Part 5: The antagonistic shopper society

Is it REALLY Real in the Whole Foods parking lot?  Who am I in this debate on sustainable foods?  I am far removed from the ground.  I stalk the idealist version of a grocery aisle, where fruits and vegetables are labeled organic, boxed foods and cans labeled natural, and every grain is whole.  I drop in to community gardens to break a sweat for a few hours every week or two.  Do my consumption habits concede a pattern of protest?

“Why do we suppose that she has any deeper interests than shopping?” (Douglas 77)  According the consumer cum environmentalist theory adapted by Mary Douglas in Thought Styles, I personally could be identified as a subscriber to the “Nature under duress” perspective, whereby I most often perceive nature to be “fragile” and pollution “lethal”.  This perspective—that modernity operates as a destructive and disruptive force in nature—at first, appears to coincide with Douglas’ supposition that I might also be an egalitarian.  She suggests that according to the egalitarian perspective of personhood, “The same corrupt, unequal structures that have caused the pollution of the environment will also contaminate the child.”  I tend to agree.

I remain an optimist in my egalitarianhood:  The person, as with nature, can indeed overcome duress through the beneficence and sharing of community—the spread of solutions that honor individual personhood and empower its nature to heal, and resolve externalities or overcome imbalances in “original endowment.” This fuels in me an underlying admiration for the metaphorical “entrepreneur”, for the turn-around individual—surrounded by the energized influence of the community—rather than a conscious and ever present hostility. 

My egalitarian protest is optimism. On the other hand, Douglas suggests that antagonism would result from differences between shopper identities (think counterculturalist versus conformists, singles versus 2.5 kids). What one buys, the other derides–old school haterism.

The optimistic and antagonistic tendencies co-exist, and I believe, both make me a protest shopper.  Like the voter in presidential elections, whose individual vote is cast in a sea of millions, I hold to the hope that my small effort should deliver a faraway message to the executives in boardrooms determining where to invest their powerful capital.

And like the voter, the protest shopper is only as empowered as the information she has available to her—as in whether or not a certain corn or fish is GMO.  In the US, the direction of both our democracy and our capitalism depend on the participants’ level of awareness about choices and their consequences. 

Unsurprisingly, the same corporation backed lobbying occurs with big money flowing to television ads that disparage regulatory disclosure of GMOs, just as super-PACs line up to discredit political agendas.  The war on the informed consumer is being waged across media.

Purchasing and eating food responsibly requires sustained, daily vigilance.  As a result, I have become increasingly aware of my own dangerous hypocrisy–extent to which I am live unsustainable.  To give the most mundane of examples, I eat tomatoes, out of season, at restaurants, and I don’t EVEN know where they come from or what hands picked them.  I shop irresponsibly.  So what of my protest?

It is nothing compared to the harrowing work of the people who work in the fields.  Their voices must make a way to be heard, in the face of market exploitation.

What of financially constrained families and individuals that can have no joyride through the idyllic foodscapes of Whole Foods and organic farmers markets?  Trenton Mayor Cory Booker proposes to understand the limits of low-income food consumption by living a month on food stamps.  Booker’s dare with a tea-party aspirant represents an attempt to experience and empathize with an aspect of what Hardt and Negri identify as “one of the greatest fears,” that is, “being out of work and thus not being able to survive.”

As a “protest” shopper, am I pitting myself, inadvertently, against people who, despite whatever level of awareness about the consequences of our unsustainable food system, tend to or must choose the lowest prices, chemically laden, genetically modified, or unnaturally preserved options?  Or am I somehow undermining the people who must work in the unnatural conditions that produce them?

All of us deserve to be able to access the healthy foods of the planet so that we flourish rather than suffer with undernourishment.

My intermittent protests do not pit me against other shoppers, but against modes of production.  Again, Doulgas’ theory of antagonism between shopper-citizen-households-cum-environmentalists does not hold for me.  I’d rather live in solidarity, and reshape the system. So what ways to make this dream happen?

In Agenda for a New Economy, David Korten lends us a presidential 12-point agenda to toward pursuing a sustainable transition of the American Dream.  See below for details.  Can any 12-point agenda be enough to guide wholesale reorganize social relations?  How to enact true solidarity and economic transformation that increases access, availability, and demand for sustainable solutions to the industrial food system?

Occupy theorists Hardt and Negri, and fellow occupiers might be turned off by Korten’s so-called agenda.  In their anti-manifesto, “declaration,” they posit instead that “the task is not to codify new social relations in a fixed order, but instead to create a constituent process that organizes those relations and makes them lasting while also fostering future innovations and remaining open to the desires of the multitude.”


The Korten Agenda:  Defining Real Wealth as healthy, fulfilling life, children/families, caring community, healthy environment, affirming livelihood, peace.

  1. Redirect the focus of economic policy from growing phantom wealth to growing real wealth.
  2. Recover Wall Street’s unearned profits… making its theft and gambling unprofitable.  What might we all lose from a slower moving capital market? What happens if stocks are abolished?  Would we be abolishing a potential form of “democratic” ownership?  Would this mechanism be replaced?
  3. Implement full-cost market pricing. Full cost market pricing makes plenty of sense.  It is part of the purpose of a carbon tax.  It is also evident that full-cost pricing would, at least in the short run, cause major burden on communities where energy costs are larger shares of income.  It is therefore regressive, a burden on the poor. This issue must be accounted for via new subsidies or entitlements.
  4. Reclaim the corporate charter.  Would this inhibit innovation or the drive for entrepreneurship if  corporations could be discouraged from pursuing endeavors that could be deemed over-reach or somehow external to its charter?
  5. Restore national economic sovereignty. While no country should be indebted inexorably to another country, how do we attempt to address the long-term consequences of historic exploitation and subjugation that divides the world’s economies into rich and poor?
  6. Rebuild communities with a goal of achieving local self-reliance in meeting basic needs.  Broaden ownership participation—how do we actually increase ownership opportunities and accountability?
  7. Implement policies that create a strong bias in favor of human-scale businesses owned by local stakeholders.
  8. Facilitate and fund stakeholder buyouts to democratize.  
  9. Use tax and income policies to favor the equitable distribution of wealth and income.  Korten proposes a 15:1 ratio limit for income spreads in society?  What do you imagine this could be based on?  How could we justify it legally without automatic accusations of “communism” undermining the platform?
  10. Revise intellectual property rules to facilitate the free sharing of information and technology.  Are patents actually hindering economic growth by creating uneven markets bound by information asymmetries?  What about patents for expensive and advanced technologies such as drugs, which are said to require billions in the process of R&D and production?  How does a company recoup costs on the market without reserved patent protection?  Would we prefer relying on governments, for instance, or wealthy individuals like Bill Gates, or unpredictable public donations from individuals, to coordinate the resource & financing needs of drug R&D?  Would you have any more confidence in these parties managing this process?
  11. Restructure financial services to serve Main Street.
  12. Transfer to the federal government the responsibility for issuing money. 

About C. Sala Hewitt

C. Sala Hewitt
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