The new consumer activism, carried out in the name of 'the People', is really elitist networking that thrives on political apathy, argues Frank Furedi
Consumers have become big news, complaining, campaigning and forcing big companies such as Shell, Monsanto and the Bank of Scotland on to the defensive. Public and private institutions face an unprecedented level of litigation, as angry claimants demand not only compensation but a change in their mode of operation. According to recent figures, complaints against doctors in Britain have trebled in the past five years. In June the Law Society announced that it would spend £5.7 million to clear a growing backlog of 17 000 complaints at the Office for Supervision of Solicitors. Over the past five years the number of complaints has risen by 40 percent in financial services, by 48 percent in the gas industry, and by 178 percent in telecommunications. In 1991 fewer than 8000 holidaymakers complained to the Office of Fair Trading about their tour operator. By 1997 that figure had nearly doubled to 14 000 complaints.
Consumer activism has acquired a formidable respectability in Britain. The New Labour government is uniquely sensitive to lobbying by consumer advocacy groups. Faced with criticism from lobbyists against genetically modified (GM) food, Tony Blair and his ministers substantially modified their stance on the issue. Government ministers now seek to project themselves as consumer champions. In July they launched a populist public relations campaign against 'rip off' Britain. And the Office of Fair Trading has adopted the image of a crusading consumers' outfit. The sensitivity of ministers to consumer lobbying stands in sharp contrast to the relative failure of more traditional interest groups like trade unions to win concessions from the government.
The ascendancy of consumer activism in Britain parallels important developments in the United States. A recent study by Jeffrey Berry, The New Liberalism: the rising power of citizen groups, provides compelling evidence of the rise of powerful and well-financed lobby groups. These groups express an outlook which is oriented towards 'quality-of-life issues' such as consumer affairs, environmentalism and good government. According to Berry, they have had a major impact in altering the American political agenda and in shaping the way that business is conducted on Capitol Hill. In the 1960s, most domestic legislation coming before the House and Senate dealt with the allocation of economic resources, and only around a third of the bills dealt with quality-of-life issues such as consumer or environmental concerns. By 1991, says Berry, this pattern had been fundamentally altered. Something like 71 percent of all Congressional hearings that year focused on legislation based around quality-of-life concerns, while economic issues occupied just 29 percent of domestic legislation.
The rise of consumerism in America coincides with declining interest in issues of economic equality and sympathy for the poor. According to Berry, this new liberalism appeals principally to an upper middle-class suburban constituency. As a result, it can access a level of funding not available to either labour advocates or promoters of right-wing conservative causes, whose appeal is primarily to people of more modest means. Although Berry concedes that new liberalism's stress on quality-of-life issues 'has certainly left them open to the charge of elitism', he believes that their 'post-materialist' politics represents the wave of the future. However, in his enthusiasm for the new liberalism, Berry overlooks one important development.
The rise of citizen lobbying groups is paralleled by a major decline in the participation of the American people in the electoral process. It seems that citizen activism for a small minority is closely linked to the political disenfranchisement of large sections of American society.
Britain, too, has experienced the paradox of consumer activism coinciding with an unprecedented level of social disengagement. Recent debate about political apathy in elections underlines the isolation of a significant section of British society from the formal process of politics. What is particularly worrying is that a growing number of commentators now believe that consumer activism represents a democratic alternative to party politics and electoral participation. It has been suggested that consumer-lobbying organisations are giving the people a voice and are training a new generation of active citizens. Some even go so far as to portray consumer activism as superior to traditional forms of political involvement. 'Consumers, not voters, make a difference', writes Noreena Hertz in the New Statesman. Hertz believes that politicians should learn from the experience of consumer activism, and ought to begin treating the electorate as if they were their customers. 'Politics is dead - long live the consumer', enthuses Hertz.
In reality consumer activism is symptomatic of a profound process of atomisation in British society and politics. In the past, the action of consumer pressure groups was not described in flattering terms like social activism. It was characterised as what it still is - professional lobbying. Lobby organisations seldom claimed to be the voice of the people. They were in the business of representing relatively narrow sectional interests. What has changed is not the nature of lobbying, but the wider patterns of political life.
