They have reinvigorated and developed communal water practices as protest symbols and material alternatives to the commodities offered by Coke, digging public water ponds in the village, convening speak-outs on water rights, forming women’s groups to discuss the role of water in domestic work and thus the gendered burden of the water crisis, setting up free drinking water stops in places like the Benares (Varanasi) train station where bottled water and soft drinks are sold, informing people of their struggle and mobilizing interest in public water programs, organizing a cultural group that reworks folk songs into anti-Coca-Cola themes.
In direct protest actions against the company’s plants, the water pots, now powerful signifiers on their own, are painted with slogans attacking Coca-Cola and proclaiming a right to water. They are no longer mute, not solely because of their critique of Coca-Cola, or even their environmental slogans, but because they communicate an alternative to the Coca-Cola commodity, reasserting the symbolic and environmental commons. At the protests against the plants, women carry these pots filled with water from communal wells, to dispense to anyone who expresses thirst who has joined with them in their expression of popular discontent.
By challenging Coca-Cola’s water use, villagers dispute market and state imposition of rural India’s development without their say, contesting the version of industrialization that uses environmental resources to benefit some by negatively impacting others. In this way, they enact what scholars have called an “environmentalism of the poor,”[i] like similar struggles around the world for environmental justice and against environmental racism.[ii] Their struggle is representative of “new social movements all over the world, micro-scalar agitations against resource extraction that are gradually evolving into sprawling global alliances…holding diverse demands together in a signifying chain, with a clearly marked external adversary embodied” in the corporate icon.[iii]
Such movements generate collective action frames, based on these shared meanings and practices. As the classic works of sociologists of social protest and political discourse, William A. Gamson and David S. Meyer have suggested, “these collective action frames are adversarial and depend on a clear target that is responsible for the injustice about which a collective can take action.”[iv] The Coca-Cola Company as a popular brand – widely present, communicatively expressive, bodily consumed, transnationally powerful -- provides such a collective action target.
Our current moment of communication scholarship is focused on the social media revolution and ‘participatory culture’ as Henry Jenkins calls it, the ways in which “consumers increasingly recalibrate mass-media content for their own ends.”[v] But the reality of inequity of resources and access to media delivery and production technologies, as is the case for Indian peasants, is a control on this celebration of participation in media discourse. These peasant activists are not “publics” constituted by the media they self-reflexively consume, but instead are characteristic of the subaltern seeking a point of entrance into their own representation in that mediated public.[vi]
The work of anthropologists and sociologists reminds us that brands, like other socially and culturally produced terms and ideas, are made to mean not just by those at the top, but also those that make daily use of them at the bottom. Media subalterns express themselves through signification and issue framing before as well as while media systems mediate their issues – often the point at which communications scholars start to study them. For example, in the terms expressed by these subaltern communications, their environmental movement was not just about water extraction and pollution or even about Coca-Cola, but about expropriation and enclosure.
In this way, popular culture can be a communicative starting point, a shared language, for building a popular struggle. Here cultural theorists of networks and political power are helpful. Ernesto Laclau, for example, sees popular movements “discursively constituted through signifying practices that harness powerful symbols, placeholders for linking heterogeneous demands. To link heterogeneous social groups through signification, potent symbols – culturally familiar, recursive signs with symbolic density such as icons – are ripe for such cultural work.”[vii] And as the steady flow of mass media and commodities reaches the peripheries of the world system, the semiotic material for building popular challenges to existing hegemony may come from symbolically laden corporate commodities themselves.
“Such a conception allows us to think of the potentials of mass media in forging social bonds.”[viii] Cultural theorists have long argued that mass-mediated commodities lure consumers into a commodity fetishism that obscures social relations. But here we see the commodity assisting the formation of social and political linkages – even as they are contingent, diverse, and unequal in power relations -- in a scalar activist world system.
Laclau also helps us think through the transnationalism of the images and politics that emerges, “as contingent linkages between heterogeneous actors dispersed over geographically distant locales.”[ix] Rather than a “global totality,” with the same histories, positionalities, and goals, political action emerges as a series of contingent linkages that come into formation through signification and communication.
[i] A phrase from Joan Martinez-Alier used in Ramachandra Guha’s, How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 59.
[ii] Guha, 57-70
[iii] Ghosh, 23
[iv] Jill E. Hopke, “Water Gives Life: Framing an Environmental Justice Movement in the Mainstream and Alternative Salvadoran Press,” Environmental Communication Vol 6. No. 3, September 2012, 369 citing William A. Gamson and David S. Meyer, “Accessing Public, Media, Electoral, and Governmental Agendas,” in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, Eds. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
[v] Ghosh, 18
[vii] Ghosh, 20
[viii] Ghosh citing Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005), 21
[ix] Ghosh, 314