Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea

Reviewed by Noah

Robert J. Foster, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Globalization –- a ubiquitous term referring to the steady expansion of neoliberal capitalism -– is as controversial as it is ambiguous. Although the term is applied in a variety of disciplines, it often escapes careful investigation in favor of reduction to a general concept of the modern age as one of increased communication, mobility, and reach. Against such abstractness, Robert Foster’s Coca-Globalization investigates and conceptualizes the social and spatial life of soft drinks. His work belongs to a line of popular considerations of the lives of commodities that notably includes Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power and has come recently to feature commodity biographies of cod, salt, oysters, rum, potatoes, chocolate, bananas, and cocaine.

Throughout the book, Foster challenges the common dichotomies of global/local, homogenization/heterogenization, and pro-/anti-globalization. He questions the supposed polarity between “strong” and “weak” globalization. Advocates of strong globalization tend to view globalization almost as an imperialist force of monoculture, crushing any capacity for resistance or transformation by local agents. In contrast, proponents of weak globalization often emphasize the possibility of localizing global commodities and relations in terms of locally attributed meanings. Foster resists this simplistic dichotomy in favor of an alternative and resolutely anthropological view of globalization and commodities.

For Foster, globalization and commodities must be viewed in such a way as to highlight the agency of consumers, but with the caveat that material and social conditions are not entirely under the agent’s control. It is an approach that walks a taut theoretical and methodological line between the structural imperatives of modern capitalism and the possibilities of creative agency. This perspective allows for a nuanced understanding of the emerging commodity-anchored social and physical connections among people in an age of increasingly global relations. It does not lapse into viewing globalization either as a codeword for Western imperialism or as a triumphant vehicle of idealistic neoliberal cultural pluralism and humanitarian universalism.

Guided by this alternative perspective, Foster presents an admittedly selective account of Coca-Cola’s post-WWII global expansion. It is the history of Coke as read through a unique conceptual lens that is crafted from a particular consideration of value and commodity, reflecting the convergence of political economy and anthropology. Foster’s reading is framed in part by a theory of value derived from Daniel Miller, who, blending the two disciplines, regarded consumption as a category of labor. Consumption labor is the practical activity of confronting an external object world and deriving meaning from it. In an object world governed by commodity exchange, the value of a commodity embodies both the labor of production and the labor of consumption. Consumption is no longer simply an act of necessary destruction; nor can it be so easily broken down into productive and unproductive forms; it is labor tried and true.

Coca-Cola’s global expansion emerges as an evolving process of embedding and re-embedding commodity and brand Coke in the cultural lives of consumers. The process is continually adjusted to manipulate the consumption labor of peoples into qualifying Coke as valued, trusted, and even loved. Foster charts specific instances of Coke’s global attempts to harness consumption labor and profit from the interrelated and mutually affecting processes of value qualification and re-qualification. The historical trajectory unfolds from survey accounts of the cultural embeddedness of Coke. The history of the power and reach of this iconic commodity and brand is traced from its titanic beginnings exemplified in the company’s efforts to control its trademark since 1891. The story of Coke features the symbolic presentation of the soft drink as culturally embedded “global high-sign” in the South Pacific of WWII, and its position as disembedded and delocalized commodity following bottling consolidation in the early 1970s. All this, only to reemerge in its current form with increasingly penetrating product ubiquity; a tumultuous process of glocalization from Papa New Guinea to the United States and all spaces in between.

All the while, Foster presents a nuanced narrative of dynamic human and commodity relations, with detailed ethnographic and journalistic accounts of soft drinks as situated commodities. Theory and critique are interspersed with snapshots of an unfolding historical process documented through ethnographic accounts of Coke throughout the world (including Papa New Guinea, Ghana, New York, and Washington D.C.), critical reviews of advertising and corporate literature, and even shareholder convention participation.

The reader comes away from this tale of a truly global commodity unable to adequately explain Coca-Cola’s dominance, influence, and connectivity through common theories of cultural imperialism or a logic of capital alone. Foster’s retelling of the story of Coke asks that we not be lured into “alarmist opposition” to globalization simply because of the power and reach of an immense profit-driven global agent. Nor does his account prompt us to see the global relations of Coke as benign or ethically attuned to the fragility and creativity of local culture. Rather, it suggests that the sources of Coca-Cola’s expansive power to affect politics, culture and material conditions can also be instruments for progressive consumer action –- for the reformist political action of peoples as consumers.

Cautiously but critically, the work approaches the dynamic political relationships between consumers and corporations. Through an analysis of recent discourse on consumer and corporate citizenship, and critical surveys of different forms of political activism by consumers, Foster emphasizes the progressive and reformist potential of consumer (and shareholder) activism. The contingent agency of consumers is revealed to be a capacity to manipulate Coca-Cola (and other corporations) into redressing wrongs (e.g. human rights violations, economic exploitation, environmental abuses, etc.) in the company’s operations. The power of this agency is limited, however, by its location within a capitalist framework. Defenders of consumer activism tactics (e.g. ethical consumption, fair trade certification schemes, boycotts, shareholder activism, codes of corporate citizenship responsibility, etc.) thus need to expressly acknowledge their limitations.

Foster concludes the study on the hopeful note that a consumer politics of knowledge centered on product networks could build relationships of caring between persons at different ends of such networks. In so doing, he argues, consumers could foster mutual recognition of each other as human beings. This form of political consumer activism would promote caring commodity connections in place of purely profit-driven corporate management. Yet, Foster’s hope seems misplaced, as it disregards the tendency of capitalist commodity relations to obfuscate social and human relations. In its final passages, the book moves from reasoned understanding of the power and limitations of consumer politics to viewing consumer politics as a step toward the full reorganization of economic life in a cooperative direction.

The entirety of the study underscores the powerful creative agency of consumers in redressing abuses and exploitation in certain commodity networks. Progressive consumer politics may be viewed as normative tactics for the alleviation of specific sufferings and wrongs. However, consumer politics are governed by a capitalist commodity relation whose logic ultimately necessitates profit. Though consumer campaigns may alleviate levels of inequality, capitalism as a competitively organized system cannot be cooperatively organized nor driven by equitable distribution. The normative implication of Foster’s work is that global commodity relations need to be engaged from a position as consumer as well as from other positions (such as national citizen, human being, etc.). Yet, in the final passages Foster’s misplaced and self-contradictory hope appears to see consumer activism as a step toward a fundamental progressive reorganization of the economy.

In the end, we must acknowledge the tendency of capitalist commodity relations to conceal the social relations that underpin them. Given this dynamic, practices such as buying legitimately certified fair trade goods, using shareholder positions to change corporate policy, and participating in consumer boycotts can be relatively effective in changing specific conditions, but they ought not be considered as symbolic measures of more radical change, nor should they take the place of people’s political action as members of a class, as citizens, and as human beings.

Reviewed by Noah Eber-Schmid New York University