A time for Citizens

This is the talk I delivered at TEDxCardiff on 1st March 2020, a date that now seems a lifetime ago, but a message that I think and hope has only become more relevant. I am now in the late stages of writing a book called CITIZENS — and I’m involving people in the process as much as I can. You can join in here.

I started my working life at 151 Marylebone Road in London, the offices of the advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, on September 25th 2003, two years and two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Those two events are connected.

You see, I grew up in the golden age of Consumerism.

My mum for her part grew up in the 50s and 60s, in a Britain still emerging from war and from rationing. She remembers our family’s first washing machine, a Hotpoint Liberator, and remembers it deserving its name.

I was 2 years old when the Consumer superbrands arrived, when in one year Apple launched the Macintosh, Nike sold the first Air Jordans, and Virgin Atlantic broke open the skies.

I was 15 when Tony Blair and New Labour heralded Cool Britannia, told us things could only get better, and were very comfortable with people getting filthy rich.

I was 19, going back to my second year at university, and starting to think about what to do with my life, when the twin towers came down, and Bush and Blair and Giuliani and others told us that what we could do, what we should do, was go shopping.

And I was 21 when I stood at the doors of one of the world’s leading advertising agencies, with stars in my eyes, thinking I had found my place, ready to make my contribution.

And then it all went wrong.

I remember a particular conversation with my first boss. He defined my job like this: “The average consumer sees somewhere between 1500 and 3000 commercial messages a day. You have to cut through that. Your job is to make yours the best.”

He wanted me to focus on the second part of that, and for a couple of years I did. But over time I started thinking more and more about the first. A question began to form in my mind:

What are we doing to ourselves, to our ideas of what is possible, and to our relations with one other, when we tell ourselves we’re Consumers 3000 times a day?

I’ve been asking that question now for 10 years and more. It’s been a difficult journey, challenging emotionally as well as intellectually. Along the way I’ve gathered three Masters degrees and delved into every academic discipline from animal behaviour to history to social psychology to moral philosophy.

As a result I’ve come to believe that the impact of this quantity and pervasiveness of advertising actually goes far beyond the footprint of the stuff being consumed.

Instead, it is the brainprint of the story being told — the story of the Consumer.

I’ve come to see this as a moral story, a normative story about what individuals and organisations should do, of how society should function.

It is a story that is limiting us, holding us down and telling us we’re not good enough to solve the problems of our world; and at worst driving the behaviours that cause those problems.

And it is a story that right now is collapsing in on itself, and is at risk of taking us down with it.

But it is also only a story; when you look back, you see that it has not been around for that long and that it formed out of the best of intentions; when you look forward, you see that right now there is an alternative story emerging and gaining ground across the world and in every aspect of society, one which we can all be part of.

Before the Consumer, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the story of society was the story of the Subject. The right thing to do was keep your head down, do what you were told, get what you were given; the few with god-given power knew best, so this was the path to the best outcome for society as a whole. This was the age of empire, and aristocracy; the age of duty and conformity. But it collapsed under its own logic, most notably in the trenches and on the battlefields, as classes previously kept apart were viscerally confronted with their basic shared humanity.

Coming out of the two world wars and spreading across the world over the second half of the 20th century, the Subject was more or less consciously replaced by the Consumer. Now we deserved better — and if we sought better, the best society would result that way. Self interest would add up to collective interest. The right thing to do was to look out for yourself, to choose the best option for you from those that were offered, to produce whatever people would consume.

This was the story that gave birth to the Hotpoint Liberator, to Apple, to Virgin, and the rest — and from what came before, it was indeed a liberating shift.

But the Consumer story has flaws as fatal as those of the Subject.

The field of social psychology provides perhaps the most compelling evidence. A range of studies suggest that the introduction of even the single word “Consumer” in the framing of a survey questionnaire can undermine motivation for everything from caring for your neighbours, to being active in your local community, to protecting the environment.

Now think of those 3000 messages a day as prompts that say, at some level, you are a Consumer, and you start to see why the story is collapsing, as the language and norms of this story frame and shape our behaviour.

We have an epidemic of loneliness and mental ill health, and we are telling ourselves the story that we are narrowly defined individuals who should stand alone.

We have pervasive inequality, and we are telling ourselves the story that our primary responsibility is to look out for ourselves.

We have ecological breakdown, and we are telling ourselves the story that our agency is limited to choosing between options someone else provides.

This is the brainprint, the Consumer story. This is why it is collapsing around us, and threatening to take us with it.

When the Subject collapsed, the Consumer emerged. Now the Consumer is collapsing, and what is emerging is the Citizen.

If as Subjects we did as we were told, and as Consumers we looked out for ourselves, as Citizens we are getting involved: coming together in our communities, and stepping into our power to shape the world around us for the better.

Two factors are shaping and driving this “Citizen Shift”.

The first is that deep in human nature, we have always been Citizens. There is a growing consensus that collaboration and empathy are as much drivers of the story of evolution as competition and status; looking back through history, from Ancient Athens to the golden age pirates to the cooperative movement, a more participatory society has always been at least an undercurrent.

What fills this moment with potential, though, is technology: and specifically the internet. To explain this, I turn to philosophy, and the work of the enigmatic Canadian Marshall Mcluhan. He expressed himself in sayings.

