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March 21, 2019


Dave Timoney

I think it's useful to question whether politics has been framed as consumption in order to better suit supply-side interests (retail-oriented parties, the media etc) or if it simply reflects the absorption of a hegemonic consumer culture. In other words, is "consumer politics" functional or ideological.

If it were simply ideological, we'd expect it to reflect changes in retail culture. This has happened at the edges - e.g. the use of focus groups and more recently online feedback, but it's small beer. Whatever the expectation of leave voters, there is no move towards the Amazonification of politics outside the Communist Party of China.

If consumer politics is primarily functional, then we'd expect there to be fewer problems in this approach on the supply-side than the demand-side. You suggest that "Shops do not ignore the preferences of 48% of their customers". But this is meaningless unless a shop expects 100% of the population to patronise it. In reality, shops target market segments, and so do parties.

"Nor do they expect us to choose a job lot of groceries in advance only once every few years". True, but not all shops are grocers. If you're buying a car, or a house, or further education, you expect to put up with the same product for years. "And nor do they regard increased demand as a problem". Well, Burberry certainly did.

I suspect that adopting consumer techniques and rhetorical tropes is functional: it suits the vested interests of parties (i.e. as institutions), the media (for whom politics is marketing), and career politicians for whom a "new product launch" is central to their ascent (I can't be the only one to have noticed the similarities between TIG and a "startup" that is in two minds about an IPO).

Aardvark Cheeselog

If you choose to spend you money on worthless tat it makes no difference to me.

A small fly in otherwise precious ointment.

If enough buyers insist on buying worthless crap over and over, they can distort the market in a way that drives out vendors of the good stuff. See e.g. the destruction of the small specialty coffee trade by Starbucks.

Miguel Madeira

Have you changed your opinion on this?



If you treat the Brexit referendum as consumer politics then surely we can cancel Brexit as the product was sold with false advertisement.


What about the moral importance of political agency?

Sorry if it's a bit too "21st century armchair anarchist", but for me the conception of politics-as-markets is bad, and mostly because it deprives ordinary people of the sort of direct agency more traditional mass politics provide. Just like a capitalist economy allows "consumer choice" but only between products that the capitalist mode of production is able/willing to procure (thus the old adage about there being "no ethical consumption under capitalism"), neoliberal politics has voters choose between a very narrow set of "reasonable"/"appropriate"/"responsible" options, and ultimate power rests within the elite insider circles who determine which policies are considered "reasonable" in the first place.

Now, these elites may well be correct in their assessment. Perhaps the narrow path of Third Way Progressive Neoliberalism really is the only best option for maximizing societal utility. Perhaps the masses are a bunch of uneducated buffoons who should just shut up and let the adults do the thinking. But this isn't much of a democracy, is it now? I'm not a philosopher, and I can't really put it into words, but my basic gut instinct tells me that it's better to have the power to make mistakes than to live a "perfect" life free of such nastiness dictated to you.

Then of course, there are two much more concrete problems with confiding in elite decisionmaking: First, the fact that rich and powerful people are often not nearly as clever as they present themselves. The whole Brexit affair is a perfect demonstration of that, but there are innumerable other examples. Second, the problem of conflicting interests: The things that elites may consider to be "good" may be directly opposed to the good of the public (e.g. privatization).

In this context, May's quasi-populist turn make sense, and feeds directly into the very same feelings of powerlessness that prompted many people to vote Leave in the first place.

Peter May

Incisive and thought provoking - thank you


I like how many hyperlinks you put into one sentence!


We’re not in an era of retail politics. We’re in an era of identity politics.


yet more Remainer nonsense.

If Remainers want to steal Leaver votes, then go right ahead, just steal them. But don't dress it up with talk about how this is some kind of superior democracy. It is just a straightforward seizure of power by the people who lost a vote over the people who won it.


@ Daniel

"If you treat the Brexit referendum as consumer politics then surely we can cancel Brexit as the product was sold with false advertisement. "

is it your case that in any referendum the losing side can overturn a referendum result if it can in any way identify a way in which someone arguing for the winning side failed to accurately predict the future?


I think a society can handle its political class imposing policies marginally out of sync with the preferences of the general population. For example, the political class abolished the Death Penalty when most voters wanted it retained. Even today, more voters say they want the Death Penalty than not. It’s currently 45% to 39%. (Full disclosure - I am opposed to the Death Penalty, at least under current social conditions. Maybe if social breakdown spirals into zombie apocalypse levels of disorder, I’ll reluctantly support its reintroduction).

