Branding the Barricades

What happens when social justice meets boardroom goals?

In 1970 “a scrappy band of peace activists” in Vancouver formed the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, soon to be known as Greenpeace. For co-founder Bob Hunter, the aim was to “‘mindbomb’ the world to form a new ‘global consciousness.’” The next year the intrepid group chartered a fishing boat and set off to an island west of Alaska to stop American nuclear weapons tests. Today Greenpeace is a trademarked global brand with headquarters in Amsterdam and thousands of employees. In 2011, one of the organization’s big victories “was getting Mattel to change its Barbie Doll packaging, which Greenpeace linked to tropical deforestation.” Conservationists could breathe a little easier, Mattel scored a PR coup and consumers could buy all the Barbies they wanted without worrying about the consequences to the rainforests.

This slide in goals, from mind bombing to mind calming, forms the backdrop to Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron’s book, Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism, an analysis of how a global trend for non-governmental organizations to form partnerships with multinational corporations has changed activism. The authors are clearly not fans of corporatized activism although they stress that their book is not meant to bash activists who have gone corporate. By documenting how widespread the trend is, delineating the underlying factors that shore it up and exploring the consequences, they set out to sound “a loud alarm” about a phenomenon they argue is bound to continue apace, despite the huge rallies challenging capitalism that regularly take place in locations all over the globe (think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, anti-globalization demonstrations and marches to protest global warming). If millions reject the current turn to corporate values, they ask, why are so many activist organizations embedding themselves in the system?

The authors, who hail from the University of British Columbia (Dauvergne) and the University of Sheffield (LeBaron), easily demonstrate that “corporatized activism” is widespread. Among the organizations that have formed partnerships with corporations are Save the Children, Amnesty International, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Canadian Organization for Rare Diseases, to cite just a few named in the book. They identify three underlying processes that fuel the move to corporatization, which they label “securitizing dissent,” “privatizing social life” and “institutionalizing activism.”

Securitization is a state process that distinguishes “civil” from “uncivil” organizations, dividing activist communities and making protest a perilous activity. Cooperative groups are given funds, while those that challenge a corporation or government are defunded, spied on, clubbed and even killed (five died in anti-mining protests in Peru). The United States is “leading the charge” in securitizing dissent, but Canada is close behind: recall the treatment of demonstrators at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the student strikes in Quebec and the G20 summit in Toronto. Think also of the Harper government’s selective Revenue Canada Agency audits questioning the charitable tax status of environmental groups such as Tides Canada that campaign against the oil sands and proposed pipelines.

By privatizing social life, the authors mean the patterns of isolation in daily living that have gradually come to characterize modern societies, including suburbanization and the decline of labour unions and of group activities based in churches and community halls. Historically, these networks helped sustain, in the long haul, community protests against poverty, exploitation and oppression in ways that individual donations and internet communication do not. Capitalizing on these dislocations, states and corporations encourage people to take personal responsibility for building a sustainable society, by purchasing eco-friendly products and forming identities as consumers. In 2006, for example, the Canadian government “issued to each resident of the country a ‘One Tonne Challenge’ to reduce their personal carbon emissions by one tonne”; meanwhile, the government itself failed to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

The third process feeding corporatized activism is a move to institutionalization within activist groups. By this the authors mean a bureaucratization of activist structures that mirrors corporate organiaational hierarchies. These include a growth from the local to international, CEOs who jet around the world to meetings, hundreds or thousands of paid employees, budgets in the millions, a trademarked brand (the World Wildlife Fund successfully sued the World Wrestling Federation, forcing it to change its name), top-down decision making, and goals that are modest, measurable and achievable. Much of the impetus for these structural changes comes from corporate sponsors, who increasingly sit on the boards of the non-profits their companies support and encourage them to conform to corporate standards of “efficiency” and “effectiveness” by “benchmarking” their progress.

Dauvergne and LeBaron assert that corporatized NGOs “are doing substantial good within this corporate frame.” Their “inescapable conclusion” however, is damning: the corporatization of activism is “empowering firms and their state allies, as well as legitimizing the disparities and injustices of today.”

The authors state that, despite extensive scholarship on the influence NGOs have on business actions and state policies, “relatively few … explore the consequences of corporate partnerships, values, and money for the nature of activism and world politics.” As someone who has been immersed for two decades in breast cancer politics and the impact of corporate sponsorships on patient activism, I would nuance this claim. Critical scholarship has not overlooked corporate partnerships in activist communities, but the work tends to be fragmented by sector (environment, health, women’s oppression), and political analyses tend to be national rather than global. Political parties came to value groups and movements that prodded them to broaden their platforms to incorporate the perspectives of less powerful or marginalized social communities. Since the early 1980s, successive Canadian governments have reversed this stance, deploying demonizing rhetoric along with policies that undermine groups or movements once seen as “progressive,” while rewarding those that form corporate partnerships, provide cheap services in the community and facilitate consumerism.

Dauvergne and LeBaron’s achievement is to bring national and sector silos together under a unifying theory. The result is a broad-stroke analysis that inevitably glosses over some of the finer details (Susan G. Komen for the Cure has embraced corporate values from its inception and I cringed to see the pink steamroller of breast cancer fundraising lumped together with Greenpeace and Amnesty International). Quibbles aside, the sweep of the authors’ vision and the implications of corporatized activism that they bring into focus are both accurate and chilling. Although they claim that the trend to corporatized activism is “in no way inevitable,” the book does not allow much room for a volte-face. Nor do the authors hold out the likelihood of a rupture that—to channel Naomi Klein—changes everything. Rather, they punt the responsibility to readers. They conclude with the hope that the book “will serve as a warning shot across the bows of corporatizing activism, moving along conversations among activists about strategy and encouraging a re-evaluation of public policies that stifle grassroots activism.” Given the opposing forces they document, that is more than a One Tonne Challenge; but then, the essence of radical activism is to take on the seemingly intractable.