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Customers or Citizens?

by THOMAS S. HARRINGTON

Every once in a while we all have the need to interact with an office of the local, state or federal government. If you are anything like me, you probably do so mostly by phone. This, of course, means that you also probably spend numerous minutes on hold listening to pre-recorded messages.

Though I generally do my best to zone-out during this time spent waiting in the electronic queue, I have not been able to help noticing that at some time in the last decade or so I went from being a nameless supplicant to being a “customer”, as in the “next customer in line” or “our customers are currently experiencing a wait of 15 minutes”.

My guess is that this change was instituted at the behest of consultants hired by those particular government agencies to burnish its image in the eyes of the public. The underlying premise would appear to be that if they treat members of the public with terms and phrases it associates with mercantile activities (as in “the customer is always right”) they can dislodge the notion–relentlessly pushed by the right-wing media machine but not necessarily supported by empirical analysis—that government agencies are always less efficient and less responsive to individual needs than private industry.

There is only one problem with this. And it’s a big one. Governments are not, nor should they ever be, viewed as the same thing as businesses. Similarly, citizens are not, nor should they ever be, confused with customers.

At the root of the long-standing distinction between businesses and customers on one hand, and governments and citizens on the other, is that the experience of being a customer and being a citizen are (or at least traditionally have been) framed by fundamentally different imperatives.

When I go into a store to buy something, my actions are generally guided by a concern to which all other considerations are decidedly subsidiary: getting the “most” –be it measured in quantity or quality–product for my money.

Though I may also go to a government agency to “get” something, that effort to obtain a good or service is necessarily mediated by concerns for the commonwealth. Indeed, that is one of the prime purposes of government: to establish mechanisms that that give voice to collective goals of one type or another, transcendant aims that necessarily ask us curb or tame all that we might desire in the privacy of our customarily covetous hearts.

Hence, when we allow the language of consumerism to be injected into the realm of the commons, we are effectively permitting the miseducation of the populace in regard to the relationship they can and should expect to have with the government.

In fact, when we suggest through daily linguistic usage that citizenship is just another form commercial activity, we are clearly undermining the very idea that there exists, to borrow the marvelous phrase of Benedict Anderson, an “Imagined Community” that is, or aspires to be, something more than the mere aggregate of our private desires.

If you think that that I am overstating the role that such deliberately confusing linguistic drip-drips can play in conditioning our ways of thinking, consider the following.

A few days back, I sent a friend an article about the persecution of State Department truth-teller Peter Van Buren. This person responded by asking why I was getting so worked up about the event and then added, “but if the company is paying your salary, it is a little much to expect appreciation and a continuation of your paycheck after you publish a tell-all book, no matter how true your data is”.

Notice that my friend immediately jumped to the assumption that Van Buren was working for a “company”, and that since “companies” generally operate on the decidedly non-democratic principle that people are useful only insofar as they support and contribute to the goals enunciated by their leadership cadre, he felt that Van Buren (and me by extension) should not be at all surprised that he is getting whacked for writing his revelatory book.

But, of course Peter Van Buren does not work for a company, but the Federal Government which was founded not to maximize shareholder profits by whatever coercive means possible, but to give voice (however partially or imperfectly) to the collective goals and aspirations of the American people.

The people that laid the framework for our modern civil service understood the importance to the continued health of the Republic of having people in government who would be able to speak truth to power.  This is why they invested government workers with extraordinary workplace protections, the very protections that are now being destroyed in the name of duplicating “private sector efficiencies” and mitigating  “national security concerns”.

One of the things that the economic elites and those that share their fundamentally authoritarian view of the world have understood much more clearly than the bulk of those who purport to be fighting for the dignity and well-being of the great majority of the population, is that if you change the quotidian use of language, you can change people’s thinking enormously. And better yet, most of the recipients of those altered messages will remain blissfully unaware of the conceptual revolution being effected in real time within   their heads.

To put it in more concrete terms, those powerful few who wish to use the commons as their personal feeding trough understand quite well that the biggest impediment to their designs is the existence of a morally undergirded  “imagined community” in the minds of the populace.

Solution? Replace language that draws its meaning from concepts of the collective good with words whose semantics convey the idea that people are, and always have been,  mostly in it for  themselves in almost every realm of life,  you know, the way they view things most of the time and the way  I am when I walk into that store looking to maximize my take.

Thomas S. Harrington teaches in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

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