On Why The Wealthy Want Us All To Be “Customers”.


In a recent article, The Vultures Are Circling – Bring Out The Slingshots? Professor Jane Kelsey, high-lighted an interesting distinction between ‘Privatisation’ defined as “transferring ownership of an organisation from the public sector (government) to the private sector (business)”, with a broader definition that involves a fundamental paradigm shift aiming to transform public bodies from constitutional or quasi-constitutional entities that provide services in ways that advance social progress and foster participatory democracy into producers of commodities that are given an economic value and then bought and sold on an internationalized market.

The distinction is important because the ConDems often claim that they are maintaining a commitment to the universal state provision of certain public services (health, education and prisons for example) while simultaneously and comprehensively attempting to privatise the actual provision of those services.

The principle justification for this is instrumental; that private market mechanisms are universally more efficient in providing goods and services than bureaucratic central state planning.

Even if we accepted that for certain consumer goods and services markets are indeed more appropriate and effective mechanisms for distribution this does not entail an acceptance of the universal benefits of markets. Public services are not synonymous with specific, marketable commodities. Capitalist market mechanisms inevitably create social and economic instability (boom & bust) and are hugely wasteful because competition inevitably gives rise to winners and losers, with businesses, large and small, failing every day as part of the economic churn entailed in markets.

Businesses also have only one overriding legal function – to earn profit for shareholders. Providing a good service is not therefore an aim in its own right and only becomes important to a business when not to do so would dramatically diminish profit. Naturally, this gives rise to an emphasis on a certain concept of financial efficiency that only perceives staff and ‘customers’ as vehicles for the generation of profit – rather than as thinking, feeling human beings in their own right, to whom we, as thinking, feeling human beings in our own right, owe a duty of care.

The commercialisation of public services, even when still paid for the state, is not simply an instrumental question as the free-marketeers would have you believe, it is a profound political and moral question, signified by the change from describing us as citizens, patients or students to the universal description of us as customers.

To be a customer is always going to serve the interests of the wealthy. If I am a customer inter-acting with a business, then the quantity and quality of goods and services I can accrue is almost entirely dependent upon my ability to pay. This is simply the logic of markets and business and no amount of tinkering with mechanisms can overcome it.

By contrast being a free citizen in a democracy necessarily entails the concept of equality – one man, one vote; free speech; equality before the law, equal opportunity and meritocratic entry to Higher Education, the Civil Service and political office; all undermine the rich man’s sense of superiority and entitlement and diminish the power of the wealthy.

This equalising democratic momentum can however be slowed or halted if we can all be persuaded to become customers, rather than free men in a free country.

Finally, is it too outrageous to suggest that there are simply things that it is not morally appropriate to buy and sell for profit[1]. Is it acceptable that already wealthy people get richer on the back of a poor persons illness?

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

corporate democracy economics freedom left-wing libertarian managerialism moral philosophy politics radical socialist society


[1] A topic covered in depth by American moral philosopher, Michael Sandel, particularly in the 1998 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

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10 responses to “On Why The Wealthy Want Us All To Be “Customers”.

  1. Your argument is all well and good, but I’ve heard it all before. Those of us who opposed the privatisation of the water industry in the 1980s used the same arguments and, based on the premise that water is life! We can survive without almost anything, but without clean safe water we are nothing. There was no justification for what Hesletine did, particularly the scandalous theft of the public assets of sewerage systems and sewage treatment infrastructure. This was public and always had been. Thatcher relied on the greed of the uninformed public and I fear the lessons of history have yet to be learnt. I now choose to pay for health insurance via my trade union because I know that when I need critical health care, I can no longer rely on the NHS. Sad but true…

  2. Well, we must each make our own decisions. But just because a good argument has been made before is no reason not to make it again. Neo-liberalism is undoubtedly the dominant ideology of the worldwide ruling elites – and why wouldn’t it be, it’s great for them – but this does not mean it will always be so.

    Countries across S. America suffered 400 years of colonial exploitation followed by 100 years of despotic tyranny actively enabled by the USA. In the last 10 years socialist and social democratic governments have come into power across the region and are fundamentally challenging US neo-liberal hegemony.

    In the middle-east popular uprisings are successfully challenging despotic tyrants.

    I do not believe in a grand political theory that will bring about an earthly paradise – whether it be neo-liberal super-charged capitalism or Marxism.

