Johnson’s call to “go shopping” is patronising and pointless. We are so much more than Consumers.

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (now famously Trump’s attorney) issued a call to all Americans. “Show your confidence. Show you’re not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping.”

President George W Bush took the message on, world leaders followed, Tony Blair included. Consumption fast became the great contribution we could all make, to show we were unbowed and unafraid. Consumption was patriotism, westernism, anti-terrorism.

It worked. Media energy had been starting to gravitate towards awkward questions: why were there not better preparations for terrorist attack, given one was widely anticipated? Why did so many firefighters die, and did they need to? What could have been different, and what could be learned? All these were sidelined. An economy that had been slipping towards recession recovered. Bush’s poll ratings boomed.

It was perhaps the ultimate expression of what I call the Consumer story. The right thing to do — so this story says — is pursue your self interest, get out there and get a deal, because if everyone does that it will add up to the best outcome for society as a whole. It is a story that can be attractive to people, because it tells us we can have it all in one: get what we want, make a contribution, have power. It is a story that is extremely attractive to an embattled government, because it takes the agency that people feel and channels it into private rather than public action, dismissing questions and drawing fire.

Tomorrow, according to the front cover of yesterday’s Times, Boris Johnson is going to pick up the Giuliani playbook. The awkward questions are the same, his tactic is the same. What he is saying to us, the British people, is this:

Be quiet, little people, leave the big stuff to us.

Just go shopping.

It worked for Giuliani and Bush in 2001. But it will not work for Johnson in 2020, for two reasons.

First, because it can’t. Our economic problems are simply too great, and shopping as it once was simply not safe enough. Millions do not know whether they will have an income. We all know a huge recession looms. Social distancing is still in place. The R number is too high.

Second, because there is a bigger, better, and more truthful story taking shape: the story of the Citizen. In these weeks of Mutual Aid, of NHS Responders, of knowing our neighbours and clapping for key workers, we have seen each other for who we really are. We have realised our contribution can be bigger, and more satisfying. We want to shape the society we live in for the better. We want our voices heard, and those of others. We want to be involved, and we know we can be.

Johnson’s call to go shopping is pointless because it will not work, and patronising because it dismisses what we have been together and done together in this time. So what should we do? Here’s three places we can start.

  1. Spend, but spend smart. Right now, every pound we spend has far more significance than ever before. Every choice is an investment in our collective future, a statement as to what you want to thrive and what not. So yes, let’s shop, but let’s shop local, for the sake of the local businesses whose years of hard work could be for nothing (this will be safer, too, with shorter supply chains and greater care for staff). And let’s not just shop. Let’s use crowdfunding channels like Spacehive and kickstarter to contribute to the places we live and the things we believe in. Let’s support BAME-owned businesses and donate to anti-racist charities. Let’s donate to others charities too, because it’s morally right but also because it’s economically smart: when people get the support they need, they’re more likely to be able to contribute themselves. Let’s not just buy what we want now for ourselves, let’s fund what we want for our future together.

What all this is ultimately about is an attitude to our future and to our country that insists that both are ours to shape.

So let’s not let Johnson put us in a box marked “Consumers”. Let’s insist on being Citizens.

Let’s get involved.


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You can find out more about the Consumer and Citizen stories by having a look at my other medium posts, or at the work of the company I co-founded, the New Citizenship Project.

activist / strategist / citizen / co-founder @NewCitProj / fellow @the_young_fdn @theRSAorg / member @CompassOffice @soclibforum

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