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!


8 thoughts on “The difference between Citizens and Consumers: three suggestions

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I have some thoughts coming from my perspective as a philosophy student – I’ve not yet had a chance to read your other posts (I arrived via the Common Cause website), so I apologise if you’ve already covered similar thoughts.

    1) I think we can add to the thought that the Citizen is necessarily a moral agent. The concept “citizen” itself seems moral, or evaluative, that is, what it is to be a citizen is defined in terms of shared values. For instance, a citizen might be someone who takes the *appropriate* degree of responsibility for common interests – that depends on what *we* think is the appropriate degree. Indeed, the concept might vary from society to society (what it is to be an American citizen might be different to what it is to be a British citizen). This would support the thought that the Citizen’s actions are necessarily value-driven, i.e. moral. By contrast, the concept “consumer” seems instrumental: a consumer does whatever it takes (i.e. engaging with market mechanisms, spending money) as a means to achieving whatever ends she has. There is not (necessarily) any shared agreement on what those ends are.

    2) This is a tentative thought. We might distinguish between having certainty in *beliefs* before acting vs. having *confidence* in *attitude*. If I wait for certainty, I wait to *know* 100% that what I am trying to achieve will succeed, so really, I’m waiting for society to set everything up for me and I just passively respond to that situation. If I’m confident, I leap into the unknown, but committing myself, in the case of failure, to being actively engaged with the situation and acting further if necessary. “Owning” the situation seems to mean being an actively responsible agent in an ongoing way. And maybe, again, it’s a *moral* commitment (which ties in with your JFK quote).

    3) I think this relates back to point (1), though I partly disagree here (or I think the point can be pushed further). I agree that the Citizen has a wider self-understanding, and maybe that is because I understand myself in terms of an understanding of a wider unit (I am one of the members of society, I am one of the living beings). And maybe having a shared value simply is, or is closely related to, seeing yourself as being part of a unit with someone else. But the Consumer’s self-understanding also involves thinking about what kind of unit I’m in – why do I make plans for the future and not just follow my current desires, for instance? So in neither case is the self-understanding just “given” or “natural” – there’s some learning going on, which probably involves society, or at least others.

    Sorry for such a long comment – I think there’s a lot to unpack here!

    • Don’t apologise, this is gold – really helped build the thinking, as I hope you’ll recognise from more recent posts… I particularly like the thinking about beliefs/knowledge and owning the situation…

  2. Pingback: Are we entering the age of Corporate Moral Agency? | New Citizenship Project

  3. My only contribution is this.

    A few years back as part of a research and development project I introduced a town reward scheme into Wigan: WiganPlus.

    We started off in the belief that everyone would understand the benefits of being a good citizen by shopping locally and spending more time helping community projects get off the ground.

    What I discovered was that I was well out of touch. Nobody was interested in the fluffy bullshit that I thought was important.

    All the wanted was a deal.

    And so i learned to take people from where they are (“give me rewards”), not where i think they should be (“let’s be good to each other”).

    • I agree up to a point Mike, but there’s a big risk in some of what you say. Yes we have to start from where people are, but we also have to have an idea of where we need to go together. And of why people are where they are. There’s a lot of evidence that the ‘give me rewards’ mentality is conditioned into us – so while we may need to accept and respond to that, just pandering to it could reinforce the very values systems that underpin the problems I know you’re trying to solve. You might find this useful. My work is all about how we bridge that gap – by working to give people what they need, not just what we have been told to say we want.

  4. All three points seem to point at:

    Consumers: what is in it for me?

    Citizens: what of me is in it?

    Wikipedia provides a nice example:
    “Consumers” of Wikipedia are seeking answers for themselves.
    “Citizens” of Wikipedia participate in the project. They write, edit, curate, create information, knowledge and understanding for others.

    Once they have proved their commitment to the project “citizens” are granted rights to influence the direction and rules that govern the project.

    It is interesting to note that it is the large and generally appreciative audience of “consumers” that makes participating in Wikipedia as a “citizen” more valuable as it “expands the sense of self” to a greater extent.

    • Thanks for this – interesting point. Over time though I’ve come to think it goes deeper than that. You’ll enjoy the report we’re publishing tomorrow!

  5. Hi Jon,

    I just wanted to make note of the unnecessary gendering you’ve assigned to consumer categories throughout this piece. Customer-consumers and citizen-consumer behaviour may adhere to dominant gendered ideologies of what it means to be feminine or masculine, but this does not solicit the use of ‘him/he’ and ‘she/her’ pronouns.

    Please consider the implications of this and adjust for your future publications.

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