Workers and their alter egos as consumers.

Author:Fleetwood, Steve


'In all buying, consider first, what condition of existence you cause in the production of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands.' (John Ruskin, 1997 [1862]: 227)

A few years ago, I stopped at a motorway cafe for lunch. I was pouring myself a cup of tea when I noticed a waitress crouched under the table next to me, cleaning up crumbs with a dustpan and brush. Feeling a sense of discomfort, perhaps embarrassment, I jokingly said that we had moved on since the nineteenth century and that we now had vacuum cleaners for that kind of thing. I was not expecting her reply: 'The manager,' she said as she stood up, 'doesn't like us using vacuum cleaners, because it puts the customers off'. I mumbled something about not being bothered; but actually, I was extremely bothered about the fact that this young woman was on her hands and knees rummaging under tables so that I would not be put off my sandwich by the noise of a vacuum cleaner.

I was not only bothered, I was also confused. As a socialist, trade unionist and academic working on employment matters, I am sensitive to conflict arising from the mistreatment of workers by employers. But this situation was different and it caught me off-guard. Here was I, a worker, causally implicated in another worker's undignified working practices. After some time spent reflecting upon this episode, an extremely uncomfortable question emerged: Do working people, in their alter egos as consumers, adopt behaviours and attitudes that can cause low pay and detrimental working conditions for the workers who provide the goods and services they consume? I arrived at an equally uncomfortable answer: 'Yes, in part'. The aim of this paper is to present some of the thinking underlying this question and its answer. *

The article begins by looking at the political economy of consumer society before turning, in the second part, to the less familiar terrain of moral economy. The third part illustrates some of the ways in which consumers can create low pay and detrimental working conditions for workers. The final part considers cases in which consumers are more attuned to the plight of workers before concluding with a brief attempt to explain why none of this is obvious--at least, not until it is pointed out. It is worth noting that since most of the concepts I employ are well known, I leave myself open to the charge of saying nothing new. My justification for saying what I do lies in the way the concepts are put together, such that the whole (article) becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Political economy

We do not have to accept the often exaggerated claims of those singing the praises or bemoaning the ills of the 'consumer society' in order to recognise the ubiquity of what might be called a hegemonic discourse of consumers, consumption and consumer society. To a greater or lesser extent, this discourse encourages us to think in terms of consumption, consumers and consumer society, while discouraging us from thinking in terms of production, producers and the productive aspects of society--indeed, the fact that there is no term 'producer society' is revealing in itself. It is unnecessary to have recourse to conspiracy theory to explain the ubiquity and hegemony of the discourse. Corporations and their spokespeople, management consultants, think tanks, the media, consumer groups, economists, policy advisors and government ministers all promote this discourse in the course of promoting their own interests, while some institutions (e.g. advertising agencies) specialise in consciously promoting it. This hegemonic discourse is anchored in the notion of consumer sovereignty and its more recent derivative, the customer-driven firm. (1)

While consumer sovereignty--the sovereign-like rule of consumers over producers--is a well-established concept used by economists, (2) the technicalities of the concept are unimportant. Much more important is the normative message that has steadily and relentlessly leached its way from economics text books into the popular imagination: that consumption is not only good for you as an individual, but it is good for the economy as a whole; and that people should feel no shame or guilt in asserting their individual, perhaps even selfish wants, because if we each look after our own interests, the greatest good will accrue to the greatest number of people.

The customer-driven firm encourages 'workers ... to put themselves in their customers' shoes, and offer them the sort of service they themselves would ideally like to receive' (Du Gay, 1996: 79). The doctrine is encapsulated in the following advice to businesses from Spacia, the property division of British Rail and a founder member of the Institute of Customer Services:

Try to be as flexible as you can. Make it clear to your customers that your business is run to suit them--not for your own convenience. Provide the most convenient service you can:

* Organise delivery schedules that take account of your customers' needs.

* Offer the longest and most convenient opening hours you can afford.

* Make life as easy as possible for your customers--the easier it is for them the more likely they'll return time and time again. (Spacia, 2005, emphasis added)

The customer-driven firm seeks to instil--which is not to say it necessarily succeeds--in its workers the idea that if they do not give complete satisfaction to customers in all their activities, then some other firm will. The implications of this do not need to be spelled out to workers.

Notions of consumer sovereignty and customer-driven firms, however, fail to differentiate between producers qua employers (i.e. as owners and/or controllers of capital) and producers qua workers. They also hide the fact that most people, for most of their working lives, are simultaneously consumers and workers, or are reliant on workers. This extremely important insight comes from Carrier & Haymen (1997: 370).

Moral economy

Sayer's (2005) work on moral economy also contains important insights. According to Sayer, humans care not only about things that affect their well-being but also about those affecting the well-being of others. They care about human flourishing. This is a deliberately ambiguous term used to refer to the kinds of processes that allow human beings not only to live with adequate levels of food, shelter, clothing and other basics, but also to live fulfilled social, cultural and political lives. It does not matter, at least at this level of analysis, what constitutes human flourishing precisely, but we need the category in order to differentiate it from its opposite state of affairs, namely suffering. This term denotes the results of all activity that causes physical or social--psychological harm to people--like detrimental working conditions, for example. Human flourishing depends upon material, socioeconomic, social-psychological and institutional phenomena such as food and shelter, employment and income, recognition (elaborated upon below), and organisational forms such as democratic and empowering institutions.

Humans also care about normative and moral issues: what is of value, how ought we to live, how ought we to behave, how ought we to treat others, how ought we to be treated? and so on. Even matters seemingly concerned purely with the economic, like low pay and poor working conditions, are often driven by a sense of injustice or moral sentiment. Indeed, without it, any normative claim could founder on the 'so what?' argument. Sayer (2005: 99) not only makes this point, but he also suggests what is wrong with the argument:


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