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Consumerism and the remaking of state-citizen relationships.

Paper prepared for ESPAnet conference, Oxford, 9-11 September, 2004.

John Clarke
Faculty of Social Sciences
The Open University


In this paper, I take the remaking of state-citizen relationships around the figure of the
‘Citizen-Consumers’ in New Labour’s reform of public services in the UK as a basis for
exploring different analytical approaches to ‘governing the social’. I suggest that political
economy approaches understand concepts of the citizen and consumer to express
polarised identities, formed in the distinction between the state and the market. In
analyses of New Labour’s reforms, the consumer is seen as displacing the citizen (and
embodying a shift in relations between state and market). Post-Foucauldian studies
governmentality have seen the citizen-consumer as embodying the rise of ‘advanced
liberal’ governmentality. In different ways, both these approaches treat the social as
secondary to their primary concerns. In the final section of the paper, I suggest these
views of either the ‘political’ (or political-economic) or the ‘governmental’ tend to reduce
the complex conditions that underlie and shape political and governmental projects.
Instead, I suggest that by starting from a concern with the social as a unstable and
contested field might help with analysing New Labour’s citizen-consumers as an uneasy
combination of political project and governmental strategy. This analysis draws on a
wider argument about the place and character of the ‘social’ in social policy that is
developed at greater length elsewhere (Clarke, 2000; 2004a and 2004b).

New Labour’s citizen-consumers: governing in the modern world?

The figure of the Consumer has been central to New Labour’s approach to modernising
and reforming public services (though, of course, it has a longer history in the
Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, see Clarke, 1997 and
2004c).1 In New Labour’s eyes, public services have been in need of reform and

This paper emerges from a current research project on citizen-consumers. Creating
Citizen Consumers: Changing Identifications and Relationships is funded by the
ESRC/AHRB Cultures of Consumption Programme (grant number: RES-143-25-008). It
also involves Janet Newman, Nick Smith, Elizabeth Vidler and Louise Westmarland (all
at the Open University). This paper draws on our collaborative work – but they are not
responsible for its idiosyncratic arguments. The paper is a revision of a paper,
‘Constructing Citizen-Consumers: emptying the social, governing the social or contesting
the social?’, presented at a conference on Contemporary Governance and the Question of
the Social, University of Alberta, 11-13 June 2004
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modernisation to bring them into line with defining characteristics of the modern world.
The modern world differs from the old world in which public services were created – the
moment of post-war social democracy – in a number of critical ways. Globalization has
changed the economy and the forms and habits of work that are valued in it. Gender roles
and patterns of family or household formation have altered. But most importantly for
public services, Britain has become a ‘consumer society’ or a ‘consumer culture’ in
which a proliferation of goods and services enables a wide variety of wants and needs to
be satisfied. Such a dazzling array of choice highlights the mean austerity of public
services, whose ‘one size fits all’ model of provision was shaped by the experience of
wartime and post-war rationing:

Many of our public services were established in the years just after the Second
World War. Victory had required strong centralised institutions, and not
surprisingly it was through centralised state direction that the immediate post-war
Government chose to win the peace. This developed a strong sense of the value of
public services in building a fair and prosperous society. The structures created in
the 1940s may now require change, but the values of equity and opportunity for all
will be sustained. The challenges and demands on today’s public services are very
different from those post-war years. The rationing culture which survived after the
war, in treating everyone the same, often overlooked individuals’ different needs
and aspirations… Rising living standards, a more diverse society and a steadily
stronger consumer culture have… brought expectations of greater choice,
responsiveness, accessibility and flexibility. (Office of Public Service Reform,
2002: 8).

The ‘diversity’ of individuals’ needs and aspirations emerges here as a central touchstone
of modernity against which public services can, and should, be judged. In New Labour’s
judgement, they have been found wanting – and the responsibility of government is to
make them suited to this public and its ‘expectations of choice, responsiveness,
accessibility and flexibility’.

