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Raj Patel © 1998


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Greenwashing is the insidious technique used by corporations as an alternative to making substantive changes in their operations. The technique isn't about the cosmetic repackaging of a repugnant product or policy. It's about transforming the meaning of odious things. The strategies and technologies used to achieve this have their origins not in theories of marketing but in right-wing politics. We've seen close analogues to greenwashing in the rise of fascism in inter-war Italy. Corporate fascism is unsurprisingly similar. Disturbingly, this means that we are not dupes of the system, but its defiled perpetrators.

Let us begin the discussion of greenwashing in the finest tradition of soapbox silliness, by understanding the distinctions between the variety of washing techniques available to today's corporate fascists. The public relations strategies which corporations deploy are not, for instance, like brainwashing. Brainwashing is a prolonged process of psychological assault, where brainwashees are alternately overloaded with, and then deprived of, sensory stimulation until the onset of psychosis. At this stage, a new psyche is re-built, from the ground up, by the nasty cult, government agency, religion, or relaunched political party in control of the process. Brainwashing involves the attenuated destruction of an old person and the re-construction of a new one. Greenwashing is neither as barbaric, as resource-intensive nor as obvious as this.

"Whitewashing" doesn't really describe what corporations do either. The metaphor of whitewashing suggests dirty imperfection covered by a veneer of purity. When something is whitewashed, it is merely re-wrapped. Scratch the surface and you'll find the same old muck underneath. "Greenwashing" and allied political technologies are rather different and far more subtle. They change the perception of a policy (or institution, or consumer trinket or whatever) not through an alteration of the policy itself, but by framing and "articulating" our idea of it with an idea, image, or belief which we already hold dear. "Greenwashing" works by changing the way we desire and understand, seducing us with our own wants and beliefs. In other words, greenwashing succeeds not by altering the greenwashed thing in any way (unlike "whitewashing"), but by shifting the signification and the meaning of the thing so that it becomes something new and desirable. Greenwashing is a semantic technology, and it fucks with your mind.

Consider the example of Monsanto (soon to be merged with American Home Products, Inc.). Monsanto is a US based "life sciences" corporation, which spends a great deal of money and time on genetic engineering. Hot from Monsanto's labs this year is the "terminator gene". Inserted into standard seeds, the gene renders any offspring from these seeds infertile after one season. The terminator gene means that farmers have to "renew their licenses to use Monsanto's intellectual property" by buying seeds year-on-year from Monsanto. The gene was developed in order to prevent the biological equivalent of software piracy; it is relatively easy for farmers and other companies to take the valuable genetic intellectual property embedded in a seed and "pirate it" by simply planting more and more of the seeds. The terminator gene stops all that nonsense, by making the seed "disposable".

The negligence of introducing this gene into the biosphere is toe-curling. Most people with any familiarity with elementary principles of ecology have opposed it, mainly because of the risk that the terminator gene will be passed on to other plants through natural cross-pollination. Plant reproduction rather depends on such deviant genes not entering the gene pool. If such a gene were to be part of a successful cross-pollination, the offspring plant would die without producing viable seed. Farmers (and people who eat food) prefer plants not to do this and are, therefore, more than a little concerned. There are, after all, very good evolutionary reasons why such a gene does not exist in nature, but had to be invented by the pithed Frankensteins at Monsanto.

How is the corporation peddling this monstrosity? Good examples of the techniques they use are to be found on their website. Type, and the first thing you see is their new slogan "Monsanto: Food, Health, Hope". Then lots of pictures of well nourished African and Asian children, with smiling mouths dripping food. Then a picture of planet earth. "Six billion people live here", Monsanto informs us. Then fade to black. Then a series of tough questions: "How many people can our planet sustain? At what quality of life?... What if doctors could diagnose the cause of genetic disease and cure the disease instead of the symptoms?... What if someday we could prescribe food to cure a disease?"

Look at what's going on here. In our fantasies about ourselves, we'd like to think that we're kind, considerate, left-leaning sort of people who are deeply troubled by famine in the third world. We bought the Band Aid single, even if we were disturbed by its lack of musical merit. We were appalled by the BBC's pictures of Somalia back in the 1980s, perhaps gave a bob or two to Oxfam, and we'd like to think of ourselves as siding with the forces of good and plenty when it comes to starving people in Africa. Vitally important here is the fact that we never question this. It is one of the axioms of our self-images. We may not know much, but we know that famine is a Bad Thing, and anything which we believe will make famine go away is a Good Thing.

The PR people know this too. In juxtaposing our deeply-felt desire for a world without hunger with their techniques of genetic engineering, they try to transfer our approval of the former to the latter. They're trying to shift the meaning of "genetic engineering" by articulating it, by linking it, with a thing whose meaning is self evidently Good. They are trying to seduce us, by linking the absence of hunger with the presence of genetic technologies.

