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War in an Age of Consumer Populism

March 4th, 2022 by dk

It’s been interesting to watch how wars will be fought in this age of consumer populism. State leaders appear as steely-eyed as ever, but they are newly aware of their domestic audiences. Autocracies no longer can control their population by controlling the information they are fed.

Putin is sending tanks posed as peacekeepers to Ukraine, promising the public that denazification has become his country’s moral imperative. The West has largely ignored Putin’s propaganda campaign. Instead, they are taking direct actions, provoking everyday Russians to panic. 

Russia’s middle class will not be taking summer vacations in Europe. Flights out of Russia have been banned from European Union airports. They can’t stay home and watch soccer games. World soccer body FIFA and European authority UEFA banned Russian teams from their competitions until further notice, including the World Cup qualifying playoffs.

These economic sanctions are being leveled directly against Russia’s consumer class. Russia prepared for this conflict using the old playbook. Their national treasury has salted away more than half a trillion dollars to weather embargoes. That’s of no use when Apple Pay and Google Pay suddenly stops working for millions of its citizens.

Every ATM in Russia suddenly attracts a panicked crowd. Those scenes may not show up on national TV, but Russians see them on their way home from the grocery store, where their rubles bought half as much as they did a week ago. No soccer, no vacations, no ready cash. It suddenly doesn’t matter what state-sponsored television proclaims.

Google Maps purposely crippled its service this week in Ukraine. Mayors removed street signs, hoping to confuse the invading Russians. An unexpected message was delivered: “If you don’t know how to get there, maybe you don’t belong here.” Ukraine television showed how to make Molotov cocktails or rain paint buckets on tank periscopes. Many hands make light war.

I can imagine these lessons being applied to our own domestic disputes, much closer to home. Economic boycotts have empowered consumers, but supply chain logistics allow us to target our displeasure with more and more precision.

South Dakota has refused to modify its meat packing policies during COVID-19 to reduce the risk of infections for workers, for instance. West Coast consumers might prefer to buy meat that was packaged elsewhere. It won’t be long before retailers or industry groups respond with modified package labeling, like Dolphin-safe tuna.

Responding to this week’s headlines, OLCC pulled thousands of bottles of Russian-made liquor from its shelves in 281 liquor stores across Oregon, underlining Russia’s status as a pariah state. Russia won’t be hurt by a few thousand bottles of embargoed liquor, but it acknowledges that consumers wield power like never before.

Notice that both BP and Shell determined that this was the week for them to sever ties with Russian oil ventures that each company maintained for decades. They walked away from their investments, costing them more money than any of us will see in a dozen lifetimes.

The consumer is king. Certain legacy royalties have begun to take notice, even if one would-be czar has not.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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