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Panty Politics: Consumer Activism and Commodity Politics

The "panty protest" in Almaty Kazakhstan (image Dina Baidildayeva)

The “panty protest” in Almaty Kazakhstan (image vlast.kz)

In the annals of consumer activism, last week’s protest of Eurasian Economic Commission regulations may not seem especially momentous.  Consumer movements have often been at the heart of consequential political moments: Nonimportation Agreements and the Boston Tea Party rejected state control of one of the American colonies’ most prized commodities; antebellum free labor stores lobbied for purchasing goods that were not produced by captive labor; and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns by African Americans made consumer space a battleground for civil rights from the 1920’s onward.  Last week that activist heritage was revisited by women gathered in Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to protest a Eurasian Economic Commission ban against the sale of underwear containing less than 6% cotton, which eliminates all lace lingerie.  Thirty Kazakh women in Almaty were sent to jail while wearing panties on their head and chanting “freedom to panties.”

A girl lays flowers at Almaty's Monument of Independence during the "panty protest" (image from Dina Baidildayeva).

A girl lays flowers at Almaty’s Monument of Independence during the “panty protest” (image from Dina Baidildayeva).

This may have somewhat different historical consequence than the Greensboro sit-ins, but it is symptomatic of the political meaningfulness invested in prosaic commodities and the way such things fuel contemporary political consciousness and activism.  Things have always been moralized and politicized, but Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that in the second quarter of the 20th century Americans’ politics began to be articulated in consumption; Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America argues that American rights are measured by access to consumer goods despite the persistence of longstanding class, racist, and gendered barriers to such access.  It is one thing to argue that a material thing like lingerie is politicized; it is another to suggest that our public political practice springs from consumption, that we articulate our rights and the state’s obligations in response to our material desires and consumer experiences. Read the rest of this entry