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Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism in North American History

Editors: Louis Hyman (Cornell University) and Joseph Tohill (York University)

We invite proposals from academics and activists for a collection of essays, Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism in North American History, that will bring together different historical and contemporary perspectives on consumer activism in the United States and Canada between the turn of the twentieth century and the present.

In the aftermath of the Occupy movement—a grassroots global movement that originated in North America and that sought to alleviate the social and economic inequalities of present-day global corporate capitalism—we are once again looking for historical perspectives on sustaining successful social movement struggles. If Occupy was able to become so important so quickly, why did it seem to fade away almost as quickly? Like many other social justice movements, Occupy confronted the contradiction between building a broad movement that maximizes participation and maintaining the ideological focus necessary for sustaining activism over the long haul. This balancing act is nothing new for social movements, particularly those grounded in consumer politics.

Tellingly, it is the 1% and 99% that have marshaled the political consciousness, and not a more austere class consciousness based around production, as radicals have predicted, unsuccessfully, for generations. Class, in this post-Occupy world, seems to be understood more as the power to consume rather than the power to produce. This inversion of traditionally Left categories must lead us to rethink what we think we know about the politics of consumption within North American capitalism.

One cannot think about consumption without thinking about inequality—not only of money, but also of power. While we like to think of shopping as disconnected from the rest of our economic lives, the freedom of choice we experience in stores is inextricably connected to the lack of choice in the workplace and, increasingly, in politics.

Being a consumer is more often a social practice than a social identity. When you ask someone who they are, rarely do they volunteer “I Am A Consumer!” Still, forms of consumer activism—from boycotts to buycotts—have often been central to the most important struggles for social justice, like abolitionism, anti-child labor activism, civil rights, trade unionism, and anti-globalization.

What then are the boundaries on and possibilities for political consumerism in bringing about greater social justice?

How effective has political consumerist action been historically, and what lessons from the past can we apply to present and future activism?

This collection seeks to shed light on contemporary debates among activists and social scientists about the effectiveness of consumer activism in making social change, aiming to help us make sense of this new post-Occupy world both historically, theoretically, and practically.

We are seeking between fifteen and twenty original short essays of 4,000–6,000 words each, written in an accessible tone and style aimed at a readership spanning academics, activist, and the informed public. We are aiming to have the content be roughly half Canadian, half American, and are encouraging contributions that consider consumer activism or political consumerism in a transnational or comparative context. Shopping for Change is under contract with Between the Lines Press, and is currently being considered by leading American academic publishers.

Proposals for submissions, including a 500 word abstract, one page CV (or resumé), and list of any previous publications, should be sent to by December 1, 2012 with completed articles to be submitted by May 1, 2013.

Potential Topics include but are not limited to:
Historical Perspectives
• Consumer movement(s) (origins, organizational techniques, goals, effectiveness)
• Consumer activism in social justice movements (black civil rights, La causa, etc.)
• Class and labour activism
• Comparative power of consumers and corporations
• Boycotts (cost of living, anti-sweatshop, anti-apartheid, etc.)
• Buycotts (white label, union label, etc.)
• Nationalism (buying American; buying Canadian)
• Consumer activism and the state (representation, protection, laws and regulations)
• Backlash(es) against consumer activism
Contemporary consumer activism
• Fair trade
• Green Consumerism (Ecological Consumerism/Environmental Consumerism)
• Socially responsible investing
• Gender and consumerism (Pink stinks campaigns, etc.)
Evaluating Political Consumerism
• The consumer as political actor
• Consumption as liberation and/or domination
• Consumption as choice or necessity in capitalism
• American and Canadian consumer identities

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