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.
- 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.
- Share. There’s so much that we all have that can be helpful in this time. With better government, our will to share resources and skills could achieve huge things: what if, for example, shuttered offices and furloughed staff could be redirected towards our education crisis? We can start more simply. Sharing food via apps like Olio, for example, is a great way to build on the communities created in lockdown. Our experiences are worth sharing too: understanding how we’ve changed in this time will be crucial to developing our national response over the coming years, and is something we can all contribute to. Signing up for research projects like Exeter University’s exploration of social interactions or the Young Foundation’s Covid & Me Diaries, or completing surveys like Renew Normal are all very real contributions. Let’s ask ourselves what we have, beyond money, in possessions or experience, that others could benefit from.
- Get political. The greatest risk of this moment is that everything just seems so awful that we want to tune out. That is exactly what Johnson wants usto do, and that’s why the biggest thing any of us can do is to get political. It might mean signing your first petition, or maybe contributing to the crowdfunder to get the investigation into Dominic Cummings reopened. It might mean joining a political party. It might mean running for office in the local elections in May 2021, the first electoral opportunity we will have to call for another way of doing things in this country. Our political system is far from perfect, but we have to start from where we are, and the more of us that get involved, the better the future we will build.
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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