This consumerist view of choice as critical to the relations between the public and public
services has emerged as a central thread in New Labour’s agenda for the next election
cycle (and is echoed in Conservative approaches to health and education policy):

In reality, I believe people do want choice, in public services as in other services.

But anyway, choice isn’t an end in itself. It is one important mechanism to ensure
that citizens can indeed secure good schools and health services in their
Choice puts the levers in the hands of parents and patients so that they as citizens
and consumers can be a driving force for improvement in their public services. We
are proposing to put an entirely different dynamic in place to drive our public
services; one where the service will be driven not by the government or by the
manager but by the user – the patient, the parent, the pupil and the law-abiding
(T.Blair, quoted in The Guardian, 24/06/2004, p. 1)

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I will return to some of the issues raised by this formulation of choice and change later in
the paper. But first, I want to explore how the emergence of the citizen-consumer – or the
shift from the citizen to the consumer – has been addressed in political economy and
governmentalist approaches.

Political Economy and the State/Market binary.

From the standpoint of political economy, the shift from citizen to consumer marks a
phase in the rolling back of social democratic incursions into the subjugation of everyday
life to the logics and processes of capitalism. Exemplified in Esping-Andersen’s view of
welfare states as the site of ‘decommodification’ (1990), political economy understands
social formations as dominated by the economy (alternatively conceived as the market,
systems of capital accumulation, social relations of production) and politics (or class
struggle, the state, the capitalist state). The welfare state and social citizenship represent
particular sorts of compromises (reflecting particular balances of class forces) in which
the conditions for expanded capital accumulation were secured through political means.
For Regulationist approaches, the move from citizen to consumer is an aspect of the
move from Fordism (and the Keynesian National Welfare State) to post-Fordism (and its
accompanying Schumpeterian post-national welfare regime; see Jessop, 2000; 2002).
Where the economic dominates, this shift is understood as part of the extended scope,
scale and power of capital in its ‘global’ phase’, subjecting more and more spaces and
relationships to the logic of the market. It is a process of extended commodification – or

Where politics dominates, these changes are seen as marking the shift from social
democratic politics to neo-liberalism – where the market is elevated over the public realm
(Marquand, 2004; Needham, 2003). Marquand, for example, while arguing that New
Labour is not simply a continuation of Thatcherite conservatism, nevertheless points to
the centrality of marketization and privatization as central strands in their remaking of
public and private realms:
New Labour has pushed marketization and privatisation forward, at least as
zealously as the Conservatives did, narrowing the frontiers of the public domain in
the process... Ministerial rhetoric is saturated with the language of consumerism.
The public services are to be ‘customer focused’; schools and colleges are to ensure
that ‘what is on offer responds to the needs of consumers; the ‘progressive projects’
is to be subjected to ‘rebranding’. (2004: 118)

More significantly the transformation of citizen into consumers diminishes the collective
ethos and practices of the public domain (embodied in the figure of the citizen) and both
privatises and individualizes them (in the figure of the consumer). For Needham, this
corrodes the public domain as the site of both collective solidarity and political choice
and mobilization. The shift from citizen to consumer individualizes relationships to
collective services and depoliticises ‘choice’ by subjecting the public domain to the

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logics of markets and management that constitute ‘choice’ in the private/market domain.2
The consumer thus embodies the private (rather than the public); the market (rather than
the state); and the individual (rather than the collective).

This process has profound implications for the relationship between government
and citizen. It restricts citizens to a passive consumption of politics, excluding them
from playing a creative and productive role in civic life. An individualised and
commodified form of citizenship is taking hold in which communal and discursive
elements are lost.

