Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

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 of consumerism.

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 role.

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 supporters.

First published in the New Statesman 10 January 2000