Market Citizenship 101

 

 

by John Tyler Connoley

 

April 20, 2005

 

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about our emerging form of governance in which markets rule. I argued that corporate kings are much better than the warlords and bishops who once governed the world, because corporations rely on us for their power and we can depose them at will -- if they don't serve us, they die.

 

I've since come to the conclusion that monarchy was a bad comparison. This emerging form of governance, which I'll call a marketocracy, has much more in common with democracy than monarchy. We are not, as we may believe, subject to the whims of corporations who can only be deposed when we rise up en masse like French revolutionaries and cut off their heads. Instead, in a marketocracy, we consumers choose representatives who work for us in the marketplace. It's very similar to the democratic process, though different in some important ways.

 

As we move from an age when countries were ruled independently of one another to an age when markets rule the globe, we're forced to take on a new kind of citizenship with new rules for what it means to be a good citizen. By now, we all know how to be good citizens in a democracy. But we still struggle with the basic responsibilities of good citizenship in the marketplace. So, here are some of my thoughts on how to be a good market citizen:

 

Vote consciously. In a marketocracy, every purchase is a vote. In fact, every action is a vote. If I decide to buy Taco Bell for lunch, that's obviously a vote for Taco Bell. But, if I decided to ride my bike to work, that's also a vote -- for bicycle makers and against fossil fuels.

 

In a democracy, a citizen votes once a year by going to a polling place. In a marketocracy, one votes every day by leaving one's house (or by not leaving one's house). Accepting a job is a vote for a particular employer over all the others. Getting up each morning and going to work is also voting. Even if you say you hate your job, by going to work and not looking for something else to do, you're voting for your employer.

 

Walking your dog at the public park is a vote against private dog parks. Wearing a t-shirt and jeans is a vote against ties or pantyhose. This or that? That or this? Every time you choose, you're voting. So, choose consciously.

 

Speak up for what you want. We're used to writing our Senators and calling our City Council. In the old monarchies, we petitioned the crown. A marketocracy is no different, we just petition different people. We need to get used to writing corporate presidents, and calling store managers.

 

It's not enough to boycott Wal-Mart because you don't like their employment practices. In order for the boycott to matter, you must write Wal-Mart's President and Board of Directors and let them know why you don't shop at their stores.

 

Perhaps you've chosen not to go to a local restaurant, because you heard they kicked out a woman for breast-feeding at the table. See if you can meet with the manager, and change his mind. Do you wish the grocery store still sold that certain kind of pickle? Have you told anyone who can do something about it? It may mean calling corporate headquarters, or it might be as easy as talking to Bob, who manages Aisle Six.

 

In a democracy we call the Mayor to get streetlights fixed, in a marketocracy we call the Manager to replace a light bulb in the parking lot. In both instances, it's just a matter of knowing who's in charge, and petitioning her.

 

Join an advocacy group, or two, or three. In a democracy we often join political parties, and we expect them to represent our values in the government. In the United States, we have only two parties. In parliamentary states, there are usually multiple parties. In a marketocracy, there are thousands of parties, but we call them advocacy groups. Advocacy groups wield power by combining the voices and economic clout of large numbers of people together.

 

One of the most powerful of these groups is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They may have a reputation as a bunch of wacky vegans in synthetic sandals, but they revolutionized the meatpacking and egg-producing industries with the help of an unlikely partner. PETA was one of the first advocacy groups to realize that the power lay with the markets, and not with the politicians. They saw that McDonald's bought more beef and eggs than anyone else in the country, so they started a campaign to get McDonald's to require ethical treatment for its cows and chickens. After years of boycotts and negotiations, McDonald's agreed to new strict standards for its producers. Since every meat and poultry producer wants McDonald's as a customer, the entire industries were transformed -- without Congress passing a single law.

 

A coalition of churches had a similar affect on the tomato industry, by convincing Taco Bell to require that its tomato pickers receive a living wage. As a member of the UCC Justice and Peace Network, I participated in that campaign, and I'll likely participate in future campaigns.

 

I like the power I have in a marketocracy. Even as a lone individual, every decision matters, and shapes the future of the country and the world. And, when I join with other people, our collective choices can have huge impact. But, as with democracy, it takes a commitment to good citizenship and wise voting to really make a difference.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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