Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gaza and the Liberal Conscience IV: The Power of Boycotts
By Farish A. Noor

One of the best ways not to do anything and vegetate at home while watching DVDs and eating junk food is to say to yourself “well, what difference can I make? I’m just one person and one person’s actions will not save the world”. It is through passive indifference that authoritarian regimes thrive around us. Tyrants and despots rely on the passivity of their subjects to gain time and ground to spread their poisonous tentacles, and in our idle sleep we forget that our comfort zones are being eaten away bit by bit, inch by inch, til the day comes when the stormtroopers are standing at our doorstep.

Today the calls for the boycott of goods and services related to Israel and its hegemonic benefactor the USA are similarly being met by such casual disdain, by trendy liberals who think it is ever so cool to pretend that we are all powerless and that the rotten mess we see unfolding in Gaza at present is something we cannot do anything about. Wrong.

Let us re-visit some of the premises above and debunk them one step at a time:

First of all, boycotts work. They work, they are effective and if carefully planned, well co-ordinated and maintained for long enough a period of time they can make and break the fortunes of nations. Let us return to the days and months after the Danish ‘Muhammad cartoon controversy’. I do not wish to revisit the facts of that controversy, but rather look at its aftermath and the reaction of the major industrial powers to the international boycott of European products.

In a space of 12 months after the crisis broke out, I had written 2 academic papers, given 8 talks and took part in six international conference on the issue. Now let me recount one of these conferences in some detail. It was a conference held in an Arab country that was put together by an American-European business planning institute and present at the meeting were CEOs of some of the biggest players in the capitalist world. I am not at liberty to go into the details of the discussions we had due to the Chatham House rules by which we operated, but let me just say that one CEO in particular was at the helm of one of the biggest automobile companies in Europe.

This is what the CEO of the European car company had to say to me: “33 per cent of our exports go to the Arab world, and 15 per cent goes to the developing world. If a major global boycott of our cars is carried out, we can hold out for 6 months before retrenchments begin. After 12 months we close down for good, because we can never recover after such a thing.”

Now these were the words of one of the most important CEOs on the planet. Cognisant of the fact that their luxury cars are increasingly bought in Asia and the Arab world, he knew very well what a boycott of their cars would do. And the man was scared. Terrified in fact.

That the CEO of a company as powerful as this could tremble before the prospect of a clientele that exercises their collective will is instructive. I saw the same with the other CEOs and at all the business meetings I took part in during the 12 months after the Danish cartoon controversy. This proves several things, namely:

That boycotts work and that they scare the living daylights out of even the most powerful companies;

That boycotts have the power of equalising power relations between producers and consumers, and thereby restores power and dignity to consumers who should never be seen as passive sheep;

That consumers can dictate the terms of production and management in the same way that consumers have compelled companies to adopt environmentally-friendly modes of production and to halt unethical business and investment practices.

Now look at the successes we have had over the past few decades in terms of boycotts:

The environmentalist lobby – through threats of boycotts and consumer awareness campaigns – has forced companies to adopt greener modes of production and more ethical means of raw material procurement. (As in the case of fair trade coffee, etc.);

The anti-apartheid lobby has managed – again through boycotts – to compel communities and governments to isolate the apartheid regime of South Africa to the point where maintaining such a discriminatory regime was unsustainable in the long run; and managed to make them pariahs in the global diplomatic scene;

The ethical banking lobby – again through threat of boycotts – has managed to compel banks and financial houses in Europe to return stolen funds embezzled by Third World dictators; and has also managed to persuade banks to dis-invest from countries like South Africa.

So with all these examples to mind, why on earth would a boycott of American and Israeli goods not succeed in the long run if they are carried out in a well-co-ordinated and sustained manner?

Related to the liberals’ concern is the somewhat pathetic refrain that boycotts will also hurt local producers and local workers who may be working for these multinationals. We offer a three-pronged reply to this fallacious argument:

Firstly, it would be ridiculous to suggest that companies that invest in a colonial state like Israel actually care about the rights and dignity of their workers elsewhere. A company that has no issues or problems collaborating with imperialism and colonialism is a company whose directors have scant regard for human rights and dignity in the first place, including the rights and dignity of their workers.

Secondly, the closure of companies that invest and support the colonial Israeli state can be seen as a good thing in the long run as it will compel communities such as ours to seek real jobs and real livelihood for its citizens instead of flogging our people off to work as cheap labour for fast food companies and other such concerns. In places such as Kerala, India, where American fast food companies have not been given a chance to enter, we see the long term benefits of such a prudent move: the local industries are protected, Keralan citizens do not feel compelled to abide by lifestyle standards set by American consumer culture, local identities are protected, and overall the people have a stronger sense of identity and self-pride. Compare the streets of Kerala that still have their local character to the dreary streets of Kuala Lumpur where every other shop-lot has been taken up by some gaudy fast food company and you will see my point.

Thirdly we need to remember that we are also compelled to act morally even in cases where moral action does not necessarily bring immediate positive results. We do not tell the truth simply to score points with our friends. We tell the truth because that is the ethical thing to do. Moral action entails responsibility and we need to remember that even if we are not directly positively responsible for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, we are nonetheless negatively responsible by our inaction.

To fail to act, to fail to make a stand now in the face of such overwhelming evidence, is to commit the mistake of negative moral responsibility via neglect. It would be akin to letting a blind man cross a street while a car was coming, and not warning the blind man before he is struck down. In such a case we are not responsible for running down the man, but we are responsible for not trying to warn him. The guilt remains with us nonetheless.

Therefore the liberals among us need to take their stand and do whatever is necessary to end the atrocities in Gaza now, in whatever ways and means they have at their disposal. To look the other way, or worse still to say that we are powerless, is to deny our moral and rational agency when we all know that we have it. We are not children, nor are we animals. To count ourselves as rational adult citizens means having to accept our capacity for moral judgement and our responsibility for moral action. To boycott the goods and products of those companies that actively support the colonial government of Israel is but one simple step to make our point. This act is as simple and mundane as it is necessary and obligatory upon us. To stall judgement and sit on the fence when people are being murdered before our very eyes makes us active witnesses of a crime we did nothing to prevent. In such a case, we would be little better than the colonialists and murderers themselves.

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