Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Archbishop of England Discusses Consumer Rights

The universality and reach of the modern superstore or hypermarket is unquestionably a landmark in the history of shopping and indeed the distribution sector of capitalism. It seems that this is utterly a universal experience as capitalism spreads itself without limit across the world. Examples of localism, in terms of the corner shop or the bustling market, is now being met by the right to cheap food and other products like electronic devices from all over the world through the multinational supermarket system that creates access to goods and services undreamt of including for the poor and vulnerable. With it comes the whole panoply of consumer rights developed in Western law and extended and contained within the supermarket system and the packaging of products.

Yet the language of consumer rights has - surprisingly - become more rather than less problematic in recent times. The 'consumer rights record' of certain multinational chains is - very understandably - deployed as a factor in calculating economic strategies of engagement; but this has its impact on any idea that the language of consumer rights is, so to speak, 'shopper neutral'. For some, it can reinforce the notion that this language is an ideological tool for one culture to use against another, as in Western post-imperial capitalism. We have heard over a good many years arguments about the 'inappropriateness' of consumer rights language in a context, say, of mass economic privation, where it is claimed that a focus on such individual rights is a luxury, at least during the period when economic injustices are being rectified. Both the old Soviet bloc and a number of regimes in developing nations have at times advanced this defence against accusations of overriding individual purchasing and choice rights. But more recently, questions about consumer rights have begun to give anxiety to some religious communities who feel that alien cultural standards are somehow being imposed - particularly in regard to inherited views of the family and the role of the woman shopper and the rituals of family eating and the place of the gay person's dinner on one's knees. There is also the issue in which products seem to work using batteries rather than by the intervention of almighty God. And so we face the worrying prospect of a gap opening up between a discourse of rights increasingly conceived as a universal legal 'code' and the specific moral and religious intuitions of actual diverse communities.

In what follows, I want to indicate some ways in which we might reconnect thinking about consumer rights and religious conviction - more specifically, Christian convictions about digestive dignity and consumer relatedness, how we belong together. There might be an interfaith aspect here. I believe this reconnection can be done by trying to understand rights against a background not of individual claims of shoppers but of the question of what is involved in mutual recognition between both digesting and those functioning beings who use distributed products during their lifecycle.

Don't or do get me wrong: I believe that rights are a crucial way of working out what it is for people to belong together in a society. The problem is when we get together to eat, or to use products, and the language gets difficult only when we do things on our own, like the gay boy who sadly plays alone or eats off his knees (girls may be slightly different). This is not just to make the obvious (please don't fall asleep) point about rights and responsibilities. It is to see the world of 'rights' as anchored in habits of empathy and identification with the other, in the invitation to come together and the "relational consequences" of not so doing. And I shall also argue that a proper understanding of law may help us here or there.

Law, I believe, so this is just me talking, is not a comprehensive code that will define and enforce a set of universal claims and systems; it is the way in which we codify what we think, at any given point, mutual recognition requires from us in our shopping habits, customs and taboos. It will therefore shift its focus from time to time and it cannot avoid choices about priorities. To seek for legal recognition of any particular action as a 'consumer right' is not to try and construct a universal and exhaustive code but to challenge a society that apparently refuses full purchasing power to some of its members on the backs of a thin universal claim towards actual diverse communities of purchasers.

What makes the gap between religion and the worldwide shift in activating consumer rights under the superstructure of capitalistic organisation worrying is that the language of the universal consumer is unthinkable without the kind of moral universalism that religious ethics underpins. It is not enough just to label goods by legislation, which cannot be the same, country by country, which packaging presumes. Indeed, packaging assumes there is a level of information owed to consuming beings irrespective of their nationality, status, gender, age or achievement. They have a buying status simply as members of the human race; so that this language takes for granted that there are some things that remain true about the nature or character of the individual shopper whatever particular circumstances prevail and whatever any specific political-economic settlement may claim. Against this, religious people will argue that they alone have a secure 'doctrinal' basis for believing it, because they hold that every consumer is related to God independently of their relation to other products or to earthly political and social systems supplying these products. Consumers and products are created by God 'in the image and likeness of God', even if some come from the factory as an intermediate means of construction. First comes nature, and that is a reflection of the love, fidelity and justice of God and about which religious people have written copious notes greater than any words on industrially provided and rather wasteful packaging.

The supermarket system and universal-leaning packaging is part of modernism and reaching ever broader; whereas I am suggesting here a plural, postmodern, basis for particularlity, but underlined by the ideas of premodernity creeping back in, with the benefits that we can save the corner shop, the street market, the family gathering around to eat, and the necessary isolation of the notion of people eating from their knees, it being a most peculiar lifestyle choice, even if a tray is involved across each knee.

