Power Dynamics

You’re just a customer!!

Many of us have been so beguiled by corporate speak encroaching on everyday conversations that we have failed to notice how previous categories of people such as travellers, passengers, users, taxpayers, citizens or just plain people have morphed into customers, worthy only because of our purchasing power. Yet just 10 or 15 years ago, the word customer would have sounded creepily corporate in many everyday circumstances. Thus council taxpayers are no longer simply citizens paying their due, we have become customers. Likewise passengers on public transit systems are no longer human beings, but only valued as revenue-yielding customers or subjects.

Instead of saying "Please let other passengers off the train before boarding", staff are trained to announce "Please let customers disembark from the train before boarding". However, passengers and customers are not the same. At least in theory most passengers these days are technically fare-paying customers, but the term's meaning has now been extended to include anyone with whom a service provider has to deal, i.e. the client in the client-server system, a mere consumer of services whether or not the former has any choice over the matter or any commercial transaction is involed. When I recently had my passort renewed, I was not referred to as a citizen or as a British subject, but as a, wait for it, customer. Housing associations and loal authortities refer to recipients of housing benefits as customers because they receive a service. Even former convicts on probation are customers. A few years ago mental health service users were known as clients, but have since become customers. The term has become devalued to such an extent, we might as well just say subjects.

The term customer defines a business relationship. If I buy a laptop from a computer retailer, I am indeed a customer. They rely on my payment to stay afloat financially, purchase goods from manufacturers, pay bills and staff. What's more if I am not satisfied with the product sold or the retailers' service, I can take my custom elsewhere. The notion of a customer makes sense in a free market when you have choice. However, if I use a computer in a public library, I am not a customer of the computer supplier, the library is and if I pay taxes and participate in the administration of the local council, I might in a very indirect way be a customer, but in reality powerless to affect the purchasing decisions of large organisations who can usually only source hardware from a select set of preferred suppliers. As a citizen I might use my vote to support a party wishing to expand the provision of computing facilities in local libraries and I might campaign to urge the council to switch to a more cost-effective supplier or adopt open-source software to save money, but if I called their supplier as a private citizen I would not be treated as a customer, but as a disgruntled powerless member of the public. Their only concern would be public relations.

Likewise if I need to travel within Central London, I have a limited set of practical choices. Forget cars, as the average speed of vehicular traffic is down to around 10 mph and even then you would need to contend with congestion charges and parking fees. Buses are often slow, unreliable and overcrowded. The best choices for rapid transit are bicycle, if you're fit and have somewhere safe to lock it up at your destination, moped, usually a larger investment with parking restrictions in a busy city, or tube. Neither bicycle nor moped are ideal if it's raining or you need to carry luggage or any other bulky objects such as a laptop. So when you travel from say Kings Cross to White City, and have a choice of braving chaotic pedestrian and vehicular traffic, sweating in a bus for over an hour or taking 15 minute tube journey, the tube is the only viable choice. You cannot take your custom elsewhere as alternatives simply do not offer a comparable service. London's rapid transit network would never have seen the light of day without significant public sector investment, and while it may have been semi-privatised, it operates as a monopoly and relies on huge subsidies. Your fares simply subsidise the service and restrict access to those prepared to pay or entitled to special passes. You are just a fee-paying passenger expected to endure chronic overcrowding in peak hours.

Power Dynamics

The Keynsian Dream is Over

None of the major parties in the UK have had the courage to tell the electorate the unpalatable truth. They act as mere middle managers or public relations officers, somewhere between their masters in global banking, energy cartels and military-industrial establishment and the hundreds of thousands of minion bureaucrats in the UK`s non-productive public and private sector institutions. It takes relatively little research to expose their presumed facts and figures. Indeed what should surprise us is not their apparent disagreements on issues such as Britain`s adoption of the Euro or immigration controls, but their agreement on the continued need for economic growth by injecting more virtual cash into an economy that has long ceased to produce more than a small fraction of what it consumes.

Over the last 13 years Britain has experienced its biggest collective spending spree in history. We may look back nostalgically at the monuments and urban infrastructure of Victorian Britain, erected over a period of some 70 years when the country`s industry not only led the world, but could exploit the resources of a huge empire. Yet the UK`s national debt didn`t really figure until the great depression of the late 1920s. In the aftermath of the seconds world war, the US had amassed such a large surplus it could easily bail out much of Western Europe to fuel growth and give rise to a new age of mass consumerism. It may seem ironic, but without huge government intervention through fiscal stimulus packages, direct subsidies, nationalisation and social welfare, mass consumerism would never have spread beyond the affluent upper middle classes.

