I’m Not Buying It
Does 24 Hours Of Nothing Add Up To Something?
Most activism is predicated on doing something. Taking to the streets in protest, starting petitions and letter writing campaigns, or simply calling your MP to lodge a complaint, are all actions undertaken every day in the name of a myriad of causes.
However, there is one day of the year when all you have to do to be an activist is—nothing. Since its inception, Buy Nothing Day has been about fighting corporatization by not pulling out your wallet.
Which raises the question: can doing nothing be just as effective as doing something?
The first iteration of Buy Nothing Day was held 18 years ago in Vancouver. Shortly thereafter, culture-jamming bible Adbusters adopted the concept and moved it to the busiest shopping day of the year—the day after American Thanksgiving. Since then, Buy Nothing Day has spread around the world, embraced by anti-consumerist activists everywhere.
At Concordia, the event was adopted by überculture, a collective who describe themselves on their website as a “group of artists, activists, pranksters, rogue economists, actors, trouble-makers, musicians, writers, culture jammers and creatives working for social change.” Jason Rousseau is one of their volunteers.
“Buy Nothing Day [as it exists now] was started by Adbusters as a reaction to Black Friday, which is basically the day where there is the most consumerism in the States,” he said. “überculture thinks along the same lines, so we thought it would be good to participate in that.”
Though many use BND as a silent protest against everything from unethical business practices to capitalism itself, überculture also uses it as an opportunity to strengthen their community via activities such as the Really Really Free Market, where people can show up and peruse stuff that other people have dropped off—with no price tags involved.
“I think in our society, we’re way too consumerist,” said Rousseau. “Everything has to be bought. It’s really rare that people get together as a community and just do things for each other. That’s why we do the Really Really Free Market.”
Brahm Canzer is a marketing lecturer at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. He noted that BND is not an event that exists in a vacuum. There is a growing sense of discontentment with the business practices of large corporations, which has culminated in various movements aimed at combating these monoliths.
“You’re getting a backlash in terms of things like bottled water,” he said. “Toronto recently passed a law saying you can’t sell single-serve plastic bottles.”
Concordia students recently fought against the renewal of an exclusivity agreement with PepsiCo., due in part to a desire to rid the campus of bottled water. Though the effort was unsuccessful, such activism has achieved results in the past. But can a single day of not purchasing do the same?
Symbolism of stinginess
If you’re hoping that BND is going to miraculously spur a revolution that overthrows the capitalist system and lead to the rising of the proletariat, you might want to set your sights a little lower.
“Behaviour takes a long time to establish itself […] It’s very difficult to change it,” said Canzer. “You need a lot of effort, a lot more than what these promotional efforts are. […] The bottom line is that I think shopping and buying behaviour, especially at this time of year, is pretty much determined by people’s history, comfort level and especially their economic situation, far more than any kind of movement like this.”
The victory claimed by BND’s proponents is not that of David bringing down Goliath, but rather a moral victory; the first step in a larger journey towards a more equitable world.
“If you got everyone in the world to buy nothing, for sure [there would be a major change], but that will probably never happen,” said Rousseau. “I think it’s more of a symbolic gesture, and to think about what else you can do.”
Robyn Maynard is an activist with the anti-capitalist group Convergence des luttes anticapitalistes 2010. She stressed that any efforts made by participating in Buy Nothing Day cannot compare to the sustained efforts that come from participating in grassroots activism.
“I’ve never participated,” she said. “I don’t have an objection, but if you want to look at what it takes to stop the basic functioning of capitalism, one day where people buy nothing isn’t enough. It takes so much more than that to do anti-capitalist organizing. I’m not opposed to it, but I think it’s a bit tokenistic if you see that specific act as being fighting capitalism in and of itself. I don’t think it can replace struggle.”
When seen as a symbolic move, rather than a strategic one, the criticism that many have levied against BND—that it’s a feel-good measure meant to assuage the guilt of those taking part rather than make any lasting change—can fall flat.
There is a more serious charge—that the day will alienate those it aims to help. Many of those who suffer the biggest brunt of globalization and corporatization lack the means to be considered consumers. Every day is Buy Nothing Day for them, and it isn’t by choice.
“In a way I find it sort of insulting to people who can’t buy anything at all,” acknowledged Rousseau. “But I guess it’s about what you personally can do to change [things].”
Thieving for a cause?
Up until a few years ago, there was a clear divide between the realm of business and the realm of activism. Even with the advent of the Internet, the two were fairly easy to tell apart. However, eventually corporations started co-opting the look and techniques that activism has adopted in the electronic age. It became hard to tell the difference between grassroots movements and artificial “Astroturf” causes, videos that went viral naturally and those that had the backing of a marketing team and plenty of money. Within that framework, it’s not hard to imagine some enterprising marketing executive thinking of a way to co-opt Buy Nothing Day and turn it into a subversive advertising campaign. Canzer says that such thinking amounts to little but paranoia.
“All businesses are trying to communicate a value to whatever it is they’re selling. Except to say that you’re getting more value from the product I’m selling you than somebody else’s product, either because it’s cheaper or more eco-friendly or something like that […] It would be counter-productive for a company to tell people not to buy. Even the tobacco industry doesn’t do that.”
Ten years ago, a group of Montreal-based anarchists decided that Buy Nothing Day didn’t go nearly far enough.
Instead, they proposed Steal Something Day, which their manifesto said would “promote empowerment by urging us to engage in materially beneficial activities that act as an affront to bourgeois morality. Or something like that.”
“Ethical stealing is a reaction to companies that are abusive in the capitalist market,” said Rousseau, noting that “a lot of chain stores like Wal-Mart […] have questionable business practices.” Rousseau added that while he thinks the idea is “kinda cool,” he can’t condone stealing from small or local businesses.
Maynard also sees some logic to the idea of Steal Something Day, comparing stealing from large companies to the very practices those companies engage in.
“If you’re looking at disrupting the ways that corporations work, what they’re doing is basically stealing the labour of poor people in the global [market] as well as here, so to actually be stealing from corporations is a bit more of a challenge. So I get the logic behind that,” she said.
Easy way in
Risking legal trouble might not be for the faint-hearted but well-meaning activist, though. Which is kind of the point of Buy Nothing Day—it’s a chance to dip your toes into involvement and test the water. Before you take to the streets, waving signs and marching, you can try doing something much easier: you can try doing nothing.
This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 16, published November 30, 2010.
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