The Impotence of Modern Boycotts

Uber and Lyft drivers protest outside Uber’s office in Saugus, Mass., May 8, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Modern boycotts are less like “social excommunication” and more like publicity campaigns.

In ten cities across the country, the drivers who contract for rideshare services Uber and Lyft are supposed to be on strike, and activists have asked that those who would hail them should join in the action by refusing to use their services. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the U.K.’s Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn have tweeted their support for the drivers to be recognized and governed as employees, rather than as subcontractors for these Silicon Valley companies.

Under Uber’s terms of service, drivers are “partners” who are both contractors and customers. And so technically, the planned strikes are, in Uber’s eyes, temporary boycotts.

I’m skeptical of the ability of boycotts to achieve their purpose. Chick-fil-A changed its behavior of supporting political groups, but its founders have not disavowed their religious beliefs, and their business keeps expanding. The Nestle company has been subjected to several boycotts over the years, and it is so untroubled by them, even the continuing ones, that it provides information on them on its own website.

The term boycott was coined by a Catholic priest, Father John O’Malley, to describe the “social excommunication” of Charles Cunningham Boycott, a 19th-century English land agent who was working in Ireland. Boycott was known for particularly harsh evictions of tenants on Lord Erne’s 40,000 acres of land in County Mayo.

The tenancy terms from Lord Erne forbade tenant farmers from freely selling their crops or achieving fixed leases for the land. 80 percent of landlords in Ireland were absentee in 1870, and most tenancies were annual contracts to farm less than 15 acres. Boycott developed a particularly nasty reputation collecting rents and enforcing the terms on a precarious class of peasant Irish. The land issue came to dominate Irish politics under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, who organized land leagues to organize demands for a freer agricultural economy, rather than the semi-feudal terms on which things ran. As bad harvests, the memory of the Great Hunger, and political activism put pressure on this system, something had to give. And tenants decided on a complete social and economic excommunication for Boycott.

His own workers were pressured to cease laboring for him. Shops in neighboring towns refused his service. Common people were pressured not to even speak to him. He complained bitterly in a letter to newspapers in Great Britain:

My herd has been frightened by them into giving up his employment, though he has refused to give up the house he held from me as part of his emolument. Another herd on an off farm has also been compelled to resign his situation. My blacksmith has received a letter threatening him with murder if he does any more work for me, and my laundress has also been ordered to give up my washing. A little boy, twelve years of age, who carried my post-bag to and from the neighbouring town of Ballinrobe, was struck and threatened on 27th September, and ordered to desist from his work; since which time I have sent my little nephew for my letters and even he, on 2nd October, was stopped on the road and threatened if he continued to act as my messenger.

Protestant farmers were brought in from Ulster by the government to break the power of this social strike against Boycott. It is estimated (probably generously) that the British government spent the equivalent of $10 million in today’s dollars to bring in $500,000 worth of crops. But the social strike of the Irish eventually broke Boycott’s will to continue living in Ireland.

The boycott provided a great tale and legend to motivate the growing land-reform movement. The “social excommunication” of Boycott included in it the threat of violence. How could it not? To organize the universal refusal to acknowledge the existence or voice of a human being is to give a person a foretaste of death and perdition. And to organize such a thing successfully requires a level of social cohesion and moral resolve that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. That’s true even if you take the form of this protest to be immoral and menacing.

The origin of the boycott helps explain why the modern version seems so ineffectual by contrast. Modern boycotts are less like “social excommunication” and more like publicity campaigns, hoping to achieve through attracting notice what cannot be achieved by actual social organization.

I see that the diminished power of organized labor and the social actions like this week’s rideshare strike are not just the product of changing labor regulation and law, but a learned inability to cohere around moral principles. It took the moral resources generated by the practice of neighborliness, along with social and religious solidarity to drive Boycott out of Mayo. How can contractors who neither know or see each other save through social media manage the same coordinated effort and moral purpose and organization? They cannot.

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