If you are a market survey person and you have been referred to this page by someone you were surveying please go to the Credo. Read it, think about it, tell your employers about it, try to find a more ethical job and, unless you can do what we ask below, never bother us again.
If you are someone else, then read on. I hope what I have to say resonates with you. If so, please join the “Citizen Not Consumer” movement which I am launching here. To do this all you have to do is, when you are “marketed at”, tell your tormentor that he or she will find your response here: http://tiny.cc/notconsumer.
On Wednesday 16 May 2012 I was interviewed by a representative of NatCen (“Social Research that works for society”) for a “Necessities of Life” survey. The questions, with their implicit assumptions about the possibilities open to society, disturbed me.
The following day I received a phone call from someone with a thick Indian accent, which I found difficult to understand, saying that his name was “James” (let’s say) and that he was calling from the UK. He was doing a survey and wanted to ask me a few questions. Of late I have been politely refusing to take part in such surveys, but something made me go along with it. The ensuing conversation made me think further about the way neo-liberal economics is commodifying us, infantilising us, treating us as products/objects rather than as citizens, and destroying our quality of life, the notion of community and active citizenship and the environment. It also made me reflect further on the previous day’s survey. I decided to take action, and emailed NatCen.
On Saturday I attended a World Development Movement conference (“Dancing to a different beat: campaigns, stories and songs of resistance for the 99%”). Tim Gee, author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, was one of the speakers. I bought his book, and read about a man (Omar Barghouti) speaking at a rally after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and saying: “I wish you Egypt so you can, like the Tunisians, the Egyptians, the Libyans, the Bahrainis, the Yemenis, and certainly the Palestinians, shout ‘No! We do not want to select the least wrong answer. We want another choice altogether that is not on your damned list!'”
This was the spur I needed to write up my telephone conversation with the market surveyor and produce this blog entry. Our circumstances, in the UK and USA, are, arguably, as serious as those faced by Arab Spring protesters. (Perhaps more so. Despite not being apparent to many of the citizens of rich western countries, I believe that the corporate and political interests and ideologies based in them are responsible for most of the world’s problems.) The reduction of life to trivial choices is a symptom of our common disease.
Below you will find:
- a copy of the email I sent to NatCen,
- the details of my conversation with the market survey person,
- the Credo that emerged, which includes messages to the CEOs of public limited (UK) and publicly traded (US) companies and their shareholders,
- and what choices I am making as a responsible citizen.
Dear Ms R_
Two days ago a gentleman came round to ask me the questions in your “Necessities of Life Survey”. As the interview went on I became increasingly annoyed and frustrated. This had nothing to do with the interviewer, who was both professional and friendly. It had everything to do with the construction of your survey, which I think is flawed. As the questions went on it became ever clearer to me that that the implicit assumption underlying your survey is that the only model for our society is a materialist-consumerist one, in which people live in atomised units jealously hoarding their own individual possessions while keeping a competitive eye on those of their unfriendly neighbours.
At the very least, your questions should be prefaced by such assumption-exposing phrases as:
- “Given that children may be mercilessly bullied for not having the latest designer gear, which of the following items do you regard as essential, which as desirable and which as unnecessary?”
- “If we make the assumption that friendly neighbourhood communities do not exist and children cannot therefore pool toys and other items…”
Better still would be to ask questions such as:
- “In what circumstances do you think it would not be necessary or desirable for children to have new…?”
- “If you had children, would you help them resist the peer pressure to own certain goods that results from corporate advertising in a grossly unequal society?”
You might argue that these suggested questions (particularly the second) are biased in themselves, but at least their “bias” is on display, unlike the covert materialist-consumerist bias that I fear underlies your survey, which appears to simply consider people’s [material] “aspirations” within society as it is now – considering them to be “consumers” who want “choice” – and fails to offer an opportunity for people to express themselves “outside the box” about how society might be made better. To be blunt, I fear your survey could serve as a subtle reinforcer of the status quo, and I think it highly unlikely that, as it stands, it will inform decision-makers such that it could lead to a healthier and happier world.
