Things have gone a little crazy in the last few weeks, so I want to start getting back on the case with what this blog was really supposed to be about, which is thinking aloud about what it might mean to shift the story of society from talking to Consumers to talking to Citizens. Here’s three reflections that have come up for me in the last few weeks – I’d love to hear comments/criticisms/builds – this is unapologetically a lot less well-formed than previous posts.
1 – Citizens are ‘moral agents’; Consumers are literally de-moral-ised
This is about the idea that the role of the Consumer is always to choose what works best for himself in the marketplace, regardless of others – or certainly with absolute primary regard to himself. Even if he chooses to express values through his consumption choice, this is not really the action of a moral agent in the sense of someone who should be judged against some sort of moral standards of right and wrong; nor is it the action of someone who ‘should’ and will go beyond that purchase decision to seek his agency in other ways in the world. A Citizen by contrast is a moral agent – she is someone who wants to express her agency in the world by exploring her impact on others in all number of ways and understanding how that impact could be different. A Good Citizen is a much more intuitive concept than a Good Consumer to me.
This has come alive for me most in thinking about Corporate Social Responsibility, and the idea that the metaphor of the Consumer has infiltrated our role as employees. This hit home most in conversation with a senior figure at a major UK supermarket, who said to me unprompted that he thinks his buyers have become Consumers of their supply chains. It’s this idea that lies behind the HuffPo piece I wrote after Tesco made their food waste announcement. I tentatively think businesses moving from CSR to asking what their corporate moral agency is could be the key to businesses taking part in this shift of narrative.
2 – Citizens are comfortable with a degree of uncertainty; Consumers always need certainty
This is really about the idea that as a Citizen you own the problems of society and accept that they exist and that they won’t be fixed for you; whereas the Consumer expects someone else to fix everything and leave us merely to buy the products that embody those fixes.
This is most relevant I think in the field of politics. As politics has become marketing, we’ve seen political parties start to think of us as Consumers and sell us their policies as packages, market researching them to death and claiming certainty in the impact they will have. I think we are hanging out for our politicians to show us more respect than this, and to speak to us as people who can be trusted to engage properly with the big issues of the day if time and space is created for us to do so. I think this is the valuable element of what Russell Brand was uncovering in his Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman. The undermining of the quality of our democracy, as per the comment in the Economist Democracy Index in 2012 that our politicians are almost without exception “political pygmies”, is the inevitable result. Sad to think of this at the 50th anniversary of the death of the man who said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
3 – Consumers can only at best have Enlightened Self Interest; Citizens can have Expanded Self Interest
Think of it like this. If I buy you a drink in a Consumer society, we can only understand that as an act of Enlightened Self Interest – I know that by buying you a drink I make it more likely that you will buy me one, or do me some similar favour. We try to explain every positive action back to this logic. The idea of doing good in order to make more profit is linked to this I think.
But isn’t there another way to think about it?
I would argue that a Citizen society makes possible an interpretation of that act that sees you as my friend, and therefore someone who is actually part of my ‘self’ – so that it is in fact in my direct self interest to buy you a drink.
This is the reasoning behind work like Project Wild Thing, which is all about offering children the opportunity to expand their sense of self through direct personal experience of the natural world. Study after study has shown that this contact is vital to pro-environmental behaviours and attitudes later in life – I would argue because it expands the sense of self.
These are deliberately rough thoughts. Please do help me build them!