    Politics is and always will be a perpetual battle between those in power and those subjected to that power. In the short-term the Left in the UK may indeed fail to halt the neo-liberal juggernaut but that is no reason not to try.

    “Granito” means “tiny grain of sand,” and is a Maya concept of collective change, about how all of us persevering together over time can cause change and bring justice to society.

    If we expect our individual actions or specific protests to instantly bring about political and social change we are almost always doomed to disappointment and failure. But this does not make such protests pointless. I think that the fact that the Stop The War march in 2003 was the biggest march in UK history informs all discussions of that war, partly because it was so cynically ignored by the government. That march makes it impossible for Blair and the warmongers to claim they had popular support for that war and that has profound implications for our democracy and how we engage with it. The same is true of the TUC March for the Alternative last month. It is important that popular opposition to government policies is publicly stated – even if that opposition fails in the short-term to change that policy.

  3. Well argued and I hope that you are proved to be correct. I’ve been fighting for specific areas of disability equality for almost 30 years and at times the lack of understanding/action can be most disheartening. However, I somehow find the emotional and physical energy to keep at it and we must trust that a sufficient number of our fellow citizens wake up and start doing something to improve this society. Social and economic equality will not happen without right-minded people getting out there and campaigning for change.

  4. Absolutely! And I salute your battle for disability equality and your observations about the commodification of water are as true today as they were 30 years ago and are worth stating over and over again.

  5. I am glad you posted this Chris. I agree that this deeply insidious but now almost universal use of the term customer is a reflection of a deep corruption of our social fabric. I am a customer on the railway, not a passenger. Recently I went to our local tip (or household waste recycling centre to give it the fancy title now required), run by our County Council, and was told I was a customer, and when I responded to a survey on-line run by the Council, asking about the future of the tip, it was all about services to customers. I am a citizen, not a customer, and I pay my taxes to be part of a civil society where collective provision is made to help us all live together better. We are not customers, and the idea is a very corrosive one. Interestingly this language has yet to reach the provision of services by the army or the police.

  6. Well, the prisons are in the process of being privatised? A morally repugnant process whereby for the most part already rich people will become richer by incarcerating citizens on behalf of the coercive State.

    So in a privatised prison who exactly is the “customer”? The prisoners? The courts? Presumably the courts as they are the providers of funds. In which case the prisoners become simply commodities to be exchanged between the private prison company and the court for the generation of profit – which is why it is so morally repugnant.

    Market logic suggests that it is in the interests of private prison companies to have more and more prisoners – how is such a business to ‘grow’ otherwise?

    Large corporate businesses will therefore be influencing legislators and public debate to encourage the incarceration of more and more citizens – regardless of the human and social cost of such a policy.

    The claim is that the ‘market’ has been created/manipulated so that the real ‘business’ of a private prison company in the UK is rehabilitation not incarceration, i.e. the profit arises not from incarcerating the prisoners but for rehabilitating the criminals. But this mechanism does not resolve the problem of a private company wishing for a larger and larger prison population because, simply put, the more prisoners there are, the more there are to rehabilitate. It is also true to say that it is easier to ‘rehabilitate’ a traffic offender or community tax dodger than it is a mass murderer. So indeed there will be a commercial imperative for private prison companies to urge an increase in the incarceration of ‘soft’ criminals.

    So, far from reducing the costs to the state through the efficiency of efficient competition, market logic actually gives rise to commercial imperatives and reward systems that argue for an ever expanding prison population.

  7. Interesting points. I suppose the reality of semi-privatisation has reached the police and army, the coercive agents of the state, via the means you refer to (private companies incarcerating asylum seekers, private prisons) and via the use of private companies, especially by the Americans, in Iraq etc. But as I said the language of customerisation has yet to penetrate this area, perhaps because the logic does not easily fit the usual rhetoric. Interestingly (well, to me anyway) is that the process of privatising public authority was what happened in north western Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries with the collapse of the Carolingian state, as control of military forces and much judicial activity in effect became the private preserve of lesser lords, a phenomenon often characterised as feudalism. History does sort of repeat itself, as the powerful and rich take over the functions and profits of a decaying public authority.

    • Hold on, hold on, you can’t just drop that in and leave it. That idea really IS interesting – that feudalism was a form of privatised state run by the rich for their own benefit. PLEASE EXPAND!

  8. Can’t expand here! Would take too long, but essentially that is what happened. You might enjoy Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism.

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