Last week we had the dubious pleasure of witnessing two of the greatest PR disasters of the new year (excluding Donald Trump’s 180 on foreign policy). First, there was soda company Pepsi shooting itself in the foot by releasing a commercial showing white, rich fashion model Kendall Jenner transform a Black Lives Matter-esque protest into a fashion event by handing a cop a can of Pepsi.
Capitalism is able to turn every protest against it into profit.United Airlines must have mistaken this for a challenge because a couple days later hundreds of articles, cartoons, and memes circulated the web depicting an Asian doctor being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight to make room for United crewmembers. This resulted in a $1.4 billion stock drop for United, massive outcries on (Chinese) social media, and everlasting Google infamy.
Unsurprisingly, the Pepsi debacle breathed new life into almost-forgotten anti-capitalist philosophy. In particular, the Frankfurter Schule observation – that capitalism is able to turn every protest against it into profit – regained popularity after being coined half a century ago by the brilliant German philosopher Theodor Adorno. As someone who takes great pleasure in spotting “alternative” youths wearing mass-produced Che Guevara shirts or listening to “activist” pop music, I looked forward to the revival of snarky half-forgotten masterpieces of anti-capitalist sentiment like The Culture Industry. Sadly, the “fresh” anti-capitalist writings turned out to be severely limited and unoriginal.
Old Anti-Capitalism Made New Again
It regurgitated much of what I’ll call in short the “old anti-capitalism,” which only seems interested in the supply part of capitalism and the corrupting effect the supply has on the unwitting masses. It goes something like this: you think your demand for a product – a nice cold can of soda, for instance – is your own, when in fact it is merely the result of a false consciousness planted in your brain by cunning capitalists in a ploy to part you from your cash. You are the moth, and commerce is the flame.
That this old criticism only shows a very limited and distorted part of the puzzle is clear from the backlash both Pepsi and United received. The attempt by Pepsi to charm consumers with a one-dimensional display of “activism” caught such heat that the company had no choice but to retract the campaign. United’s CEO had to publicly apologize three times to try to limit the damage. It did little to alleviate the viral images of a screaming man being dragged through the aisle by members of the Chicago Aviation Police.
This touches on the core of what I’ll call “modern anti-capitalism,” although it is not in fact anti-capitalist. When you as a consumer are unhappy with the way a company behaves or offers a service, you can easily take individual or collective action against that company. This action can consist of a temporary boycott – no Pepsi today – or it could even be permanent.
All the "anti-capitalist" acts of protest are themselves part of the "capitalist system."Another popular option is to reform the company from within, for example, by buying green stocks to force a polluting company to make more sustainable choices. The entrepreneurial “anti-capitalists” could even decide to start their own company to compete with the one they disagree with.
Crucially, but strangely unnoticed by “anti-capitalist” writers and critics, all these acts of protest are themselves part of the "capitalist system”: they create a demand and consequently force a company to come up with a supply, or they make a new business out of meeting the new demand. This is how markets – free markets – work and are supposed to work. Backlash, consequences, and real stakes are a healthy and necessary part of capitalism.
The puzzling thing is that backlash seems not to be associated with capitalism by the anti-capitalist writers and journalists of the world. It is as if they think capitalism is simply a never-ending, stakeless party of increasing supply! The “critical” response to an event like the United and Pepsi backlash, therefore, remains forever stuck in a strangely Pavlovian “away with capitalism!” loop.
Protest the Right Thing, Protest Correctly
That the relationship between consumer and company is much more complex than capitalist pigs creating false consciousness to try to steal your money is a point forever lost on mainstream journalism. On the other hand, if a small brand or a leftist popstar like Beyoncé milks the same social justice sentiments for monetary gain, then the mainstream narrative suddenly changes from exploitative and scandalous to empowering and brave.
This is when I miss the anti-capitalist sourpusses of old, like Adorno, who was at least consistent in his disgust for any crossover between popular culture and “serious” subjects, however “empowering.” In the cases of Pepsi and United, their faux pas is simply a business opportunity for other market players and a rewarding topic for anti-capitalist journalists and writers everywhere.
Maybe it's time for a fresh approach to critiquing commerce and pop culture.It is ridiculous to trivialize a topic like police brutality by suggesting it can be solved by offering free cans of soda. But it is equally ridiculous to claim that a Pepsi commercial, by incorporating a real-life protest, is a serious threat to that real-life social movement, as if people who would have otherwise gone out to protest will now just go to the store, buy soda, and stay indoors watching Netflix. The consumer deserves more credit than that.
Maybe it is time for a fresh approach to critiquing commerce and pop culture. I suggest we observe the following distinction: you are only allowed to cry foul if you are unable to boycott or compete with a service or product. A perfect illustration of the distinction between normal market practices and actual power imbalances is this post by a Facebook user who goes by the name of Max Borders: “Lots of folks boycotting United. A shame you can't boycott the Chicago Police.”
It is safer and easier to take your anger out on something that you as a consumer can actually control, like the brand of soda to buy or the type of airline to book, than it is to react to something you cannot control. This makes the cheap anti-capitalism we’ve seen this past week not only the low-hanging fruit of critical journalism, but it also hinders resistance against those things and institutions that actually threaten the rights and freedoms of individuals. Those are the things that really matter.