Varieties of Anti-Corporatist Activism

By Paul-Brian McInerney

When I was in graduate school, my colleagues and friends introduced me to Charles Tilly’s Workshop on Contentious Politics. The workshop met weekly and featured a diverse pool of speakers from the sociology and cognate departments at Columbia and nearby universities. In structuring the workshop, Tilly created an environment of thoughtful deliberation. And while the topics presented at the workshop sounded interesting, they seemed very distant from my research interests at the time. Papers on state building, religious violence, political repression, and of course, revolutions were frequently discussed. These topics were far afield from the economic and organizational sociology I read for my research. Mildly daunted, I began attending the workshop anyway and soon became a regular.

It was not long before I realized my research had much in common with my fellow attendees. I was indeed studying a social movement, replete with activists and tactics, resources to acquire and mobilize, and targets to target. However, rather than the state, the activists in my case mobilized against other institutional actors. At the time, I was conducting fieldwork at a nonprofit technology assistance provider in New York City. The organization I studied was essentially a nonprofit consulting firm for other nonprofits. Yet, as I dug deeper into the institutional environment in which this organization was situated, I uncovered a rich history of movement activity. The consulting firm as an organizational form was actually the outcome of a decade-long intra-movement struggle to gap the Digital Divide. Starting in the mid-1990s, a group of activists calling themselves Circuit Riders began organizing a movement to bring Internet technologies to environmental and social justice groups. As the movement grew, they began to collect resources from corporate donors and sponsors. Before long, corporatism took root in the movement, transforming activist groups into technology entrepreneurs. The Circuit Riders subsequently found themselves mobilizing against the incursion of corporations and corporatism into their strategic action field. The details are explained in detail in my book, From Social Movement to Moral Market (2014, Stanford University Press).

Since then, I have been interested in the interactions among movements and markets in various settings. More recently, I have been studying the movement-like activities of craft brewers in Chicago. Targeting large corporate brewers, craft brewers are a taste movement that also works as a market. With this project, I am interested in how these actors balance the institutional demands of each: being true to the movement and its artisanal mission while making enough money to keep the lights on and the equipment running, not to mention the investors happy.

Through both projects, I have learned that activism requires pragmatic compromises. For example, growing a movement often means expanding the mission or broadening the collective identity. However, too expansive or broad a mission or identity and movements risk losing their committed core, those willing to do the most work and take the biggest risks for the cause. My book begins to examine the process and consequences of these pragmatic compromises. For the Circuit Riders, attracting the resources of corporate sponsors meant quelling the more radical (read: technologically and socially revolutionary) aspects of their movement. This led to the unintended consequence of creating opportunities for more corporatist actors to enter the field and gain footing. For craft brewers, the process and consequences are less clear. Everyone wants to be successful in the market. And everyone wants to do so on their own terms.

Circuit Riders to craft brewers reflect near-opposite ends of the spectrum of anti-corporatist activism. On the one side, the Circuit Riders are specifically anti-corporate. They oppose specific corporations, such as Microsoft, the corporate organizational form, as well as corporatism as an ideology. Tactially, the Circuit Riders are relatively tame compared to other groups of activists at this end of the spectrum. Some activists employ radical tactics against corporations, like fire-bombing stores, while others engage in boycotts or shareholder activism. The scholarship on anti-corporate activism has shown how and when activists pick targets as well as how they choose tactics against them. Sarah Soule has written a good overview of the subject. Brayden King has also written about how activists choose their targets as well as the efficacy of their tactics. It is clear from their work and the work of others that activists are increasingly targeting corporations using various tactics, for various reasons, and with various consequences.

Craft brewers occupy the other end of the spectrum. Themselves organizations and members of the industry, their activism is not so much against corporations or even the corporate form (most are incorporated as limited liability companies) but against corporatism and what it means for their industry. Their targets are the big brewers, such as Anheieser Busch and Coors. Their tactics include marketing campaigns and collaborative innovation. The goal is to take market share from the large brewers. It is a fair criticism to suggest this is not activism at all, but simply market competition. However, craft brewers as a class engage in activities akin to social movements. For example, they organize collectively and share resources cooperatively. The growth of their market segment has followed similar processes to those marking the growth of movements. While craft brewers may not be activists in the traditional sense of the term, the scholarship on social movements and collective behavior is very useful for understanding how they operate in relation to each other and their opponents in the field.

My work contributes to a growing body of literature dedicated to understanding the dynamics of collective action against non-state actors, specifically corporations and markets. There is a strong argument to be made about the growing role that corporations play in shaping markets and ultimately influencing the polity. Corporations have created an entire industry of lobbyists whose purpose is to influence legislature on their behalf. In many instances, corporations have superseded the control of any one state. Globally, corporations have challenged the sovereignty of states with lawsuits based on international treaties. Provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement allegedly make it easier for corporations to engage in such lawsuits if they believe it damages their business. It is unclear whether activists will be successful in challenging these arrangements.

At the same time, anti-corporatist activism shapes markets, even when it does not succeed in toppling corporations or combatting the spread of corporatism more broadly. Even as the Circuit Riders were unsuccessful at preventing the marketization of their movement, their work imbued the resultant market with moral characteristics. Craft brewers continue to capture market share from the big brewers. Several big brewers have begun taking notice, responding by buying craft brewers (while retaining their branding) or developing pseudo-craft lines. Will the craft brewers succeed in changing the market for beer? Will beer brewing return to its local and artisanal roots? It is too early to tell. Either way, their revolt promises to taste great.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, New Ways to Define Activism

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