Boycotts have the alure of radicalism, they give a false impression of action through inaction. Really they are a mode of political action which has been colonised by consummerism. The individual consumer choice is seen as the locus of political operation, and it becomes harder and harder to convieve of political action in any other form. It’s a seductive view in these times. If to be is to shop what could be more radical than to deny yourself something?
Boycotts allow us the pretence of taking a stand when really they are an abdication of responsibility. If something is wrong, then by all means avoid doing it yourself — but recognise that as long as the choice is there to be made, your own abstention is nothing more than a sitting on the sidelines while the tide of the battle goes to those offering the choice.
Contrary to this, to not boycott something whilst campaigning for its abolition is to assert your right and your obligation to demand change. I’ve little respect for medieval monks who believed that outside the monastry was a state of damnation and decay, with final judgement immenent, and whose response was to wall themselves into their monastries and pray for their own salvation. The boycott alone as a political act is just as selfish, just as mistakenly righteous, just as mislead.
I gave a speech once at a debate against the death penalty and the opposition speaker said that if i didn’t like it I could leave the country. I campaigned against an academic publishers involvement in the arms trade and was told that if i didn’t like the arms trade i should quit my job at the university. So here again we have the idea of politics as individual consumer choice, an idea which colonises the debating space. By keeping my job at the university, by engaging with the publishers both professionally – by publishing – and morally – by campaigning for them to drop their arms trade links, i asserted my engagement with them and the legitimacy of my claims on their behaviour.
I’ll repeat, if something is wrong then there is a moral need to avoid consuming it — i wouldn’t buy candles made from human fat, for example. But also i wouldn’t rest while candles made of human fat were available for sale, and i wouldn’t believe that merely refusing to purchase them myself was an adequate or appropriate response.