Against Personal Politics

July 6, 2017

Once, as a way of summing up his feelings on Che Guevara, my college history professor warned, “All of you wearing Che T-shirts are the first ones he would put against the wall.” I assume he meant to criticize my classmates for their devotion to radical politics, but in retrospect it seems equally apt as a criticism that they were not devoted enough. And while I’m not fond of summary executions, that interpretation seems more to the point today, because the tendency to reduce politics to a matter of acquiring certain properties has only grown.

Since Shepard Fairey convinced a generation of activists to adopt Obama’s visage, designers and artists flock to create special-edition apparel for candidates and movements, and slogans are printed on anything that can be sold in an online store, both for profit and not. “The modern practice of feminist activism has become inextricably tied to what we buy and what we wear,” Leah Finnegan wrote in the perfectly titled “Nevertheless, She Bought a Shirt.” The same is true for racial justice, environmental justice, even economic justice.

Social justice campaigns are key facets of the world’s most rapacious brands, so of course corporations and capitalists would find ways to subsume politics to the market. There’s even a certain appealing logic to it: issues like climate change and white supremacy are so pernicious, so pervasive, that what else can you do but buy organic T-shirts, witty mugs, and flashy bumper stickers? Even critics of this most capitalist brand of activism tend to offer only a different, supposedly more authentic kind of consumption as the alternative. Don’t buy sloganed shirts at the mall, prove your conviction by purchasing them directly from marginalized communities! Subscribing to the New York Times isn’t true activism, buying a Safety Pin Box is!

Though of course we should welcome material benefit going to the oppressed, doing so through purely market-based methods means accepting the right-wing ur-narrative. If it really works, then justice really does come from entrepreneurship, and if only we got our branding right, we could have full communism tomorrow.

Read the rest at The Awl.