Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Resilience, Social Movements, & Corporate Social Responsibility

For my final paper, I will investigate methods by which today’s corporations can ethically and responsibly engage in charity-slacktivism. I will first examine the rise of social enterprise and cause consumerism in the United States, with an eye towards understanding why for-profit and non-profit organizations spark social movements and how these movements can circulate in both contagious and controversial fashions. To ground my analysis with an example, I will scrutinize TOMS shoes and its “One for One” model, which promises to donate one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair a customer buys. I will argue this model to be optimistic in that it imagines an equitable exchange and deliverance of justice that is in fact flawed and complex at best. I will also explore reasons for its commercial success and how one-for-one “social math” opens up new possibilities for low-stakes political engagement.

I am particularly interested in TOMS because its cause marketing has mobilized millions of US “Millennials” (consumers 21-34, or college students like me) to get behind this “One for One” movement and become storytellers of its social mission. Why? How is this movement affectively linking YOU, our generation, and the larger underserved/ anonymous populations together in awkward, unsustainable, but potentially productive ways? I say unsustainable because—while TOMS shoes has become a high-growth, $100M enterprise (giving away over 2 million pairs of shoes in just six years)—its “One for One” platform has been subject to continuous criticism by “Experts” in the international development community; claiming, for example, that TOMS hurts vibrant, local economies in the areas they serve; that TOMS exacerbates a culture of handouts and aid dependency; that TOMS perpetuates stereotypes of Western imperialism and capitalist exploitation; and that buying into TOMS validates “White Savior” privilege among hipsters who believe they can bring justice to the world through their purchasing power.

But as we learned in Tsing’s Friction this week, the relationship between theory and practice is awkward. I want to think through these excessive critiques—and more broadly—the prioritization of theory and knowledge over forms of action and mobilization—and how these critiques can in fact be a recipe for disaster, disengagement, and disaffection. That is, “if we want theory, if we want knowledge, to give us the answer before we act, then we watch the destruction of the world before us, documented.” I will therefore deconstruct the case of TOMS shoes only to offer up new alternatives on how progress and social change can be ethically possible among today’s corporations and their respective social movements. Here, I will shift my argument towards the idea of building “resilience”.

Resilience, the new development sector buzzword, is the ability of a system to sustain friction and remain productive despite external fluctuations and pressures. I want to know how we can “buffer” social movements today by sustaining the affective connections that link crowds to beneficiaries within interconnected but disjunctive system that promises the deliverance of justice. I suspect that building resilience involves a certain transparency about the production of risks within a given social movement, and an authenticity about why you give, not how you give; OR about how you can make a difference that is both meaningful, but contextually responsible. I also suspect that building resilience involves a nurturing of “awareness with double vision” that can proliferate new forms of social action. That is, building resilient “activist packages” that are treated as gateways into the particular issue, rather than the ‘gospel’ of any social movement.

There are many texts that I can bring into my discussion, so I need help narrowing my focus. I want to primarily rely on Tsing, but have also considered bringing in Thrift (turning the half-awake crowd on and sustaining political engagement); Berlant (marketing crisis in a way that is outside of the crisis ordinary); Ahmed (discomfort as productive and generative for individual and collective wounds); Terranova (free labor and the call for the common passion); Fassin (humanitarian reason, the double register, and the importance of imagining what could possibly happen); Beck (production of invisible risks and the relationship between production, consumption, and social change); and Kony 2012 (building a movement and the benefits/limitations of slacktivism and raising awareness).

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