Citizens not consumers, communities not networks, equality not silence.

Citizenship has always been about the way we formalise decision-making processes based on cultural reference points. Nobody invented the political system and then created people to populate it. Rather, our politics is borne out of the culture and struggles of the time.

It is interesting to see the stages the progress of humankind in relation to our political structures. Political reformation nearly always emerges in reference to the models of organisation that dominate at the time of their origin. Look at Marxism: it came out of the industrial age when questions of fairness were asked about the methods of organising that emerged in the era of mass production. Its analysis of the human condition is based around economics and productivity; its conclusions were that the means of production had to come to the people, and belong to the people. Marxism has a particular view of the human condition modelled on its place in the productivity of the state. It could not have emerged without the Industrial Revolution, just as Islamic republics could not have emerged without the view of human nature in the Koran. Both have a take on what it is to be human based on a proclaimed timeless truth. But these truths always borrow from the culture of the time.

But times change and dominant cultural paradigms change. We no longer live in an industrialised era in this country. Most of the industry that we benefit from is outsourced to or imported from other countries. Our country makes its money from pre-existing money, knowledge, and services. Marxism, and socialism in general just could not emerge today.

But if this is true, what could emerge today? Or perhaps more tellingly, what is emerging today?

Just as socialism emerged out of an analysis based on mass production, and conservatism around the systems of elite rule and gentry, our two dominant models of social organising today are consumerism and networking. In consumerism we organise our transactions around purchasing and providing with the intermediary of currency. Currency is just bits of paper. Each bit of paper is a deal. It represents an agreed unit of value – but in itself it’s just pulp and metal. Its value is in the deal and the complex system that maintains the deal. The great thing about money is that it creates shared estimates of value. A night of babysitting by the 16-year-old near me is worth approximately 3 pints of bitter. It’s also worth half a shirt, a 3 mile taxi ride, 6 minutes on the phone to Australia, three chickens, and half the callout fee of the man to fix the washing machine.

What we have become fantastically capable of is measuring the world by these units. It helps us maintain stability so that if I want that night of babysitting I don’t have to find the chickens, beer or broken down washing machine to start organising other transactions to get what I want.

But using the intermediary of money to codify value is not the same as consumerism. Consumerism has emerged as a social force because most people in wealthier countries have enough money to buy one of everything that matters. This may not be a bad thing, but it means that the market is big enough to try offer each of those people the choice of different types of ‘everything that matters’. That’s a kind of shift in the baseline of subsistence living. In poorer countries subsistence living means getting up early, walking 2 km to the well, carrying the water back to the family, gathering sticks to boil it, taking out a small amount of your stored rice and beans and making just enough of a meal to get you through the day. All of your day is spent working to get enough to survive, and to get your family through to the next day and next season. Wealthier countries don’t have the harsh realities of that choice-less lifestyle. What we have is a multiplicity of choices, enough to fill each day and to set the tone for our daily transactions. The choices of everyday living are not so much around community rituals, family obligations, collective responsibilities, but more about the best version of ‘everything that matters’. By codifying these relationships through money we have created the conflict between the everything-that-matters to our social group and the everything-that-matters to me. Consumerism has led us to believe that most things can be fixed by buying the answer. And that someone somewhere is responsible for offering the answer at a reasonable price.

Most analysts now worry that our political thinking has shifted to a consumer model where the government is just a provider of solutions at the cost of our taxes. We pay our taxes, we get good schools. We pay our taxes, we get good hospital. We pay our taxes, we get good roads. If this deal isn’t working, every five years we get to choose a new government who will promise that this time they’ll give a better service for our money. This is done progressively by giving us more choice of ways to have our schools, hospitals, roads and letting consumer preference win the day and fix the system.

Let’s park consumerism for a minute, and look at the other dominating pattern of relationships: networking.

