What can we learn from the campaigns and votes in Washington and California? The course of events was similar in both cases.
When the initiative was first being publicized, large majorities said they supported it and would vote Yes. This was true into September. Then, as election day drew near and corporate money flooded the political habitat (almost all of it either directly from the GMO cartel or from big manufacturers laundered through the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)), the polls shifted from Yes toward No. This shift continued until, according to the election results, No won by very slim majorities.
According to pre-election polling in Washington, seeing only Yes or No advertising strongly inclined people to support that side, though 8% of those who said they saw only Yes ads were “Undecided” (75% Yes, 17 No, 8 Undecided), while there were no Undecideds among those who saw only No ads (27 to 73).
Those who said they saw both kinds of ads (which I expect would be most people; but the info I saw didn’t break down which proportion saw what kind of ads) were split 43-47-10. Those who claimed to have seen no ads at all went 44-27-29. I don’t know what it means to be near election day and not have seen any ads, and how that differs from the people polled before either ad campaign got rolling. Those early polls gave the large Yes majorities. I guess the people polled in October had not seen ads, but were aware that a noisy campaign was going on, even though they hadn’t heard the noise themselves.
We can draw a few preliminary conclusions here. Most voters are suggestible, and they’re likely to find either kind of ad by itself convincing. Seeing both kinds (which most people probably did), compared to seeing neither, changes many Undecided to No, while Yes stays the same. In any case, seeing No ads causes greater polarization. A California survey done prior to the vote found that seeing ads against the initiative “was more effective in swaying likely voters.”
Evidently 43-44% is the natural baseline for the Yes vote. This is the figure who said “Definitely Yes” in early September, and who said Yes in latter October after having seen Both kinds of ads or None. Then a large minority of Undecided end up voting Yes, but not enough to put it over the top. This is the case where the campaign becomes a maelstrom of competing, clamoring advertisements.
So we have this pattern: 1. Early September, far more people had seen no ads. 2. By latter October most people had seen them. 3. For some weeks those having seen both kinds of ads was in balance between those saying they’d vote Yes and those saying No. 4. As the corporate money flooded the scene, the # of people who saw only No ads increased at the expense of those who saw Both or None. (I’d be surprised if there were many who had seen only Yes.)
We’re in a situation where corporate money will saturate any critical election. There’s no doubt that under these circumstances, lots of people switch their vote from Yes to No. The money works. But why? This needs an explanation.
Let’s look at the publicity, and what people said about their vote. In both campaigns the emphasis was on transparency and the right to know, rather than on the health dangers of GMOs. I’ll interject here that while transparency as a democratic right may appeal to motivated individual citizens, the people don’t care much about it, as evidenced by how they let governments and corporations keep so many secrets in general. Meanwhile, the people do care about the safety of our food. But this kind of issue is a tightrope for us. It’s the kind of thing where people can react to knowledge by organizing and taking action, or by becoming further demoralized and apathetic. Indeed, I’ll now give my thesis: The way labeling campaigns have been run so far, they’ve caused people to react with demoralization rather than the will to take action. That’s why so many people who started out thinking they did want GMO labeling ended up voting against it. They decided that on second thought they’d rather not know. In this post I’ll start explaining why.
But first let’s finish up with the polling. In Washington on October 21, those who said they intended to vote No gave the following reasons: “Not Needed” 17%; the fear that it’ll cause food costs to rise 16%; “Poorly Written/Too many Exemptions” 14%; opposition to government regulation 12%; GMOs are safe 7%. (I guess the rest didn’t give a specific reason.)
There’s several interesting points here. These are all, in different ways, false reasons. Opposing government regulation (when GMOs are only in the market in the first place on account of the government’s planned economy), while misguided here, expresses an anti-government principle or mood. This anti-government mood could also explain some of the “Not Needed” and “Safe” explanations, although these are odd because even if you think that, what reason is it to vote against the thing? What skin is it off your back? Meanwhile, that it’s “poorly written” and has “too many exemptions” is a canned lie that people were clearly regurgitating after picking it up from the propaganda. It’s hard to believe that anyone came up with that on his own or really cared about it. The only one that’s plausible is the fear over rising food costs, although this lie could’ve been dispelled with a few minutes research. So it’s a lie people were already inclined to believe.
In all these cases, except maybe for some of those who feared price hikes, the reason given seems to be standing in for hostility toward something else, for which the labeling initiative is a surrogate.
