Just a few hurried notes.
Firstly, why the shock? Did anyone ever seriously doubt that neoliberalism was deeply criminogenic with respect to its supply chains? You can’t keep food prices ‘competitively’ low–further legitimating, by the way, the lowest possible wage for working consumers–without the use of extreme exploitation somewhere in the production process (including of course ‘technical’ production, distribution, exchange and consumption). Everyone already knew this, or at the very least deeply suspected it. By now we’ve become adept at disavowing our own sense of complicity, while individual expressions of guilt really do achieve nothing.
No, what constitutes the shock is the deposition of the open secret in the public Other, i.e. it appearing in print. Imagine the magnification of this same shock effect, for example, if the experience of shopping in a supermarket (convenient, pleasant, or at least indifferent) were interrupted by products which bore the printed label: “this product contains inhumane slavery of other human beings“.
The Guardian’s investigative journalism, like the attempt of much liberal media, was animated by the desire to mediate some ‘big Other’, assuming the outrage of social conscience in an attempt to engage government, and the opposition, as some kind of ethical court of appeal. While Labour immediately joined the media in condemnation of a practice we are supposed to assume it knew nothing about, the reaction of David Cameron’s office is absolutely contemporary, shifting focus onto individual responsibility for personal choices: there is no big Other, it’s up to the individual consumer–exposed completely and face to face with perfectly ‘spontaneous’ and ‘natural’ markets–to decide. The result of such absolute nakedness/exposure is not then the production of liberal guilt, but neoliberal shame. Shame is coming into focus quite a lot theoretically in recent times, and this is perhaps signal of the attempt to describe ever more accurately the subjectivising (and thus dominating, hegemonising) techniques of a neoliberal form of governmentality.
Shame is the theological tool neoliberalism uses to humiliate the consumer, diminishing him or her in the very act of indicating markets’ all-providing ‘choices’. This diffraction of consumers’ decisions over products into an existential register, situating them as personal moral dilemmas for each to experience in his or her own way–in the absence of any external regulative codification which one might appeal to–leads to an absolutely isolating experience, adrift and alone in the moral vacuum of a universe of markets. It were as if one were always already undercut, and always arrived too late as an ethical subject, ‘thrown’ into the markets of decision-making processes which one could never go beneath and reconstitute. Markets immediately assail the subject, which is to say, are placed into a direct and unmediated relationship with the ongoing constitution of subjectivity. The effect is the creation of a paradigm of living, a form of life, in which personal choice just is the morally discerning navigation of markets and nothing more. Subjectivisation just is learning to shop in a personal, ‘engaged’, style. Neoliberalism constitutes human experience as being-in-the-market.
The basic ideological ploy in all this is of course the naturalisation of marketised practice, which one could equally well define as the practice of naturalising markets. At no point does neoliberalism wish to examine the means of production in the context of universal justice, because ‘justice’ is something that for neoliberals only emerges at the end, through the disciplinary–in fact, punitive–effect of markets. Hence the response of all the supermarkets has been to do nothing to address the use of slavery per se, but rather to issue statements to the effect that they are constantly seeking to improve the quality of their sources, again couching their own choice as consumers within the supply chain as the only possible bearer of moral influence, or indeed political power. The register and rhetorical strategies used in all the supermakets’ replies and statements so much constitute what Foucault would have called a ‘regularity’ or ‘positivity’ that it is right to see them as part of a larger discursive formation, in which the emergence of subjectivity (and thus the very possibility of judgement, justice, and any moral framework for decisions) is entirely pendant to the interaction of consumers with markets. Political action, such as it may even exist in such a formation, is exercised as a practice of expressing moral preferences in the global supermarket; protest against capitalism is redirected into protest-shopping, preferring some brand or marque against another with tarnished reputation; slave-traders can be disciplined only through a withdrawal of demand.
The problem for us as consumers is that this is also the ideological formation in which boycotting is received and set in view–not primarily as a form of political leverage or action intended to throw a spanner in the works, and demonstrating a social, collectively produced rule applicable to a much wider context, but as the individualising practice of constituting an ethical subject, through the expression of a moral preference over a particular brand. What we face is therefore akin to a form of methodological individualism which serves to atomise collective efforts and to disperse their wider social force. A boycott is received as a series of unique expressions of subjectivity which only ever constitute ‘feedback’, ultimately carrying pricing signals–the cost of the new information about this product on this person’s moral conscience is too great to offset the saving they are making by buying this brand, using this supermarket, rather than alternative ‘x’ etc. You simply can’t reason with that because the way it encapsulates the entire issue in its own discourse prevents an understanding commensurate with the folk-language and folk-practises of social justice, by which I mean the way the issue is experienced from below. There is a Lyotardian differend–a wrong–here, which is not exhausted in the issue itself, but exceeds it, and which calls politics in its current mode entirely into question. The terms of no emancipatory or egalitarian social movement have translations in neoliberal discourse.