The consumer is dead! Long live the citizen

Sensemaking / The consumer is dead! Long live the citizen

Rather than just making choices, citizens are shaping the options, says Jon Alexander

By Jon Alexander / 09 Aug 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Citizen Innovation. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016

Here’s a challenge for you as you read this. Every time you use the word ‘consumer’ – whether you write it, say it or even think it – you are holding back the inevitable shift towards a positive future. You are reinforcing an idea of humanity that is outdated and inadequate, in your own head and in the heads of those you work with. You are part of the problem; or, more accurately, you are holding back the tide of solutions.

To be able to see this, you have first to know what the consumer really is. You probably think it’s just a word. But language is never inert: it is the scaffolding on which we build our thoughts, behaviours, values and – most importantly – identities.

This is why the consumer matters. It is an identity construct. It contains coded within it an idea of who we are, and what the right thing is for us to do. Every time we use it, we are telling ourselves that what is right is to seek the best possible deal for ourselves from the options offered, based primarily on material self-interest, as narrowly defined individuals, and in the short term. Social psychology priming experiments show that when you expose people to consumer norms, or even to the word itself, you prime reactions that are more selfish, less open to social participation, and less motivated by environmental concerns. You are telling people not to care. Yet we do this to ourselves constantly, every day, inside organisations, through advertising, and through indicators of societal performance like ‘consumer confidence’. 

But here’s the good news. Thus precisely understood as the social system that exists when the consumer is the dominant identity construct, it becomes clear that not only has consumerism not been around forever but also that it’s on its way out. This in turn sheds new light on the true significance of the rise of citizen innovation, because ‘citizen’ is also not just a word: the citizen is what comes next.

The dominance of the consumer really begins in the aftermath of the two world wars, before which we were arguably best thought of as subjects. The right thing for us to do back then was to get what we were given, to do our duty and to keep our heads down. The consumer came onto that scene as a liberating shift, bringing us a revolution in individual agency in the form of freedom of choice, raising standards through competition. It started as a positive. 

The year 1984, with all its weight of literary resonance, beautifully fills out this picture of the consumer as a positive shift – and represents the idea at its zenith. Apple and Virgin burst onto the scene that year, two iconic consumer brands; the idea that we could buy stuff to save the planet and solve global poverty was brought to the mainstream by the Body Shop as it floated on the London Stock Exchange and by Band Aid (well, the first installation ...); and the LA Olympics, the first ever to be funded by commercial sponsorship, showed that we consumers could fund global sport and culture too. Madonna even had the poetic decency to cap it off by releasing ‘Material Girl’.

But that was the zenith; not this. Now we’re in the period of insanity, when all the problems we thought consumerism could solve are in fact multiplying, breeding with one another and deepening around us, and at least in the mainstream structures of society we respond by continuing to do the same things but expect a different result.

And so to the citizen. Because what is today hazily recognised as one trend among many, as in the pages of this publication, is in fact the core of the shift we are making. The idea of the citizen is the next dominant identity construct, on course to replace the consumer just as the consumer replaced the subject.

It is happening everywhere, across every aspect of society, and across the world, and it is something all of us can be part of. Instead of just choosing what we want from the options offered, and hoping against reason and experience that if we all do that, the best for society as a whole will somehow emerge, we are as citizens exploring our moral and creative agency, shaping what the choices are, and finding new ways forward.

It is happening in politics, where it manifests as the usurpation of representative democracy by participatory democracy. In Argentina, Pia Mancini, the formidable spokeswoman for the pioneering deliberative and participatory Partido de la Red (the Network Party) makes a powerful argument: democracy can no longer be limited to the vote, the equivalent of uploading of a few kilobytes of data every few years; voter disengagement seen in such light is a demand for more, not less. Across the world, new organisations like hers, which, to borrow the phrase of the Danish Alternativet, are better described as political platforms than political parties, are springing up everywhere, both at the national level and the city level. In Iceland, the deceptively simple Better Reykjavik initiative is arguably the gold standard to date: it has seen over 70% of the city’s residents participate in proposing, debating and refining legislation.

It is happening in local communities, where we are seeing the long simmering of movements like Transition Towns, Incredible Edible, local currencies and more unmistakably approach boiling point. To take Transition Towns alone, what began as a narrow-based and humble reaction to peak oil and climate change is now bursting into big impact: there is a small town in Italy whose Transition Town lead has become its mayor; a project in the movement’s spiritual home in Totnes, Devon, has effectively taken over local planning; and in a growing number of cities the public officials draw their salaries in local complementary currencies that began as experimental Transition Town projects. This is the citizen in action, claiming the agency to reimagine and rebuild the world without waiting for the old power structures to move.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it is happening in business, arguably the seat of empire of the consumer, where it manifests as a drastic shift in focus from profit to higher purpose as the ultimate goal and measure of success. Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to maximise its profits”, perhaps the purest public expression of consumer look-after-number-one-and-the-rest-will-look-after-themselves logic, is very obviously falling from its perch. This is manifest not just in the rise of B and benefit corporations, of social enterprise, of shareholder activism and divestment, and in the renaissance of mutualism but also inside individual businesses, as our understanding of human motivation leads us to see that employee engagement must entail genuine participation in shaping organisational culture and purpose; and even in marketing departments, where the sharpest minds – and those whose organisations are sufficiently purposeful to allow it – are involving their customers as participants in a cause, not just as consumers of a product.

Businesses are becoming citizens, employees are becoming citizens ... and consumers are becoming citizens.

As a result, we have a moment in time right now. Our challenge is to respond constructively, and usher in the new era with positivity and courage. If we can seize this moment, this citizen shift, we can create a new and far more meaningful society, in which our young people feel there is something sacred and worthy of their investment, and in which we can all – not just those with the financial means to consume – have a genuine stake.

You can start, in your own life and work, by changing your language; and you will discover a whole new world. Thinking of people as consumers, the only ideas you can possibly come up with are for stuff people can buy from you; your brain is building on scaffolding that will allow nothing else. But think of people as citizens, and you must start by asking what the purpose of your organisation is, and how you could invite people to participate in that purpose.

You will move from ‘us’ and ‘them’ to ‘we’. You’ll start to create the future. And you’ll stop propping up a past that needs to die. 

Jon Alexander is a Founding Partner at the New Citizenship Project.

Image: Thomas Leuthard / Flickr

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