A survey done in California in September prior to the vote found that even the mention of an increase in food prices would “slightly diminish support”. This was prior to the big propaganda surge which hammered away with this lie. This is definitely a touchstone for labelphobia. It musters every kind of inchoate fear. Since these days people are fearful and conservative, they shy from stimulation and don’t want anything to change, since they’re easily convinced that any change will only make things worse. At any rate, they’re disinclined to undertake any change themselves.
In all this, we’re talking about atomized individuals whose primary consciousness is that of the passive consumer amid an undifferentiated mass of consumers. It’s clear that to undertake a one-off political campaign, which is prone to muster such elemental anxieties (about poison in our food and the food we’re feeding to our children, about our ever more beleaguered personal financial position, about corporate power over us), which becomes the scene of a media firestorm, where people are asked, as consumers, to do nothing but vote a certain way, again as consumers, and then implicitly to lapse back into their usual passivity, with the only payoff for having had all these fears aroused is to gain even greater knowledge of what there is to fear, but with no greater sense of what to do about any of it – is it any wonder that so many people choose to believe the lies and vote No? As irrational as that is for any individual, perhaps it is more rational for the group, in the short run, which is all an atomized consumer thinks about.
At this point I’ll describe the basic problem and the solution, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading my posts. It’s not organic politics to expect people to rouse themselves and go against the grain of their mass consciousness in any kind of ad hoc way, let alone in a way which they’ll have strong psychological reasons to resist. In order to get organic change, we first need to build an organic movement. We need to take the time and put in the work to build a movement culture where individuals find themselves as citizens, community members, members of a movement. We need to build a movement where people develop the individual self-respect to know that their action which seeks change will bring them a better world, and where they develop the political self-confidence to know that their collective action will work to bring about this bountiful change.
Once we have a movement whose members and sympathizers see the world with the eyes of active citizens of a community, rather than with the eyes of atomized passive consumers among an unfathomable mass, then we’ll have the social foundation from which to launch any kind of political campaign. The campaigns will be organic, they’ll be part of an ongoing social and political context, and they’ll be waged and supported by citizens speaking to potential citizens who can see the living reality of the movement before them, rather than by a motley crew of activists and “professionals” speaking to consumers in an unrooted, disposable campaign context.
(If at this point anyone thinks I’m getting this wrong in some way, I invite them to give a better explanation of why so many people change their minds so decisively once they see what they consciously know is corporate propaganda. As I said above, to just say “the money” and go on to whine about Citizens United is still to leave the question unanswered.)
People don’t believe the propaganda, but are numbed into passivity by the volume and omnipresence of it. This is part of the job of the corporate media, to instill a sense of hopelessness in the individual, and a false sense that she’s all alone with whatever objections she has, alone with whatever dissent and activism for change she’d like to undertake.
This combines with the demoralizing effects of a fiercely contested campaign, full of fear-mongering propaganda and lies about “raising food prices”. The labeling campaign also instills fear about the safety of the food, but doesn’t offer a productive context and course of action for this fear, but implicitly wants to leave you alone with your Yes vote and your new information. Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising that many people voted No, not because they really believed the corporate lies, but because they didn’t want to know if there was really nothing they could do about it. In a case like that, ignorance may seem a talisman – “what you don’t know won’t hurt you”. It’s like someone who would rather not know their spouse is cheating.
Labeling advocates point out that there is an individual, consumerist course of action available – change your eating habits, shun GMO products, petition manufacturers to purge them, retailers not to carry them. (Here I’m talking about doing these in an individual consumer context, not as part of a movement context.) According to what I call the panacea view of labeling, this consumer action would likely cause manufacturers to reformulate their products and/or retailers to stop carrying GMO-labeled products. They cite the example of Europe, where products have to be labeled for GMOs, and where only a miniscule amount of such GMO products are on the market, because European consumers shun them.
But is this the likely result here in America? What about the opposite possibility – that if labeling is enacted, people will just shrug and not change their buying and eating habits?
The oft-supplied analogy with Europe isn’t quite right. In Europe there was labeling from day one, before GMOs were firmly entrenched. People had a clear choice from the start, and they consistently chose non-GM products, which mostly drove GM products out of the market.
That’s not the same as it would be in the US. Here GMOs are deeply entrenched. What happens when people learn that the products which are part of their daily habits, which they’re used to, which are in their comfort zone, part of their routine amid the increasing pressure and stress of their lives, are of a certain nature? If they receive full knowledge that these are GMO, they may just shrug and not make any big change. (Besides, it’s not like there’s going to be a big neon “GMO!” label emblazoned across the front of the package. It’ll be understated, and you’ll have to go looking for it. The big neon blaze is the campaign itself, not the eventual label.)
