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China leads the way

Over the decade of the 2000s I visited China several times. At some point on each trip a Chinese acquaintance would assure me, unsolicited on my part, that “the Chinese” were not interested in democratic rights. Rather, their priority was material improvement, greater incomes for greater private consumption.

Whatever the validity of this interpretation of collective will, it summarises the governing strategy of China’s dictatorial regime. It involves a bargain in which the Chinese people surrender democratic citizenship for the promise of individual gain through private consumption

The iron link between dictatorship and private consumption goes far to explain 1) the obsession of the Chinese rulers with maximising economic growth, and 2) the political role of the middle class. Given the clear absence of policies to reduce inequality, rapid growth becomes the necessary mechanism for the state to deliver its part of the consumerist bargain. Far from being a force for democratisation, the rise of a consumerist middle class provides the political support for dictatorship, albeit a minority support.

The bargain of democratic rights for material gain that we see in China is not limited to dictatorial regimes. On the contrary, it serves as the mechanism for the transition from representative democracy to disenfranchised dictatorship.

Consumerist route to tyranny

The disastrous effect of consumerism on global environmental sustainability is well documented. The private automobile represents the most obvious example of the triumph of consumerism over making the planet fit for human life.

Consumerism also serves as the ideological foundation to undermine public provision by inculcating a prejudice against all forms of taxation, and treating social interaction as derivative from commodity exchange. Perhaps the most absurd recent example came when HMRC referred to people trying to telephone for advice on tax issues as “customers”, offering a twitter address, @HMRC customers. The message comes through clearly, that tax is an individual payment for commodities and services that the public sector delivers, subject to the ‘value for money’ cliché.

Consumerist ideology treats society as a collection of individuals, each seeking to maximise their private consumption. It follows that taxation for any purpose diminishes personal welfare. In a consumerist world the public sector should only do those activities that the individual cannot purchase as a private commodity. Human interactions are not merely analogous to market transactions, they are market transactions. Consumerism replaces citizenship with commodity ownership. 

As I argued in a previous article, authoritarianism achieves the acquiescence of the citizen by removing policy decisions from public discussion. It does this by convincing the public that these decisions should be left to experts. Public debate results in a dysfunctional “politicising” of decisions. 

Recently Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the chair of the eurozone finance ministers, urged the reductio ad absurdum of public disenfranchisement. He recommended that the budgets of member states should be assessed by an “independent” oversight body.

The ideology of consumption reinforces the tyranny of expertise. It does this on a day-to-day basis by the conversion of public services into commodities purchased by the individual through the tax mechanism. Governments become service providers for customers, with the design and selection of public services the job of experts, such as the moves to privatise major parts of the NHS. 

Consumerist ideology replaces the de Tocqueville vision of informed citizens defining the role of the public sector through collective action with the informed consumer assessing value for money in both the public and private sectors. Buying and selling replaces the ballot box. Under consumerist ideology the relation between citizen-consumer and the state becomes a bargain. The former surrenders democratic rights in exchange for material gain that the state takes credit for delivering. 

Inequality and dictatorship

In the neoliberal era the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” has replaced the older and discredited “trickle down growth”. These vague clichés seek to conceal one of the inherent outcomes of the consumerist ideology: inequality of incomes, wealth and social status.

Evidence unambiguously shows that that the size of the state relatively to the economy as a whole is closely linked to inequality in countries with democratic institutions: a smaller public sector results in greater inequality. In the private sector capital is more powerful than labour, and the corporations that sell are more powerful than the citizens who buy. A small public sector enhances the power of capital as well as undermining any redistributive effect of taxation.

Almost by definition the inequality generated by shrinking the public sector limits to a minority those who gain from neoliberal consumerism. As a result, consumerism can never be an ideology that benefits the majority. Private benefit in exchange for democratic rights is a bargain between the upper middle class and an authoritarian state.

In the context of nominally democratic institutions, the increasingly authoritarian state seeks the acquiescence of the excluded majority of citizens through several mechanisms. One of the most important is the ideological division of the majority into the deserving and undeserving, “strivers” and “shirkers”. The latter are presented as the true enemy of the former, and by implication the benefiting minority extolled as the ally of the “strivers”. As Gordon Brown recently argued, the Conservative government explicitly seeks to enlist the “strivers” through the illusion that they can join the wealthy minority. 

This ideology demonizes the “shirkers” as the main barrier to “strivers” climbing into the benefit-receiving minority, because of the taxes “strivers” pay to support the undeserving “shirkers”. The impoverished tail of the excluded majority, the unemployed and the lowly paid, becomes the villain of the inequitable system generated by the acquisitiveness of the few.

Authoritarianism runs its course

The flaw in the consumerist bargain as a governing strategy is its inherent characteristic, benefits restricted to a minority, a minority that grows relatively smaller as inequality increases. Success of the bargain requires that a substantial proportion of the excluded accept the “striver” fiction, that economic and social mobility is not merely possible but the typical outcome of “hard work” and “doing the right thing”.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”.  The consumerist transition to authoritarianism requires the improbable: fooling a substantial majority of the citizenry indefinitely. 

Over time the myth of advancement by the majority comes into conflict with the reality of social immobility and continuing failure to benefit from economic growth.  An extreme manifestation of reality asserting itself appears in a recent study in the United States that documents declining life expectancy of the white middle class as the “American Dream” turns to nightmare.