I am not accusing you of deliberately biasing the survey, by the way. Indeed, I suspect that the survey’s slant is entirely inadvertent, such is the grip that the predominant economic ideology seems to have over most of us. Our mainstream media give the illusion of freedom of expression and vigorous debate, but they only give a fair platform to a very narrow portion of the political spectrum. (See http://medialens.org for an intelligent discussion of this.) Your survey, as it is at the moment, sits nicely within this portion.
Minor points of irritation were such phrases as (from memory): “new, well-fitting shoes”. “New” and “well-fitting” are separate concepts. I wanted to answer that it doesn’t matter if they are new, as long as they are presentable and comfortable (and then challenge the nature of a society that subjects children to competitive, status-related consumption), but “well-fitting and in good condition” wasn’t an option.
In conclusion, I refer you to the Oxfam Humankind Index, which should give you some ideas about how your survey might be improved, and I am copying this email to Katherine Trebeck of that organisation. Good luck with modifying your approach!
Yours sincerelyR. Eric Swanepoel, citizen not consumer
http://synchronybooks.co.ukYou may read my further correspondence with NatCen.
Possibly feeling sorry for what I imagined was a highly stressed factory chicken of a call centre employee, stuck in a noisy and uncomfortable office in Delhi, working overnight for a chickenfeed salary, and whose every breath and toilet break were monitored, I did not challenge him as to his name and location, and let him ask me the all-too-predictable questions. Here are some fragments of that conversation, as far as I remember them.
James: “Do you own your property, rent it from…?”
Me: “I rent it from a private landlord.”
James: “Do you have a Sky satellite dish?”
Me: “No, and I don’t even have a television. I don’t believe in them.”
James: Who is your electricity provider? Is it [rattles off a long list of large companies]?”
Me: “None of those. I get both my electricity and gas from Good Energy. I don’t choose my energy supplier on the basis of price, I choose it according to environmental criteria, and I did my research before choosing this company so I am not going to change.” [Actually Good Energy’s prices are very competitive anyway!]
James: “OK. So who is your electricity provider? Is it [rattles off same list]?”
Me (very patiently): “No, as I have just explained, I get my electricity from Good Energy. The only thing I consider is environmental criteria.”
Me: “Good Energy. G-O-O-D Energy.”
James: “Who provides your gas? Is it [another long list of large companies]?”
Me: “No. None of those. As I have just explained, I get both my gas and electricity from Good Energy!”
“James” simply could not accept or understand what I was saying about Good Energy. The company was clearly not on his script and I assume that no one else had ever mentioned it, or introduced him to the concept that a criterion other than immediate price (not the cost to the environment!) could ever influence a decision. I had to repeat my answers to these questions three times. Then he asked me some other questions about things that were not relevant to me before saying: “So, just to be clear, let me ask you again. Who provides your gas? Is it [same list of large companies]?”
Me (proud of my self-control and politeness): “No. Look, I have already explained that I get both my gas and electricity from Good Energy.”
James admitted defeat and left this topic at last, asking me further questions about other goods and services which I knew would not produce any answers of use to companies seeking new prey.
Me: “Look, as I tried to explain earlier, I have answered several surveys along these lines before. I know that I never give any answers that are of any use to you. “
Me: “Look, this is wasting both your time and mine. I suggest you simply fill in the rest of the survey yourself. I know that none of my answers will enable any of the companies you work for to sell me anything. I am going to put the phone down now. Thank you.”
This is very much an abbreviated version of our conversation, but it influenced my email to NatCen and the Credo below.
- I am a citizen, first and foremost, not a mere “consumer”.
- I am not an object/product to be marketed at and marketed (such as when you collect information on my preferences and sell it on).
If you want to sell something to me:
- Do not assume that the monetary price is all I care about.
- Explain how your product or service is in everyone’s long-term best interests.
- Explain how the people who produce the goods/provide the service are treated and paid.
- Tell me how much the men/women at the top and bottom of the tree are paid.
- Tell me what impact your product/service has on the environment.
- Tell me what impact your product/service has on local employment.
- No to endless choices between trivial options and little choice with regard to important things.
- No to vacuous branding. (The more you shove images of glossy models sporting your slave-labour-produced brand in my face, trying to make me think this is what the “cool” people are into, the more I shall resist you.)
