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It is no accident that activists are drawn to defetishizing The Coca-Cola Company’s commodities to think through political economic relations—you can begin to map the world system by following a trail of Coke bottles. Indeed, Coca-Cola also presents an ideal entry point into interrogating twentieth-century global economic transformations: the shifts from liberal developmentalism to national developmentalism to neoliberalism. As both a key corporate actor in and pervasive symbolic representation of these shifts, Coca-Cola exemplifies the evolving economic logic and ideologies of modern capitalism. Tracking key changes in the two dynamic relationships that structure the Coca-Cola world system—the interrelated structures of material and immaterial production, on the one hand, and the interrelated actions and imaginaries of corporate and critical actors, on the other— sheds new light on the history of modern global capitalism.
Coca-Cola’s expansion reproduced the geography of US imperialism, as it first expanded across US empire and countries with elites espousing liberal developmentalist goals aligned with US economic and political interests, like Colombia, as well as the markets of traditional trading partners. It then followed the US military during World War II to farther reaches like India. But as Colombia, the newly independent nation of India, and other countries around the world turned to more national developmentalist thinking around the middle of the twentieth century, the Company emphasized an operational and discursive project of localization, promoting its system of franchise bottlers and drawing on the discourse of modernization to proclaim itself a multinational developer of local and national economies. The Company simultaneously represented its soft drinks in these international markets through a system of pattern advertising that representationally echoed the localization discourse of import-substitution industrialization, while actually maintaining the Company’s centralized control of the production of its brand’ images.
The 1970s saw a key shift, emblematic of the Company’s neoliberal trajectory, as the immaterial and material production of the Coca-Cola world system came to be defined by the emerging logic of free-market globalization. Assimilating cultural referents from the period’s social and cultural critiques, and offering a competing imaginary to postcolonial nationalisms in the global south, Coca-Cola set the symbolic stage for neoliberalism by framing its global commodities and their consumption in universal, utopian terms of freedom and liberation. The Company adopted a globally consolidated advertising strategy, defined by “one sight–one sound” representations of a new multicultural generation of liberated consumers. As the global advertising campaigns heralded a single world market, neoliberal reforms in countries around the world—including Colombia and India—enabled The Coca-Cola Company to expand and restructure its world system, consolidating its much-lauded local franchise bottlers into multinational anchor mega-bottlers in the 1980s and 1990s.
As new social movements assailed neoliberal globalization, often taking on Coca-Cola, Company executives recommitted the Company to a strategy of localizing its self-representation. International advertising campaigns portrayed Coca-Cola as a locally embedded commodity and brand, obscuring the increasingly consolidated ownership of its material production. However, Colombian and Indian social movements continued to unmask the Company’s political economy, denouncing the forms of dispossession that defined it and using the Coca-Cola world system to exert transnational pressure on the corporation. The power of these challenges was reflected in the response of the Company, which introduced new “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) practices aimed at ameliorating the worst effects of its corporate practices and ensuring long-term profitability by contributing to the social good with private, voluntary solutions to public problems. Through CSR, the Company reasserted its legitimacy, ideologically justifying its centrality to daily life and the necessity of capitalism itself.