This is a development of an idea I’ve had kicking around for a while and recently posted in another forum. The question is – why the collapse from customers to consumers and citizens to taxpayers?
There’s a difference between a customer and a consumer and there is a political corrolary to this, the difference between a citizen and a tax payer. We can see how this devolution from citizen/customer to taxpayer/consumer has taken place.
A customer has a relationship with the provider and has some agency with the provider. A consumer is more infantilised, more of a “feeder”, and has less agency. This also feeds the monopolisation trend we see around us – customers are empowered to go elsewhere, consumers, less so. Consumers consume whatever gizmos the monopolists provide them, and have a dramatically different set of expectations than a customer does. The consumer sees power in the choice of the gizmos they consume – an iPhone instead of Android, a PC instead of a Mac, a burger instead of a hotdog, Miller instead of Budweiser, Prius instead of Hummer. This ability to choose between not only a or b but a panoply of varieties of consumer items gives people a false sense of agency. They are not really dealing with Toyota or GM or even the dealer when they buy a Prius or a Volt instead of a gas guzzling tank. They go to the dealer, and they might haggle over a price with the dealer, but there is very very little beyond that – they might as well be talking to a counter person at Walmart, as there is no residual affective claim between the seller and Customer. It is this reciprocity that forms a kind of cathectic binding that creates the Customer. And it is that loss of Main Street in the maw of Walmart that also eviscerated that binding, that last vestige of the gift culture, from the front line of the economic society.
In this way, the invisible hand of the market is revealed to be the iron fist of extraction. There is need. There is scarcity. There is requirement. There is exchange.
Desire ends in satisfaction, so needs are defined in terms that exceed satisfaction, and the brutality of this is transparent, in both the European and North American sense. It is transparent in the European sense, in that it is completely obvious. It is also transparent in the North American sense in that it is completely invisible. It is obvious in that everyone understands the ideology – arrange matters so that the asymptote is “(get) something for (giving) nothing”. It is transparent because it is ideological – it is the accepted norm and thus invisible. However, once implemented, it logically evacuates previous systems of exchange and whatever affective fields that were part and parcel of said previous system.
This leads to an infantilisation process, which includes removal of accountability from both the consumer and the provider, even as the extraction remains obvious. This disempowering process removes the last vestiges of agency in the customer in their transformation into consumer. Once they are consumers, they simply feed off the system and seek optimisation to the asymptote. The corporations seek the same. The result is a mass extraction from above and below, with a nearly autistic dismissal and blindness to the social contract and the binding of people together through affective and interest associations. Once so removed, we are swept into this violent system that perpetuates itself through violence, only violence displaced and mediated, leaving an empty core of hedonics and a self-interest in an empty and meaningless self.
Citizens are empowered and informed. They may not be correct (in my vision of the world, most are rather ill-informed and utterly misguided, but, that is outside the scope of this article, so for now, we can say, “it takes all kinds…”) or not, however, true citizens are actively involved with their neighbourhoods, communities, localities and nation-states. Taxpayers are not. Taxpayers are consumers of government services and see themselves as alienated from the systems of service provision. As consumers, they want what all infantilised consumers want, that same asymptotic impossibility:
Something for nothing.
Napster simply provided exactly what the consumer had been demanding all along and what was native to the enframing of digital technology itself: copies of data, for free (or nearly free). Computers copy data. Constantly. It’s inherent to their operation. With the digitisation of media, the data that represents that media is subject to the same exigencies of basic computer science – it is subject to continuous and complete copying. Essentially: Something for nothing. P2P transference of data is simple and consistent with the internal workings of the computer, only spread out into a network, as the data within a computer is part of its own network of compiled code and libraries and arrays of data, so with P2P, this data is thus extended to other storage substrates.
A customer would have been much more wary of such a proposition, indeed, in a different society, “Free (as in beer)” would be regarded with great suspicion. In our society, consumers are like honey badgers, they don’t give a shit. They will cheerfully gut public education because they can’t see why they should pay for some other families kid’s education. They will cheerfully buy a Prius instead of an SUV, or vice versa depending on the dominant meme. Rapaille doesn’t quite get it on that count – it’s not that the lizard brain requires dominance, it merely seeks advantage. Over hundreds of thousands of years of living in roaming bands, humans found ways to bind each other together through affective and cathectic investments and arrangements. In a gift economy, a gift (FREE as in beer) isn’t really Free. It is a way to bind one to the giver and create relationships.
These relationships are evacuated in a consumer system. Thus, contemporary neo-liberal and libertarian ideology has tax payers see government as an extractive system (as something transparently obvious) and corporations as extractive systems (as something invisibly transparent). This arrangement serves to erase social contract and atomise people away from each other into nodes behind a screen choosing their premediated dollops of A or B sauce on their C or D entertainment opiates.
How we get out of the infinite regress of infantile consumerism remains to be seen. I am thinking that when oil production goes into a permanent decline after 2017, that’s going to evacuate a lot of wealth that was being spent on meaningless consumer items built to be sent to the landfill, and people will have to snap to attention and get on the stick or experience enormous suffering. At that point, the ICT industry (and others) will have to evolve customers and relationships. How that would evolve out of the massive monopolisation process that reigns (and visits violence) from above seems unlikely, so I would think it will have to come from below as consumers empower themselves back into being customers working with people to get (work/play/etc.) done, and thus become citizens who are compassionate and contributing active members of a society instead of taxpayers griping about “the gubmint” and “greedy unions”.