Why consumer activists should pack their bags

It's not about individualism, it's not about power, and it's not about politics. Consumer politics is the opposite to everything it claims to be.

Consumerism is supposed to be about individualism and individual choice - yet consumers have this habit of panicking about consumer products at the same time. And they have a habit of wearing the same kind of clothes at the same time; and drinking coffee at the same shops at the same time.

Consumer movements are supposed to represent new confident forms of democratic engagement and citizenship. But by and large, these movements behave in a way that is reactive and fearful. This usually involves, not taking control of their lives, but asking somebody in authority to step in and solve their problems.

Despite the claim that consumerism leads to the politics of the market, consumerism actually leads to the politics of the state, and demands the extension of state regulations. It leads to the diminishing role of individual citizens, and a growing power of public authority and public expertise. The politics of consumerism represents a new relationship between the state and society: one that replaces the relationship of citizen to local authority with that of the consumer to public bureaucracy.

Public commentators almost never discuss the way that consumer activism represents the triumph of the state over society. When you look at the objectives and the demands of consumerism, it is worth noting that, directly or indirectly, the campaigns of consumer activism lead to some particular demand upon the state to step in and to sort out the problems that individuals cannot resolve.

For this reason, consumer activism acquires its most developed form in circumstances where the state and political system have lost their authority and legitimacy. Consumer activism is associated with the withdrawal of the public from political life. The consumerist movement is parasitical on social and political decay, and thrives on a society where individuals do not possess any political vision, or have any mechanisms to ensure their individual aspirations can be expressed.

This explains why voter apathy is always the flip-side of consumer activism. The more active consumer movements are, the fewer people are likely to vote. This is not simply a coincidence - the two trends actually reinforce one another.

An interesting paradox is that consumer activism develops in the context of the state losing its legitimacy, but at the same time it gives the state a new role. This is why politicians of all political parties are so keen to embrace the cause of consumer activism - it gives the state and its bureaucratic institutions a new reason for their existence.

Take, for example, one of the most illegitimate and unauthoritative institutions that influences our life: the EU Commission. The EU Commission realises that it is illegitimate, and the way it is trying to reinvent itself as a potentially relevant factor in our lives is by overdosing on regulations. It is continually promoting itself as the consumer’s friend; the amount of money spent on consumer information is phenomenal. This is a very clear attempt to create an ideological foundation for its own relevance.

A similar thing is going on with the British state and the Scottish devolved executive. Everybody in power is using this issue as a way of assuming a new role for themselves.

However honourable the intentions of consumer politics, it indirectly provides a rationale for the extension of state activities, and the bureaucratisation of everyday life. Since the Thatcher regime in the 1980s, there has been a steady expansion of regulation and regulative bodies. Everybody says, ‘I believe in the market! I believe in choice!’ - but the more they swear on the bible of ‘choice’, the more regulative bureaucracies are set up. Lurking behind virtually every single initiative is yet another quango.

Since the collapse of the welfare state, we’ve not seen the decline of state intervention, but rather its inexorable rise. As the welfare state becomes exhausted, we become a new kind of state, where the old welfare function is recycled on a more individualised basis.

The reorientation of public authority towards the consumer has helped to create a new form of political life. In particular, it has continually diminished people’s aspiration for autonomy. It has had an effect on transforming political activism, in so far as that exists, into what I would call pressure-group politics. People used to call them lobbyists or special interest groups - now they are described in more flattering terms.

We have a situation where the aspirations of individuals to participate, to take a role, become increasingly taken over by professional organisations and professional interest groups. In a sense, we have a political oligarchy composed of political classes and interest group organisations that is far more elitist than the political oligarchies of the earlier twentieth century.

Consumer politics is also profoundly anti-democratic. What is the consumer? Who is the consumer? If you actually look at the consumer, the consumer is a silent, atomised, passive individual. The act of consumption sums it up. The act of consumption, when you passively consume, is very different from when you interact and produce. That is why the consumer’s interests are always invariably represented by highly specialised pressure group, staffed by activists.

Nobody ever questions these people’s right to speak on behalf of the consumer. I always get irritated when I hear that phrase, ‘As the voice of the consumer, I say…’. For example, I am a commuter from Kent. If you are a consumer of the railway system, you do not have very much power, and that is bad enough. But even more irritating is when these gentlemen go on television, as the ‘passengers’ association’ or the ‘passengers’ voice’, as though they are speaking on my behalf.

I have never met this guy, and if I had my say I would certainly get rid of him. But as far as the railway is concerned, he is the authentic voice of the Kent commuter and that is the end of the matter.

If we ever raised the question of where these people get their authority from, we would recognise that it comes from their friends in the bureaucracy, the civil service, the media and from the state system itself. This is a kind of closed shop, where you get Tony Blair giving a few people a consultation, and after that consultation they are given a certain amount of money to spread their important crusade. They then become the authoritative figure of consumers in that particular area; they almost never emerge from the grassroots.

Most importantly, for anybody with a sense of justice and equality, we have to recognise that the idea of the consumer obscures real relationships of inequality and power. As citizens, at least we are all formally equal. It doesn’t matter how much money people have in their bank accounts - everybody has one vote. Some may have more influence than others, but at the end of the day we only have one vote.

That is formal equality, which is surely a worthwhile principle. Nobody says that if I am more intelligent, or richer, than somebody else that I should have three votes, or five votes. We recognise that, as citizens, we are all entitled to the equal treatment of having one vote each.

But consumers do not have one vote each. They possess very different amounts of power. The consumer of sausage rolls at Asda is really not the same consumer as the person that purchases sea bass from Waitrose. Still less are they the same as an industrial consumer of petrol, which can influence the price of petrol in a way that all those lorry drivers in the petrol protests in 2000 couldn’t, even though they had the illusion of power.

Consumer activism privileges the voice of the powerful, and ignores the concerns, not only of the poor and the marginalised, but of the vast majority. Most consumers have no power whatsoever. If they have any power at all, it is only in relation to very specific products in relation to very specific areas. It is precisely because of this that consumer activists can use an elitist language that would not be tolerated in any other area of life. For example, in something like the foot-and-mouth crisis, they can talk about the idea of cheap food as if it was a disgrace. ‘Cheap food? My God! How could Britain want cheap food?’ Obviously when you are on £85,000 a year, cheap food is not an issue for you.

Consumer activists have a lot of power when they are trying to prevent a motorway from being built the Green Belt in Surrey, in order not to lower the price of their £650,000 houses. Try being a consumer activist trying to slow down the traffic in an inner-city housing estate and see how much news coverage you get in comparison.

Not only is consumerism unequal: it is also anti-individualistic. If you want to see conformity then go to Seattle on a demonstration. If you want to see conformity, listen to the language these demonstrators use or to the music that they listen to; the universal disdain they have for McDonald’s hamburgers, or for certain types of coffee. What you have is not widespread individualism, but a dull conformism that masquerades itself as somehow being highly individualistic.

Individuality is not like the 12-year old wanting to be different to their friends. A strong individual doesn’t let other people talk for them - they are confident, they take control of their lives. And strong individualism goes with, not against, solidarity with others. We believe in ourselves as individuals far more when we have connections with other people. To have a real sense of ourselves we need to be together.

And so it is necessary to restate the argument for participation and engagement. Not in the old way, but in a new way that touches people. Hopefully, this will provide a platform for creating a more creative, engaging society.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Visit Frank Furedi’s website

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