“America”: Consumerism and the End of Citizenship

Elizabeth Dore

After a recent trip to the United States (New York and Texas) we are reminded of the comment by the US journalist Lincoln Steffens after a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, “I have been over to the future and it works”. In the case of what most people call “America” (there is a bit more in the Western Hemisphere than the fifty states plus Puerto Rico), we recommend injecting “doesn’t” between “it” and “works”.

A short list of the US dysfunctions would include: close to a majority of the population without health care to a level of minimum adequacy; a nation-wide degeneration of public schooling due to under-funding; millions of harassed and exploited illegal immigrants; de facto and de jure denial of workers’ rights; politics 99.9 percent dominated by the rich; and (as a result of the last) a powerful reactionary right that is the envy of neo- and proto-fascists everywhere.

We saw these obvious social and political maladies on previous trips, and this time we obtained an insight into the ideology that justifies a society in decline and decay. The revolutions of the second half of the eighteenth century established the principle that democracy is based on the consent of governed. This consent is achieved through participation in the political process, one form of which are elections. With this participation people assert themselves as citizens of the democracy. To state the relationship simply, democratic government is based on citizenship, the active participation of people in their governance.

John Weeks

In the United States the interests of capital have successfully re-defined the nature of political and social existence. In place of “citizens”, people are defined as “consumers” and “taxpayers”. While these categories may seem blandly descriptive, they are profoundly ideological. A democratic society is sustained by the interaction of people and the institutions of their governance. As citizens, people participate in the formulation of laws and regulations that protect them against the Hobbesian “state of nature” in which there is no legitimate authority to prevent anti-social behavior (such as currently in Somalia and, increasingly, Mexico). Participation creates rights and also obligations, the most obvious being to obey the laws that participatory citizenship endorses.

This triad, participation-rights-obligations, is continuously threatened by social divisions based on class, ethnicity and forms of organized superstition (religion being only the most obvious). Democratic societies have sought to contain these threats through legislative constrains on the power of capital, anti-discrimination laws, and enforcement of secularism in the political sphere. From the end of the Second World War into the late 1970s, what might be called the social democratic period, political debate and conflict in democratic countries focused on these issues: the extent to which economic power would be regulated, protecting minorities consistent with majority rule, and rationality versus faith. In general, reactionary forces sought to erode laws limiting the power of capital, opposed egalitarian measures (especially when they implied private economic costs), and encouraged superstition rather than rationality in political debate.

In the 1980s and foremost in the United States, the forces of reaction initiated a quite different strategy. In addition to attacks on specific measures, such as progressive taxation, the Right would seek to undermine the basis of democratic society: the concept and practice of citizenship. This anti-democratic propaganda war is constructed from two terms, “consumer” and “taxpayer”. The first term comes directly from mainstream economic theory, which focuses almost exclusively on transactions. In mainstream economics, people seek to maximize their individual enjoyment, and their vehicle for doing so is the consumption of commodities. Therefore, each person’s primary existence or function is as a consumer, a buyer of commodities. Only secondarily do people exist as family members; and their participation in any social activity other than buying commodities is of little analytical or practical importance.

Treating people as consumers and convincing them that this is their existential role has profound political implications. It generalizes the rhetoric of commodities to every aspect of social intercourse. Rail and airline passengers become “consumers” of the fictitious service “transport”; one attends university classes as a consumer (of the degree, not the knowledge); and a visit to a doctor is for the purpose of consuming medical care. This terminology is more than annoying and inaccurate, it is deeply pernicious.

First, it objectifies one’s fellow citizens. The person in the airline uniform, standing at the lectern, and wearing the white smock is not fellow worker and participant in civil society. He/she is a provider of a commercial service on demand. Second, and implied by the first, no social interaction is expected between the “provider” and the “consumer”. The education provider lectures, assigns and assesses, and the education recipient absorbs. The health provider offers one or a range of treatment that the health consumer purchases or declines. Third, since people are buyers, it is in their interest that they buy at the lowest possible price.

The consequence of the three is that the transaction, be it for food, schooling or medical aid, is an exchange in which the buyer does not view the seller as a fellow citizen, but as conveyor of a commodity. By considering the flight attendant, teacher or nurse a fellow citizen, we accept that he/she is an equal with basic human rights, among which is being paid decently. As a commodity conveyor, the shop attendant, teacher or nurse is objectified as an agent whose purpose is to deliver the commodity as cheaply as possible. It follows that the lower that person is paid, the cheaper the commodity will be and the happier the “consumer” because he/she can consume more of it or other commodities.