Since the 1980s, Britain has experienced a dramatic decline in party politics. The membership of all the major parties has fallen, as has involvement in trade unions, churches and other civic organisations. This decline in social engagement reflects a fundamental erosion of political life. The triumph of Thatcher's TINA - there is no alternative - has deprived politics of choice, competing visions and meaningful debate. The emergence of a managerial style of pragmatic governance has helped to transform parliamentary politics into a tedious irrelevance.
In July, a report published by the Hansard Society confirmed that parliament is disappearing from the TV screens and that MPs get hardly any airtime. The growing irrelevance of parliamentary politics is most clearly reflected in the transformation of BBC's Question Time, from a prestigious forum for political debate into an inane chat-show where comedians, celebrities and other political illiterates hold forth on subjects about which they know very little. The editor of this programme defended the decision to replace MPs with comedians by arguing that celebrities could help bring politics to a wider audience. When comics are charged with bringing politics to a wider audience, one is entitled to ask what politics has become.
The disappearance of the eloquent politician is matched by the exit of the so-called core voter. The number of people who passionately identify with a political party has shrunk. The old Labour core vote was forged around issues to do with wealth redistribution and welfare, while the Tory core voter was inspired by the traditional values which the party stood for. Today, both parties have shed their ideological baggage and self-consciously distance themselves from any distinct ideological views. The absence of those sentiments which excited commitment and forged the core vote has helped to open a widening chasm between political parties and the electorate.
Social and political disengagement represent the foundations of consumer activism. The erosion of civic solidarity and the growth of individuation has created a climate in which shopping appears to have more meaning than democratic participation. Precisely because politicians represent very little in the way of public will, lobbyists can claim a new role for themselves. A space has opened up for the activities of advocacy groups, charities and non-governmental organisations to act as the voice of the People. No longer subservient lobbyists, they can claim the role of representatives of popular interest.
For an otherwise isolated political class, advocacy groups provide an important point of contact with the public. Both sides of this affair benefit from a new cosy relationship. Consumer activists gain privileged access to powerful institutions. Many have been integrated into the network of consultative committees that the government uses to test out its policies. Lobbyists have been directly coopted into parliament, where they constitute a significant portion of the new generation of MPs. The political class also profits from this symbiotic relationship. Their deliberation with advocacy groups helps to create the impression of genuine consultation. As long as political lethargy prevails, consumer activism will be accorded a special status by officialdom. Why? Because the activism of the civic lobbyist allows Britain's political class to retain a semblance of accountability.
Consumer activism involves small numbers of professional advocates promoting a bewildering variety of causes. It is nothing more than traditional pressure group politics. But in the absence of a healthy political environment, such pressure group politics can acquire unprecedented momentum and public profile. Indeed, it is their ability to gain profile which determines the degree of influence they can exercise. Consequently, the machinery of consumer activism is single-mindedly oriented towards gaining publicity through the media. Unlike traditional social movements, lobbying groups are not interested in mobilising popular support per se. Contacts in the media and friends in influential places are far more important than tens of thousands of active supporters. Even when consumer activists take direct action, what counts is the presence of the TV cameras. There is little point in protesting or demonstrating if it does not gain publicity for the group concerned. From this perspective, an act is deemed to be effective if it makes the news. It does not matter whether anything has been achieved on the ground; publicity is all that counts. The typical Greenpeace stunt involving a small core of professional protesters, their appearance carefully crafted for the maximum dramatic effect, is emblematic of the political theatre of consumer activism.
For their part, the media uncritically embrace the consumer activist. They are the good guys. Unlike sleazy politicians they are not tainted by corruption or self-interest. They are typically portrayed as altruistic and idealistic souls whose motives are beyond reproach. On any day of the week, the media will interview representatives of consumers, single parents, disabled people, children and a variety of other interests. There is an automatic assumption that the head of a particular advocacy group has the moral authority to speak on behalf of everybody he or she claims to represent. The question of how, say, the Consumers' Association gained the right to speak on behalf of millions of British consumers is rarely posed. Were they elected by Britain's consumers? Did they gain their mandate from heaven? I know that I am a consumer. I also know that although the Consumers' Association speaks on my behalf, I have never been consulted about my opinions on the subject.
