It’s Time to Ask New Questions About Boycotts

Named after an obscure English estate agent, a tactic that harnesses consumer power to make political change has had many incarnations

Today’s offering invites my readers to try Public Seminar, the web magazine I co-edit. This week, I have curated a special issue on boycotts as a political tactic. If you like it, make sure to navigate to the bottom of the home page and subscribe to receive Public Seminar’s free weekly newsletter. And as usual, feel free to upgrade to a paid subscription for yourself—and to forward Political Junkie to a friend so that they can:


Mrs. Rosa Parks, whose actions launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (ca. 1955). Photo credit: Ebony Magazine/courtesy of the United States National Archives and Records Administration

In 1880, the harvest in County Mayo, Ireland, was so poor that it seemed unlikely that the tenant farmers on lands held by English absentee landowner Lord Erne would be able to pay their rents. Graciously (he thought), Erne offered them a ten percent reduction. Energized by a fairness campaign mounted by the Irish National Land League, the tenants demanded a 25 percent rent reduction. In response, Erne had his land agent evict eleven tenants to serve as a warning to others.

Irish nationalist and home rule advocate Charles Stewart Parnell, a member of Parliament and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, urged the remaining tenants to adopt a tactic that would isolate and shame those who opposed them. Renters should do no business with any new tenant recruited to farmland previously occupied by an evicted neighbor. At the same time, Parnell's followers prevented Erne's local land agent, Charles Cunningham Boycott, from shopping, hiring servants, or even having his mail delivered. The event became international news, generating a "Boycott Relief Fund." But despite widespread efforts to support him in England and Ireland, Boycott and his family were eventually forced to return to England.

Did the "Boycott Relief Fund" forever confuse a person with the event itself? It's not clear. But ever since, Boycott's name has described a nonviolent tactic that seeks to organize consumers in a collective effort to equalize an imbalance of power, correct injustice, and neutralize the influence of the wealthy.

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Yet, as a way of doing politics, boycotts were not new. Similar strategies that used consumer power to force change had existed before 1880. Consider the refusal of 18th century Americans to consume British goods as their quarrel with the English crown escalated, or the movement in England and some northeastern American states during the early 19th century that targeted goods made from cotton harvested and processed by enslaved labor.

But perhaps because it acquired a name or because capitalism consolidated its place in politics, the boycott quickly came into its own as a form of grassroots protest by the late nineteenth century. In 1905 Chinese consumers, launched a boycott of goods manufactured in the United States in response to Congress strengthening its exclusion of Asian immigrants. In the years that followed, Chinese activists repeated boycotts to punish Japan for economic and military aggression.

The tactic proved effective enough that some states started organizing boycotts too. On April 1, 1933, the new Nazi government in Germany announced a boycott of Jewish business. Although it wasn't particularly successful, it became the first step in enforcing numerous acts of official anti-Semitism that paved the way for the Holocaust. Similarly, the Arab League launched a boycott against the new state of Israel, which held until Egypt broke ranks in 1979 (to this day, a few countries—Syria, Lebanon, and Iran—still maintain aspects of the boycott.)

In the United States, by contrast, although presidents and Congress have used state-imposed sanctions to halt trade and cultural exchanges with nations they wish to punish, boycotting has been almost exclusively associated with popular movements against influential individuals, companies, or industries.

In the early 1920s, American Jewish and Christian liberal organizations led a boycott against the Ford Motor Company. It was ended in 1927 when anti-Semitic founder Henry Ford (who continued to speak and write about his views until he died in 1947) agreed to close his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.

But indeed, the most famous and successful boycotts were those led by Delores Huerta and César Chavez against the table grape industry (1965-1970) and the lettuce industry (1970-71), both of which led to dramatic changes in labor conditions and the right of California farmworkers to organize.

Despite their efficacy in some contexts, boycotts remain a topic of controversy and sometimes heated debate. Today, we ask: When is a boycott justified? Do boycotts work, and if so, why? Or do many make consumers, now connecting casually over the internet, feel good--while changing nothing? Does it matter when a company changes its policies—but the company owners continue to fund the same bigoted policies through their donations to think tanks and like-minded politicians?

In this week's special issue, Public Seminar asked four contributors to think about modern boycotts, their uses, and their difficulties.

Marc Stein examines the effects of a 2016 law passed in California that prohibits spending public funds in states that restrict LGBT civil rights: but did these activist legislators understand that it would also prohibit LGBT Californians from doing historical research in those states?

