Protest Inc. - the corporatization of protest

| 23rd January 2014
Protest Inc - front cover (cut).
Protest Inc - front cover (cut).
Martin Spray reviews Protest Inc. - and is discomforted do find quite how deeply corporate money and influence has penetrated into our biggest conservation organizations.
To an old-fashioned mind it seems strange that, say, a non-executive member of the board of BP sits on the board of WWF International.

Why, in 2002, did the World Wrestling Federation become World Wrestling Entertainment? . . . The use of a couple of letters of the alphabet seems a small matter to argue over, but WWF (the well-known conservation organisation) two years before had sued the then WWF for appropriating its initials.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund has an amicable relationship with the world's biggest buyer of aluminium, the world's second biggest buyer of glass, and it's fifth biggest buyer of coffee. In the words of the Fund's CEO in Canada, Coca-Cola "is literally more important, when it comes to sustainability, than the United Nations".

Gloomy, gripping

Protest Inc. is a gloomy, gripping, book, full of disheartening statistics. It is - alas! - fairly convincing, though I must admit to being previously unaware how much the context of 'activism' has changed in the past few years.

The authors throw in the massive numbers for some of the major multinationals' incomes, worth, and donations to Good Causes, but I wish they used a little more variety of examples.

I note that one reviewer thinks the book is beautifully written. Perhaps he likes clusters of lengthy -ize verbs more than I do. The text at times seemed tedious, as these verbs give it a strong sense of repetition. An example:

"Activism ... is legitimizing capitalism and delegitimizing alternatives, helping to explain, along with the securitization of activism and the privatization of social life, why flickers of protest such as Occupy Wall Street are going out so quickly."

The rich are winning

Nonetheless, I think the essential message of the book is pretty clear. As expressed in its last few sentences, "the rich are winning".

That is rather bald. In a little more detail, Dauvergne & LeBaron point out a number of situations that are - one could probably say - troublesome, for activists, protestors, campaigners, and those watching from the sidelines; or - as I believe one should say - are alarming.

The authors are concerned with what is happening to activism in general, though I want to focus on environmental organisations.

Most 'protestors', they say, are activists, whose actions "emerge out of and take place between protests", and are intended to bring about some change to the Establishment. (They do not include politically extreme, terrorist or racist entities.)

Not all activists, as the authors several times take care to emphasise, are drawn into the world of corporations, branding, and global markets: grassroots actions continue, although their strength seems lessened.

Activist organisations morphing into corporations?

One thing that seems to be happening is that "over the last two decades activist organisations have increasingly come to look like, think, and act like corporations".

Three processes are helping this: what they call the securitization of dissent, the privatization of social life, and the institutionalisation of activism.

The first is in largepart a result of '9/11', and is led by the US government. The activities of activists are increasingly monitored and constrained. Challenges to Establishment are blurred with security threats; this has led, for example, to a strengthening of powers to spy on, infiltrate, disrupt and prosecute activist groups.

Organisations that toe the line are the ones likely to receive funding. Others risk being isolated, even classed as ecoterrorists. Cooperative, 'safe', organisations are prone to corporatization; they may be rewarded, but not if they show signs of radicalism.

Privatization is a creeping process, partly under the influence of capitalist market economies. Partly, satisfaction is linked to consumerism; partly, progress is linked to choice - or the promise of choice.

Collective activity and 'action' are increasingly minor factors, as families become increasingly insular, and disintegrate, and small groups of friends are substituted for wide-extending, face-to-face networks.

The Internet - both connecting and alienating

The Internet, of course, is good at providing friends and networks - though you probably have no idea if your e-friend lives next-door or on Mars.

I was reminded of this unintimate nature of some 'actions' when I read an email earlier today. It came from 38 Degrees - a progressive, not-for-profit political-activism organisation intending to campaign "for fairness, defend rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy in the UK".

The email explained how "Something big is happening ... we are connecting with each other. We're proving our willingness to stand up for what we believe in. In 2013, 38 Degrees has grown to be a network of over two million of us."

