Citizens as Customers

Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption

– By Wolfgang Streeck:


(…) [E]xpectations of what politics can do may have eroded too far, and the civic skills and organizational structures needed to develop effective public demand may have atrophied beyond redemption, while the political personnel themselves may have adapted entirely to specializing in the management of appearances rather than the representation of some version, however biased, of the public interest.

As the middle classes and the post-Fordist generations shift their expectations for the good life away from public toward private consumption, those who, for lack of purchasing power, remain dependent on public provision are also affected. The attrition of the public sphere deprives them of their only effective means for making themselves heard, devaluing the political currency by which they might otherwise compensate for their lack of commercial currency. While those at the bottom of society have no place in commercial markets and their regime of resource allocation, they might extract benefits from potential allies more powerful than themselves in political coalitions in need of their support. Moreover, improving their lives might figure importantly in collective political visions of a good society, whereas markets can always do without them. In fact the poor suffer in several ways from the de-politicization of want satisfaction in affluent societies. Not only do the potentially reform-minded middle classes cease to take much interest or to place much confidence in collective projects: as they provide for themselves individually in the market, they become more resistant to paying taxes. Indeed with the declining social relevance of, and respect for, politics, tax resistance has increased almost everywhere, even in Scandinavia, and levels of taxation have fallen in almost all rich democracies.

Left to themselves, faced with a political system starved of both legitimacy and material resources, and as a result reduced to what has come to be called politainment, the lower classes follow the lead of the younger generation and refrain in growing numbers from voting, refusing even symbolically to participate in what might in principle be their last recourse in pursuit of a better life. Increasingly the picture in Western Europe is beginning to resemble that in the United States. The transformation of democracy under neoliberalism may also remind one of Albert Hirschman’s observation about the Nigerian state railways: as the affluent lose interest in collective provision and instead turn to more expensive but, for them, affordable private alternatives, their exit from public in favour of private services accelerates the deterioration of the former and discourages their use even among those who depend upon them because they cannot afford the private alternatives.

Read it full at New Left Review, 76 – July/August 2012

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