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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).