Citizen vs. Consumer: The Perils of Deflationary Democracy
The contemporary dilemma of consumer vs. citizen
Do you think of yourself primarily as a citizen or a consumer? A generation ago this would have been a silly question. Not so today. More and more, our country is becoming a democracy only in aspiration. The phenomenal success of special-interest lobbies and mass marketing have had the cumulative linguistic effect of overwriting us metaphorically as persons of political rights and responsibilities and turning us into people with nothing much going for us other than our purchasing preferences.
If you are old enough to remember the frequent use of the adage "the customer is always right," then you might also recall a time when most people thought of themselves as citizens and only occasionally as customers. Of course, some of us still feel that way, but the ubiquitous use of the term consumer has turned the notion of citizen into a hollow idiom of generations past. Being referred to as a customer of this or that store or service is by itself non-threatening to ones status as a citizen. But the mantle of consumer as the sole descriptor of individuals has had the effect of siphoning the implied responsibility out of citizenship while morphing into a nihilistic but universal catchphrase for people whose summum bonum in life is to use up resources.
Nothing captures the contemporary dilemma of consumer vs. citizen more vividly than the fact that so many people view the government not as us but as them. And nothing more need be said to make the bewildering point that to hold this view is to profoundly misunderstand the very concept of a democratic republic and the responsibilities required to sustain it. A citizen's conscience vs. a consumer's choice is a sharp disconnect between conflicting notions of freedom and responsibility. Worse, consider the democratic prerequisite of the consent of the governed vs. the indifference of the governed. An egregious lack of political authority resulting from nonparticipation is precisely what happens when citizens view their government as them instead of us. Wherever a lack of will resides, special interests will in time fill the vacuum with a special purpose.
In A Place for Us, a book about making democracy work, author Benjamin Barber writes, "Democracy is not a synonym for the marketplace, and the notion that by privatizing government we can establish civic goods is a dishonorable myth." An insidious myth, Barber argues, because it has a superficial feel of freedom. He says, "Consumers speak the divisive rhetoric of "me." Citizens invent the common language of "we." And then he adds, "Ducks, to be ducks, need their pond, and the public needs its town square." Moreover, the kind of business conducted in the public square is often far more important than the decisions we make with our wallets. These issues involve common good and common ground. Common ground, though, cannot be discovered unless it has first been established. Achieving common ground means accepting a set of identifying principals, namely American ideals based upon our Constitution and Bill of Rights, along with the notion that one can indeed appear different, have opposing views, and still be an American.
As you watch newscasts in the coming weeks, pay particular attention to how many times the word consumer is used, and then ask yourself if, in each of these characterizations, you can sense a feeling of implied impotence in the role that "consumers" are expected to play with regard to anything beyond purchases. I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that the continuous use of the word consumer has had an emasculating effect on the roles expected of individuals in a democracy. The word consumer, by sheer usage level, leaves little room for other considerations.
To be a citizen is to have an identity for both being and doing. A citizen has rights, but also responsibilities. A consumer just feeds on goods and services. Roman statesman and orator Cicero argued that we experience freedom as an exercise of participating in power, but he was speaking of citizens and excluding slaves. What if one has no power, except to buy things? Is shopping all there is to freedom? Perhaps we often hear the expression of voting with ones dollars because many people can no longer distinguish a difference.
In my view, consumer choice vs. citizens' rights is not a parallel proposition. The late philosopher Rick Roderick likened mass culture to the Enlightenment in reverse. No doubt, in large part, it's because trillions of advertising dollars have been spent to appeal to our most infantile urges, which tends to cause us to confuse maturity and success with material possessions, while our penchant for thoughtfulness is overwritten by media images. Thus, "consumers" mistake freedom as an infinite choice of flavors from which to choose.
The "customer is always right" motto originated early in the twentieth century, and although there is some controversy about who coined it, there is little doubt that it started us down the path toward expectations of political impotence. Worse, to be nothing more than a consumer is analogous to being a cancer cell, to being forever voracious of appetite and to demonstrate one's success through continuous and often conspicuous consumption. To be viewed as successful, a consumer must devour, and leftover spoilage is a sign of power to spare. A consumer's response to war is to go shopping, as we were recently urged to do by the President of the United States. The sheer banality of a culture in which the populace is known primarily as consumers is one where persons are seen not as being ends in themselves, but rather as frivolous and superficial means to yet further and further superficial means.
