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Glickman is professor of history at the University of South Carolina.

Lawrence B. Glickman

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The boycotts are succeeding at an unprecedented level, utilizing a boycott for what they've always been been about: indignant consumers puncturing political influence. Lawrence Glickman is a professor of history at Cornell University. The speed and breadth of the co-ordinated economic attacks on the National Rifle Association after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Airlines, delivery services, tech firms, insurers, car-rental firms and even a bank that produced a NRA-branded credit card all cut ties to the gun-lobbying group within a few days of the school shooting. Long before the term boycott was coined in , Americans employed the tactic of non-consumption and social ostracism to achieve political goals.

Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America by Lawrence B. Glickman

The "non-importation movement," in which merchants in the American colonies refused to sell British goods, was a key feature of the runup to the American Revolution. Abolitionists in the so-called "free-produce movement" urged their compatriots to eschew goods made by slave labour. Workers in the s initiated the tactic of the "labour boycott" to punish anti-union employers and those who treated their workers poorly. The abolitionists referred to the power of hitting their enemies in what they called the "pocket nerve.

But boycotts were never purely economic in nature. Boycotting — from the Boston Tea Party through the United Farm Worker-organized grape boycotts of the late 20 th century to our own time — has often been a moral campaign designed to use economic forces to raise political questions. The goal of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was not to financially destroy the municipal bus system of that city but to raise awareness of the moral crime of segregation and to promote social justice.

Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America

Abolitionists who ran free-produce stores, which were especially popular in Quaker Philadelphia, hoped to use market forces to undermine the slave economy, which was national in scope and which Northern businesses benefited from as much as Southern plantation owners. But even more, they wanted to raise consciousness about the complicity in the crime of slavery of every consumer who purchased goods produced by enslaved workers.

At the turn of the 20 th century, the National Consumers League, a women's reform organization, sought to raise awareness about the issue of how middle-class shoppers often, perhaps inadvertently, perpetuated the exploitation of underpaid female labour when they sought bargains. The ethical point boycotters have tried to raise from that time to our own is that, in an interconnected national and international market economy, there are no innocent bystanders. In an ethical sense, we are what we buy.

Buying power : a history of consumer activism in America / Lawrence B. Glickman

Whether they know it, consumers endorse and even promote unjust working conditions through the choices they make at the cash register. Abolitionists went so far as to insist that the consumers were more responsible for slavery than slave-owners, since it was their purchase of morally tainted goods that kept chattel slavery immensely profitable. The current economic campaign against the NRA is serving similar purposes — using economic tactics for political ends. Although not technically a boycott, the effort to unveil the nature of the economic chain, previously unknown, that has benefited NRA members and charging corporations that offer those benefits with complicity is a tactic drawn directly from the boycotters ' arsenal.

Consumer Activism

Most boycotts are failures, ending so quickly that the vast majority of us never hear about them. But winning and losing is not always easy to measure in the case of a boycott, especially one of a powerful entity such as the NRA. In this case, the boycotters are unlikely to economically weaken the NRA, an organization dependent on huge corporate grants from gun manufacturers and membership dues, not consumer dollars.


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By making it untenable for large chunks of corporate America to offer economic benefits to members of the organization, however, they have also revealed that links to that organization have become a liability in the eyes of the marketplace. They have made people aware of the previously unpublicized extensive commercial reach of the NRA.

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In , a group of workers in Denver called the tool of the boycott a "weapon of the weak against the strong. When they are in action, boycotts work somewhat in the manner that Ernest Hemingway described bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises : first gradually, then suddenly.

Only time will tell whether we are in the gradual or sudden phase of the campaign to end the insanity of the current gun regime in the United States. Those taking action today can perhaps find succour in the abolitionist boycotters of slave-made goods, who, beginning in the s, tried and failed for decades to weaken the slave power by hitting it in the pocket nerve.