Commercial Disobedience

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed, "Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." Today, his words seem all but forgotten. We cannot see it, but we live in a new dark age. For all of humankind's advances in technology, science, and economics, we lack the will to supply clean drinking water to everyone on the planet. We use the Internet to divert and divide us rather than to educate and unite us. We poison ourselves with radiation, chemicals, drugs, and even our food. We murder each other in the name of religion, morality, politics, and economic gain. Civilization after civilization, generation after generation, we learn nothing.

But, perhaps for the first time in human history, the potential for the emergence of a true global consciousness is palpable. The capacity for our species to simultaneously emote is real. Whereas newspaper and television have endlessly and selectively dictated the world to us, Twitter and Facebook offer the world a chance to speak for itself. A self-immolation in Tunisia can ignite the Arab Spring, and police brutality in Oakland can inspire marches of solidarity across the United States. Suffering is no longer solitary. Suffering no longer needs a sponsor.

The interconnectedness of the Occupy Movement worldwide may be the first evidence of this dawning human consciousness. What is its first realization? We live in a world of increasing iniquity.

The American debate surrounding the cause of this iniquity has raged for well over a century.

On one side are those who view economic iniquity as arising primarily from systemic, rather than personal, failure. Most recently, the Tea Party has blamed government overspending, debt, and excessive taxation for its supporters' woes. The Occupy Movement mostly blames greedy, immoral corporations for its supporters' struggles. And both groups agree that collusion between government and corporations have eroded the citizens' role in American democracy. These groups also agree that political and economic systems have the capacity increase or diminish individuals' desire and capacity to experience personal and economic liberty.

On the other side are those who view economic iniquity as arising from personal, rather than systemic, failure. For them, economic distress is the result of motivational, intellectual, or moral failure. Most recently, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain stated, "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself." Likewise, others hail this unprecedented iniquity as evidence of a healthy capitalist system that rightfully rewards "producers" and punishes "moochers." Insularized by self-interest and proudly unaffected by the plight of others, this group exclaims, "I've got mine. Why can't you get yours?"

Like an asymptote, both sides argue infinitely as they progress towards a solution that they will never reach. To change human systems as the former asks or human behavior as the latter asks, we have to be better humans. We can begin this process with acts of commercial disobedience.

Commercial disobedience occurs when consumers make purchasing decisions that place long-term concerns about the local community, the global community, and the environment ahead of their own convenience, financial self-interest, or ego.

Decades of thoughtless purchasing decisions have engorged powerful, exploitive, and reckless corporations. In turn, these corporations have gained undue influence over the American political process. They have used this influence to bolster their profits and power. However, their power also derives from their capital, and their capital derives largely from consumers.

Commercial disobedience should not be confused with traditional consumer activism. Two widely reported incidents of consumer activism have made headlines over the past two months, but surprisingly, neither are examples of commercial disobedience. First was the incredible outcry against Netflix's decision to raise its prices by nearly 60 percent and to spin off its popular DVD subscription service. Over 800,000 customers cancelled their subscriptions and wreaked havoc with Netflix's stock price and fourth quarter projected earnings. Second is this week's announcement from Bank of America that it will not introduce a monthly charge on those who use their debit cards. Thousands of consumers signed an online petition and, when confronted with the added pressure from the Occupy Movement, Bank of America retreated from imposing this fee.

Both of these events demonstrate the power of collective consumer action and how such action can dictate the behavior of large and powerful corporations. However, both of these actions were motivated by the financial self-interest of these customers and will therefore do little to alter broader corporate attitudes towards customers or workers.

To effect systemic change, consumers must agonize over all purchasing decisions. They must stop before even the most trivial purchase and ask, "Who will I help or harm by making this purchase?" Of course, right now there exists no way for consumers to even comprehend how their products were manufactured, where they were manufactured, or by whom. They know even less about the ingredients and materials that comprise these products and the means by which these ingredients and materials were obtained.

Apple Computers confronts conscious consumers with a difficult conundrum. In the weeks since his death, Steve Jobs has been rightly hailed for his innovations that seemingly singlehandedly preserved the banner of "American" exceptionalism. However, when consumers turn on their iPhones or spin the playlist on their iPod, to what extent are they aware that their purchases have contributed to the death of Chinese workers? It is now widely known that Chinese workers had so routinely committed suicide in response to poor working conditions at Apple's manufacturing facilities that anti-suicide nets had to be installed. If consumers knew this, would they shop differently? Would they engage in an act of commercial disobedience? In today's culture, sadly, most would not.

However, the emerging global consciousness presents the hope that this new dark age is drawing to a close. Perhaps one person and one purchase at a time, citizens will begin reshaping the world into a more equitable place. Acts of collective commercial disobedience will flourish as an interconnected web of thoughtful and compassionate human beings bear witness to the testimony of those most exploited and abused by multinational corporations.

Saturday, November 5, 2011 marked Bank Transfer Day, and over 80,000 Americans chose to close their commercial bank accounts and move these funds into local, non-profit credit unions. In perhaps America's first collective act of commercial disobedience, these citizens put the interests of others ahead of themselves and may have begun to change the world.