Democracy cannot be attained or sustained without a rigorous public contribution by enlightened participants. But what if citizens can't be depended upon to educate themselves about important political matters as so often seems to be the case? What if instead they respond on cue in consumer fashion to simple-minded thirty-second commercials, as the data clearly suggest happens? When political candidates spend millions on mind-numbing commercials composed of clich̩s, platitudes, and empty slogans, it works. It changes voting in predictable patterns. This is not citizenship. It's a form of reptilian persuasion that amounts to bait-and-switch trickery, where appeals to deep emotions are used for the purpose of diversion: a means to an end by deceit, a willingness to say anything that gets the desired result.
If our primary source of news and information about the world consists of little more than psychologically spun messages, both political and commercial, from powerful media conglomerates, then who are we as individuals to speak above the noise? Are these corporations really any different than feudal lords? If we are powerless against them, are we not their serfs? Are employed adults who will never rise far enough above minimum wage to earn enough to escape poverty really any better off than sharecroppers? Are the immigrants who scrub our floors, pick our crops, and watch after our children really that much better off than indentured servants? Are credit card companies postmodern fiefdoms?
A generation ago questions like these would have offended me. Today they don't for a very simple reason: We have enough history under our belts to realize that a low-wage bottom class is not simply a stepladder to greater success. There are at present too many rungs missing for average citizens to still use the metaphor of a success ladder without cynicism. Reality suggests that a permanent underclass is actually indispensable to the status quo. A culture that worships winners requires, of necessity, a large number of losers. It's disturbing that more people aren't asking questions about a system rigged by the winners. Of course, to be poor in America may still seem rich by the standards of some parts of the world, but belonging to a better class of poor is not really something worthy of national pride, nor is it good for democracy. Choices that are inspired by oppression do not represent genuine liberty. Moreover, the frustration and contempt that result from a permanent underclass undermine the kind of cooperation that fosters common ground.
My generation was taught to prize democracy as an end in itself. Capitalism was to be our means. But today, for millions of people, these roles are reversed. Capitalism nowadays enables the lobbied purchase of governmental power that favors moneyed interests, period. Real democracy requires that knowledgeable citizens learn the nature of civic problems and have the leisure to participate in effecting solutions. Leisure used to stand for the very foundation of culture and implied something far greater than having the time to pursue entertainment.
Granted, cyber-communications contain the seeds of democratic muscle, and like-minded folks all over the planet are joining forces. But the exponential growth of media conglomerates represents a much more formidable threat than Goliath ever presented to David. In addition, the convenience of discovering people who share one's views is having the predictable effect of escalating polarization. The result is what academics call ideological amplification, where members of like-minded groups go further in the direction they are already leaning than they ever would have gone on their own. So far, public square possibilities for engaging in constructive dialogue among people with divergent political views, while not unheard of, are far from ideal, as ducks do not seem to want to be seen talking to chickens, and the reverse.
All that's required for feudalist societies to function is managers, overseers, and an inexhaustible supply of serfs, although nose-to-the-grindstone, minimum-wage consumers seem to work as well. If one has to work seven days a week just to obtain the bare necessities of a life of poverty, then the notion of citizenship and civic responsibility seems hackneyed and trite to begin with.
In a truly democratic society, military service via a draft ensures a vested public interest in the foreign affairs of the nation. In a consumer society where economic opportunity is dismal for so many young adults, the term "voluntary" military service should be suspect. Economic coercion is still coercion, and it's undemocratic--especially when corporate elites live in a business environment that's increasingly socialistic by lobbied design. CEOs collude with politicians, and the fallout deficit due citizens is that all relationships among "consumers" are commoditized. If you don't like it, you're told, "You can shop elsewhere." When you listen carefully to a broad range of political discourse from both the left and right, it's clear that many of our most thoughtful citizens are worried that the American middle class is an endangered species--a situation that threatens the very foundation of our way of life.
Citizen vs. consumer is an issue that transcends political affiliation. Arguments about inequality aside, I don't think it's that hard to convince the political left, right, and middle that a return to the ubiquitous use of the word citizen while scrapping the word consumer in favor of the word customer, in myriad circumstances, would likely result in a paradigm shift in democratic expectations. It seems like such a small thing, and some will no doubt think it silly. Still, ask yourself what would happen if our broadcast media were to dramatically roll back their use of the word consumer and begin referring to all Americans more often as citizens.
I believe the change in perception over time would be startling. What do you think?
Charles D. Hayes