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Protest Inc

The Corporatization of Activism
Dauvergne Peter, Lebaron Genevieve


Over the last two decades activist organizations have increas­ingly come to look, think, and act like corporations. You may well find this claim upsetting. Yet we go even further, arguing that the corporatization of activism is deepening and acceler­ating across all causes and cultures. Rarely now do "career" activists call for a new international economic order, or a world government, or an end to multinational corporations. Only a select few on the fringes, in the words of Greenpeace cofounder Bob Hunter, still struggle to "mindbomb" the world to form a new "global consciousness."

More and more activists, especially those toiling inside large advocacy organizations, are instead speaking in market-friendly language. They are calling for a gentler capitalism - for fair trade, for certification, for eco-markets. The buzz is about the aid of rock stars and the benevolence of billionaires. Solutions to global problems involve campaigns for ethical purchasing: to brand social causes and sell feelings of "doing good" to the "cappuccino class."

Without a doubt most activists still want to speak truth to power. But nowadays they are entangled in this power. Unthinkable a few decades back, partnerships with big-brand companies - Walmart, McDonald's, Nike - are now common, even expected. The global WWF Network of activists, as just one example among many, receives funding from and works closely with the Coca-Cola Company. WWF leaders do not hide the reason for joining forces. "Coke," explains Gerald Butts, who at the time was the president and chief executive officer of WWF Canada, "is literally more important, when it comes to sustainability, than the United Nations."

 Why is this happening? Why is corporatization affecting some advocacy organizations more than others? What are the con­sequences for the nature and power of activism? The answers, as we reveal, are complex, with many activists fighting back. Still, looking across the surface of global activism, we see three processes that are interacting with markets and politics to corporatize activism: the securitization of dissent (chapter 3); the privatization of social life (chapter 4); and the institu­tionalization of activism (chapter 5).

Together, these interlocking processes are reconfiguring power and resistance globally, as firms engage social forces through corporate social responsibility, as governments cut social services and devolve authority to companies, as con­sumerism spreads, and as states suppress public dissent. The result is a seismic shift in the nature of activism world­wide. Not only are more and more corporations financing and partnering with activist groups, but activists are increas­ingly communicating, arguing, and situating goals within a corporatized frame. And more and more activists are seeing corporate-friendly options as logical and effective strategies for achieving their goals.

This does not mean that activists have capitulated to cor­porations: corporate malpractice continues to draw their ire. Within every movement, many activists are challenging the values and institutions of capitalism. And many examples exist of successful efforts to slow or reverse corporatiza­tion. Worldwide, both organized and spontaneous uprisings remain common too, with social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter rallying hundreds of thousands of people to oppose rigged elections, decaying dictatorships, and corporate pillage. If anything, because social unrest tends to cluster and come in waves, in the future we would expect even more - and larger - public protests as the world population rushes toward 10 billion people, as communication technologies and econo­mies continue to globalize, and as citizens react angrily to the hardships of an ever adjusting world economy.

Nonetheless, although it is a contested, uneven, and in no way inevitable process, the overall trend, we argue in this book, is toward a corporatization of activism, where the agen­das, discourse, questions, and proposed solutions of human rights, gender equality, social justice, animal rights, and envi­ronmental activist organizations increasingly conform with, rather than challenge, global capitalism. Some of this reflects self-censorship under threat of government audits, business retribution, and the pressures of austerity; but much also arises from self-evaluation by activists of what is feasible and what is effective.
The corporatization of activism is not a simple business take­over of activism. Business is seeking out advocacy organizations for legitimacy and marketing opportunities. But activists are courting companies for funds and partnerships with as much, if not more, enthusiasm.

Their eagerness is understandable. Partnering with busi­ness is enhancing the influence of advocacy groups within ruling political and economic institutions. Activists are gaining seats on corporate boards and at international nego­tiating tables. And they are raising more funds to run even more programs. Without a doubt, access to the real corridors of power remains highly restricted. Still, compared to those outside of the establishment, activists on the inside are more...