Consumers, citizens or consumer-citizens?

Consumers, citizens or consumer-citizens?

There has been a growing argument about the changing nature of citizenship in today’s western democracies. Of course, it would be foolish to try to categorise all the different ideas of citizenship into one idea – it would be more appropriate to talk about citizenships – but for the sake of this post, I’m going to speak in generalities. The first point that I would make is that there is a growing realisation about the concept of citizenship no longer meaning just the relationship between a state and its members: this political definition of citizenship generally had a focus on topics like rights and responsibilities, voting, the obligations due to the state and the benefits of belonging to the state. It is, as you’d imagine, a political definition of the idea with an emphasis on nationalism – hence, we talk about Australian citizens in this sense, or Chinese citizens. In many ways, the term can be used almost interchangeably with ‘national’ and it has a strict legal definition that requires documentation, evidence and procedures if one is applying to become a citizen of a particular state.

But that’s not necessarily the way that citizenship is discussed today -well, not the only way. We also talk about active citizens, environmental citizens, global citizens and even consumer-citizens. But what do these mean? Clearly, they’re very different to the old definitions of citizenship. Firstly, there is no strict relationship between the state and the citizen – this is especially true in terms of ‘global citizenship’. No one is, in any legal sense, a citizen of the world, and so we mean something very different than our previous use of the term when we talk about such a citizen. The idea of global citizenship has grown out of the increasingly globalised and transnational nature of the world, brought about by increasing technological advances and changes in the labour and trade markets. So too with ideas of active citizenship – here the emphasis is on what these kinds of citizens do for their community – in a very Dewey-esque model, it’s not enough to ‘be’ a citizen, but you must also ‘do’ citizenship – generally in ways that are more visible than simply voting once every couple of years. Consumer citizenship is a bit similar – this is the idea that we enact citizenship through our purchasing power as consumers. That is, we don’t just buy products because they are cheap or we’ve been swayed by their persuasive advertising schemes, but because we feel that in doings so we are acting ethically as consumer: hence, we buy FairTrade coffee or something similar.