The full destruction of citizenship is achieved by assigning to the consumer a second role, that of taxpayer. For a citizen, taxes are a component of the participation that facilitates achieving collective goals in society. For a consumer, taxation is an involuntary reduction in the income available to spend on commodities. Citizens participate in government and seek their common welfare through its institutions. Consumers loathe government as an authority that denies them part of what brings them fulfillment, income to spend on commodities.

This view of society as made up of individuals whose pleasure derives from consumption, with an overwhelming interest in cheap commodities and low taxes is so analytically vulgar that it borders on the absurd. All except the very rich must work to produce a product or service, which provides the income to obtain the basic needs of people and their families. It takes no great insight to realize that obtaining commodities as cheaply as possible implies driving down one’s own income. It is equally obvious that minimizing taxes implies minimizing those activities and functions that create a society from a collection of isolated individuals.

The analytical and practical absurdity of the consumer/taxpayer specification demonstrates the power of ideology to obscure reality; even more, to overcome the rational with the irrational, replacement of reason with belief. People live in groups. Fueled by the concentration of wealth, right wing propaganda makes us believe we are isolated individuals, fated to pursue narrow self-interest. Government can be the vehicle to achieve collectively what is impossible for individuals. The ideology of consumption converts us to the faith that government is a burden that through taxation robs us of fulfillment by the purchases of commodities.

When a news reporter on television or radio informs us that the cost of bank bailout is “borne by the taxpayer”, or improved wages for nurses “will increase our taxes”, we are being fed a not-very-subtle political message: we live alone; we need feel no responsibility for other members of society; and collective action for social improvement reduces our happiness. In other words, we are consumers, not citizens.

  • Tony Brooke

    The force of this argument is undeniable. It is a description of Western society in general, after prolonged exposure to some very bad influences. But to suggest that changes by government alone can set things right is unreasonable. Faith, in the shared good that's common to every-man, as best moderator of moral direction, should not be so easily dismissed. It is far less old fashioned and irrational than the destructive vices common among us now. Faith inspired the Victorians to work for the common good towards decent goals of civilised living, there is no reason why it shouldn't work again, if enough of our capitalist leaders had the common decency to apply the principals.

    • D. Hahn

      They forgot to mention the miserable failure the Soviet Union became, the fact that almost all nations want to emulate the US and their own Britain has tried this socialist utopia and is paying dearly for it.

      • Tony Brooke

        D.Hahn.

        One thing we all have in common is the power to delude ourselves in the interpretation of history.

        It's all a bit like the chicken and the egg. Which came first, the fantasy or the reality? Both depend on each other. Imagination pre dates Hollywood by millions of years. The best dream is the one that fits most happily into the reality of where you find yourself. Right is not an absolute but relative to Left, and freedom is only the longing state of an oppressed mind. Socialism is about expanding the mind to accommodate difference.

  • http://whoknew42.blogspot.com Who Knew?

    I read this article, and with great admiration and appreciation – I thank the author for it.

    The idea of America has failed; the country sold out to the corporatocracy that rules the government and the people. We are at the cusps of true fascism – much to the denial and angry resentment of that very thought of many of this nations blind defenders. They cloak themselves in the flag while holding the bible in one hand and the cross in the other. They are the pawns of the corporate elite, whom inundate the same message of individuality at all costs over and over and over again. Individuality has become the absolute ability and desire to purchase unneeded items, dwell in oversized homes that damage the local environment, and kill themselves slowly by eating unsafe and unhealthy foods filled with fats, sodium and preservatives. They are then kept in a dulled state of existence through a constant stream of pharmaceuticals that keep them and their children medicated and controlled.

    My argument is easy to make, considering that all I have to do is point to the rise in bankruptcies, foreclosures and credit card debt that has plagued this nation for the past 3 decades. The market has crashed numerous times; and the stock market is followed more closely than any religion. The push to privatize everything from the prison industrial system to education is further proof that America is run by corporations, not government. When one is a citizen – they have a say. When one is a consumer – but has no money – they have no power, and no one cares what they have to say. It's almost as if their citizenship had been stripped away at the same rate as the money in their pocket.

    Now, of course, there are those that will state that although America is not perfect, it is the best system in the world. As an American, I boldly disagree with that statement. I think to look upon recommendations for improvement as a treasonous act is bordering on totalitarianism. It's not the best system in the world – not anymore – but it can improve. And for the sake of the future of this country, it better.

  • http://tornhalves.blogspot.com Torn Halves

    A further thought along the same lines: What has to happen for the happy (or not-so-happy) shoppers to stop and question the culture of consumerism and the death of citizenship? Back in 2008 I thought the economic collapse would do something in this regard, and that would prompt a more reasoned critique amongst the general population of things like deindustrialisation and, by extension, the liberalisation of capital flows. But no, despite being brought to the brink of economic meltdown there has been no cultural soul searching. So what needs to happen? What hope is there?