Chick-fil-A has been in the news lately as one front of the battle between gay-rights supporters and those who support the so-called "traditional family." Specifically, Chick-fil-A executive Dan Cathy said in an interview:
"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."
Since the quote became public, gay-rights groups have blasted the fast food chain, calling for a boycott. Alternatively, conservative groups and politicians have thrown their support behind Chick-fil-A, posting on Twitter that they "just ate at Chick-fil-A" or announcing a Chick-fil-A appreciation day.
My experience of the media reaction to those who would boycott Chick-fil-A are characterized by one widely circulated piece by Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic and a response to Merritt's piece by David Sessions for Patrol Magazine.
Merritt is perplexed at the number of consumers, on the left and the right, who quickly call for boycotts of any company that does not hold their particular political and moral views. He is especially concerned with our divided culture and the kind of culture we're likely to create if we continue to politicize economic transactions. Merritt argues for a wholly depoliticized economic sphere in which value judgments are off limits, and businesses are judged by their products rather than the political positions of their founders and executives. This, Merritt believes, will help lead our culture to the point where we might have "level-headed disagreements," rather than outraged screaming matches. Good luck.
Here, we are presented with the familiar Enlightenment notion that human activity ought to be divided into separate spheres: art, literature, science, economics, politics, religion, medicine, etc. If we want society to progress toward greater civility in the public sphere, we would do well to embrace the separate spheres of human activity, study them, and do away with whatever it is that might impede progress. Merritt, like any good Enlightenment thinker, supports the notion that the economic and political spheres should remain separate -- the economic sphere reserved for monetary transactions and the political sphere reserved for polite, gentlemanly, "level-headed disagreements."
Sessions rightly argues that capitalists have a vested interest in keeping human values out of the market and supporting the myth that economic transactions are value neutral. He points out that a separation of our economic and political lives is impossible. The political has collapsed into, or been subsumed by, the economic and the only real political power in the United States is economic. Although the "average citizen" may not have enough money to hurt a corporation or influence politics, the way she choses to spend her money is a step toward realizing that money is politics and she does have some political agency in choosing how to spend it. Sessions urges his readers to support corporations that put human values above profits and try hard not to trade dollars for goods with corporations that seek to obstruct democracy or infringe upon the rights of workers. He calls this political action.
Sessions recognizes that Merritt's Enlightenment separation is a fantasy. In the realm of philosophy and science human activity might be pried apart for careful study and observation. But in the realm where human activity is actually carried out, if separation appears to exist it is actually an illusion reinforced by ideological narrative. We are always unconsciously economic when we are political, religious when we are economic, artistic when we practice medicine, and every vice-versa.
Talkin' and Eatin'
It is tempting to read Sessions response as anti-Enlightenment but, in fact, it is post-Enlightenment. That is not to simply describe it as occurring after Enlightenment logic has gone out of style. Instead, by being "post-", it more fully embodies the logic of the Enlightenment than the argument it seeks to reject. Instead of rejecting capitalism's total economic claim over our political lives, Sessions argues for a more total embrace of the very economic system which has already turned every human political interaction into a commodity to be bought and sold. Rather than rejecting several spheres of human activity, Sessions buys into the idea that only one realm of human activity matters. While warning that "keeping politics out of it" is a way of discarding one's basic selfhood, Sessions advises us to sell ourselves to the totalizing sphere of one aspect of human activity: economy.
I find myself in simple disagreement with Merritt's classic Enlightenment view of human activity, in which bright lines are drawn between objects of study. And while I agree with Sessions' premise, that our political and economic lives are intertwined, I strongly react against his conclusion. Rather than take a public political stance, a boycott like the one against Chick-fil-A rejects the political for a private liberal piety: "I will buy my chicken sandwiches from from KFC rather than Chick-fil-A, because I self-identify as lesbian/gay/trans/queer/intersex/questioning/an ally." There's almost nothing less political.
The moral, political, and economic calculus that decides where one will buy is hijacked by capitalism as a catharsis. Capitalism no longer needs to strike a value neutral pose. Instead values are commodified in response to outrage and presented in the form of a wider variety of consumer choices for individuals that identify with certain groups. If you want to know the truth, you need look no further than comedy. As Colonel Sanders says: "Hell, I don't actually give a shit. Gay or not, you're all just a bunch of big ol' money mouths, talkin' and eatin'." Comedians are our modern day prophets.
What is needed is a flowering of human communities that recognize the interconnectivity of all our activity as human beings but refuse to be commodified. A truly revolutionary politics would refuse the well worn roads our society would have us travel, like Sessions' path that would take us further into the totalizing economy where everything is for sale. This kind of public existence takes more than an individual effort. A community that practices existing outside of the regular structures and stories society seeks to impose upon us might be able to live out such an existence in public. That is, they might find creative ways to live such an existence politically, not just aiming for an improvement of their own particular interest group's lot, or throwing themselves into the individual despair of living a perfectly ethical (sinless) life, but aiming for a more humane society for everyone within it. I dunno, something like a church maybe?
I should clarify that I'm not against boycotts on principle. But a boycott separated from a wider, engaged political strategy is just narcissistic consumerism under the guise of progressivism.