Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How We View Ourselves

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast and the people on the episode discussed a very familiar concept. They were talking about how the fact that our government, politicians and we ourselves see ourselves as consumers and how it has shaped us. I've heard this line of thinking before. Most people who are left-of-centre have heard, and to some degree, agree with the "I'm a citizen, not a consumer" slogan. For a period at least, and seemingly into the present, that is a minority held opinion.

However, this tired cliché transformed as this person unpacked the idea. I wish I could remember where I heard the interview, even money say Strong Towns. Here's the basics. We are all consumers, but we are also all citizens (for the most part), and nearly all of us are workers. We can be easily subdivided into the major categories that make up life, but the priorities of one cohort of society is radically different to another. There are some very easy examples. As a consumer I wanted the lowest cost goods of a reasonable quality. This set of values leads to all sorts of policy and economic decisions. Basically the end logical conclusion are massive box stores or retailers like Amazon. They exchange service for price and expediency. They also trade away reasonable wages, domestic manufacturing and other potential ideals. As a worker first, or primary worker-based mindset I come to different conclusions. I start to see my interests now in the prices of the bulk, poorly-manufactured goods on the shelves, but with my fellow workers. I understand that their plight is inexorably linked to my own. In this equation there is only one Walton family, there are plenty of Wal-Mart greeters, and I know which group I am closer to. There is more to consider than the bottom line... isn't there?

From the consumer mindset I want maximum control over my own resources. Low taxes, low fees, and a small government fit within that rationale. Government can be efficient, but even still it is rarely cheap. A vague sense of collective responsibility falls to the wayside when measured against one's own towering self-interest.

In a world before we were all consumers there was a certain rationality to how we could and did look at society. Look at farmers. This bizarre subset, neither worker nor capitalist, is squeezed out by our collective interests. What do I care about agriculture? I want my share of suburbia and they charge too much for their vegetables anyway. Advocates used to speak on behalf of different factions within society and did not need to be part of a special coalition, task force or interest group.

The examples, I am confident, are endless. Perhaps one to end on is civic identity. Within North America (and I'm sure in some quarters still) one's neighbourhood and town/city was a major source of pride. Boosterism described the unmoored optimism about people's hometown. Perhaps the symptom is more acute in the 'burbs, but I know few who care about their hometowns. They live wherever they could afford it, or happen to work nearby. There is often a vague support, but only if it comes with no sacrifice. They don't know their mayor, or councillor or local issues. 

These identities and which one holds primacy shapes how we perceive the world and what values we manifest. Acting out of our consumer interest certainly is valid, but as it has become predominant and overriding I cannot help but wonder what has been cast aside, and if it will ever be restored.

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