- No to “the market” in education, healthcare, postal services, public transport, energy, water and other services. I do not want to agonise about which hospital to go to and which school to send my children to. I want to know that the people who collect my rubbish and put out my fires are paid well and have a decent pension. I do not want my money to line the pockets of tax haven-exploiting CEOs.
- No to neo-liberalism and the pitiless market god (only ever “free” to the rich and powerful).
- No to endless, environment-destroying economic growth, as measured by GDP.
- No to destructive ideologically-driven deregulation.
- No to the myth that the wealthy “create jobs”, but need tax breaks in order to do this. (Their big businesses destroy more than they produce, and inequality harms everyone.)
- No to big corporations in general. No to big supermarkets, big pharma and big oil. No to Monsanto. Particularly no to the arms industry (which has little to do with “defence”).
- No to the homogenisation of our high streets.
- No to a monetary system based on debt.
- No to unethical banks.
- No to politicians who scapegoat or fail to stand up for the poorest and weakest in society and the long-term best interests of all. (You lose your legitimacy when you suck up to the Rupert Murdochs and Donald Trumps of this world. You have no purpose if you simply side with the rich and powerful.)
- No to the commodification of life and the financialisation of the resources on which we all depend.
- No to the mainstream media, which generally lack the courage and integrity to fairly reflect the facts regarding the unsustainability of our economic system and the opinions of any but those who control and benefit from it.
- No to a penal system that fails to reform prisoners.
- No to “the war on drugs“. (Follow the money!)
Messages to the CEOs of public limited (UK) and publicly traded (US) companies and their shareholders
- All of humanity lives on a sphere of finite size hurtling through space. All the resources from which your profits come (barring sunlight) come from this sphere, and they are limited. No one has the exclusive right to them. Any negative effects of your businesses are not felt solely by you – they affect us all. In other words we are all shareholders in planet earth, and therefore your companies, and if you do anything that harms our long-term best interests you should be regarded as criminals.
- There is no correlation between CEO pay and performance (even narrowly measured) and inequality harms everyone. (More fundamentally, we also reject the notion that one human being is worth more than another.) Pay ratios, particularly in the private sector, are appallingly large. CEO pay should be drastically reduced.
What choices am I, the author of this blog, making?
Well, that was all a bit negative, wasn’t it? So what positive things am I doing?
- I challenge the mainstream media when their coverage is biased.
- I read Resurgence, The Scottish Left Review, Medialens and Bella Caledonia.
- I closed my account with RBS. I now bank with The Co-operative Bank and Triodos.
- I am campaigning to get Scotmid to stop banking with RBS and to get RBS out of our schools (and I have campaigned on many other issues).
- I get my gas and electricity from Good Energy and rarely use heating.
- I allow myself a maximum of one return long-haul flight a year (to visit my immediate family) and I travel by surface within Europe.
- I don’t own a car and tend to cycle or walk within my home town.
- I try to avoid big brand names.
- I avoid the two biggest supermarket chains: Tesco and Asda-Walmart. (Together they control 52% of food sales in the UK: too much power!) I do shop at other big chains as there’s a limit to how many compromises I can make, and don’t feel bad about shopping at employee-owned John Lewis and Waitrose. (See what David Erdal has to say about employee-owned companies.)
- I subscribe to an organic box scheme and never waste food. (I compost inedible peels etc.)
- I have a tiny garden but grow some fruit and vegetables in it and help others garden.
- I forage for wild food.
- I don’t eat meat.
- I am a member of several organisations, including community and activist groups (such as Community Crops in Pots and Occupy Free Radicals) and a trade union, and I have served on the latter’s committee.
- I wrote a humorous novel aimed at exposing the abuse of wealth and power and suggesting how it might be overcome, and I co-wrote and published a biography detailing a woman’s struggle for justice against a local authority under whose aegis she was abused as a child. Here’s a video about it:
Note: I am not suggesting that what I do is ideal, sufficient or necessarily what you should do yourself! I list these things simply to get you thinking about what changes you might want to make to make the world a better place. What you choose to do could be completely different! All I am saying is don’t be passive, and therefore effectively a collaborator in an economic system that is wrecking people’s lives and the environment.
A final point: please read John Pilger’s essay: ‘The party game is over. Stand and fight.’.