Modern capitalist democracies have given their populace two illusory powers: citizenship and membership in free market enterprise. We all know that our power as citizen is reduced to the vote, a system that is manipulated and gives us little power beyond the lever. Our free market role is given a mythic power, that we choose how the market functions through our purchasing choices. The customer illusion is not limited to every two years, it is a daily exercise that seems to involve choice and power. No wonder we talk about it more often.
Just as citizenship has its romantic flourishes so does free marketism, we are labeled customer and we have convinced ourselves that we “are always right”. This romantic vestige of our power as customer now is only exercised in some kabuki theater where think we have power. The only places we get to “act out as customers” is through some low paid service employee, the euphemistic customer service side of the enterprise. We all have stories of encounters with airline, banking, insurance and retailers; stories that have a common frustration and shared sigh. In truth what we are usually sharing is just a temper tantrum of delusional entitlement. The entitlement that was never and will never be delivered.
We have confused individual assertiveness with line staff as some kind of power over the bureaucratic juggernaut of capitalism. A juggernaut that rolls over its workers and over its paying customers. In our attempts at being assertive, we end up being aggressive. The size of the system cannot stand the chance that we will not consume, that we may make free choices. Free choice and the power of choosing with where we spend our dollars is well managed, the system has invested a great deal to rely on our whims of free market choice.
His appetites have to be constantly whetted, tastes have to be manipulated, managed and made “predictable”. Man is transformed into the “consumer”, the eternal suckling, whose one wish is to consume more and “better” things. (Erich Fromm, On Disobedience)
But, still I read the daily rant against the “stupid help”, the “ignorant line staff”, the” bad service”, the inability of “them” to see the value of “me” the customer and finally the lament of better times, when service was “better”. I cannot help but notice the futility of such acts of ill placed rebellion. A demand of servility and obedience from the poor dolts that serve us, the front lines, the ones with the least power. Then you have entire virtual arenas, such as Yelp, where people will express their anger at a wait person, or manicurist. They will berate that person, often times destroy a small business, because the “service” was not up to a standard. We have transferred our anger towards the system, to the low grade badly trained employee.
You say, but if we do not have demands or expectations, how will we make it better? Well, maybe it will not be better cause the corporate bureaucrats don’t give a damn. They are insulated from your aggression. The long time fear of American society of the bureaucratic managed society, materialized in the trappings of capitalism, with lovely Orwellian names such as: Sales Associate, for clerk; customer care for the collections office; technical support for the complaint department; customer feedback form, for the suggestion box.
So, we end up with the nasty customer beating up on some hapless employee via telephone, or in person and the corporate bosses are insulated by layers of systems, procedures, policies and legal requirements. I say admit that you are cog. When speaking to another cog, or interacting with another cog, humanize the other cog. Break down the set up and make it pleasant for you and for them. You are set up for conflict, I say, fight the set up. Go around it, cheer up the cog, give them a kind word. If they do not reciprocate, take it on the chin, try again next time. Keep doing it, till we all stop the warfare among ourselves and we can start breaking down the charade.