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Coca-Cola is an icon of globalization. Few things are more closely identified with global capitalism than “The Real Thing,” as one of The Coca-Cola Company’s memorable advertising campaigns branded the drink. But precisely how is Coke global? Coca-Cola is the single most widely distributed branded commodity on the planet. More nation-states have Coca-Cola products than are members of the United Nations.[i] Nearly three-quarters of The Coca-Cola Company’s revenue comes from international sales.[ii] Since Interbrand started ranking the most valuable brands in the world in 2000, Coca-Cola has topped the list twelve times.[iii] And, perhaps most relevant in gauging its popular significance, “Coca-Cola” is the second most widely known word on earth, trailing only “OK.” Second-place status being unacceptable to a company accustomed to being at the top, in 1996, CEO Roberto Goizueta assured investors that Coca-Cola has “the trademark rights to [OK] in many markets, too . . . ”[iv]
But the global significance of Coca-Cola emerges from a history far more complicated than its ubiquitous branded bottles and cans. Indeed, precisely because of how the commodity has become a material and symbolic presence in global daily life, people from all over the planet have narrated global capitalism through it, redeploying Coca-Cola to create disruptions and alternatives to the world figured in Goizueta’s report to his investors. The histories of the corporation and the struggles that have represented, resisted, and remade the brand of globalization that Coca-Cola signifies are constitutive of the corporation’s “world.” The history of this world, the subject of Counter-Cola, suggests that “The Real Thing” is something quite different.
[i] Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 10.[ii] Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water (NY: New Press, 2002), 147.[iii] “The 100 Top Brands,” Business Week August 1, 2005, 90-94.[iv] The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC), 1995 Annual Report, 14-16.
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A People’s History of The Coca-Cola Company
These two interrelated systems of production—one material, the other immaterial—have established The Coca-Cola Company as a global business and icon, but its corporate practices have given rise to a body of lived experience that belies its own global imaginary. Through consumption practices, popular media and culture, and protest and political action, people throughout the world have instilled their own meanings into Coca-Cola’s business, products, and branding. The Coca-Cola Company has responded to such interpretations by countering them, constraining them, and at the same time, and perhaps most surprisingly, incorporating elements of their critiques to remake its version of capitalism and reassert its products’ role in daily life. Popular culture and social movements thus represent an additional system of production that shapes and propels the Company’s meaning, commodities, and history.[i] Counter-Cola builds on studies of the “anti-globalization” movements of the post–Cold War era, when free-market reforms were taking hold around the world. These movements constituted “counter-global networks,” to use David Featherstone’s terms, and imaginaries, often drawing on corporations’ financial relationships, production, and cultural representations to map interdependencies and potential solidarities and use corporations’ own systems of global power against them.[ii]
In considering Coca-Cola as a global system, this book narrates the history of the Company from perspectives external to the United States. Its focus emanates from two nodes of this system, Colombia and India, arguing that events that unfolded in these seemingly “peripheral” regions were in fact central to the multinational corporation’s development. By the 1950s, more than a third of the Company’s profits came from outside the United States,[iii] by the 1970s, more than half,[iv] and by 2000, almost three-quarters.[v] In this sense, the majority of the corporation’s business is conducted outside the US and more of the lived history of this iconic global corporation has unfolded in places like Colombia and India than in Atlanta offices. Focusing on these two locations reveals both the Company’s universalizing capitalist tendencies and the specificity of local contexts that challenged it and obliged it to respond. Moreover, the particularities of the Colombian and Indian cases make them central chapters in the corporation’s larger history. Struggles over water privatization in India and labor rights in Colombia, for example, reverberated throughout Coca-Cola’s global system.
These challenges to The Coca-Cola Company were the product of Company efforts to make its products materially and symbolically central to daily life. The Coca-Cola Company strove to locate its products always “within arm’s length of desire”[vi] anywhere in the world, and produced this desire by associating itself with sources of social, cultural, and emotional meaning in people’s lives. In turn, the corporation, its commodities, and brand images became vehicles through which challenges to the injustices of daily life under capitalism were articulated. Struggles like those in Colombia and India have both resisted and depended on the Company’s multinational material and immaterial systems. Based on common exposure to the Company’s soft drinks, branding lexicon, and business practices, activists were able to form local, national, and even transnational interrelationships among consumers, workers, and communities. Since Coca-Cola is a pervasive element of global popular culture, social movements could mobilize this transnational collective language and experience to organize against the exploitation and dislocation endemic to global capitalism and foster alternative solidarities and politics. These multinational manifestations of Colombian and Indian struggles changed both the course of Coca-Cola’s history and their communities. They exemplify both the power and the pitfalls of organizing around single corporations or brands.
The Company has reacted by attempting to reestablish capitalist hegemony. It has co-opted criticisms, calls for justice, and commitments to the common good in minor but visible adjustments to business practices for the sake of public relations. Even more insidiously, it has assimilated elements of critical resistance to ideologically legitimize itself, while further extending its power. Drawing on the work of the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Counter-Cola traces this dynamic of corporate strategy and popular resistance in the history of Coca-Cola,[vii] interrogating the ways in which critique is a “powerful motor” that compels capitalism to justify itself through the values articulated by its challengers.[viii]
Few histories of companies and capitalism are told this way. Much of the history of corporations and capitalist forms of organization are written as if these entities acted on their own, without human agency. When people are included, business histories risk becoming hagiographies, or even when critical, focused on individual executives and decision-making. Most studies of multinational corporations situate their analysis at the perceived “center,” or, when attempting to provide global perspective, they do so from an aerial viewpoint, overlooking local specificity and historical context—how capitalism plays out “on the ground.” Counter-Cola is grounded in methods of archival and textual historical and cultural analysis, but has also been heavily influenced by anthropologists’ rich, people-centered studies of multinational capitalism, local understanding and practices, and the interplay of power and resistance.[ix] Complicating narratives of corporate decision-making through attention to popular meaning and challenges, this book identifies the interrelationship of Atlanta boardrooms, Colombian bottling plants, and Indian villages to begin to construct a “people’s history of The Coca-Cola Company.”
[i] This book is indebted to critical consumer culture studies such as William Mazzarella’s Shovelling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India (Durham, NC: Duke, 2003), Natalia Milanesio’s Workers Go Shopping in Argentina: The Rise of Popular Consumer Culture (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), and Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).[ii] David Featherstone’s Resistance, Space and Political Identities: The Making of Counter-Global Networks (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).[iii] “The Sun Never Sets On Cacoola," Time, May 15, 1950.[iv] J. Paul Austin to Charles Malik, October 15, 1970, Charles Malik Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Library of Congress.[v] Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (New York: New Press, 2002), 147.[vi] “The Sun Never Sets on Cacoola,” Time, May 15, 1950, 30.[vii] Stuart Kirsch, Mining Capitalism: The Relationship Between Corporations and Their Critics (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 3.[viii] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2005), 42.[ix] See Kirsch’s work above, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), Marina Welker, Enacting the Corporation: An American Mining Firm in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), as well as Lesley Gill and Robert J. Foster’s rich work on The Coca-Cola Company in international contexts: Lesley Gill, A Century of Violence in a Red City: Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and Robert Foster, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).