the fair trade movement targets the coffee industry

Today’s entry is an introduction to the relationship between social movements and corporations as targets and countermovement organizations. This relationship is undertheorized in sociology. That means that we haven’t really organized our thoughts about what to expect when a social movement organization, in its bid for social change, targets a corporation or an industry. This gap needs to be addressed, because corporations of course already have built up a lot of organizational resources for countering a people’s social movement.

Some sociologists have begun to offer explanations for why they see the corporation as a new social movement target, but their analyses tend to be shaky because social movement scholars are not always as familiar with sociological work on state-society relations as they need to be. The fair trade coffee movement will be the case study referred to in this essay.

The political-economic opportunity structure of the fair trade movement

Emerging from two parties that reliably make money off of a crisis-riddled, unregulated coffee industry, Northern state interests and corporate interests can coincide.
[1] This extreme exploitation and concentration of coffee wealth has been massively destructive to producing communities, repeatedly, since the development of coffee as a modern commodity crop in the 19th century; and the destruction continues today. The United Nations (UN) attempted to mitigate this destructive cycle by establishing an international organization, the International Coffee Organization (ICO), which coordinated a voluntary quota system. The quota system successfully dampened crises for over twenty years, in an era of intensifying elite organization, before it collapsed amidst charges of despoiling the free-market.[2] In defense of the coffee bean producers, the fair trade movement has advanced, targeting the coffee roaster oligopoly. Stonewalled by captured and repressive state apparatuses, efforts to address distribution problems have been forced back into the politics of production.
While a comparative-historical review reveals that the U.S. state has always been a juggernaut against progressive social movement,[3] social movements observers note that the superpower U.S. has been a world leader and enforcer of the post-1970s right-wing retrenchment. “Governments became increasingly hostile to demands for social and economic equality, workers’ rights, and environmental regulation and protection, while the rights and power of corporations grew,” reports Schurman.[4] The fate of the International Coffee Organization (ICO) and the world’s coffee producers are examples of the effects of this conservative offensive.
As elite politics reformed state policies in an aggressively conservative direction, they also strove to cultivate a favorable culture for their primitive accumulation program. Christopher Martin (2004) observes that the monopolized media industry labors to promote consensus around the following elite stances: that the public are simply consumers; that production is none of the working public’s business but is instead the sole purview of owners; that the site of production is a black box of utopic meritocracy that must be safeguarded from the pollution of collective action; and that the economy is driven by great business leaders who make “tough choices”. In the US, news is fully colonized. Just as at least 20 government agencies have spent more than 245 million taxpayer dollars developing and distributing propaganda called Video News Releases (VNRs), through PR firms to television stations across the country,[5] in spending “hundreds of millions of dollars promoting consumption,” U.S. coffee companies released a coffee promotion video for PBS to air.[6] In pursuit of concentrated profits, industry colonizes and decimates popular cultural capital through the media and the cultivation of corporate culture in the workplace.[7]
The suffering, disabilities, and conflict overflowing from the domineering market’s corset of happiness have been increasingly dealt with as abject deviance by a more and more severe capitalist state.[8] Social movement studies suggest that the outcome of state belligerence is mediated by the population. Sidney Tarrow’s (1998) social movement comparison holds that as governments become more authoritarian and repressive, they spawn a latent subculture of dissent, and can radicalize challengers.[9] We know that radicalization is not the only result of state repression. Dick Houtman’s (2003) reexamination of Lipset’s authoritarianism thesis demonstrates that when people have been dispossessed of cultural capital,[10] they tend to embrace authoritarianism. Whether challengers are radicalized, or whether authoritarianism advances depends on the distribution of cultural capital in the population.[11]
When the state becomes an overbuilt fortress arrayed against non-elites, the optimal result from an elite viewpoint is that great portions of population without cultural capital express authoritarianism. Popular authoritarianism cements the conservative, elitist political-economy. The Anglo-American colonial and slave-society models provide prominent examples of cultural impoverishment and authoritarianism’s devastating effects on progressive social movement outcomes, democratization, and substantive equality.[12]
But where segments of the public retain cultural capital, an intransigent state can force social movement innovation. Resourceful challengers may be forced by state belligerence to pierce commodity fetishism and address the expropriating relations that facilitate elites to capture the state. Challengers such as fair trade movement actors can work to modify the expropriating relations of production by targeting elites’ institutions of accumulation. In the contemporary context of state repression and advancing authoritarianism, social movements scholars[13] have begun to observe the rise of social activism addressing private capital anew. Facing private capital’s fortifications directly, the fair trade movement attempts to use the organizational political opportunity structure of the coffee industry, to attain credibility, and to achieve new advantages for its constituency.