I say ‘networking’ as opposed to ‘communities’ because networks are usually groups of people with mutual interest who opt into relationships with each other because of the commitment to that interest. A network is not the same as a community if that community is a diverse mix of people like the community within a village or town. There will always be people not like you in a town, people with different needs and preferences, different values, different persuasions. Many of them you simply won’t get on with. So the good thing about networks is that you can meet all the people you get on with and you won’t have to deal with the others. In short, everyone prefers networks to communities because everyone prefers less rather than more trouble in life. So if it’s possible to live a more insular lifestyle and network with people who make life more enjoyable, we’re going to do it. We’re even going to try make our communities be more like networks if we can. To gather together with like-minded people, who want to live similarly, educate their children similarly, keep their gardens similarly, shop in similar shops. Interestingly, it’s usually wealthy people who choose to live in such like-minded communities: poor people seldom choose sink-estates… they are just put there.

What do consumerism and networking have in common? The answer is ‘choice’. Consumerism believes in the benefits of choice and generates the preoccupation of choosing. Networks exist when we have the option to opt out of bigger communities and into easier social groups. Networks solidify choice into social structures through the sense of well-being that comes from the removal of difficult relationships. All cultures try to do this (remove difficult relationships) commonly through generating cultural bonds that limit behaviour into acceptable norms and ostracising those who act outside of those expectations.

But here’s the tough thing. Every kind of culture, be it traditional or emerging, has to ask a question about equality. How equal do we want people to be? That is a much tougher question than it might at first seem. Is equal ‘equally rich’? It might be if your analysis emerges at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Is equal ‘equally entitled’? It might be if your country needs to topple its elite. Is equal about equality of opportunity? Equality of ethnicity? Equality of gender? Equality of physical capability?

Consumerism and networking have their own contribution to this question. Consumerism coupled with capitalism suggest that people should be as equal as they can afford to be. It tends to reward hard-working and intellectually gifted people by bringing them economic advantage in a world whose relationships are based on the exchange of money. The same people are allowed to opt into groups with like-minded others. The outcome of this is a progressively unequal society. The last 30 years have seen an unrelenting growth in social and economic inequality in the UK. That literally translates into poorer well-being and lower happiness despite the general growth in overall wealth. No government can stop it, no matter what persuasion. They can’t stop it because there are no foundations in the system to question its base. Capitalism and consumerism facilitates it, networking solidifies it through opt-out communities. The alternatives simply do not raise their head above the parapet. You can’t get elected by talking about equality.

This is why the Big Society initiative is struggling. It is why New Labour struggled, why the Greens have only one Member of Parliament and why the only other political forces in the UK are forces of separatism. Big Society is failing because its solution, localism, projects the veneer of equality into the local setting by imagining joint ownership whilst removing it from the national setting by shrinking the state. The state, or central governing body, has to be the arbiter of equality. It has to stand one step removed from the nitty-gritty of local and regional life and draw us together as a nation. An effective modern state cannot be formed without some proclamation of the nature of equality but the times will not allow it. Our current government is dominated by individuals who are themselves products of elite systems. The charisma of their leaders managed to tip the balance of power slightly in their direction. Enough to get elected by a nation of consumers. They have bravely tackled the spectre of austerity through warning of that there will be less to consume. What people are now unsure of is whether or not that drop in standards of lifestyle will be centrally managed in a way that preserves equality. Why don’t they know that? Because no one talked about what it means, and whether or not voting for them would preserve it.

In many countries taxation is a code word for the preservation of equality. In post-war Britain it was absolutely that. National insurance was not the same household insurance. It was not simply a way to compensate those whose social vulnerability led to hard times. It was also a way to nationally ensure a degree of solidarity and equality that had been earned through the shared losses of war. These days it is commonly seen as the collective pot through which the government will serve our preferences and we will consume their product. Only when we stop conceiving ourselves as consumers and start understanding that we are citizens might we revisit the value of money to the social order, and ask different questions about ‘everything that matters’. Only when we see ourselves as a nation bound by the solidarity of our citizenship might we question the isolationism within our networks and ask ‘how far is too far?’ for our preferred separatism.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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