New Left Project

The Politics of Consumption

Profiteering energy companies raise average bills to record levels. Train fares climb up to 8% above inflation. Rents in places like London are at an all time high. All this against a background of real wage stagnation, increasing unemployment and creeping inflation: what has the British left’s response been?

Ken Livingstone, campaigning to be London mayor again, has pledged to cut tube fares and has floated the idea of a living rent to complement the living wage. Some tenants organisations, such as in Camden, are currently organising against hikes in rent by local councils. The progressive campaign group 38 Degrees, in collaboration with Which?, recently announced a project to allow consumers to collectively bulk buy gas and electricity in order to drive down prices. You can sign up here. There have also been more direct action responses from environmental groups. Fuel Poverty Action launched a series of protests at the end of January, including occupying two floors of the British Gas office in Staines in protest against rising energy prices. They have been planning for further action and there are local groups, like Leeds Fuel Poverty Action, who campaign on a similar basis. As yet these haven’t had the impact of UK Uncut or the anti-workfare actions, but hopefully they will grow.

The 38 Degrees campaign is the largest of the actions against the energy companies to date, with over 150,000 people signed up, and it raises some interesting questions about the contemporary politics of consumption. The idea has its merits – it is more practical and long-term than their initial call to ‘shame’ companies into lowering prices with a petition and it is doubtful whether the left in its current form could have organised and supported a mass non-payment campaign. Still, the campaign doesn’t go far enough. It may not succeed in lowering prices significantly for those on low incomes; indeed it doesn’t raise the idea of what a fair or affordable price really is. The cheapest market price is not the same thing. Ideologically, the campaign is rather close to current market logic and the assumptions of consumer experts. Its key idea is ‘the Big Switch’. The collective of consumers will be able to choose the cheapest bulk buy deal on offer, and 38 Degrees and Which? will manage the switch over from a consumer’s old supplier to the new one on their behalf.

It has long been a puzzle of consumer experts why most people don’t switch to the cheapest deals on offer, especially when they have price comparison websites to help them. Infamously, this has been part of the failure to create the competitive market in energy that privatisation was supposed to deliver. There are various explanations for this. Industry experts tend to blame ‘lack of information’. The economist Tim Harford suggests that consumers who do switch fail to see long term low prices. But the better analysis, if we look to our own use of energy, is that we continue to treat energy as a utility, as if it had never been privatised. We treat water, gas and electricity as everyday necessities that should just be there, without having to think about them, in exchange for paying quarterly or biannual bills. They are not consumed in the same way as shopping around for cheap air fares, and consumers are unlikely to start doing so. This is ‘non-consumerist consumption’.

When they began asking their members about what action 38 Degrees should take these were some of the suggestion floated: clearer tariffs; profit displayed on bills; energy companies to offer the cheapest tariffs. There was one great elephant in the room: return the energy companies to public ownership. Yet for most of their history water, gas and electricity were under a regime of public ownership and control. Long before the nationalisations of the Attlee government, utilities were provided in a mixed economy of municipal and private provision. Local authorities, particular metropolitan ones, prided themselves on supplying their citizens with clean running water or electricity. Those private companies that did exist were under statutory regulation – the amount of dividends they could offer was limited, for example. Infrastructure projects were usually paid for out of local taxes and increasingly the state sought to co-ordinate the whole system, as with the formation of the National Grid or London Transport in the 1930s. It also worth remembering what a disaster privatisation was. The Thatcher government sold off the regional water companies at a loss in 1989; in the first year of privatisation water bills had increased by 67%.[1]

Collective political action was important in creating the public control of utilities. Running water to people’s homes was the first utility to be supplied to people in the mid-19th century. Quite soon afterwards campaigns of consumers, including the wonderfully named the Sheffield Bath Defence Association, emerged to fight against unfair water rates, intermittent service, and over the definition of what counted as domestic or non-domestic use (the water companies wanted to charge more for running a bath by calling it non-domestic usage.) The campaigns used a mixture of legal action, consumer education, petitioning, and boycotts. In Sheffield they also campaigned for the local authority to take over the water company. By 1880s campaigners had won important victories such as the Water Rate Definition Act 1885 which meant that rates would be set by local authorities not the water companies.[2]

The logic of the 38 Degrees action, even if they don’t realise it, points in the same direction as the campaigns of the 19th century. As they accept the logic of the market, to be a successful campaign they will have to keep looking for the best deal for their consumers on a permanent basis. This requires a proper infrastructure, as well as a large and regular membership. Why not cut out the middle men all together and buy on the wholesale market? On my street the gas is supplied via the local authority at a price that is cheaper than that offered by a private company, over the long term. It is at a fixed rate, and comes without the hassle of dealing with a call centre. The logic for 38 Degrees then is to set up a proper consumer co-operative. In fact there already is Co-operative Energy company which has existed since 2010.

Similar arguments could be made for transport and housing. In all these areas capitalist markets consistently fail to deliver within their own terms: they do not deliver cheap and efficient services for consumers. Some on the left, thanks to Marcuse, Debord et al are theoretically beholden to a hostility to ‘consumerism’ as experienced via marketing, advertising and the media. It is right to be against this ideology, but politically those of this persuasion want to shift the ground too quickly onto areas they feel more secure e.g. struggles in the workplace. We fail to look at how working people actually do consume and forget our past success in political action and in providing non-capitalist alternatives.

Before the 1940s the European co-operative movement was extremely successful in countering consumer capitalism. It involved more working class people than trade unions and had more financial resources. For example, in the 1930s the prices of light bulbs were kept high by a Swiss cartel. In response, the Scandinavian Co-operative Wholesale Societies set up their own light bulb company, Luma, with its own factory, run as a co-op. Luma sold the bulbs through co-operative stores across Europe, and forced the cartel to drop their prices by nearly 50%.[3] On the eve of the Second World War it built another factory in Glasgow which still stands.

In campaigning on energy, transport and housing the left should be bold and look to propose alternative models of collective provision. Trying to shame companies to lower prices by 5% or so is too like the tokenistic ‘banker bashing’ the government is happy to indulge, in order to prevent any real reform. As Ken Livingstone’s first two Mayoral-ships showed, publicly controlled bus fares, for example, can be kept low, with an increased level of service, investment in infrastructure and without running a budget deficit. This is in stark contrast to private regional bus companies who run an old, infrequent service, with fares two or three times the price. Public ownership or control in itself does not ensure fair prices, equitable service or long-term investment. Co-operatives have often run into problems, particularly where they have to use capitalist markets that they cannot control. But by making utilities democratically accountable, a crucial space for a left politics is created. 

[1] Colin Ward, Reflected in water: a crisis of social responsibility (London: Cassell, 1997), p.10.

[2] V. Taylor and F. Trentmann, “Liquid Politics: Water and the Politics of Everyday Life in the Modern City,” Past & Present 211, 1 (May 2011): 206-212.

[3] Mary Hilson, A Consumer’s International? The International Cooperative Alliance and Cooperative Internationalism, 1918-1939: A Nordic Perspective’, International Review of Social History, 56 (2011), 229-230.


About this article

Published on 02 March, 2012
By William Farrell