Consumers Drive Change from the Bottom


A few hours after my last post, which ended with a claim that some form of consumer action could achieve changes in the culture that could not be driven from the top, I read a piece that points to a case that supports my point. Umair Haque, in his usual iconoclastic manner, wrote about a recent action that drove the Parliament to rein in the bonuses of bank executives. It certainly was not the US.

Indulge me for a paragraph, if you will. Imagine that there was a country in which bailed-out bankers announced extravagant bonuses. OK, that part's eminently realistic — even mundane. But then imagine that people (not activists, or even dreadlocked sign-waving hippies — just regular folks) began to express their dismay, anger, even outrage, everywhere from Twitter to the local bar, and that served as the spark for a self-organizing movement. And because people had the courage, self-belief and just plain orneriness to self-organize, their parliament was forced to do what just mere months ago might have been unthinkable: to tax those bailed-out bankers' bonuses at 100%. And not just going forward — but retroactively, since the beginning of the crisis. Poof: kiss that fleet of supercars, that fourth vacation home in Bermuda, and that closetful of handmade Swiss watches goodbye.

This is not a bad dream for high-paid executives. It is happening in the Netherlands.

This was no mere "consumer revolt." It was open rebellion by the people formerly known as consumers. Far from "voting with their wallets" or their "feet" — often impossible in an economy chock-a-block full of cushy, cozy oligopolies — people decided to take collective action of a very different kind: as citizens of a vibrant society, not merely as mute, hapless "consumers" of mass-produced junk.

Could this happen here? Why not. The impetus for action in the Netherlands was provided by the same mechanism that has powered the uprisings in the Middle East--the social media. The Guardian carried an earlier story about the origins of the "revolt.

ING customers mobilised on Twitter and other social networks to protest at bonuses paid to bosses at the bank, one of the biggest in the country. The threat of direct action raised the spectre of a partial run on ING, terrifying the Dutch establishment. Fred Polhout, union organiser at the bank, says: "People were outraged. We heard about the bloated sums being paid again in the City and in New York; but suddenly the issue exploded on our own front door."

Power is distributed much more evenly in the Netherlands than the US. The distance from the streets to the centers of corporate and political power is shorter. The media are, on the other hand, stronger shapers of opinion here. The 1976 film, Network, offers an allegorical tale about the dissatisfaction of one man and the capacity of the media to enlist the public in his cause. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is a flagging newsman who gets a stay of his firing by making outrageous statements on the air. The climax comes when Beale shouts, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" He cajoles and gets his listeners to open their windows and shout, just as he has done. I would guess what happened in the Netherlands in not quite as dramatic, but the two stories convey the same message. The power of the people is real and is being amplified by the ever-increasing use of social media.