How do you engineer a bland, depoliticized world, a consensus built around consumption and endless growth, a dream world of materialism and debt and atomization, in which all relations can be prefixed with a dollar sign, in which we cease to fight for change? Delegate your powers to companies whose profits depend on this model.
Power is shifting to places in which citizens have no voice or vote. National policies are forged by special advisers and spin doctors, by panels and advisory committees stuffed with lobbyists. The self-hating state withdraws its own authority to regulate and direct. Simultaneously, the democratic vacuum at the heart of global governance is being filled, without anything resembling consent, by international bureaucrats and corporate executives. The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) permitted — often as an afterthought — to join them intelligibly represent neither civil society nor electorates. (And please forget that guff about consumer democracy or shareholder democracy: In both cases some people have more votes than others and those with the most votes are the least inclined to press for change.)
The giant consumer goods company Unilever, with which I clashed over the issue of palm oil, symbolizes these shifting relationships. I can think of no entity that has done more to blur the lines between the role of the private sector and the role of the public sector. If you blotted out its name while reading its Web pages, you could mistake it for an agency of the UN.
It seems to have representation almost everywhere. Its people inhabit the British government’s Ecosystem Markets Task Force and Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, the Internaiontal Fund for Agricultural Development, the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the World Food Program, the Global Green Growth Forum, the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition program, its Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Global Compact and the UN High Level Panel on global development.
Sometimes Unilever uses this power well. Its efforts to reduce its own use of energy and water and its production of waste, and to project these changes beyond its own walls, look credible and impressive. Sometimes its initiatives look like self-serving bullshit.
Its “Dove self-esteem project,” for instance, claims to be “helping millions of young people to improve their self-esteem through educational programs.” One of its educational videos maintains that beauty “couldn’t be more critical to your happiness,” which is surely the belief that trashes young people’s self-esteem in the first place. However, you can recover it by plastering yourself with Dove-branded gloop: Unilever reports that 82 percent of women in Canada who are aware of its project “would be more likely to purchase Dove.”
Sometimes it seems to play both ends of the game. For instance, it says it is reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in its processed foods. However, it also hosted and chaired, before the UK’s last general election, the Conservative party’s public health commission, which was seen by health campaigners as an excuse for avoiding effective action on obesity, poor diets and alcohol abuse. This body helped to purge British government policy of such threats as further advertising restrictions and the compulsory traffic-light labeling of sugar, salt and fat levels in foods.