When the youth-culture feeding frenzy began in the early nineties, many of us who were young at the time saw ourselves as victims of a predatory marketing machine that co-opted our identities, our styles and our ideas and turned them into brand food. Nothing was immune: not punk, not hip-hop, not fetish, not techno -- not even ... campus feminism or multiculturalism. (No Logo, 81-2)
Social justice activists don't usually like hearing criticism of our pet projects because we pursue them with genuinely good intentions, and because such criticism tends to be of a "political correctness gone mad, tsk tsk" nature. But, as well as heeding Owen Jones's recent call for the Left to refocus on working-class liberation, it is time to assess how genuinely effective and independent our movements are, seventeen years on from Naomi Klein's above assertion.
Particularly since the dawn of social media, social justice has very much become a brand. Young idealists like myself cannot bear to stand by whilst rapists are given six-month jail sentences or innocent black citizens are murdered by police, so we start tweeting about it, tumblring(?) about it and writing Facebook posts. And, as ever, what we are saying is not being listened to by the businesses and government bodies with the power to evince real social change, but by their PR teams.
Now that activism has gone online, it's even easier for corporations to smell what's selling in today's youth culture and weave it into their marketing. Campbell's soup released an advert showing a gay couple feeding their son along with the hashtag '#RealRealLife'; McDonald's depicted a father accepting his son's homosexuality by writing as much on a McCafe cup. And Dove, owned by the same company behind Lynx's plethora of unbelievably chauvinistic ad campaigns, launched 'Real Beauty' sketches depicting women of all shapes, sizes and colours trying products 'tested on real curves'.
The entertainment industry has also gotten involved. A lesbian couple appear in Disney's Finding Dory (albeit for mere seconds, lest it prove too controversial) whilst a gay couple can be glimpsed in Frozen. Sulu's homosexuality is revealed in Star Trek Beyond, and Ghostbusters has been re-released with a heavily female cast. As a marketing strategy this works on a number of levels: liberals are warmed towards the company, backlash from purists and conservatives generate free advertising and everyone's talking about it on social media.
But it doesn't stop there, because brands no longer market products, but concepts, ideas, personalities. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian are amongst those who have cottoned on to the fact that social justice sells, watering down feminist messages for a young, female target audience. Hillary Clinton has also rather clumsily tried to clamber onto this bandwagon, with less convincing results than Obama or Trudeau.
Morphing into a brand is incredibly dangerous and damaging for social justice and the Left. Take the McCafe advert: if we are bought off by McDonald's appearing to accept homosexuality, then we might forget that it is a giant and exploitative corporation driven by nothing but profit: even if that means underpaying workers, contributing to childhood obesity and animal cruelty, destroying the environment and closing down smaller businesses. If, similarly, we're convinced by our political leaders' tokenism, our governments will continue to quietly screw over the women, the working-class and migrants unopposed.
And, even though it might be enjoying greater media representation, none of this really aids social justice issues anyway. The gulf between equality and the semblance of equality remains whilst companies profit from simplified, bite-size chunks of liberalism, and it puts social justice in danger of becoming irrevocably middle-class -- a brand that the working-classes can't afford and have little interest in, because it never seems to address their concerns.
Middle-class left-wingers are fond of accusing working-class people of falling into the evil Daily Mailian trap of scapegoating immigrants for inequality really caused by government elites, but we're falling into a similar trap ourselves of scapegoating the working-class for bigotry and xenophobia, when in reality social justice's true enemies lie behind the smiling faces of the same government bodies and corporations who've fobbed us off with an LGBT pride flag on their Twitter page. Our biggest challenges come from income inequality and unequal opportunities, of which the working-class are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.
The other major disadvantage to the mainstream branding of social justice is that it's making the Right loathe us. From the point of view of a social conservative, social justice is the new normal in the public eye and especially on social media, meaning that their opinions appear sidelined, oppressed and unspeakable.
In this light, Milo Yiannopoulos being banned from Twitter (a global corporation worth $18bn) becomes an abuse of freedom of speech, and the backlash against companies like Sprite (worth $6.2bn) who betray the status quo with lightly sexist ad campaigns, must seem the final nail in the coffin for conservative beliefs, despite the neoliberalism of those very companies behind socially just facades.
Right-wingers take refuge from the left-wing hegemony in forums which look suspiciously like safe-spaces and through the irony of memes, whilst left-wingers cry out in frustration that we don't just want a black James Bond, or even a black President, but an education and government system which works for ordinary people from all sections of society. And whilst we squabble about it on social media, the world's biggest and baddest corporations are laughing all the way to the bank.
The Left must realign with its Socialist roots and prioritise the struggles of ordinary people over superficialities that drive the wedge in deeper between Left and Right and are designed to provoke a reaction. It's time to put down our Pumpkin Spiced Lattes -- masquerading in their eco-looking but un-recyclable cups -- and start truly opposing the governments and businesses who benefit from inequality and social injustice.
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