Next, Olympic medalist and attorney Anita L. DeFrantz explains why she opposes state-sponsored boycotting of an international athletic competition meant to promote peace for political reasons.

Looking to Eastern Europe, where illiberal regimes reinforce their power through corrupt election tactics, Anastasia Mgaloblishvili explores how an opposition party used street protests and a boycott of the political process to leverage political intervention from the European Union.

And finally, Allyson Brantley examines a consumer boycott against the Coors Beer Company. Launched in the mid-1970s to protest the company's anti-union, racist, and homophobic policies, the anti-Coors movement has not only never ended but has also bitterly divided at least one of the communities that supported it in the first place.

American readers may wonder: why did we not include at least one article on the most controversial boycott of all, the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for justice in Israel/Palestine?

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One reason is that the movement, a mix of cultural and economic tactics launched in 2005, forced Israel to live up to its international human rights obligations. BDS has been so divisive for so long that commissioning work that will not simply reiterate familiar postures and exacerbate even more familiar divisions is a steep challenge.

But a second, more important reason is that we tried—and failed.

BDS, in many ways, displays some of the weaknesses and contradictions of boycott as a tactic: readers will see these illustrated in this issue. It has not succeeded in achieving its goal, justice for the Palestinian people. Nor has BDS been successful in shifting the resistance to Israeli Occupation away from violence, as Hamas's presence in Gaza, and the brutal conflict that has escalated in the region for the past week, tragically illustrates. Nor has it moved Americans, or American politicians more broadly, to change their minds about Israel's right to dominate and displace its Palestinian citizens. Israel's defenders characterize these actions as its right to self-defense, while Human Rights Watch recently identified them as "apartheid actions."

But BDS has changed minds, and it has successfully made its moral case among young progressives, academics, and activists of color in the United States. It has successfully pushed questions of colonialism, indigeneity, and international oppression to the center of conversations about racial justice in the United States.

This movement touched my life when the American Studies Association voted to uphold a boycott of Israeli educational institutions in 2013. A move that divided the organization bitterly, I initially opposed it, in part because I did not—and still do not—believe that academic organizations ought to ally themselves with political movements. And I deplored the tactics used to bring the motion to the floor of the business meeting.

It made me very unpopular.

Yet, it is also possible to change one's mind. After robust conversations with scholars and writers I respected, I reversed my decision. The turning point was, I think, novelist Sarah Schulman asking me gently: "So if you care about Palestinian human rights, but you don't support a cultural boycott, what is your idea about how to create change?"

Remembering this moment highlights what boycotts can achieve as a social movement: they can potentially create a space for conversation about the worlds we want to make but cannot yet realize. The American Studies Association resolution passed, and numerous members who had belonged for decades disassociated themselves from the organization.

But younger, progressive scholars, for whom the boycott was a vital issue, joined in large numbers. They transformed an organization rooted in the study of American exceptionalism into one focused on race, indigeneity, and colonialism. It was a seismic generational, political and intellectual shift of a kind not seen in an academic organization in decades.

In a sense, the BDS resolution has succeeded. Much like the growing sympathy for Palestinians on the Democratic Left, the ASA's support for BDS and the Palestinian people has not achieved its political objectives. Still, it created an intellectual space in which Palestinian liberation is now thinkable.

Yet, I could find no one to write about what is undoubtedly a victory of sorts for boycott organizers.

Why? Because even successful boycotts can have a high cost for their organizers. After all, Lord Erne's tenants remained poor and subjugated by the British for decades, and many undoubtedly ended up in the United States and Australia. After numerous unanswered emails, I finally learned that a lawsuit filed against the ASA in 2016 by former members angry about the resolution is still pending. It seems that attorneys may have counseled the organization's past and current officers against speaking or writing about the controversy until both sides agree to settle.

What does this teach us about the costs and benefits of a boycott? I am not sure yet.

But as the four essays we published this week at Public Seminar illustrate, boycotts now form part of the established repertoire of protest politics – however controversial their premise, or paradoxical their outcomes.

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An error in syntax accidentally misidentified Iran as an Arab country in an earlier version of this story: we apologize and have corrected it.


Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


What I’m reading:

  • “White people always find some low-account, undereducated, unskilled, crass loser to `oppose’ people of color in the public space:” Elie Mystal on why Marjorie Taylor Greene is publicly harassing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (The Nation, May 18, 2021)

  • Kamala Harris has already made history: but what about her future? (Edward-Isaac Dovere, May 17, 2021)

  • John Cassidy says: don’t start worrying about inflation until there is something to really worry about. (The New Yorker, May 17, 2021)

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