So the obvious question follows – if the idea of the Consumer is so limiting, how can we break out of it?

I, like many others, seized initially quite instinctively on the Citizen as the antidote, and one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog was to take a breath and consider that leap a bit more carefully.  If the guiding belief of this nascent project is that we need to talk to people as Citizens not Consumers, why does that matter?  How would it look different?  What are the characteristics of the Citizen mindset that we should be tapping into?

The OUP’s Very Short Introduction to Citizenship seemed as good a place as any to start, and it yielded this definition:

“Citizenship is a condition of civic equality.  It consists of membership of a political community where all citizens can determine the terms of social cooperation on an equal basis.  This status not only secures equal rights to the enjoyment of the collective goods provided by the political association but also involves equal duties to promote and sustain them – including the good of democratic citizenship itself.”

There are some hugely powerful concepts here, and some stark contrasts with the implications of the Consumer.  Three elements in particular leap out at me from which lessons can be learnt for how to talk to people as Citizens:

– the “condition of civic equality”

– the notion of membership

– the presence of both rights and duties

Let’s start with a “condition of civic equality”.  This is the second time in a couple of months that I’ve heard this phrase, the first coming in the voice of Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher and author of the excellent What Money Can’t Buy.  The idea of equality of condition, he said, is different to equality of opportunity or of outcome, neither of which are really that desirable or even possible in the long run (as the fall of communism would testify).  Unlike either opportunity or outcome, equality of condition does not require we all have or aspire to have the same roles in a society; but it is about us being able to consider ourselves, in the fulfilment of our differing roles, to be part of a shared project.  So a Citizen society is one that is about a shared project.  If the current context of multiple global crises is mostly the result of tragedies of the commons rather than instances of individual misconduct, stepping out of the frame of thinking as individuals – as is the case in a Consumer society, where the root assumption is that I am entitled to have whatever I can afford – is going to be key.  In terms of the how, perhaps a key characteristic in talking to Citizens is about appealing to people’s ‘collective self interest’ as part of a shared project, rather than just to their ‘individual self interest’.

The idea of membership is clearly closely related, but I think is a very interesting piece of language.  I have worked for the National Trust for some time, an organisation with 4 million members and counting; it is fascinating how different membership of the National Trust can and should feel to paying taxes, when in many ways they are the same thing – a subscription.  The BBC is a halfway house, but the ‘licence fee’ feels much more like a tax than a membership subscription.  I think there is a very interesting clue here for talking to people as Citizens – at present, the language around citizenship is very negative and cost-focused.  This can change though.  After all, if debt can be rebranded as credit, surely we can reframe the language here.

The combination of rights and duties is perhaps the most obvious point of difference between the ideas of Consumer and Citizen.  As a Consumer I have very little in the way of duties, an inherently unsustainable situation.  Happily, the evidence is that people are ready to embrace some sense of duty, to participate more actively.  It’s just a basic truth that it’s more fulfilling to be part of creating something than simply to receive at the end – and while brands have latched onto this truth as a personalisation trend with Consumer products, there must be an opportunity to ask more of people in less trivial circumstances.  The rise of mutuals (link here to a great collection of essays by the thinktank Res Publica), community shops, transition towns, and so forth all hint at this.  My third hypothesis then is that talking to people as Citizens rather than as Consumers is likely to be about asking something of people rather than selling something to people.

This gives me a few startpoints from which to work, but as with defining the problem, there are far more questions still outstanding:

What is the relationship between the ideas of Consumer and Citizen?  Are they mutually exclusive opposites?  Is the Consumer one of the roles of the Citizen that has become unhealthily dominant?

Is it the ‘old’ concept of the Citizen that we need to resuscitate, or a ‘new’ version we need to invent?

How and why did the idea of the Citizen recede?  Did it?

Is there, or could there be such a thing as a Citizen Brand – a business which communicates with Citizens rather than Consumers?

Is there, or could there be such a thing as Citizen Capitalism – a societal system of which ownership of private property remains a key aspect, but in which there is also a key collective element?

Where in the world is the idea of the Citizen more prominent?  What good stuff is happening that we could build on?

Questions, questions, questions…  all thoughts deeply appreciated, by email, twitter or comment box.  In the next post I’ll reflect on those I’ve received on both ‘first thoughts’ together, so do keep them coming!

2 thoughts on “First thoughts #2: Rediscovering the Citizen

  1. Jon, just a thought on this.
    Is there a way of framing the difference as this:
    Where are the instances of us being ‘consumers’ and how are we in those situations? So they are about us shopping, on the high-street, sometimes alone, sometime together, but the act is of deciding what to purchase and then purchase. It’s fundamentally about being a consumer of goods and the activity is that you go shopping, you attention is directed to that end, whilst on Oxford St, you buy and then you go home and use.
    What does it feel like to engage in these activities and spend time in this way?
    The question is then what is the equivalent as a citizen –
    So, what are the instances of us being ‘citizens’ and how are we in those situations? According to you definition that would be being a member of a group as part of a shared project. Errr, what would that be?? The Olympic torch relay? One of Games Makers? Part of a knitting group? So, it’s being part of a group and having your role within that. The group task is either loosely or tightly defined and you take responsibility for completing your role within that group in order to contribute to the shared project
    For me, the questions might be:
    1) Identify those activities that qualify for you definition and see how they differ
    2) A debate about how preferences and benefits of being either a consumer or a citizen.
    Or something like that…
    Gotta run!

  2. Pingback: RSPB: Communicating to Citizens in action | New Citizenship Project

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