But there are some obvious limits:

1) If the brute facts of reality turn out to be on the voters’ side, the political class will have to change policies. If the first year of abolition had seen a sudden tenfold rise in the murder rate, that would have destroyed the argument for abolition, and the political class would have had to reintroduce it.

2) If voters who want the Death Penalty are sufficiently numerous and determined, and prepared to be Single-Issue Voters (SIVs), they’ll ultimately get their way.

BTW the SIV question is a tricky one for democracy. Especially if the SIVs want the opposite of what the majority does. For instance, the overwhelming majority of US voters have supported normal diplomatic relations with Castro’s Cuba since forever, but at election time it’s not the main issue they vote on. However Cuban voters in Miami have mostly been SIVs opposing it, so they’ve mostly had their way.

In the UK, most voters oppose sectarian religious schools. But again, they aren’t usually SIVs. People who want religious schools for their kids often are. So they’ve tended to have things their way so far.


Regarding the problem with Single Issue Voters, can we perhaps alleviate it by giving each voter multiple votes? So instead of simply ticking X next to a single candidate's name, you get to tick a total of, say, five Xs, either next to five candidates, or all five next to a single candidate, or some mixture. Of course this also means that every district would require multiple representatives.


Sorry if I’m slow on the uptake here, but I don’t see how giving each voter five votes reduces the “wedge” power of SIVs. It might even increase it, by enabling full-on SIV political parties to enter Parliament and become necessary coalition partners in future governments.

Israel has the most rigorous Proportional Representation (PR) system of any country in the world. Opinion polls show that a clear majority of Israelis want the state to become less religious and more secular, but the country keeps moving relentlessly in the opposite direction. This is because coalition governments have to include those single issue religious parties, and pay the policy price they demand.

The problem is about the nature of how any parliament works, regardless of the method used to select its members. Fans of PR don’t seem to understand that Proportional Representation does not correlate - even remotely - with Proportional Political Influence.

Imagine a 100-seat parliament elected by perfect PR in which the strength of the parties is as follows: Blue Party 47 seats, Red Party 47 seats, Yellow Party 6 seats. The six Yellow MPs will have massively disproportionate influence, because they are the kingmakers.


"Kingmakers?" A bit like the DUP?
I thought their, ".. massively disproportionate influence," was paid for? (on the barrel head.) You don't need PR to achieve that result.


«Politics is not – and cannot be – just another domain in which consumer sovereignty holds.»

The arguments given are pointless, because they are about voting, but the better argument is that politics is about clashes of interest groups, and does not reduce to unrelated voting decisions by individuals.

Voting is an individual responsbility, but it is not the same thing as politics.
In the same manner that voting at shareholder meetings is individual, but competition among businesses is among collectives.

Discussing politics as if it reduced to voting is typical right-wing framing.


There's been a persistent pattern of conservative politicians in the US promising crap they can't deliver, and that leads to a cycle of extremism among voters. This has been happening in the US with Republican presidents and bigwigs ever since Eisenhower started bashing the Democrats for not intervening in Eastern Europe, even though Ike and his compatriots had absolutely no intention of doing so themselves. Recycle over 65 years and you get to Trump and all the associated pathologies of Fox News.

The UK had much less of this over the years, though Margaret Thatcher was a repeat, if somewhat infrequent, offender -- with unfortunate results even in the 1980s. It's very sad and not a little frightening now to see two British Tory PMs in a row do the same thing almost daily as their primary MO, especially when there's a vector for this disease that penetrates even more widely than Fox News in the US -- namely the British tabloid press. And in the post-2008 environment in the UK the population is far more sensitive to such provocation, with far more unpredictable and potentially dark consequences.



As I said, "The problem is about the nature of how any parliament works, regardless of the method used to select its members."


The prick at the end of the neoclassical dart is targeted at any form of activity that can generate a return to capital. This is both its genius and its flaw. All objects / agents and their interactions are potentially commodities. You will have to change more than 'voting' or 'voters' to change that. I think only dictators can see 'bad voters'. There are no bad customers; they may act in error. There may more likely be failed products that fail to generate traction with potential customers.

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