Since they are accepted as part of the powerful British oligarchy, consumer activists have a mandate to promote their cause through means not usually available to other movements. Anybody who recalls how protesting miners were treated by the police during the 1985 strike, will be struck by the gentle camaraderie that the forces of law and order have tended to adopt when dealing with protests organised by consumer activists. Anti-road protesters and demonstrators against live animal exports never had to contend with the level of repression experienced by the miners. I have seen hunt saboteurs who have spat at and physically attacked their opponents treated by the police as if they were naughty children. And anti-GM food protesters who destroy the hard work of others are treated as if they were on a higher moral plane than the rest of society.
There was a time when direct action and protest was automatically denounced as subversive by the media. As a 1960s student activist, I do not recall newspaper articles commenting favourably on our direct action. Denounced as 'dirty scum', radical activists were portrayed as a threat to society. Contrast this media reaction to direct action with the way consumer activists are portrayed today. Anti-road protesters are treated with the kind of indulgence that one usually reserves for one's grandchildren, an activist like Swampy portrayed as some kind of underground Mother Teresa.
There is a big difference between the honourable tradition of direct action and the media-driven protest of consumer activism. The aim of direct action was to mobilise people in order to shift the balance of power in society. Consumer activism is not about people gaining power for themselves. It is about 'empowering them' through the benevolent acts of a few others. It involves small groups of enlightened activists who see themselves as acting on people's behalf. The principal aim of this sort of initiative is not popular mobilisation but the exercise of influence over the media and influential people within the political oligarchy.
Consumer activism is not only highly respectable. It also has a semi-official mandate to break the law. Anti-GM food protesters are often represented as idealistic young people, who are acting on our behalf. They have the kind of freedom to protest that is usually denied to ordinary mortals. When Lord Melchett, the aristocratic leader of Greenpeace, was arrested for criminal damage and theft, he was genuinely shocked by his treatment. As far as he was concerned, his action was a 'direct expression of "people's power"'. As the self-appointed voice of the British people, Greenpeace represents its action as an exercise in 'active citizenship' which 'keeps democracy healthy and responsive'.
Melchett, like other leading consumer activists, possesses a highly elitist notion of democracy. They are driven by the conviction that, if they believe that something is wrong, then waiting for an unresponsive political system to do something about it is a luxury that society cannot afford. Professional protesters assume the moral authority to take matters into their own hands, since they are acting on behalf of the People.
There is little doubt that British democracy is imperfect and generally subject to vested interest. Most people have little say over the way that things are run and the political oligarchy possesses interests which often contradict what is good for society as a whole. Nevertheless, people at least have a formal right to elect others to speak on their behalf. Whatever the obvious defects of parliamentary democracy, it at least invites people to vote for individuals and parties that reflect their preference. This political system also allows people - albeit infrequently - to get rid of politicians who have lost the support of the electorate.
Paradoxically, the system of defective democracy is far superior to the 'active citizenship' of Greenpeace. An elected politician and party at least have a mandate to speak on behalf of the public. In contrast, Lord Melchett can only speak for his colleagues, who gave him his post as executive director of Greenpeace. The issue here is not whether consumer activists are right or wrong about a particular subject. The point is that they are entitled to speak only for themselves and nobody else. Lord Melchett can no more claim to speak on my behalf than the director of the Consumers' Association. In contrast, my MP - with whom I disagree on virtually every subject - has at least the right to claim to be my representative.
Consumer activism thrives on the apathy of the British public. It elevates the role of the professional activist and transforms politics into a system of lobbying and oligarchical networking. Although it is not responsible for the social disengagement that prevails in society, it helps to perpetuate this state of affairs by further professionalising political life. The result is far more restrictive even than the old imperfect parliamentary democracy.
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999