Cultural criticism vs. Collective Politics

Mike Yates mikey+ at
Sun Oct 4 03:42:24 PDT 1998


Thank you Nathan for a wonderful post. The market keeps us in the dark about so many terrible things, but when we do learn of them, is it not our responsibility to do at least something about them? I know about Gallo and coors, so I can at least not buy their products. I know too that the struggle for daily existence forces us to do things we would not do in a better society. But this surely cannot be a reason to give up all political activity.

michael yates

Nathan Newman wrote:
> -----Original Message-----
> From: K <d-m-c at>
> To: lbo-talk at <lbo-talk at>
> >Frankly, the only people I've ever heard get in a
> >snit over what people purchase because the firm is
> >a union buster, sexist, racist, etc are people who
> >have a comfortable income.
> This statement kind of floors me, since it is so completely opposite of my
> experience. Sure, there is the radical chic of some liberals who do
> selective purchasing, but most couldn't care less.
> On the other hand, there are, as Mike Yates I am sure will attest, broad
> stretches of working class latinos in California who to this day won't buy
> grapes in solidarity with the farmworkers. And there are large numbers of
> union members, including not well-off members, who avoid Coors or other
> markedly anti-union products.
> There is always a question of strategy in boycotts, because as you note,
> most products are made in exploitive situations. But the measure of most
> boycotts is that a large number of workers and others have gotten up the
> energy to launch a campaign against a particular company, so it is a
> measure of respect for their efforts that one maintains a boycott.
> It is the height of individualism to say, because I can't personally
> evaluate each and every act of exploitation, I can't worry about
> purchasing decisions. Boycotts are specifically not about individual
> evaluation but about collective political action.
> It is that distinction that is the frustrating divide between much
> cultural criticism and traditional political activism. Much cultural
> criticism finds progressive, liberatory politics in the INDIVIDUAL
> consumption of a whole array of cultural products, from Madonna to the
> Spice Girls, but when that individual yardstick fails in traditional class
> politics- i.e. I am poor so such responsibility for my purchases can't
> apply to me - they dismiss it.
> The fact is that traditional class politics have usually burdened those
> least able to afford it with the responsibility of solidarity. Such
> solidarity in the course of strikes and suffering find personal liberation
> but are as likely to find heartbreak and disillusionment. But you don't
> measure those acts by the cultural criticism/counter-culture yardstick of
> "personal liberation" but by social measures of solidarity and group
> achievement.
> It's not that I don't respect the ideals of personal liberation, but there
> is an anti-union, anti-traditional politics aspects of the
> postmodern-cultural studies approach that is profoundly disdainful of
> collective struggle.
> I spent most of this weekend dealing with a lawsuit filed by an employer
> against sweatshop workers in Chinatown. The workers and associated
> nonprofits had led a boycott against Sears and another store for carrying
> the sweatshop goods. The sweatshop filed a lawsuit for $50 million against
> the workers for their lost profits after Sears and the other company
> dropped their goods because of the boycott.
> And goddamn it, those sweatshop workers were "in a snit" over people
> buying goods where the employers had violated overtime laws, working
> people as much as 137 hours per week and often averaging 100 hours per
> week.
> And while working on the brief defending these workers first amendment
> rights to advocate a boycott, one key resource I used was Mike Yate's
> POWER ON THE JOB which is a wonderful, practical handbook for workers to
> conduct strikes and protect themselves when they launch boycotts. You
> would not believe how hard and how dangerous it sometimes is under the law
> for workers to launch boycotts and, frankly, if they are willing to take
> the trouble, it is a pretty weak defense to complain that it might take a
> few pennies or a little extra time to avoid a boycotted product.
> As to practical lists of boycotts, there are a number of sources. The
> official AFL-CIO list is at, although it
> doesn't cover many non-AFLCIO economic and political boycotts. But it is
> useful.
> --Nathan Newman

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