….there is a more fundamental question to be asked about the extent to which

people do in fact expect government and public services to relate to them in the
same way as private sector businesses. The danger is that by encouraging this read-
across, government may itself be eliding a crucial distinction between the public
and private domains without which public engagement with democratic processes,
and support for public provision, is ultimately bound to be undermined. (Needham,
2003: 8; 28)

Neo-liberalism has been a criticl reference point for assessing and explaining these
changes – and New Labour’s role in articulating them (see, for example, Clarke, 2004b;
Hall, 2003 and the critical commentary in Bartlett, forthcoming). It is a convenient term,
since it bridges or fuses the political and economic elements of political economy. It can
be seen as the (capital) logic of globalization or as the political project of the Washington
consensus. Either way, it describes the subjugation of the public to the private, the state to
the market, and the social to the economic. Generically, analyses of welfare states in
capitalism have always pointed to the subordination of the social to the economic, so – it
might be argued – this ‘neo-liberal’ phase is better understood as the intensified and/or
extended subordination of the social to the economic.

While I would accept many of the arguments advanced here, I do have some problems
about whether this constitutes an adequate analysis of the configuration of neo-liberalism,
New Labour and the citizen-consumer. Let me highlight four.

First, despite many challenges, the political economy approach rests decisively on a
distinction between state and market (or politics and economy). As a result, it residualizes
other fields or domains of social formations – and relatedly, residualizes forms of social

‘Choice’ has become a mesmerising feature of New Labour’s assault on ‘old’ public
services. In the process ‘choice’ has become equated with consumer choices as mediated
by the cash-nexus in the market place. This is a very particular conception of choice, the
processes of choice-making, and the means (money) of enforcing or realising one’s
choices. This makes opposition difficult, since it is possible to be against this mode of
choice (since it implies the reproduction of income and wealth inequalities in the process
of choosing), while being in favour of giving users of public services more say (choice?)
in the design and delivery of service. The material conditions – and problems – of
delivering choice in public services may also be important.
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relation other than class. The resulting binaries (state/market; public/private;
capital/labour) produce thin abstractions of social relations and social formations.3

Secondly, neo-liberalism is a term that promises to overcome the analytical problems

about the ‘relative autonomy’ of politics and ideology – by naming a project in which
capital’s logic is vocalised as a political programme and directive ideology. We do not
have to worry about how to think ‘relative autonomy’ since we (apparently) live in a
period when politics and economic interest are so directly fused.

Thirdly, the effect is to de-politicise politics – since if the dominant logic can be
discerned, that is all we need to know. As I will argue in more detail later, we need to
understand the ‘politics of the public realm’ in order to know how New Labour has been
able to installand develop its reform project.

Fourthly and finally, a residual or ‘thin’ conception of the social leaves the ‘consumer’
identity being treated as if it is the incarnation of neo-classical economics, as if, indeed,
people behave in the ways they are imagined in economic theory. As Gabriel and Lang
(1995) and others have argued, consumers do not necessarily behave like the concept – in
practice, they are unpredictable and ‘unmanageable’. More generally, I would argue that
forms of subjection and subordination are more problematic than the reductive view of
consumers might suggest.

The governmentalised citizen-consumer.

In the increasingly influential approach through the concept of governmentality, post-

Foucauldian work has enriched the range of ‘conduct’ and its government beyond the
politics-economics couplet of political economy, as well as challenging sociological
conceptions of society and its constitution. Two arguments flow from this that have
particular relevance for this paper. The first concerns the character of the ‘social’ itself.
The second deals more specifically with the location of the citizen-consumer within
advanced liberal governmentality.

For Rose (1999) and others, the ‘social’ is a field of investigation, knowledge and
regulation produced by the shift in governmental view towards ‘government from the
social point of view’ during the twentieth century:

It is not, then, a case of whether or to what extent various countries developed ‘the
welfare state’. Rather, it is more useful to understand this as government from the
social point of view. Organized attempts to govern conduct , in particular but not
exclusively the conduct of the poor, proliferated in Britain, Europe and the United
States around a variety of different problems, but underpinned by the same
socializing rationale...

