The Homespun Revolution
The relationship between consumers and producers could be radically transformed in the 21st century
Published in the Guardian, 6th January 2000
A few months ago, I dropped my pager in a puddle. Water was gurgling around inside it; the display scrambled then disappeared. Two days later, it recovered completely. Since then I have trodden on it and dropped it on the pavement, yet I have never succeeded in harming it. My radio, by contrast, falls apart whenever I have the temerity to turn it on.
It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to work out what was happening. The longer I keep hold of my pager, the more money the company which manufactured it makes, as it gets paid every time someone leaves a message. The longer I keep hold of my radio, the less profitable the manufacturer becomes. It is astonishing how powerless, after decades of “consumer democracy”, the consumer remains.
Consumer democracy has, of course, always been illusory, not least because some people have more votes than others. But, a century ago, there were good reasons to assume that changes in commercial relationships would transfer power to ordinary people.
The valuation of labour over resources should have been the formula for a bold new freedom. When labour was cheap and resources were dear, human beings were subordinated to goods. When coal was valued above children, for example, eight-year olds were sent to extract it. When food was expensive, men and women were transported for stealing a loaf of bread, or blinded for poaching a rabbit. Black people were exchangable for rifles, beer and sugar. No sane and compassionate human being would lament the passing of these inverted values. But far from liberating us, the decline in the cost of resources has merely introduced us to a new captivity.
To maintain the value of production in the face of falling commodity prices, companies and governments had to encourage us to consume more. They have been spectacularly successful. Having risen over the last millennium from slaves to workers to citizens, we have now been reduced to consumers: mere generators of value for producers. Human beings, once again, have been subordinated to resources. We are, as a result, in danger of exchanging a life which was nasty, brutish and short for one which is nasty, brutish and long.
Hundreds of millions of people have been disenfranchised by the consumer democracy, as the world’s assets are stripped to keep the mill grinding. In the 1970s, ecologists predicted that non-renewable resources such as oil, copper and nickel would soon be exhausted. They were wrong. It is, paradoxically, the renewable resources – soil, freshwater, fisheries and forests – which have disappeared first, as consumer demand outstrips biological supply. The consequences for the world’s poorest people are far graver than the loss of non-renewable commodities would be: they can live without oil and copper, but not without water and soil.
Now the ex-citizens of the richer world are in danger of slipping again, from consumers to commodities. Our genes have already been seized and patented. If germline gene therapy – altering heritable genetic characteristics – becomes reliable and commercially viable, our offspring will be the subjects of fierce commercial competition. Self-enslaved by a consumer ethic which places assets above relationships, we will find ourselves obliged to earn the money to improve them. Just as the slave trade was justified by racism, this new human traffic will be justified and driven by an even more virulent form of discrimination: genism. Those who can afford to buy will be able to claim, with some justification, that they are biologically distinct from those who cannot: they will not wish to breed or even to mix with the genetically unwashed.
Until last year, these processes looked inexorable. I was gloomy about the possibilities of change rapid and comprehensive enough to defend key resources and prevent the commodification of human life. But towards the end of the old millennium, people all over the world began to rediscover their citizenship. They had come to recognise two things: first, that governments are happy to shove us, as so much coke, into the corporate furnace, secondly that they are able to do so only because we let them. This rising has been encouraged by some remarkable successes.
One after another the institutions which have come to symbolise the excesses of corporate power have been pummelled by dissenters. A handful of scruffy activists helped reduce the value of Britain’s road-building programme from £23 billion to £4 billion in just four years. Two unemployed dissidents forced McDonalds to try to sue for peace after it mistakenly assumed that it could crush them in court. Monsanto, once the world’s most bullish biotech company, charged into a wall of opposition, and broke its corporate skull. First the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, then the World Trade Organisation’s attempt to write a charter for corporate rule were exposed and delayed.
Activists have realised that they can achieve far more through confrontation with power than through cooperation. The voluntary organisations and official trades unions which have been negotiating for years to try to soften the blows delivered by the corporate giant have found themselves suddenly outflanked by movements determined to stop its arm from falling. As campaigners put the demo back into democracy, the millennium could mark the beginning of the end of unbridled corporate power.
More quietly, but just as importantly, trading relationships are beginning to shift. While governments have been attempting to engineer a single, harmonised global market, throughout Europe and the United States citizens’ groups are breaking the market up. Organic box schemes and farmers’ markets have begun to democratise commercial encounters, reducing the scale of business until the power of producers and consumers is roughly equivalent, reintroducing accountability to the food chain, curbing the environmental impacts of production and transport.
In some sectors, such as farming, forestry and fishing, companies are finding themselves obliged to seek a licence to trade, submitting their products to independent certification by bodies such as the Soil Association and the Forest Stewardship Council. Such constraints are likely to spread to other sectors. Though governments are ever more reluctant to regulate, citizens seem to be able to force corporations to shoulder their responsibilities.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that two decades of unfettered neoliberalism can be easily reversed. Most of the world’s key institutions have been infilitrated and coopted by corporate lobbyists. Bodies such as the Transatlantic Business Dialogue and the International Chamber of Commerce have been allowed, even encouraged, to write the rules governing the global relationships between producers and consumers. Binding bilateral agreements have already been approved which pose even greater threats to democracy than the World Trade Organisation’s schemes.
But the revolution which will make the old world order impossible to sustain has already begun. It will, for the most part, be quiet, local and, I hope, bloodless, occasionally building up to massive confrontations of the kind which sent governments scurrying for cover in Seattle. This Homespun Revolution may seem, as yet, both frail and fragmentary, but it is hard to see how it can now be stopped.