Academic journal article Capital & Class

Workers and Their Alter Egos as Consumers

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Workers and Their Alter Egos as Consumers

Article excerpt


'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. …

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