The philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued that modern capitalist society has seen the decline of ‘the public sphere’ and that the mass media encourage a view of people as consumers rather than as citizens. Research into some British Newspapers suggests that Habermas is right.
Unlike the citizen, the consumer’s means of expression is limited: while citizens can address every aspect of cultural, social and economic life consumers find expression only in the marketplace. Citizens or Consumers?: The Media and the Decline of Political Participation – Justin Lewis
The result from a search of ‘Google Books’ for the terms ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ can be seen in the Ngram below. This indicates that mentions of ‘consumer’ overtook ‘citizen’ in English-language books in the early 1970s.
Searching the digitized archives of two British papers, The Guardian (and Observer) and The Times using – in both cases – a simple search for all mentions of ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ in the paper in any given year, are are reproduced in the following graphs:
The term ‘consumer’ has risen inexorably over the last half-century, whilst reference to ‘citizen’ has risen more slowly (The Guardian) or flat-lined (The Times). In The Guardian ‘consumer’ replaced the use of ‘citizen’ in the early 1970s – mirroring the pattern in books as recorded by the Google NGram. For the Times, the picture is somewhat different, where the term ‘consumer’ rose much more rapidly.
The popularity of ‘consumer’, as a way of describing the ordinary member of modern capitalist society in a main part of his economic capacity, is very significant. The description is spreading very rapidly, and is now habitually used by people to whom it ought, logically, to be repugnant. Raymond Williams – The Magic System
In the Dynamics of the British Tabloid Press (pdf) a comparable trend towards encouraging consumption over citizenship appeared in the Daily Mirror and the Sun. These newspapers were compared for the period 1968-1992. The published material demonstrated that as consumption among the working-class grew over the period, editorial content moved away from matters of active citizenship in the public sphere in favour of material which encouraged acts of consumerism.
In the past publicity was used to subject people or the present political decisions to the public. Today the public sphere is recruited for the use of hidden policies by interest groups. The public is no longer made out of masses of individuals but of organized people that institutionally exerting their influence on the public sphere and debate. Jürgen Habermas’s Public Sphere explained (summary)
As consumerism spreads the earth suffers, and there evidence to suggest that it is a source of discontent, so when the mainstream media – the basis of a healthy public sphere – appears happy to treat its readerships more as market actors than participants in a flourishing democracy, things have gone badly awry. It seems, consumerism is also eroding democracy itself¹.
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