Two million people may, like me, have signed the odd petition, or written to an M.P., but we know virtually nothing about each-other.

An NGO is as good as its brand

Many NGO have become - or are trying to become - not merely organisations, but institutions. An example is the WWF, which defends its selective use of the common English alphabet at least as well as it defends giant pandas.

Why? Because a prominent, distinct, brand is important. You are likely to be noticed more if you have a memorable or honourable name, and are allied to a world-wide famous name, and NGOs are taking or seeking formal relationships with traditional corporations - especially important and rich ones.

The US Nature Conservancy, for instance, is in partnership with companies that 'real' activists - and many other supporters only a few years ago - wouldn't want to be seen dead with: the likes of BP, Wal-Mart, and Monsanto.

Greenpeace is given as an example of a NGO that has resisted corporatization more than some, yet "the scope of what [it] is calling a 'victory' is nonetheless instructive of how deep the process of institutionalisation is reaching".

Strange friendships

Making an alliance is certainly rational. Such a relationship can be seen as increasing influence from within. But one can also see it as a toning down of radicalism. And to an old-fashioned mind it seems strange that, say, a non-executive member of the board of BP sits on the board of WWF International.

Through such alliances, corporatized NGO become more prominent, but in so becoming they are aids to the promotion of their senior partners.

Their logos serve to legitimise their senior partners' products - coke or gas, for instance - just as clearly as if they said "This is safe, believe us.". This can spare consumers the pain of guilt, and it can lead to a serious disconnection.

More is better ... ?

When our daughters were in primary school, one day they came home and explained that we had to collect aluminium cans for them to take to school, as these could be turned into money to buy books. Great!

Yet it took much effort and a few tears not to buy up every alucan in local shops! As Heather Rogers puts it in Green gone wrong - Dispatches from the front lines of eco-capitalism (Verso Books 2013) discussing a similar situation:

" 'Trust marks' can sooth a nervous public by communicating that ecosystems are being taken care of even if they're not".

Perhaps Protest Inc. would convince more securely if the authors had allowed the contrary voices more chance to speak for themselves, so that they could be more thoroughly discussed. At present, the analysis seems curtailed.

Leave it to the experts

I am left still unsure how widely the authors' view is held, and what discussion there is of it. I think, also, that the story would have been fuller if the question of professionalization had been given a little space.

In the later 1980s, in Britain, professionalizing environmental campaigns was seen as a way of them gaining a stronger voice. Whether it has given them more clout is debatable. It has become easier, though, to think "They are the experts, we'll leave it to them".

But aren't environmentalist attitudes essentially ethical or religious, not based but supported on a rational understanding?And the creation of a profession may mean a deskilling of the laity.

Certainly, there are benefits from relationships between organisations and 'established' corporations, and from corporatization itself, but for activists the dangers are great. "Eco-capitalism doesn't work", concluded Green gone wrong.

Is there a snag in all this?

The greatest danger would seem to be the rather obvious one (though that may be with hindsight): that ordinary consumers, brought up in a consumerist, capitalist, society, and addicted to what they consume, are assured that things are going well, and in the right direction, and will continue to do so, so long as we keep buying and consuming the right things.

And doing the right things: we should ride a bike for cancer research, win a prize and help save the countryside we all love, buy a coke and save a polar bear ...

But isn't this akin to sidelining what we say we are concerned about, and having a good time? Isn't this just very 'lazy environmentalism'?

If we behave as intended, our Good Causes get more funds, more attention, and more power, more of the right things are sold, and the rich get richer. Now - why do some people think there's a snag in that?



"PROTEST INC - The corporatization of activism" is by Peter Dauvergne & Genevieve LeBaron. It is published by Cambridge: Polity, 2014, paperback, 204pp. Due out 7th. February @ £15.99

Martin Spray is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation.

He retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, because of Parkinson's disease. He taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics, and has contributed to a wide variety of conservation, landscape, gardening and education magazines and journals. 

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