Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Cult of the Customer: Living In An Age of Exit

We are all consumers now. That's the mantra of the market: You are what you consume! And, we consume everything. The new keyword of our age is 'Taxpayers' money': It is not just the newspapers, but even the politicians, whose primary task is to squander it, use the term. The greatest public service we can all do is to buy stuff - as we are told by various pundits on TV shows - and not buying will mean recession and job losses. Our identities are shaped by brands we wear, indeed we shape our identities around the brands we wear - that's how the things are. 

This is everywhere. The fastest growing nation, not a 'city', is Facebook. Such notions just come to us naturally: Nations are just a community which one can join and leave at will. Most people believe that nations don't matter anymore: Budgets and other pompous exercises have lost their magic. When in college, I listened to budget speeches and then went to hear various experts speaking about it in auditoriums: Now I shall struggle to remember which day the budget will be published. The British government deliberately leaked the budget, to take away the surprise but also to undermine its seriousness: All governments may now follow the lead.

The only problem, however, with all this is the consumers exit. That's how they behave: If and when things go badly, they leave. That's what they are expected to do. They are not supposed to be angry, and voice their disaffection: They are not to turn up. This is what is happening across Europe. Most people don't turn up anymore. There is a hotly contested election in a few days in London, where Boris Johnson, the slightly eccentric unabashedly elitist incumbent Tory mayor, will take on Ken Livingstone, the slightly eccentric unabashedly left wing ex-Mayor. Their biggest problem is no one may actually turn up to vote. They are currently doing all they can, including swearing at each other live on radio, to make this more like a soap opera, and yet, this may not stir many Londoners.

Politics, and political profession, have generally become uninteresting. It seems that the politicians' power is waning. They may write the legislation, but that seem to matter little. This may be because ideologies have mostly been abandoned, everyone seems to be jostling for the political centre, which effectively makes everyone the same. Being in the political centre, indeed, means accepting politics does not really matter and doing politics is as neutral a profession like, say, accounting. And, indeed, we are mostly expected to stay away from politics, and instead, make money - to spend it.

However, in this apathy, one forgets that politics is not about making legislation: It is about voice. There is injustice in the society. There will always be, till we either achieve an absolute equity of power, which isn't possible, or accept the preeminence of the powerful as just, which is offencive to our sanitised post-enlightenment sense of justice. Politics, in a sense, is the mechanism that resolves this tension - it allows a continuous negotiation of power and principles, incumbency and aspiration. The death of politics is to be mourned, not celebrated. However, its decline is irreversible as we all turn customers, demanding our money's worth from the state rather than paying our share for it. In the end, we all exit.

On this Easter Sunday, then, there is no resurrection: The two great institutions of voice, religion and politics, have been absorbed by the consumer morality, which is based on choice and exit. Our notions of fairness are now redefined not as whether we are heard or we matter, but whether we can make a choice and we can consume. But we can already see the edges of the system: The apathy, the strange rage witnessed in London Riots or the student protests, which was without an ideology or a purpose. Their purposelessness was precisely the defining feature: It was about exit, non-participation, the idea of not caring, not having to care. It is exactly as it appears now: Absurd, fragmented, somewhat beyond consciousness. But that is the defining stance of the coming era, when we all lose our identities to the things we choose to serve.

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