This religious doctrine is deeply opposed to 'individualism', since it locates this status of the person within a scheme that (logically) requires any person to acknowledge the same status in every other person, near or far, like or unlike.

See the contrast here: individualism is also mass; and both are opposed; instead, I as an individual point of view express the rightness in religion of the particular group with its habits and taboos.

In the ideas, as expressed in the group, comes moral underpinning: the need to justify something in something else, like indeed getting back to God, rather than in the faceless assertion that we all hurt alike and love alike, when we don't know the other. The danger otherwise is that the language about consumer rights can become either a purely aspirational matter or something that is simply prescribed by authority, other than a religious authority like me. The risk would be that 'consumer rights' would be seen as a set of entitlements specified by a particular political authority when they are gifts handed out by a religious authority as representative on earth of the divine.

You cannot divorce the conversation about a new superstore coming to the edge of the city, or increasingly within the city, from the debate within a local church as to its impact on the community in that place, churches being perhaps the only places where tradition acts as a counterweight and a basis of purely free unadulterated thought, quite different from the advertising-flooded local press whose income may soon depend on that supermarket, which will have workers dependent on this arm of universalist capitalism for their jobs.

No, but the specificity of a religious ethic is itself an anchorage butter sliding of our universalist religious ethic if I can identify this myself. This is decidedly not secular, nor is the critique Marxist, but universal in the sense of the God identified by the Judaeo-Christian tradition and indeed by the plurality of communities, some observing sharia law and their own particular patterns of shopping. Indeed, the Buddhist may not even shop, but stand outside and ask others to shop and then fill their trollies for free.

Secularity is so thin, in comparison to the premodern thought patterns able to find a place in the plurality of the postmodern that claims, nevertheless, a universality within the premodern.

Law is important: it is not simply about custom and taboo. Culture can be oppressive, certainly, and a law-governed society is one in which anyone belonging to one community has certain guaranteed liberties of access to any shop without sanction that constitutes assault or to redress after injury. This counter-presence I do admit is important, and was understated when I argued some years back for the inevitability of sharia law. I hope you see how my argument now is related to that argument then, for it draws from the same plurality of the postmodern that claims a universality within the premodern.

However, despite the recourse to resources of generality, individuals must self-sacrifice themselves to the collective benefits of the particular culture in which they are reciprocated in their lifestyles. Lifestyle choices, promoted by capitalism, cannot ultimately be based on thin secular choice - the thinness in particular of eating from one's knees. It is the equivalent of buying Value products. One needs nourishment and for that one needs the transcendent.

Why would anyone want to do this act of avoidance? Well, of course, it is the elephant in the room, or rather, the television. Nowadays, as one sees in the larger supermarkets or hypermarkets, they are as big as elephants. It is so tempting to watch a repeat of The Simpsons for the fiftieth time and ask the wife to put your tea on a tray.

Wife and husband and uncontracepted childen should sit one with the other and observe the rituals that give identity and being to the nature of the person as a real consumer, rather than dashing through the shop for that food and buying all sorts of products just by choice - individualism is mass, again. They even sell condoms and sometimes next to DVDs and CDs that are of mass entertainment.

There is also an argument here against the freezer. No doubt why then it is called a freezer: my Derrida based interception of this language indicates the freezing of the community of the family. It would be better to buy daily, and of course respond positively and more easily to that universal claim of getting your five a day. There is much to be said for the pantry.

And what of the wrongdoer and the shoplifter? In modern legal practice, we generally work on the assumption that the wrongdoer's civic identity is to be preserved intact. Is it not better, however, to identify the shoplifter by a swift chop-off of the hand as in the sharia law that some communities may wish to observe, without compulsion of course? We might see the benefits, after all one hand chopped off and you are hardly likely to shoplift a second time.

To see some with one hand and some with two binds us together as a community: of reciprocity shown in the sinful action of individuals, an individualism that is nothing other than greed packaged as universalism. No, universalism belongs in the claim of the religious particularlity indicated by some people with two hands and some people with one and the occasional fool with none.

The real issue then is to tackle that lifestyle in which it is apparently acceptable to eat off one's knees, to apply against it social and cultural taboo that is strong and retaining. This is not an anti-gay argument, but one of a lifestyle choice considered to be less adequate than the riches of the social and cultural life of reciprocity, as in the one of social recognition involved with eating using one hand or just leaning over and sucking food off the plate. That pattern carries history of community care, and protection of property, of the old market where the boy was all too easily able to grasp an apple and run. Chop his hand off and he is clearly a member of society.

We cannot uninvent the supermarket, but what we can do is preserve the customs of reciprocal society by shifting the language of consumer rights from the thin and universal to the thick and religious, from where all true universal claims are made, in my opinion.

Rowan Tree.

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