It's just a failure of nerve
The growing respect for consumer activism goes hand in hand with
the decline of public trust in conventional authority. We question
long established institutions, anticipating corporate and government
cover-ups on risky products and technology. We are cynical about
the claims of science and industry, and simply disbelieving of those
made by politicians and civil servants. This widespread public disenchantment
with conventional institutions has created an opening for new, alternative
forms of authority. And the main beneficiary has been the politics
Consumerism has claimed a role for itself as a credible source
of authority, its ideology shaped by the general perception that
it is not possible to believe the words of politicians, business
people, scientists and other forms of traditional authority. That
public mistrust is strikingly expressed through the regular eruptions
of panic about food, health, safety, new technology and the environment.
One day public anxiety is focused on mobile phones, a week later
it attaches itself to railway safety, to be followed by concern
about electromagnetic cables and children's toys.
Consumer groups committed to raising questions about health and
safety, product reliability and perceived threats to the environment
have succeeded in articulating and reinforcing public anxieties
about life in Britain. A heightened sense of vulnerability offers
numerous opportunities for consumer activists to influence public
debate. The consumer organisations understand how these levers work.
The Consumers' Association, for example,justifies its case for consumer
representation on the ground of "low levels of consumer trust
in the decision-making process". A recent CA press release
was headed "Public don't trust government ministers to tell
the truth". This exercise in the celebration of public mistrust
was motivated by a clear awareness that the weakening of conventional
authority benefits its critics. Exploiting public distrust is one
of the less attractive features of consumerism. At a time of profound
existential insecurity, the temptation to inflate risks and threats
to safety appears irresistible. That is why, despite the best intentions,
consumerism plays an important role in encouraging the public to
react to change with apprehension and panic.
In an open democracy the advocacy of consumer concerns plays a
valuable role in helping the public hold to account providers of
goods and services. But consumer activism has acquired a far-reaching
political role that goes way beyond its traditional status as a
pressure group - it now acts as if it were the voice of the public.
Consumerism has also become politicised, transformed into an ideology.
Its scope is no longer restricted to monitoring the safety and reliability
of products. It possesses a wider political agenda that questions
the way products are produced and promotes a moral critique of existing
political and economic institutions. Its approach converges with
that of environmental and other activists who demand that society
should be organised on a "more enlightened" basis. This
political stance is never subjected to the test of electoral competition.
And yet consumer activists assume that they have earned a representative
The success of consumerism is in part underwritten by a political
elite that is reluctant to take a stand on the issue of risk. Public
figures are terrified of taking decisions that may provoke the wrath
of consumer lobbyists. In the post-BSE era, no politicians seem
prepared to take a stand and assure the public that this or that
technology is safe. Politicians hide behind experts, who in turn
are reluctant to confront the risk-averse attitudes of our time.
That is why the government is uniquely sensitive to lobbying by
consumer advocacy groups. Faced with criticism from anti-GM food
lobbyists, the Blair regime substantially modified its stance on
the issue. Government ministers have since sought to project themselves
as the consumers' champion, launching a populist public relations
campaign against "rip-off" Britain.
The accommodation of the political class to consumerism reflects
an intense failure of nerve about how to handle innovation, experimentation
and new technology. Behind the scenes, civil servants and politicians
are at a loss about how to tackle the prevailing public mistrust
of science. They claim that their hands are tied by an illiterate
public whose reactions are impossible to predict. Such patronising
scorn overlooks their own failure to offer an authoritative lead.
Experience has shown that official pronouncements couched with numerous
qualifications invariably incite cynicism. This inability to project
confident leadership undermines official authority and allows Luddite
critics to occupy the moral high ground.
Consumer and environmental activism also enjoys an almost unprecedented
degree of adulation in the media. Campaigns against road building,
live animal exports, fast-food chains and trials of genetically
modified foods are characteristically portrayed as heroic acts of
responsible citizenship. Recently the media depicted environmentalists
who wrecked GM crop Jo. 00, test sites as people's champions tackling
American Goliaths. This representation of environmental activists
as intellectual innovators providing a morally exhausted society
with a priceless philosophical contribution is rarely interrogated.
The representation of consumerism as a radical alternative to the
status quo is a myth. It is a story that is actively encouraged
by consumer and environmental activists. They routinely portray
themselves as disadvantaged, radical outsiders, continually battling
against powerful vested interests. Environmental activists, in particular,
claim to represent a disenfranchised public who lack significant
access to the political system. Yet judging by the positive press
these "outsiders" get, it is easy to conclude that this
is very much a movement led by insiders.
Take the example of the campaign against GM foods. This campaign
has been endowed with considerable respectability by Prince Charles,
who declared that the "genetic modification of crops is taking
mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone".
Key institutions, such as the National Federation of Women's Institutes,
have joined Greenpeace, the Consumers' Association and more than
70 other consumer, environment and other groups in calling for a
freeze on GM crops. Powerless outsiders? Campaigns such as this,
in reality, enjoy a privileged relationship with the people who
matter in Britain. Consumer activism exercises considerable influence
over the media and the intelligentsia and enjoys a mutually profitable
relationship with Britain's political class.
The success of consumerism is intimately linked to the growth of
political apathy and social disengagement. Yet instead of raising
concerns about the estrangement of the British public from political
life, a growing number of commentators welcome consumerism as a
superior alternative to traditional party politics. In an article
in the NS(21 June 1999), Noreena Hertz claimed that "consumers,
not voters, make a difference". "Politics is dead- long
live the consumer" was her cry to arms. The influential sociologist
Ulrich Beck argues that grass-roots citizen groups have the capacity
to reorient an exhausted political system in an enlightened direction.
In reality, consumerism is an elite project based on traditional
pressure-group tactics. It represents the activism of a small group
of professional advocates.
The ideology of consumerism sustains the gulf between vanguard
activism and the prevailing mood of political passivity by reinforcing
the difficulties that society has in engaging with change. Instead
of empowering people, it disorients, and consolidates cynicism and
a fear of change that does little to inspire social movements or
to project a positive alternative.
Every healthy society benefits from scepticism and the refusal
to accept unearned authority. But this is not the same thing as
embracing the politics of outrage and encouraging mistrust: these
breed passive cynicism, which leads nowhere and certainly not to
the kind of political renewal claimed for consumerism by its intellectual
published in the New Statesman 10 January 2000