Unlike previous splurges, Britain has gained little in lasting infrastructure. We have literally squandered 1.3 trillion of the country`s personal debt on holidays in the sun, property trading and 60" plasma TV screens. Most recent extensions to the country`s rail and rapid transit network were planned back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, yet owing demographic growth in the Southeast of England and increased commuting as people are forced to buy houses further and further away from their place of work, road and rail networks are bursting at their seams. To accommodate a rising population and smaller households, property developers have littered the countryside with suburban sprawl composed of compact houses designed to last 30-40 years requiring more roads, plumbing and wiring. Superficially, much of the country still has vast expanses of greenbelt, farmland and pastures. In reality it relies on natural resources from abroad to temporarily support current levels of aggregate consumption. Everything from vegetables to bottled water, electronic gadgets to coal, timber to steel, plastic utensils to fridges or cars to ships are imported to the birthplace of industrial revolution, in effect exporting pollution. Arm-chair human rights activists may bemoan the working conditions and exploitation of the Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese or Eastern European labourers who actually produce the goods we consume, but would they get out of bed for less than £5 an hour, let alone the derisory pay packets of the millions of virtual slaves who enable us to party like there were no tomorrow? Left-leaning Guardian-readers tend to live in a bubble, in which their non-productive service-sector earnings are exchanged for real goods labelled fair-trade, organic or environmentally-friendly and inspected by wishful-thinking corporate compliance officers.

The same government that bleats incessantly about climate change promotes economic growth and the globalisation of production. They may talk about investing in public transport, but rely on advertising revenue from automotive multinationals. The Blair years will be remembered as the final act of a 60 year experiment in mass consumerism, the age of 60†Plasma TV screens, people carriers and 4x4 off-road vehicles in suburbia, cheap Ryanair flights ferrying young Brits to stag or hen nights in Eastern Europe as well as for the commercialisation of the Internet and a national obsession with re-enactments of warfare and gangster violence. An age when absurd thought-suppressing political correctness coexists with disrespect for the uncool and widespread moral depravity, drunken binges and deregulated gambling.

Rather than champion Blair as a great democrat or human rights activist, future historians will view his fervent support for US/NATO military intervention in the context of depleting fossil fuel resources. Whether the recent consumption binge will trigger catastrophic climate change or not, sooner or later we will be confronted with the harsh reality of limits of growth on a finite planet and will need to readapt to a more humble localised existence. New Labour left future generations with a cultural vacuum, unsustainable material expectations, a huge debt and a woeful shortage of practical hands-on skills.

Power Dynamics

Metamorphosis of the Labour Party

How the Party of workers came to represent a bunch of non-productive consumers

Little divided the main political parties in the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election. They all support the supremacy of transnational corporations, the banking cartel and the Euro-American military-industrial complex. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives may voice their theoretical opposition to some of the grandiose projects championed by New Labour such as the multi-billion pound ID card system, but they remain firmly wedded to the cause of global corporatism and, more important, relentless economic growth. Since the demise of large-scale British manufacturing, economic growth has largely been consumption-led, meaning to thrive big business needed a huge of army of happy consumers supported by a sophisticated welfare system. To generate revenue to fund imports of material goods and resources, we presumably offer services, related to banking, people management, surveillance, marketing, education and health. Every real worker with hard skills,driving the country`s high-tech sector, requiring the application of brainpower, is supplemented by a plethora of project managers, coordinators, pen-pushers and assistants. Yet even skilled service sector jobs attract a steady influx of workers trained abroad.

If anything the May 2010 general election revealed a growing geographic chasm. On the one hand New Labour receives most of its votes from inner cities with large migrant populations, and former industrial areas with large sections of the population dependent on welfare or public sector jobs. On the other the Conservatives and Liberals dominate middle England. One can travel from Penrith in the North of England to Devon without ever encroaching on Labour-held territory. Yet Labour still holds a majority of Scottish seats and Gordon Brown received 64% of the vote in his home constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, despite betraying his roots and future generations by bailing out bankers to the tune of £600 billion and supporting an oil-soaked war in Iraq. In Fife over 1 in 5 workers are employed by the council, 1 in 8 adults are on incapacity benefits, school kids are more likely than anywhere else in the UK to be diagnosed with ADHD and thousands of jobs dependent on defence contracts. As they say, â€Ã…“better the devil you knowâ€Ã‚ÂÂ. In the recent Glenrothes by-election New Labour saw off a challenge from the Scottish National Party by denouncing the SNP-led council`s move to reduce subsidies on home-helps, and presumably divert such handouts to the provision of other services. New Labour thrives where people feel helpless without the guiding hand of the state or the omnipresence of friendly corporations. A loyal New Labourite shops at Tesco, buys National Lottery tickets, subscribes to Sky TV, only uses genuine Microsoft software and supports our troops fighting for freedom and democracy abroad. If state largesse faded away, people would have to get real jobs.

