Captain Boycott strikes again

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

American colonials refuse to buy British after the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765; the Chinese boycott US goods because of their treatment of immigrants in 1905; Ghandi’s followers refuse to buy British in India and the Arab League boycotts all companies dealing with the Israeli state in 1948. In 2003 Germany changes the word ‘OK’ to ‘daccord’ and the US replace french fries with freedom fries. Over the past few weeks a boycott culture has been emerging in Belgium, across

 

American colonials refuse to buy British after the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765; the Chinese boycott US goods because of their treatment of immigrants in 1905; Ghandi’s followers refuse to buy British in India and the Arab League boycotts all companies dealing with the Israeli state in 1948.

In 2003 Germany changes the word ‘OK’ to ‘daccord’ and the US replace french fries with freedom fries.

Over the past few weeks a boycott culture has been emerging in Belgium, across Europe and in the United States — Americans reportedly boycotting the ‘German’ beer Heineken (much to the chagrin of the Dutch), and the Germans vowing to rid their language of Anglo-Saxon slang, replacing it with French instead.

Air Force One now serves freedom toast instead of French toast to George W Bush in-flight, and not a solitary bottle of French wine in the galley kitchen. Little does the President know however that his landing gear was made in Toulouse – but we wouldn’t want him to be boycotting that now, would we?

As one American expatriate vowed on Belgian national radio never to buy Lancôme products again (well, she’d use the ones she bought last month but that was categorically the end), 52 percent of all US citizens were ‘kind of thinking about’ boycotting European goods.

The notion of the boycott, which began as organised ostracism of a British landlord (Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott) in the west of Ireland in September 1880, has been rekindled as never before.

The theory won’t work, however, unless consumers all over the globe put in their penny’s worth – or not as the case may be. In Belgium, 80 percent of Belgian consumers haven't changed their spending habits since the onset of the war. And in this age of globalisation, how easy is it to boycott goods?

For example, if you think you’re safe driving an Opel think again, the German company is owned by General Motors. Need to find a filling station? Best avoid Esso, Texaco, Shell and BP. No more PC if it’s a Dell, IBM, Apple, Compaq or HP, and definitely no surfing the web using Netscape or Explorer.

If that sounds like too much work, why not go home and be decidedly Belgian by having a cup of Douwe Egberts coffee (Sara Lee) and a Delacre biscuit (Campbell Soup)? And yes, you know Cote d’Or was taken over by the Swiss, but they’re neutral anyway so it doesn’t count. Except that the Jacobs-Suchard was bought by Philip Morris.

Last week, a dozen Belgian towns participated in the appropriately named ‘boycott the war’ operation. The aim was to send a message from a Texaco forecourt in West Flanders that said we don’t agree with what America is doing so we won’t drink Coke, won’t eat McDonalds and won’t smoke Marlboro’s.

In hindsight, it looks like their lives may suddenly have become markedly healthier, but the real aim of the exercise was to make an impact on the weight of multinational shareholders’ wallets.

Organisations such as Mother Earth in Belgium, Spend for Peace in New Zealand, Be the Cause in the US and Peace Action in Australian are leading an international campaign urging people to stop buying American.

Philip Morris and General Electric have been particularly targeted. Philip Morris, which owns Kraft, Maxwell House, Nabisco and Marlboro amongst others, donated $2.9 million to the Republican campaign in 2000. General Electric, which owns NBC, described as ‘apologist’ towards the war, donated 70 percent of its contributions in 2000 to the Bush campaign.

Neither can say their bottom lines have been affected by recent events, however. Here again lies the essential flaw in boycotting theory – unless everybody stands together in opposition, the system will fail to yield even one percentile of a dip in profits. True pressure can only come with critical mass.

There are two reasons why that critical mass will not be reached – first, why should Madame Vandenbrugge stop drinking Coke and forbid her children from watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if the effect will be minimal?

Second, separating the US from Europe in the age of globalisation would have to become her day-job if she were to catch every Yankee product – the world’s markets are inexorably linked to each other for better or for worse.

Which leads to the state of affairs we are left with today – a ‘word’ boycott. Not too difficult to do, not too difficult to maintain, it won’t upset the children or anyone’s smoking habit and – let's face it – is a much more personal kick in the teeth than an economic war.


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