A new movement seeks to shift attitudes forwardsby Julian Baggini / February 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Some time in the early 1980s I remember seeing a senior conservative politician on the news talking about “UK plc.” The phrase jarred. The United Kingdom is a nation state, not a private company, and to brand it as one seemed grubby and belittling.
Thirty-odd years later, “UK plc” has become part of the ordinary lexicon. If anyone finds it objectionable, few say so. No one announced that from now on we should conceive of our country as a business, but gradually, imperceptibly, it became natural to do so.
This is how so many cultural shifts happen. Ways of thinking mutate gradually, helped by changes in vocabulary that we accept without question. So it was that “refugees” became “asylum-seekers,” not primarily framed as people in need but as people wanting something from us.
Another such shift was the increased use of the word “consumer” in the second part of the 20th century. Google’s Ngram viewer, which trawls a huge corpus of English-language texts, finds the word two-thirds more prevalent in 1980 than 1960.
For some, this is empowering. Seeing ourselves as consumers makes us more demanding. Rather than being passive recipients of public services, for example, we become active consumers of them, complaining when they are poor and demanding better. “Claiming our power in the form of the freedom of choice we have as Consumers has raised standards and accountability across the board,” say Jon Alexander and Irene Ekkeshis, founders of The New Citizenship Project.
However, Alexander and Ekkeshis believe that for all these gains, the dominance of the consumer mindset has brought with it serious problems. It has encouraged us to focus on our individual, personal decisions rather than on the collective choices civil societies have to make together. It also fools us into think that everything can be solved by making better buying decisions. But “ethical consumers” buying fairtrade or organic foods, for example, can’t solve the huge problems of social justice, poor nutrition or unsustainable farming.