Some time in the early 1980s I remember seeing a senior conservative politician on the news talking about “UK plc.” The phrase jarred. The United Kingdom is a nation state, not a private company, and to brand it as one seemed grubby and belittling.
Thirty-odd years later, “UK plc” has become part of the ordinary lexicon. If anyone finds it objectionable, few say so. No one announced that from now on we should conceive of our country as a business, but gradually, imperceptibly, it became natural to do so.
This is how so many cultural shifts happen. Ways of thinking mutate gradually, helped by changes in vocabulary that we accept without question. So it was that “refugees” became “asylum-seekers,” not primarily framed as people in need but as people wanting something from us.
Another such shift was the increased use of the word “consumer” in the second part of the 20th century. Google’s Ngram viewer, which trawls a huge corpus of English-language texts, finds the word two-thirds more prevalent in 1980 than 1960.
For some, this is empowering. Seeing ourselves as consumers makes us more demanding. Rather than being passive recipients of public services, for example, we become active consumers of them, complaining when they are poor and demanding better. “Claiming our power in the form of the freedom of choice we have as Consumers has raised standards and accountability across the board,” say Jon Alexander and Irene Ekkeshis, founders of The New Citizenship Project.
However, Alexander and Ekkeshis believe that for all these gains, the dominance of the consumer mindset has brought with it serious problems. It has encouraged us to focus on our individual, personal decisions rather than on the collective choices civil societies have to make together. It also fools us into think that everything can be solved by making better buying decisions. But “ethical consumers” buying fairtrade or organic foods, for example, can’t solve the huge problems of social justice, poor nutrition or unsustainable farming.
“Consumer mindset encourages us to focus on personal decisions rather than on the collective choices civil societies have to make together”
Some of the effects are more subtle. I would suggest that voting has increasingly come to be seen as a quasi-consumer choice in which we pick the leadership that offers us the most. Winners of elections are therefore obliged only to deliver what their consumers have ordered. Those who picked something else can go whistle. So those who didn’t vote Trump are not citizens who deserve as much respect as those who did but sore losers who should accept what more successful consumers bought on behalf of everyone. And if you’re not happy with Brexit, you’re just a Remoaner.
When we think of ourselves as consumers, says The New Citizenship Project, we obscure another important identity we have: citizens. Whereas consumers are atomised, autonomous decision-makers, citizens are socialised members of society. Citizens do not see their sphere of influence as limited to who they personally trade with. Consumers value independence, citizens recognise our interdependence. Consumers demand and choose, citizens participate and create. Alexander and Ekkeshis point to research that suggests that when we are primed to think of ourselves as consumers we make more selfish choices and become less trusting than when we are primed to think of ourselves as citizens.
The New Citizenship Project has been set up to accelerate what its founder see as the shift currently going on from a consumer to a citizen mindset. It certainly seems to have put its finger on something real and important. The Food Ethics Council (of which I am a member) has adopted the basic principle in its advocacy of “food citizenship.” The basic idea here is that the food system is too big and important to be left to the mercy of market forces, driven by consumer choices. As concerned citizens, we can and should be engaged with the policy decisions that shape the food economy, not just with what we put in our shopping baskets.
Like many good ideas, its creators and advocates perhaps exaggerate the importance of the citizen shift. Our problems have many causes and the consumer mindset is just one of them, perhaps not even the most important. However, the simplifying device of the consumer/citizen contrast is a powerful one. Once you become aware of it, it is impossible not to notice just how often we are treated like customers, and respond like them, even though as citizens we are much more than this. The “citizen shift” may not be a panacea, but it’s well worth making.