Politics on the shelf
By trying to 'harness consumerism', health secretary John Reid sells public life short.
Who is the twenty-first century citizen? For New Labour’s policymakers the answer seems to be: a consumer.
In a speech last week at the University of Paisley, health secretary John Reid outlined the government’s ambition to ‘find a way of harnessing consumerism, with its values of self-expression and enjoyment, in pursuit of the broader twenty-first century public good’ (1). By giving people consumer-style choices about which hospital they are treated in, or which school their kids go to, the plan is to reinvigorate the experience of public life.
This ambition seems odd, if we think about our everyday experiences as consumers. We make hundreds of choices – about which t-shirt to buy, which burger to eat – but we generally don’t invest too much in them. Shopping is a passive, banal act; more often a necessary chore than a creative pleasure. Supermarkets give out ‘loyalty’ cards, but nobody in their right mind would really be ‘loyal’ to their supermarket. You go there because it comes up with the goods: if it didn’t, you would switch store.
So why does the government want to build public life on consumerism? In part, because consumerism is one of the few things that remains, after the erosion of many of the old public institutions and political ideologies. When associations such as parties and unions no longer bind people together, the market is one of the only things that links them. You relate to others through cash transactions, through money and goods changing hands.
People identify less with their jobs than with personal identities based on lifestyle. So rather than seeing themselves as butcher, miner or policeman, they are more likely to see themselves as Goth, gay or vegetarian. Productive engagement with others, creating something that is useful for society, is elided in favour of off-the-peg lifestyle identities. As Reid admitted in his speech: ‘the dominance of consumerism in modern life is linked…to the collapse of other narratives of progress. Religious, ideological and other traditional community values no longer occupy such a central place in the public interpretation of who is achieving what, of whether life is actually getting better’.
Consumerism is the new reality, says New Labour – get used to it. If public life has been reduced to shopping, let’s go shopping. As former health secretary Alan Milburn said back in 2003: ‘We are in a consumer age whether people like it or not. What will destroy the public services is the idea that you can retain the ethos of the 1940s in the twenty-first century.’ (2) Reid seems to see political ideologies and communities as airy-fairy abstractions, dreams from another age; by contrast, consumerist politics ‘proceeds from the concrete reality of people’s economic interests’.
Reid is certainly right that institutions such as the National Health Service can no longer work in the same way. The old public service ethos doesn’t do its job anymore, either for public servants or the public. We don’t have the postwar sense of being in it together, of being part of a community that supports individuals, in sickness and in health. In 1942, the liberal reformer William Beveridge identified the ‘Giant evils’ of society as Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, and prescribed the large-scale institutional reforms that laid the basis for the welfare state. Who would be so definitive about the problems facing society today – let alone offer such a far-reaching political solution?
New Labour’s response is to lower its horizons. Rather than try to build new relationships, or spark serious debates about what we want from public life, the government accepts that narrow self-interest is all that it has to work with.
‘It is people’s ambitions for themselves and their families that is the engine of national improvement’, says Reid. He celebrates patients’ ‘power of preference to choose this or that provider and so drive the whole system through patient power’. By voting with their feet, patients will punish bad hospitals and reward good ones. The bad ones will be forced to raise their game or go out of business. Thus public services are made accountable to the public, and responsive to people’s needs.
Individuals naturally want the best service available, and their aspirations as consumers can certainly put pressure on service bodies to deliver the goods. But as a way of involving people in public life, or of obtaining the best public services for all, the consumerist route is a poor one. As a consumer, all you can do is choose between a series of products on a shelf, be they spaghetti hoops or hospitals. You don’t have any say in what ends up on the shelf; you don’t debate with others their ideas for how things should be organised. The private, passive side of you is being engaged, not the active, public side. In fact, the ‘public’ of consumer citizens isn’t a public at all: it’s just an aggregation of millions of individual choices, each oblivious to all the others.
‘A politics of consumption can be a politics of empowerment’, says Reid. Sure, as a consumer you can complain if the product you want isn’t on the shelf, if there isn’t a good enough hospital to choose from. You can write long letters about the ‘poor quality of service’ or moaning about the withdrawal of your favourite brand of marmalade. But the hectoring, petulant tone of people who make such complaints gives the lie to the idea that this is about empowerment. Complaining on your own is just being a busybody. It’s only by acting as part of a community of citizens that we could really hope to do something about it.
Reid claims that consumption decisions help people to relate to one another. ‘Our everyday consumption decisions have myriad ripple effects’, he says: ‘the consumer who is determined to shape her own life, is also aware of her potential contribution to the wider systems on which she depends.’ I’m sure that my choice of sandwich this lunchtime did have ‘myriad ripple effects’, but they were very small and I have no idea what they were. We don’t choose or have any control over the knock-on effects of consumption. Consumption is about you and the sandwich, not about you and other people who picked the same sandwich, or about the production methods necessary to produce the sandwich.
By trying to harness the energy of consumerism, New Labour is breeding problems for itself. Market-type choice forms a shaky kind of tie between leaders and public, surely the last thing an elite preoccupied with the problem of ‘trust’ would want. If the government is just a service-provider, like a supermarket or a bank, this isn’t a good basis of any kind of common understanding or relationship with the public. The tie is a temporary one, just as it is when money changes hands.
We need to consume, because we need to eat and put clothes on our backs. But public life should be about much more than that.
(1) ‘Social democratic politics in an age of consumerism: traditional values in a modern setting’, 27 January 2005
(2) Quoted in Citizen-consumers, Catherine Needham, April 2003 [pdf format]
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