Last week, a Swansea resident, Rebecca Gallagher, was reported as having found a label reading ‘Forced to work exhausting hours’ on a dress that she purchased at Primark.
The story illustrates a famous slogan; ‘the personal is the political’. This came to my mind when I read about the ‘cry for help’ label because of how it changed Ms. Gallagher’s perception of the political implications of her shopping habits. She was reported as saying: “this really made me think about how we get our cheap fashion. I dread to think that my summer top may be made by some exhausted person toiling away for hours in some sweatshop abroad."
While the origin of the phrase ‘the personal is the political’ is not known, Carol Hanisch’s 1970 essay on the subject was the first to explore its political meaning. Hanisch and other ‘second wave’ feminists in the same period argued that the idea of a distinction between a personal ‘private’ sphere and a public ‘political’ sphere was a false and dangerous one. Those feminists focused on the idea of ‘raising consciousness’, using discussion and support groups to encourage women to question their roles in institutions like marriage and parenthood.
Of course, the idea of political consciousness is an old one. The notion of ‘false consciousness’ was crucial to many interpretations of Marxism in the 20th century – although it is doubtful whether the original phrase was attributable to Marx himself. The concept is an outgrowth of Marx’s rejection of ideology. For Marx and his followers, ideology, while posing as a rational justification of one’s political beliefs, is, in reality, little more than a means of justification of the dominant economic paradigm.
The implications of this idea are dramatic. They imply that those who understand the real relations of power in their society are not obliged to weigh the opinions of those who don’t. This means that democracy, at least in terms of how we conceive of and practice it in modern society, is unlikely to lead to any sort of dramatic improvement of the human condition. Instead, those with true knowledge must either change the consciousness of the masses or (failing this) simply impose their will on them.
This discussion is crucial in many fields of political science, but is probably most strongly reflected in the ongoing and seemingly endless academic debate about how we should define and measure ‘power’. A major cleavage in this area separates those scholars who conceive of power as an ability to realise one’s goals from those who argue that power occurs primarily through the manipulation of consciousness.
Those in the latter camp (Stephen Lukes being the most widely noted example) argue that preference manipulation is a key resource mobilised by societal elites to maintain their position. Advertising, marketing, branding and electioneering, according to this analysis at least, are the means by which those in power control the minds of those without.
All of which leads me back to the ‘cry for help’ label. It seems to me that this type of protest, targeting consciousness through the subversion of the products and images of major corporate entities, is potentially a very powerful approach. The Primark case is far from an isolated one. In a similar example, Tescos supermarket price-tags were doctored by a group advocating that they adopt a minimum ‘Living Wage’ and we regularly see images of corporate logos like the MacDonlads arches or the Nike swoosh re-worked into slogans designed to raise oppositional consciousness.
While Primark came out and strongly defended their policy on the rights of workers who supply their product, there is little doubt that the pay and conditions in many of the workplaces around the world that supply British high street stores would be illegal in the UK. Many of us feel a mixture of helplessness and detachment when we consider the vast inequalities that blight our civilisation. Most rarely pause to think about these issues at all, as we seek to navigate our way through the struggles of day-to-day life.
These clever parodies of the products and marketing tools of some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world can provide a spark that makes it more difficult to ignore the realities of the world outside.
It’s only when the personal and the political collide that we think about making changes in our day-to-day lives that may help to improve the plight of those fellow humans who find themselves at the bottom of our global society.