

This is a persuasive agenda. With potential for campaign success, initial victories suggest that a host of corporations are prepared to distance themselves rather than face consumer backlash over their association with groups like ALEC, Rush Limbaugh and the Heartland Institute. But before we get too carried away we need to remember that in the UK a Tory led coalition is also capable of utilising consumer power for a political purpose. The massively oversubscribed sale of the Royal Mail proves that consumer power is a double edged sword. This sell off illustrates that the left sadly has much to learn from the right when it comes to understanding the power of consumers as a revolutionary force.

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