Choice: if you want to call the tune, you need the means to pay the piper.

The invisible hand of the market is sticking up two fingers at us. From under an invisible neon sign that blinks the words 'FUCK YOU'.

FUCK YOU that is, if you are an ordinary 'customer' or a 'consumer'. FUCK YOU if you believe that 'choice' is a force for common good rather than narrow self-interest.

News story after news story today contains an implied reliance on consumer power as something that will change society for the better. The Observer headlines with: "How city fees are eating into our pensions."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/dec/17/treasury-warned-over-traders-fees

After describing how the profits from one pension saver's £70,000 contributions were entirely eaten up by fees and charges, the presentation to the Treasury concludes that "the industry needs to be more transparent so that savers could effectively shop around". It does go on to say that "the government should act to make it safe and wise to save" but stops short of calling for actual regulation to prevent pension fund managers from robbing savers to line their own pockets.

No. We 'customers' can add shopping around for a better pension deal to our increasingly lengthy "shopping around" list.

Other things on the list include shopping around for lower cost energy supplies (but not if you are poor obviously, where the enforced requirement of a high cost pre-payment meter means you will pay more for your energy than your wealthier neighbours). Never mind that we used to have a wholly transparent system where the government could set energy charges from the state-owned energy supplier and all consumers knew they were getting the best (because the only) rate possible.

We should shop around for schools for our children too. Never mind that all the evidence shows that disrupting a child's education has a negative impact, Gove's 'parent-as-customer'-led schools revolution, predicated on schools competing with each other for our children, demands that we either jerk our children about in a never ending quest to pursue this year's educational A-Team or we make a choice once-only in the knowledge that if we select a school that is weak the Government isn't interested in investing in that school's improvement. It is happy to see schools wither and die in the expectation that – magically – other schools will flourish. Before you thank Gove for givng you the gift of 'choice' in Education, read this, from @ThatIanGilbert on the Swedish system Gove so admires: “Just received Xmas e-mail from friend in Sweden: 'Here in Sweden, the school system is in decay […] it's political majority for the choice of private schls run by venture capitalists whose sole purpose is to make money, they have no morals […] In some schools, they play basically computer games all day. They recruit students through the student getting a personal computer […] Sweden, Chile, US – don't need to look too hard to see where #Gove's policies could take us. But some people will get v rich so that's OK…”

So, while you're at it, add the School Prospectuses to your energy company and pensions brochure pile.

John Naughton writes today about the silent invasion of our PCs by the "cookies" of the organisations we interact with online:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/dec/18/new-cookie-laws-john-naughton?INTCMP=SRCH

The tracking and tracing of our online movements may be beneficial in some cases, but their use is supposed to be regulated to keep us safe, and very few organisations are compliant with the regulations. We can 'choose' as consumers to switch off cookies in the application we use. And those applications can 'choose' at that point to fail to serve us properly saying: the company "cannot guarantee that your experience with the site will be as quick or responsive as if you do receive cookies". Some choice!

So, when you've finished reading your brochures, don't forget to read all the online small-print as well.

Then there's the story of Cameron and Cable squabbling over how best to secure 'consumer protection' in the bloated, aggressive, profiteering 'free' marketplace.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/dec/18/consumer-protection-reform-vince-cable-david-cameron?INTCMP=SRCH

Which of the shambling, cobbled together 'help' mechanisms invoked in this shabby quarrel will actually make sure that as customers we hold power? Er … none.

The public accounts committee had this to say about consumer protection: "people [are] increasingly falling prey to problems involving online shopping, such as email scams or fraud using credit cards […] Consumers are being ripped off to the tune of £7bn a year by sellers of defective goods, dodgy doorstep traders and online fraudsters," And this is just the illegal stuff! There's nothing in these arrangements that will protect us from the legal-but-designed-to-be-confusing-and-alienating-in-order-to-milk-us-better marketing tactics of banks, utilities, airlines, supermarkets. All of whom claim to have our consumer interests at heart, but who really have a great big gaping money pit where their own hearts should be, ever hungry, always avid to swallow every bit of cash we have to spare.

Add your till receipts to your reading list; add a supermarket price-check site to your computer favourites (carefully checking for cookies first, if you don't want to die of spam advertising overload) so you can crawl back to the supermarket of your choice and get your money back, or double the difference, or whatever the current offer is…if you can be bothered. And if it doesn't cost you more in petrol than you would save. Some choice (again)!

Its now practically a full time job just ensuring that we're not being exploited. Where's the regulation? Where's the enforcement? That's what the state should be for. Protecting individual human beings – people – in their transactions with faceless, monolithic, profit-hungry businesses. Don't tell us to read the small print! "Caveat emptor" may have been fair advice in a Roman marketplace where you can easily smell that the fish you're about to buy is days old and not freshly caught. It's nonsense in the modern world where everything smells fishy and most things are. Where the globalised supply chain means that for individual consumers there's no meaningful audit trail of what you are buying. And where every dodgy Government policy is 'sold' to us on the basis that it really, truly, worked somewhere else, honest (but no we can't lay our hands on the research right now).

This great blog by @Stavvers (http://stavvers.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/placebo-buttons-and-the-illusion-of-control/) explains the use of the 'placebo' button and the illusion of control created by – among other things – voting. Government's constant harping on about people exercising their rights as a 'consumer', the complete claptrap of 'choice', is another placebo button. It's gives us the illusion that we exercise control through our consumer choices, but we don't. At least, most of us don't.

Now we have the great battle of the Localism Bill. A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesperson assures us: "The draft framework retains the protections already in place and puts power back into the hands of local people, ensuring they are in charge of deciding the areas they wish to see developed and those to be protected."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/18/national-trust-rspb-planning-laws?INTCMP=SRCH

Does it really? Campaigners are agitated and some of the great campaign charities of middle England are lining up for battle: the Campaign for Rural England, The National Trust (family membership £87 per year), the RSPB (£55 per year). There are swathes of middle England for whom preservation of their own pretty views (on environmental and conservation grounds, of course) will be achieved as these powerful bodies swing into action and secure concessions through high profile, well-funded campaigning. Own a house in a a semi-rural area and you and your wealthy, powerful friends, backed by these campaigns will almost certainly be able to preserve your surrounding green space. Overlook the only green space left in a densely packed urban area and you can bet that the fact you reclaimed it from an old bomb-site will count for nothing as its "brownfield" designation will mean its ripe for development. Looking for support to preserve it? Can't afford a lawyer? Tough! Watch as the "consumer power" afforded by the localism bill leads to rich communities protecting their space and poorer communities being invaded by undesirable development. My prediction is that the Zac Goldsmiths of this world will be satisfied because local people who are wealthy and well-resourced will be able to mobilise and fund targeted campaigns that will move any nasty developments off their lawn and info the back yards of their poorer neighbours where working long hours and lack of resources make it harder to fight. If you have enough time and money in this world, you can make your 'choices' (or luck) work in your favour.

And in the end, that's what's wrong with the idea that we are all 'customers' now, busily exercising our power through our 'consumer choice'.

Anatole France noted: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.". In classic economic theory "choice" benefits the poor and rich alike. We exercise our consumer powers in our own self-interest, maximising our own gains while  the "invisible hand" ensures that – aggregated – these personal victories translate into the benefit of society as a whole. This is a great untruth. The market, the exercising of 'consumer choice', perpetuates and reinforces inequality.

If, as a customer, you want to call the tune, you have to have enough money to pay the piper. The invisible hand shows us its middle finger and says to anyone with limited resources, FUCK YOU!

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