Indeed, it might even help normalize GMOs.
The part about upsetting habits is part of why I think many consumers don’t want to exercise their right to know. They’re settled in certain habits, have so many other stresses, they already know their food is poisoned and try to exist in a precarious psychological complacency about that. So they’d rather not hear about GMOs on top of everything. This fits the data, that as the No propaganda surges and the noise level of the whole fight escalates, the weakly committed Yeses and the Undecided move toward No.
I agree – how’s a label in itself supposed to help change anything? If that’s all there’s going to be, I too might rather not know. And some of the panacea advocates have been clear that they view labeling as nothing more than a kind of “co-existence”, which is impossible.
That’s another reason why we need to build a true grassroots movement, why this movement has to be affirmative, and why it has to seek the stark goal of total abolition. If we can offer people the opportunity to fight to abolish GMOs, or to support this abolition movement with money, a vote, etc., and to do so toward affirmative goals like food freedom, food sovereignty, this offers vastly more on a psychological level than labeling by itself, which is more like yet another annoying consumer “choice”. On the other hand, if you’re going to stay within the bounds of passive consumerism anyway, then does a GMO label really give you much of a new choice? Especially if you suspect, in most cases correctly, that the only result will be to discover that all your available choices have GMO labels, so that you really didn’t get more choice anyway, merely more stress.
In making this criticism, I’m not denying the basic truth of the pro-labeling argument. I’m pointing out why, where it’s presented as a typical ad hoc consumerist electoral campaign, rather than from within a movement context, it’s ineffective politics.
This is my explanation for why the labeling initiatives have been failing, and this is why I think that such unanchored political campaigns, taking place within the usual consumerist/votist context, are likely to continue to fail.
We can compare this syndrome to other pathologies of today’s electoralism. It’s true that voting No on GMO labeling isn’t exactly the same as continuing to vote for Democrats or Republicans, since here there’s a clear alternative (“Yes”). But it’s similar in that one goes inertially with what’s the easiest way to conceive the problem without having to do any real work. In this case, voting No goes well with not wanting to self-educate and not wanting to change one’s diet. Here again, labeling campaigns put the (consumerist) political cart before the movement horse.
Another factor is that although when polled Westerners support GMO labeling by invariably huge margins, the actual labeling votes are taking place among corrupted Western masses who are at best morally ambivalent. They fear and dislike what they know is a criminal system, but this system is nevertheless the basis of the crumb they know rather than the abundance they could have if they dared to run the risk of liberating themselves. Here too, we see something similar to the phenomenon where people claim to reject the two corporatist parties but then cave in and vote for one of them. Or where they claim to recognize all system politicians as being criminals but rate “their own” representative higher.
In all these cases, Western voters consistently demonstrate a fearful, conservative temperament. By “fear” I mean in the sense of “fear itself”, inchoate but strong anxiety. By “conservative” I mean, not a specific set of attitudes and policies, but the mentality of cringing with one’s crumb, trying only to hoard and protect it. I think that this temperament will prevail for as long as the people are left to themselves amid the mass consumerist context which corporatism has constructed for them. There will certainly never come any alternative outlook from either of the corporate parties, or from any system NGO, or from any other element of the system. On the contrary, these established entities helped construct the mass consumer context, and their job is to preserve and intensify it. They seek to accelerate the atomization, not to overcome it through a new movement culture and community. They seek to reinforce the passivity, not transcend it through collective action.
Consumerism is decadence, and GMO labeling campaigns attempt to wage a battle within this decadence. But since consumerism is inherently passive and not active, since “choice” is a pseudo-ideal that few people really want (their political and economic actions prove it), and since fear-itself induces conservatism in the choices people make, the campaign to label GMOs is bound to be at a disadvantage as soon as it becomes embroiled in a struggle. People naturally support the idea, but not enough so that they don’t abandon it as a kind of “rocking the boat” the moment they’re given a reason to fix their fears upon it.
All this is part of why I think there can be no substitute for the patience and hard work required to build a new anti-corporate movement from completely outside the system. Along the way this movement can absorb whatever existing forces are available, so long as they’re compatible with the stark and non-negotiable goal of the abolition of corporations. But its inception and the main thrust of its action must always be toward building a new human world.
GMO abolitionism is a critical element of this coming movement. But every kind of anti-corporate, pro-human action must find its place and make its contribution.
As for GMO labeling campaigns, they’ll continue. Hopefully they’ll begin to succeed. But the role of activists must be to transform these into steps toward the full abolitionist movement. That’s what this series on GMO labeling, and these notes toward a future movement, have been about.