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Politics in the Marketopoly: The Curious Case of Coffee Activism, Civic Engagement and Political Consumerism

Eleftheria Lekakis
University of London, Goldsmiths College
Eleftheria Lekakis
University of London, Goldsmiths College
Open Panel

Abstract

This paper investigates the intersection of market-based action in the realm of civic engagement through the politicisation of consumption. Political consumerism has reconfigured the way in which we conceptualise and communicate contemporary forms of political participation (Micheletti et al, 2004). Through a popular case of political consumerism which I discuss as ‘coffee activism’, I develop a framework for understanding the tensional relationships between the political and the market space in terms of political participation in advanced capitalism. I employ ‘coffee activism’ as an umbrella term to describe a type of single-issue activism, which includes a number of voices and agendas that range from the more directly political to that which is more consumer-oriented. Because of the movement’s high visibility and its tensional relationship with significant economic agents, the case of coffee activism is explored as one which lies at the intersections of civic engagement and consumption. Through this case, the exploration of the political communication of the current state of political participation and the political project of neoliberalism (Brown, 2005) are cross-examined. The phenomenon of market-based action through the consumption of ethically produced, traded and labelled purchases is the most popular type of civic engagement in coffee activism. These processes have been identified through data from seven case studies, such as narrative analysis of websites and participant observation at coffee activism events, as well as interviews with coffee activists and ethical consumers. They include the widening of access to the fair trade market in economic and moral terms, the employment of branding tools and strategies and the involvement of key economic actors. Consequently, the formations, repertoires and settings of the particular type of civic engagement have been mediated in such a way that the polemic side of coffee activism has been increasingly replaced by a capitalist-friendly version of politics.