Probably the most famous is “the medium is the message”. What Mcluhan meant is that the way the primary means of communication of a society (the medium) works comes to shape everything about the way that society works (the message).

Television was the primary medium of the Consumer age: TV has very few producers and many consumers; it is a one-to-many medium; the consumers choose between channels but don’t get involved in shaping the content.

The internet by contrast is a many-to-many medium; the potential, at least, is that we can all participate in creating and shaping what the options are, not just choosing between them.

The potential, as I say — it does not always feel like what’s happening at the moment. But this is where a second saying of Mcluhan’s comes in: “first we shape our tools,” he said, “and then our tools shape us.” We created the internet as Consumers, and we created it as the ultimate marketplace. Now its essential nature as a forum rather than a market is, I believe, starting to shape us as Citizens.

I don’t work in advertising any more.

Nor am I an academic. A few years ago, my old friend Irenie Ekkeshis, a brilliant woman who embodies the power of action over words, dragged me out of academia, and together we set up the New Citizenship Project.

We’re a kind of consultancy business, on a mission to support what we call the Citizen Shift — we see organisations as our intervention point, since they are the storytellers; we celebrate the ones who are telling the Citizen story already, and work to support those who want to.

We often like to work with this table to make it easier for the people we’re working with to see where they’re starting from, and imagine how things could be different.

Subjects are dependent; Consumers independent; Citizens interdependent. As Citizens, our individuality is precious, but we recognise life is only meaningful in interdependence.

Subjects have stuff done to them; Consumers have it done for them; Citizens do it together, with one another, and with and through organisations.

Subjects obey and receive; Consumers demand and choose; Citizens create and participate.

And the role of leaders and organisations in relation to Subjects is to command them; in relation to Consumers to serve them; and in relation to Citizens, to facilitate and enable them.

We celebrate and support the Citizen Shift across sectors.

In business, the Citizen Shift is partly about the shift beyond the Consumer logic of profit maximisation and towards a more purposeful mode. But that’s just the beginning, the entry stakes: it is also about seeing people as more than Consumers, and their agency as more than choice: as allies, participants, contributors.

One of our favourite examples is Brewdog, with their pioneering eco breweries and commitment to the living wage, but also their 125,000 shareholders, or Equity Punks, their 6,000 attendee AGM, their open source recipes, and their offer to exchange used beer cans for shares. Their line “let’s make sure we have a planet to brew beer on” is a far cry from Milton Friedman’s “social responsibility of business is to maximise its profits.”

We’re particularly proud of our work with the Guardian, where we helped Kath Viner, the editor, articulate a purpose that was not just to sell papers or advertising clicks or even to inform society, but to build hope, rooted in an enduring core belief that people long to understand the society they’re in, and create a better one. This creates the space for readers to have a much more active role, informing and contributing to Guardian journalism in multiple ways, and is at the core of the success of the donation model that saw them break even in 2019. As we put it in one presentation, people pay for the Financial Times because they want to be among the few who read it; people pay for the Guardian because they want everyone to read it.

In the public sector, the Citizen Shift is about getting beyond retail politics, the Consumer idea of democracy, which sees us reduced to choosing between the options we’re offered every few years, and in between sees local and national government as providers of public services.

Instead, we see the role of government as being to enable and equip us all as Citizens with the space, capacity and opportunities to shape the society we live in for the better. Experiments in real, meaningful participation in democracy — from participatory budgeting to citizens assemblies to consensus building — are blossoming around the country and the world, from Ireland to Iceland to Taiwan, and we’re proud to be playing our part in several.

In the third sector — charities, museums and so on — the Consumer mindset manifests in treating people transactionally, as donors to compete for on the one hand, and beneficiaries to serve on the other.

In our work we help them focus on and build from the deep, human, Citizen truths that people want to contribute meaningfully and need to feel they have power over their own lives. We’ve worked with Parkinson’s UK for several years now, supporting them as they reorient the organisation to channel the agency and power of people affected by Parkinson’s, standing side by side as they work to transform Parkinson’s together — while still providing the support that many need.

We live in dangerous and uncertain times.

The story of the Consumer is dying, but it is still dominant. The Citizen is emerging, but it is not fully formed. There is no guarantee that it will happen — indeed, our daily news can make a step back to the Subject story seem more likely than a step forward into the Citizen.

Big things are changing, and this is just the beginning, but the nature of the Citizen story is that right at its core, it emphasises that what happens is up to us. All of us.

This will require inner work. Those of us who have grown up in the Consumer story will need to let go of many of our dreams, the lives we thought we would lead, the success we thought we were aiming for. Trust me, that is hard.

At the same time, we need to look out.

When you hear the Consumer story, challenge it. Humans are not lazy and selfish; when someone says so, they are speaking from and for despair

Instead, seek hope.

Look for the Citizen Shift in your world, and in your communities. In your city, in your neighbourhood, in the things you care about. I guarantee you will find it.

Take hope, and then, get involved.

You are not a Consumer, and you are not a Subject. Now is the time to show it.


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Co-Founder, New Citizenship Project and Author, CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us

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Jon Alexander

Co-Founder, New Citizenship Project and Author, CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us