Fifth Column – Customer or Citizen? – Issue 31

Is citizenship merely an ideal? Are our expectations too high in an age where we are more and more impressed by artificial intelligence?

Is the historical and current dismal transition from citizen to customer just a realisation of our nature as human beings needing accoutrements that originally were necessary but are now mere accessory?

Is the cost of this seemingly natural, seamless transition worth it when we can be considered vulnerable customers/clients yet not be given the same consideration as citizens; citizens needing one side of our human nature manifested in co-operative, selfless behaviours and genuine support for the needy in our societies?

A burden of responsibility to others but even more the formal place of existence befalls all who occupy space in the geographical location called a country. How that responsibility is defined and by whom is very important in evaluating both citizen and customer characters. Take the issue of time, that most precious and still indeterminate idea of measurement of existence. How it has been commodified since the industrial revolution explains how the two distinct characters of citizen and customer have been somewhat merged. The development of commodification of time has proved a very uneven struggle, and despite a few small victories by industrial groups like unions, the powerbrokers have won the struggle. Whilst being merged in character, there are significant conflicts and contradictions within the expression of citizen and customer identities.

For a long time, at work, customer is used to appeal to citizenship. Whilst this correlates to our responsibility as citizen, exchanging labour time for wages to make us independent citizens (in an ideal world but that’s another discussion) throws up a distinct conflict. Underpinning this conflict is fairness of treatment of those with enough power and influence – usually with the weight of wealth – to define our identities as citizen and/or customer. Time is a focal point of this existential tussle. When we are authoritatively told that an employer owns our time, citizenship is firmly realigned as customer/service provider, if we are lucky enough to be employed thus, time is based wholly as an economic value. At this point, citizenship is compromised by the surplus value, profit motive imperative. Whilst citizenship is appealed to in applying strict adherence to the time commodity, it is the uneven power relationship that determines identity and character at this point.

When we are told at work that every minute constitutes so much money, often described as work activity, as a means of making us feel like lesser citizens if we transgress from giving, accounting for, the customer (really it’s the employer) one hundred percent value for your wage, a specific relationship is being enacted in a condition of unequal power that renders an unfairness to proceedings. As citizens our responsibility is wholly owned by the employer as a time/effort equation called cost/unit value. Constant and unremitting work activity from first to last minute is in itself seeing the citizen merely as a mechanism to be turned on and off, with accompanying dehumanising results. The level of alienation felt in being merely a customer is supposedly allayed by the acquisition of consumer rights and recourse to litigation. The law of the land is enshrined in Hobbesian economic contracts between parties given consumer identities only: this identity seems wide-ranging in terms of obscene servitude to communicative roles yet effectively removes the two parties’ identities, servile provider and customer and replaces them with cyphers referring entirely to narrow material exchange. However, the advertising and rhetoric even usurps philosophical, intimate and meaningful language, putting emphasis on relatedness to economic objects and objectives and defining any behaviours by communicating parties in the same narrow terms and values.

However, as a distinct individual, customer status is unsatisfactory as it is a contrived identity and character serving purely materialistic wants often masquerading as needs, fuelled by agencies whose interests are self-serving and counter-productive to any authentic expression of citizenship. The responsibility of duty in citizenship is bought and sold by powerbrokers and characterised by servility to profit-motive, not of the producer but the capitalist and entrepreneur, the latter agents who look to devalue the labour of the former. Citizenship is reduced to economic value only, with any rounded identity as citizen-to-citizen communication being relegated to idealism and unrealistic dreaming. Citizenship’s obligations to one another are no longer free for authentic expression of our communicative nature but instead are identified as degrees of obeisance to those owning the communication and exchange. Attitudes to one’s relatedness to this materialism are standardised as progressive and positive or obstructive and negative: to disagree, dissent to this “His Master’s Voice’ social, political and economic condition is by default the latter. The accusation is always made of healthy scepticism and questioning of blind-faith authoritarianism, that a person is not being a good citizen by not wanting to be identified in this materialistic and exploitative manner.

Any embarrassment in the role playing of servile provider and customer puts a person at odds with conditions established by a national history of servility, self-derogatory obeisance and unquestioning loyalty to anachronistic and active power bases that are logically contradictory to any democracy and free-thinking society that claims to offer a person healthy, robust, authentic and dignified citizenship.

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