As late as the 1970s skilled workers, whether miners or automotive engineers, could bring the country to its knees, for within weeks it would be without power or a viable manufacturing base. Fast-forward to the early 21st century and any group attempting to exploit their collective professional bargaining power, are readily dismissed as overpaid troublemakers who can be replaced at a drop of hat, largely thanks to the atomisation of skilled professionals and the globalisation of labour markets. Instead a small elite of highly specialised and generally well-remunerated technicians are shunted around the globe, often as temporary contractors, owing little allegiance to their fellow workers or geographic community, and focussed entirely on advancing their career for personal gain. It might seem rather ironic, but the remnants of the trade union movement have steadfastly opposed all restrictions on immigration, presumably to show their solidarity with workers abroad, yet rendering settled workers powerless to take any action against their bosses. Few workers today see the fruits of their labour with their role reduced to that of teamworkers, dependent on other professionals to produce any good or service of worth. Life skills, which every family needs, have been transformed into professional specialisations. Everything from childcare to nutrition, emotional wellbeing to safety precautions or learning to entertainment has been professionalised, while such services were all once provided by one`s extended family and local community. Instead of childminders, child psychiatrists, nutritionists, health and safety inspectors, learning assistants, television sets and game consoles, we had mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins and other members of our local community. If all childminders went on strike, an unlikely scenario because they are one of the least well organised professional categories, parents would have to give up their jobs and become full-time parents. However, as so many are single-parents this would often mean no income or dependence on yet more state handouts. In the real world, it often makes little for single parents to take up an offer of employment unless they stand to earn much more than the combined cost of childcare and transport. In this context working family tax credits encourage couples on low to middle incomes to substitute parents for childminders. Yet such while incentives have benefited the middle classes, they habe been relatively unsuccessful in attracting a huge reserve of home-grown dropouts, by which I mean not just neets (not in employment, education or training), but a wider group of average intelligence who simply lack a combination of specialised skills, experience and motivation to compete in the labour market, especially when confronted with a deluge of eager newcomers, often recruited proactively because of their alleged work ethic. Modern British culture, as promoted by TV, seems to encourage wanton consumption, brand awareness and dependence more than creativity and hard work

Hence we witness the spectre of benefits claimants watching Top Gear on their 60' plasma TV screens, while their offspring indulge in virtual first-person shooting or online dating in their bedrooms, all subsidised by the country`s still buoyant private service sector who in turn depend on the marketing and consumption of goods produced somewhere else. Even the most deprived neighbourhoods are replete with mobile phone and video game shops, often flanked by betting shops and pawn brokers. In a consumption-driven economy it matters little whether consumers are paid to perform a niche task in the ballooning people-management bureaucracy, or are simply paid to stay at home and raise the next generation of benefits claimants, either way they are slaves to debt and consumption, whether they owe that debt to banks or the state

New Labour`s spin doctors love to emphasise their achievements such as the national minimum wage, working family tax credits and huge injection of funds into the national health service as well as the extra 3 million jobs their policies allegedly helped create. On closer analysis the number of jobless adults of working age has actually increased from 7 to 8 million, while the official unemployment count is just 2.5 million. According to some estimates as many as five million adults of working age are perfectly capable of performing the huge range of uninspiring and menial, but very necessary jobs, now dominated by an army of recent immigrants. Yet despite millions poured into bogus employability and disability awareness training schemes, Britain`s employers still seem to prefer to well-motivated, presentable and amenable newcomers to emotionally insecure, relatively workshy and often rude homebred Brits. Of the 5.5 million jobless citizens, not officially unemployed, only a fraction have debilitating conditions that would prevent them from performing a whole range of practical and useful jobs. It may seem paradoxical, but the recent rise in the diagnosis of personality disorders, has been exploited to justify some people`s inability to compete in a labour market that relies increasingly on soft rather than hard skills. We keep hearing about alleged skills shortages in key sectors, such as health care, engineering and IT, yet such shortages are not unique to the UK. From personal experience I know talented software developers are actively headhunted. It seems ironic to work on a contract basis in London alongside developers from other European countries, only to receive a call about a contract in Germany or France because one has some magic skill unavailable locally. Recruiters will often suggest relocating for as little as 3 months. Britain`s best and brightest are often found not in old Blighty, but abroad enjoying the sun in Dubai, Australia or the US, heading up international teams in Spain, teaching English in Eastern Europe, or working remotely from their Bulgarian mountainside chalets. Sociologists explain this heightened labour mobility as a positive sign of a new era of globalisation and cultural exchange, yet cultural trends everywhere show a narrowing diversity between countries, but growing gap between the internationalised professional classes and the lumpen proletariat, the huge underclass of unskilled or in some cases de-skilled consumers

Endless economic growth is an illusion, destined to end in failure. Rather than harness technological innovation to let people work less, reduce stress and strengthen families and communities, consumption-led growth has produced an army of support workers attempting to alleviate the side effects of our over-indulgence. The Keynsian Dream is well and truly over and the next generation will have to readjust to a lower material standard of living. True progressives, those of us who want to reduce social tension and promote social harmony, should support the relocalisation of our economy. Nobody should pretend such a transition will be easy. The cuts introduced by an incoming Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition may be a bitter pill to swallow, but they will in a way soften the blow. If you rely on state handouts, you have in effect relinquished your personal freedoms. Let us return to our previous role as a proud working class, struggling to gain a fair share of the fruits of our labour.