Coffee Activism

EleBookEleftheria Lekakis is Lecturer in Global Communications in the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex. Eleftheria’s research focuses on aspects of global communication which stem from the intersection of politics, economy and culture. This week, Eleftheria Lekakis introduces her new book on Coffee Activism.

There are contemporary crises in the global risk society which slip past the cracks of institutional politics. In a seemingly deterritorialised, as well as politically uncertain and distrusted world, citizens in the global North appear to be seeking political expression elsewhere; increasingly, there is growing attention on the political potentialities of their everyday lives through consumption practices. Among the plethora of creative forms of non-parliamentary participation in the global North, the politics of consumption have come to the centre stage.

Distance from civic habits of the past assisted by liquid politics online and offline and infiltrated by consumer culture and the politics of neoliberalism allows for both optimism and scepticism for a politics within a neoliberal modus operandi. What can be described as politics in the pocket is an engaging politics which presents opportunities for the regeneration of civic engagement and political participation in late modernity, while it can produce global awareness and promote the campaigning work of socially and environmentally-oriented activists. However, concurrent to this potential is a possible numbing of the agonistic politics of trade justice activism through the rising legitimacy of corporations as agents for social justice. These dynamics are constantly articulated within the crux of the relationship between politics-agency-markets.

My book, Coffee Activism and the Politics of Fair Trade and Ethical Consumption in the Global North, published in September 2013, begets attention to the phemomenon of ethical consumption. This has become part of the mainstream of daily consumer lives and the associated with political consumerism which has been becoming part of the mainstream of inquiry in political science. This work elaborates on the grounded perceptions, practices and problematisations of the equation of political action and market action. It homes in on coffee activism – an amalgamation of official and unofficial fair and solidarity trade initiatives which have sprang from the inception of fair trade – and through this presents the opportunities and hindrances of alternative forms of partaking in civic life.

Coffee Activism launches with an overarching theorisation of consumer politics through the case of coffee activism and the interrogation of the categorical representations of the global South vis-à-vis the economic practices of citizens in the global North. Coffee activism is a term embracing the fair trade movement and actors beyond the official network. The book unravels a historical analysis of fair trade as market and movement, and explores the entanglement of alternative and traditional modes of participation in public life, as well as individualisation and the politics and pleasures of the self. It then proceeds to explore the relationship between digital media and spaces of consumer politics with respect to the materialities of the structures and agencies involved in coffee activism. The book, thus, questions scholarship from a variety of disciplines at the intersection of political and consumer-based action, as well as that interrogating digital media and socially progressive activism.

The politics of consumption has been met with increasing theorisation after the turn of the century, with particular reference to the political power vested in everyday exchanges with regards to their impact for global social and environmental responsibility and change. This work  examines the specific articulations of consumer politics through the case of fair and solidarity trade activism in the United Kingdom; in doing so, it responded to questions pertaining to the nature of the relationship between ethical consumption and political activism and how this is communicated in an increasingly mediated world. A broad contextual theory with which it engages is anchored in Zygmunt Bauman’s genealogy of liquid modernity. As a framework for understanding contemporary politics in the global North, liquid modernity can illustrate the frailty of ‘solid’ forms of political activity, belonging and sense-making.

Theoretically, this work engaged with the literature on political consumerism, ethical consumption, civic engagement, citizenship studies and political communication in a new media context. Empirically, the analysis was informed by a multi-methodological design combining mostly qualitative (website analysis, historical approach to selected case studies, multi-situated ethnographies in fair trade events, open ended interviews with fair and solidarity trade campaigners, activists and consumers) as well as quantitative (survey) approaches.

The arguments arising from this work addressed the inherent contradictions characteristic of consumer politics, as reflected in ethical consumption. This book interrogates the landscape of coffee activism through spaces allowing for political expression and participation to emerge, and questioned the possible adaptation of such spaces to consumer-driven repertoires and mobilisation calls. By portraying the digital state of both civic and consumer-related information, as well as digital communication and consumption flows in coffee activism, I document that digital media have served mostly as enhancers of a neoliberal consumer-driven rationale. The inventory of political consumerism includes a variety of promotional elements attune to a lifestyle politics and distance from previous types of collective and publicly-oriented civic engagement. There is a shift in the placement of personal experiences of political engagement from public to private spaces. Moreover, civic engagement here consists of mostly individual acts, which become politically meaningful on a collective level when mediated in a digital context. This is discussed as collective individualism, signifying a mass scale of individual acts of citizenship.

By exploring how coffee activism presents a prospect for citizens to participate in political life, how cultural citizenship can offer insights into the operation of everyday politics and how neoliberal narratives are framing discourses of coffee activism. This politics of the pocket, as I call it, can illuminate tensions in the discourses of global communication and social change, outline the relationship between civic engagement and global social justice, and incriminate the processes which can confine civic action in the marketplace and blur political action.


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