[1] Roasters make handsome profits. While coffee bean farmers were unable to recoup production costs, Starbucks tripled its profits between 1997 and 2000; Nestle made an estimated 26 percent profit margin on instant coffee; and Sara Lee’s profits on coffee are 17 percent annually (Oxfam 2002). In some coffee importing countries, “taxes alone are approximately equivalent to the coffee revenue earned by the producing countries” (Lewin, Bryan, Daniele Giovannucci and Panos Varangis. 2004. Agriculture and Rural Development Discussion Paper 3. Washington DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Agriculture and Rural Development Department).
[2] The ICO was established by the UN in the 1960s to address the highly volatile coffee industry. A cooperative intergovernmental body comprised of the main coffee producing and consuming countries, it regulated coffee bean prices through production quotas. The US government objected to the practice of coordinated price regulation and dropped out of the ICO in 1989 (Oxfam 2002). Thereupon the ICO ceased price regulation and became dedicated to such goals as assisting corporations with marketing, pesticide purchasing, economic research generation and coordination, and generally involving the corporate private sector in decision-making and an annual World Coffee Conference. When the US government nevertheless maintained its boycott of the ICO into the 2000s, the ICO added a “sustainability” position and a pro-labor position to its free-market mandate to service private coffee corporations.
[3] Political sociologists present a formidable case that the U.S. has been strongly repressive and elite-controlled, including in the exceptional moments—the so-called “Progressive Era”, the quickly-liquidated New Deal, and the fast-reversed Civil Rights Era (Domhoff 2002, Esping-Anderson 1990, Gilbert and Howe 1991, Gough 1979, Hamilton 1982, Piven and Cloward 1971, Zinn 1995). This American anti-enlightenment extremism is explained in the political sociology literature as the result of a lack of working class political capacity (Domhoff 2002, Esping-Anderson 1990, Gough 1979), resulting from the combination of an extensive anti-democratic political infrastructure instituted by James Madison et al (Behan 2001: 55-65), the massive diffusion of the slavery-caste system throughout much of U.S. culture and policy (Bensel 1990, Domhoff 1990, 2002, Gordon 1994, Quadagno 1994), and extraordinary state repression (Zinn 1995, Tarrow 1998). These conditions are fortified with tax-subsidized, colonial population dispersion, and a sacred cult of private property promulgated by the extensive Chamber of Commerce network, among other institutions (Diamond 1995, Domhoff 2002, Dunbar-Ortiz 2002 & 2005, Vogel 1989); the effective employment of the clergy in population management (Diamond 1995, Vogel 1989); the U.S.’s ongoing ideological and policy engagement with the British-dominated, colonial legacy; a fiercely-coddled, ruling monopoly capital sector (Domhoff 1990, 2002, Useem 1984, Vogel 1989); a continuous inflow of vulnerable immigrants (Borjas 1999, Carter and Sutch 1999, Lane 1987); and the weight of the entire capitalist world reliant on a U.S. work force strictly disciplined to maximize consumption behavior.
[4] Schurman 2004: 247.
[5] Barstow, David, Robin Stein and Anne E. Kornblut. March 13, 2005, Sunday. “The message machine: How the government makes news; Under Bush, a new age of prepackaged news.” The New York Times, Late Edition Section 1, Page 1, Column 2. In response to the publicization of VNR production and distribution, the Government Accounting Office issued a warning to government agencies discouraging the use of “covert propaganda.” The GAO’s warning was then rejected by the Bush administration’s Justice Department.
[6] Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. July 24, 2002. P. 99 in “The coffee crisis in the Western Hemisphere.” Serial No. 107-106. Washington DC: The U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on International Relations, 107th Congress, Second Session.
[7] The media aspect of elite social movement activity is of course not only colonizing, it is profitable.
[8] In the 21st century, the U.S. government had, through the Patriot Act and its network of torture concentration camps and prisons around the globe, revoked key civil liberties achievements of the enlightenment movement originating in the 18th century. Infusing the news corporations with propaganda and campaigning for an ideological purge of the universities, by 2005 this neo-conservative elite movement took hold throughout its imperial Anglo-Israeli domain, as Blair’s New Labor government in Great Britain likewise detained subjects without trial and used torture. The UN’s Kofi Annan rebuked the US and the UK for their campaign against human rights, implicating them in violating the UN’s definition of terrorism as “any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do, or abstain from any act” (Steele, Jonathan. 2005. “Annan attacks Britain and US over erosion of human rights.” The Guardian Weekly 172(13): 1.) Along with the decimation of civil rights, indicators of an increasingly severe capitalist state include the heavy militarization of police; the explosion of the prison industry and extreme sentencing, and its exponent in sociology, the criminology industry; and the decline of the welfare state.
[9] Tarrow 1998: 84-85.
[10] According to Bourdieu, cultural capital is “the ability to recognize cultural expressions and comprehend their meaning.” Houtman (2003) points out that correlation among cultural capital, education, and labor market position variables varies and is mediated by other factors.
[11] In her study of torture, The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world (1985), Elaine Scarry insightfully compares the capacity for resistance conferred by socialist and religious forms of cultural capital.
[12] Bensel 1990, Domhoff 1990, 2002, Gordon 1994, Quadagno 1994.
[13] Including Keck and Sikkink 1998; Pellow 2001; Schurman 2004; Smith 2001; and Wapner 1996.