When Did We Stop Being ‘Citizens’ And Become ‘Consumers’?

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If you read every word ever written by William Shakespeare (and trust me, that’s a lot of words — 17,677 to be precise), you’ll never once see the word ‘consumer’ used to describe people. ‘Citizen’, on the other hand, you’ll come across countless times [1]. But lately everything I read seems to use the word ‘consumer’ to refer to individuals, people, humans (with the exception of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.)

So when did we stop being seen as citizens and become consumers?

Defining ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’

The term ‘consumer’ has been in the English language since the early 15th century, when it was actually associated with waste: ‘one who squanders or wastes’. During this time it was also commonly associated with the human body, which could be consumed by disease — this is why tuberculosis, ‘the wasting disease’ was also known as ‘consumption’. From around 1745 it becomes the opposite of ‘producer’ meaning ‘one who uses up goods or articles’. By 1890 a completely new term, ‘consumer goods’, had entered our economic vocabulary, and the word began to be commonly associated with the purchasing of material goods by inidividuals. [2]

‘Citizen’, on the other hand, has been around since the 1200s, when it was the Middle English ‘citisein’. In terms of etymology the word derivs from the Old French ‘citeain’, which simply meant ‘city’ — it has always been a term which deeply connects the individual to their city and community.

The word consumer did not really appear in print until around 1900 — hence why you won’t find it in Shakespeare’s texts. After 1900 though, it rose in frequency very quickly, and soon surpassed the use of the word citizen in the late 1950s. Now, the word ‘consumer’ is used in print texts around three times more often than the word ‘citizen’. [3]

Michael Munger, director of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program at Duke University’s political science department, has studied this linguistic rise. He attributes it to the rise of progressive politics in the 20th century, with social reform legislation (like Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal social programs) reinforcing the idea that participation in politics “was mostly a way of getting your share of consumption.” [4]

“The Progressives primarily saw citizens as being helpless, trapped by large forces — especially corporations — that citizens couldn’t deal with…” — Michael Munger

In terms of defining the words, it’s clear that we are at once citizens and consumers. We are the individuals who make up our communities, and we also consume — food, energy etc. But in terms of how we are viewed as businesses, politicians, and journalists, it seems the former has been demoted, and our most important function now is to consume — to buy, buy, buy.

So when did consumerism such a fundamental part of our society?

It’s impossible to pin down when exactly consumerism became a part of how we define ourselves, but the Industrial Revolution is undoubtedly a factor.

Between 1760 and 1820 (approximately) the Industrial Revolution, across Europe and the USA meant that mass production of consumer goods was possible, and so these goods were much more readily available than previously. This brought new opportunity for a culture which saw consumer goods as a desirable, rather than simply as necessities.

It’s worth saying that some historians also argue that slavery and colonialism had a lot to do with it. As the empires expanded, Western people had access to new luxury goods from across the world. Items like sugar, cocoa, and tobacco became a new signifier of wealth for the individual. In the 18th century the consumption of sugar consumption increased by a factor of 20.

During the Industrial Revolution, one of the most famous economic texts ever written was published. This was Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations.

The essential argument of The Wealth of Nations is that our need to fulfil self-interest will result in prosperity. Therefore, he argued that giving everyone the freedom to produce and exchange goods as they pleased (now known as free trade) would create both domestic and foreign competition in the market, and that people’s natural self-interest to look out for themselves in this situation would promote prosperity. In this way, the market essentially manages itself through actions which the public makes day-to-day in their own interest, known as ‘the invisible hand’. This ideology is what has become the free-market capitalism in which we operate today, with competition leading to growth and prosperity.

Smith also argued that the purpose of the market should be to create wealth in terms of consumer foods, rather than in terms of money and gold. He argued that to be ‘rich’ meant simply to be able to ‘afford the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life’ rather than to have a hoard of money and wealth, and that, therefore:

“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.” — Adam Smith

Shopping as a hobby

As prosperity came to be intrinsically linked with the self-interest of the individual, so came a growth in shopping for pleasure. The 18th century saw shops pop up in streets across Europe and the USA, and parts of cities became designated as retail districts — The Strand and Piccadilly in London, for instance. This grew and grew, and in the 19th century we began to see the rise of department shops, such as Harrod’s which opened in London in 1834.

And today, in the 21st century, consumerism has come to an extreme, and we see individuals spending money on material items as necessary to stimulate and maintain our economy. We favour buying lots of cheap items that we know won’t last. One pair of shoes can cost as much as the annual salary of a nurse. Shopping is seen as a legitimate pastime and hobby.

In many towns and cities, the shopping mall is also the only community space left. Teenagers spend their weekends hanging out there, because they have no other space to go. It’s no wonder we’re now seem as consumers, rather than citizens and community-members.

In 2012 the journal Psychological Science published a study in which they found that choice of words has an influence on how we see ourselves. Part of the study included participants answering a survey called either a ‘consumer response survey’ or a ‘citizen survey’. They found that those who answered the consumer survey tended to express more materialistic, self-centred values in their responses than those who answered the citizen survey. The study also included presenting the participants with a hypothetical situation in which they had to share water from a well, and the participants were labeled either as consumers or as citizens. They found that the participants who got the consumer identity tended to distrust others who they were sharing the water with, felt less partnership with other subjects, and felt less personally responsible for the others than those who were called citizens.

Adam Smith argued that ‘self-interest’ created prosperity, and we’ve taken this at its word. As consumerism grows and we come to self-identify as ‘consumers’ instead of ‘citizens’ we’ve created a society in which personal development and attaining of material wealth takes precedence over ensuring the welfare of others and of the community. It’s not sustainable for our planet, and it will only make the wealth gap between the wealthy 1% and the world’s poor more distinct. These two words may seem small and insignificant, but the difference between the two is monumental. And I for one, would rather be a citizen, than a consumer.

Read next: The commercialism of Christmas: gift-giving, John Lewis ads, and eating turkey


[1] Have a search in Rhyme Zone, if you don’t believe me: http://www.rhymezone.com/r/ss.cgi?q=citizen&mode=k

[2] Source: www.dictionary.com

[3] Using data from Google’s Ngram Viewer

[4] https://people.howstuffworks.com/american-citizens-versus-consumers.htm

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Tabitha Whiting

Tabitha Whiting

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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