If they succeed, the debate over the desirability of such technologies becomes far more difficult. Because we are seduced and not persuaded, our support becomes far less critical. "Who could possibly not want a world without famine? If Monsanto are offering us this, would we not be inhuman to turn it down?" If they get it right, if Monsanto manage successfully to shift the signification of genetic engineering away from its present images of "evil scientists" and "capitalist monsters" to the bastard non-sequitur "food and health and hope and Monsanto", public debate will not merely side with the genetic engineering project, but will defend it with the same absence of reflexivity our original convictions about famine. And if Monsanto succeed in doing this, without even the merest hint of a question raised about what really causes famine in the first place, we have been seduced by the corporation into lobbying for its goals, not for the goals of the poor.

Not convinced? Hold off just for a moment. Bear in mind that corporations didn't invent these techniques. They've been practised for quite some time. The first theorist to examine them was Antonio Gramsci, who wrote about this 'war of manoeuvre' in his Prison Notebooks. An active communist, he was imprisoned by the fascists in 1926 when his party was outlawed. For the rest of his natural life, he tried to figure out how this happened. He wanted to know why the Communists had been so comprehensively trashed and, in particular, why the proletariat had rejected communism in favour of Mussolini. They really oughtn't to have done. The communists were promising emancipation from wage slavery and the opportunity to realise species being - communism offers paradise on earth. The fascists, by contrast, promised a big and strong Italy. Why did the workers choose the latter over the former? "False Consciousness", said The Second International.

This explanation is obviously unsatisfactory. It means that the masses are dupes, idiots under the sway of any ideology not approved by the Second International, until they embrace the approved ideology, at which moment their idiocy ends. More interestingly, this explanation begs the question of how the workers' consciousness could have been twisted to such an extreme that they would choose to vote for the fascists, who exploited them, over the communists, who promised their emancipation. Gramsci's analysis pointed to a constant "war of manoeuvre", a constant jockeying for influence over "common sense" (and over meaning). If the fascists controlled popular perceptions and understandings of what Good and Bad Things were, no communist challenge could reasonably be taken seriously.

Not all the workers voted for the fascist, noted Gramsci, but just enough so that the regime could claim to be acting for all workers by banning political dissent. And many workers who did vote for the fascists didn't agree with Mussolini's politics - they had been seduced into believing that a vote for anyone other than Mussolini would be a vote against Italy, and such voting was, in the popular imaginaire, unconscionable. Voting against the idea of Italy was just as unimaginable as voting for famine. This seduction through the articulation between the meanings associated with national pride and the politics of the fascists, offers an insight into how the communists were outflanked within their own constituency. The workers weren't suckered. They were seduced.

And now back to the present. Monsanto is seducing us with images which we already consider fundamental to our identities. They're exploiting our desires so that at some level we become willing participants in their fraud. The power of this tactic is that even when we hear alarm bells at the backs of our minds, we still agree with Monsanto. Genetic engineering is gaining a position within an unassailable cluster of meanings; to disagree with any aspect of such genetic buggering about (or 'life science' as they would have us call it) becomes tantamount to condemning the poor to famine. And so we are seduced, by our fantasies of ourselves as caring individuals, into caring for the starving children through the free market.

Recognising this, we have some idea of where to head next, and how to fight this in the future. When the Italian fascists played to an unquestioned popular desire for social unity, they linked popular desire for national unity with a desire for fascism. We must not cede to a similar shift in the meaning of hunger. Recall that the power of the "greenwashing" technique springs largely from the fact that we never question whether famine is a Bad Thing. What we need is not a debate about genetic engineering, but a debate about famine. Amartya Sen's (1981) seminal "Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation" is just such a debate. He interrogates the causes of famine and finds mass starvation not to be caused by market failure, or by the absence of sufficiently genetically advanced crops, or by bursting and fecund populations, but by structured inequality, domination and injustice. Hunger in the third world is not a problem of underdeveloped markets and insufficient technology. It is a problem of capitalism and of power.

When corporations try to appropriate the desire for an end to famine, we must not let them turn it into the desire for market rule. By letting Monsanto get away with such a representation, we allow them to depoliticise the problem of hunger. If we are to believe them, the politics of distribution are no longer germane to discussions of famine - only technology can help us now.

We cannot allow the corporation's anti-politics machine to continue to take the lead, whether in the domain of food, the family or the vision of the future. Gramsci's insights here are not new, but they provide a way of understanding the complex and sophisticated way in which this political battle is being fought. These insights also suggest that we should pay more attention to the way in which corporations and their lackeys are colonising and denaturing not only our "traditional" politics, but our desires, and the ways in which our desires can be used to distort the ways we understanding our world and our place within it. At the beginning of June 1998, Monsanto launched a three-month campaign to provide British "consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions about these new life sciences products." You know what to expect.




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