This is roughly the flow of a talk I gave at An Interesting Afternoon in Copenhagen on Friday – the brief was to provoke the Danes, who recently came out top of the world in the UN World Happiness Report. Judging by the response, I think I did that, although contrary to some of what I read before going (including this article) it sounds like they are already seeing some of the same problems as the rest of us, with very low voter participation expected amongst young people in the forthcoming municipal elections…
My approach to the challenge of this event, the creation of hunger in the happy paradise of Denmark, will be this: that the key to your happiness is the strength of your democracy, and that that strength is under threat from a systemic source that you may not suspect, and do not have under control. If you want to stay happy as you are today, you’re going to have to wise up, and pay attention.
My name is Jon Alexander and I’m the founder of the New Citizenship Project, a new thinktank in the UK dedicated to two questions: firstly, what are we in Britain doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we’re Consumers 3000 times a day, and secondly, what could we achieve if we put as much creativity behind talking to ourselves as Citizens as we currently do as Consumers?
My core proposition is that autonomy, in the sense of the freedom to explore one’s full potential in relationship with the world, is the highest good in life, the most fundamental source of happiness. In order to have this freedom, democracy is an essential precondition, because to be able to fulfil your potential you must have a genuine say in the context in which you live. That is only possible in democracy – and high quality, true democracy at that.
This is why, I propose, the graph behind me, of the quality of democracy in the UK, US and Denmark, bears such close resemblance to graphs of life satisfaction in the same countries. So this is my first assertion: that the direction of causation is from quality of democracy to individual happiness.
Here is my second: that the key thing that you must hold onto to maintain your happiness is the fact that the dominant metaphor of the role of the individual in Danish society is that of the Citizen, not the Consumer. In the UK and US, and in many other countries, the Citizen has been replaced by the Consumer; our task is to reclaim that ground.
Let me briefly explain why this matters so much, because our ability to understand this is very new, and rooted in the emerging understanding of unconscious thinking as pioneered by people like Daniel Kahnemann, the social psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics, essentially for comprehensively dismissing the idea that humans make decisions rationally – a foundational assumption of modern economic theory.
One particular study from the US dramatises the importance of this to my argument. In a study called Cuing Consumerism, 1000 people answered a survey of environmental and social attitudes; for 500 of them, the front cover said ‘Citizen Response Study’, for the other 500, the cover said ‘Consumer Response Study’. In stimulus, one word changed. In response, there was a world of difference. Those prompted to be Consumers were significantly more selfish, and significantly less concerned about wider society or the environment. One word.
In the UK today, we are succumbing to this metaphor. The act of consumption has become the dominant act of participation in society. We talk to ourselves in our media as Consumers – it has made the crucial leap from verb to noun – and over time that role has infiltrated everything we do.
Owning a share in a company, the true idea of the shareholder, has become a Consumer act, interested only in the direct personal benefit. Even parenting in the UK has become a consumption-focused activity, with childhood materialism rampant.
Perhaps most disturbingly of all, our political process has become reduced to voting as an act of consumption, where political parties rehearse their pitches in marketing-style focus groups, selling their packages to us. In a horrible inversion, 50 years on from the assassination of JFK, we are absolutely expected to ask not what we can do for our country, but what our country can do for us.
In such a world, it is inevitable that democracy becomes a joke. In a survey in the UK earlier this year, when asked if they would vote now if a general election were called, 12% of 18-24 year olds said they would. 1 in 8.
In my research for this presentation, I read swathes of evidence that you are not there. By deliberate design and hardwork, particularly in your education system, you have preserved the Citizen. So far.
But so to my third proposition. You are not in control of the biggest challenge yet, and the affluence that has resulted from your wisdom is bringing you very much into the line of fire.
The challenge comes from an old source – advertising. All advertising carries as its underlying message ‘you are a Consumer, your role in society is to consume’ – and as such advertising is the prime carrier of the Consumer metaphor. In your affluence, you are becoming increasingly important to advertisers – you now have the 5th highest advertising spend per capita in the world.
So what, you might say. We’ve had advertising for a long time and dealt with it.
But advertising is mutating. Advertising is no longer clear about what it is. It no longer comes as a passenger on something else. It is becoming something that makes itself so attractive that we seek it out in itself.
This Apple Jacks example, with its two online games – the sand shuffle and the crowd surfer – shows us two things about this change. First, it’s happening online – and growing fast – online adspend rose nearly 13% year on year in Denmark in the last year. And second, it is starting with your children.
The danger compounds when you then have a look at some of the stats for childhood internet consumption in Denmark. To me, the last of these stats is the most important. Your children are now as young as 7 years old when they are starting to be told they’re Consumers. When do you start to tell them they’re Citizens?
I have made three assertions: that your happiness is a result of the strength of your democracy; that the strength of your democracy depends on the metaphor of the individual as Citizen not Consumer; and that that metaphor is under threat from a source that you are not on top of.
But there is hope. Organisations like Borgerlyst [literally Citizen Lust in English – more here!], a new participatory democracy start-up here in Copenhagen which specialises in facilitating citizen conversations, are championing what matters so much, and doing it in a characteristically creative Danish way. Support them. They matter more than you know.