The difference between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ conceptions of the social is developed in a
recent paper by Newman (2004).
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In Britain and most European nations, this array of social devices for the
government of insecurity, poverty, employment, health, education and soc forth
would increasingly be connected up and governed from the centre. New links,
relays and pathways were to be established to connect political aspirations,
calculations and decisions at a multitude of local points – in households,
educational establishments, health clinics, courtrooms, benefits offices, workplaces
and the like. (1999: 130-1)

It is this ‘social’ – both the object and the effect of ‘expansive liberal governmentality’ –
that is currently in retreat or decline, displaced by the conceptions and practices of
‘advanced liberalism’:

For perhaps fifty years, the social imperative for government remained relatively
uncontested. Today, however, it is mutating. This is not a resurgence of unbridled
individualism. We can begin to observe a reshaping of the very territory of
government: a kind of ‘detotalization’ of society. The continuous (if not
homogeneous) ‘thought space’ of the social is fragmented, as indexed by the rise of
concerns in terms of ‘multi-culturalism’, and political controversies over the
implications of ‘pluralism’ – of ethnicity, of religion, of sexuality, of ability and
disability – together with conflicts over the ‘rights’ and ‘values’ of different
communities.... Community constitutes a new spatialization of government: the
territory for political programmes, both at the micro-level and the macro-level, for
government through community. In such programmes, ‘society’ still exists but not
in a ‘social’ form: society is to be regenerated, and social justice to be maximized,
through the building of responsible communities, prepared to invest in themselves.
And in the name of community, a whole variety of groups and forces make their
demands, wage their campaigns, stand up for their rights and enact their resistances.
It is, of course, not a question of the replacement of ‘the social’ by ‘the
community’. But the hold of ‘the social’ over our political imagination is
weakening. While social government has been failing since its inception, the
solution proposed for these failures is no longer the re-invention of ‘the social’. As
‘society’ dissociates into a variety of ethical and cultural communities with
incompatible allegiances and incommensurable obligations, a new set of political
rationalities, governmental technologies and opportunities for contestation begin to
take shape. (1999: 135-6)

In this shift, the citizen mutates into a consumer. Rose suggests (I think) that the
entrepreneurial self who is the central subject of advanced liberalism is reflected or
reproduced in the changing relations between citizen and government. The larger changes
are located in a cultural field that:

is marked by the proliferation of new apparatuses, devices and mechanisms for the
government of conduct and forms of life: new forms of consumption, a public
habitat of images, the regulation of habits, dispositions, styles of existence in the
name of identity and lifestyle. In this new field, the citizen is to become a

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consumer, and his or her activity is to be understood in terms of the activation of
the rights of the consumer in the marketplace.
Consider, for example, the transformations in the relations of experts and clients.
Whilst social rule was characterized by discretionary authority, advanced liberal
rule is characterized by the politics of the contract, in which the subject of the
contract is not a patient or a case but a customer or consumer. Patients (or children
– the issue is contested) are consumers of education, patients are consumers of
health care, residents of old people’s homes are in a contractual relation with those
who provide care, and even those occupying demeaned categories (discharged
prisoners in halfway houses, drug users in rehabilitation centres) have their
expectations, rights and responsibilities contractualized. Of course, these contracts
are of many different types. Few are like the contracts between buyer and seller in
the market. But, in their different ways, they shift the power relations inscribed in
relations of expertise. This is especially so when they are accompanied by new
methods of regulation and control such as audit and evaluation.... The politics of the
contract becomes central to contests between political strategies concerning the
‘reform of welfare’, and to strategies of user demand and user resistance to
professional powers. (1999: 164-5)

There are many issues to be taken up from these three arguments. In this context,
however, I want to concentrate on four particular points: the production of the social; the
contestation of the social; the rise of the consumer and the constitution of the subject. The
first of these raises questions about whether it is only possible to view the social from the
standpoint of the governmental. It is clearly true that from the mid-nineteenth century a
variety of governmental technologies, policies and practices were addressed to the
problem of governing the social – but the social was, in at least two senses, an object of
contestation as well as a governmental effect.4 On the one hand, the social was the focus
of conflicting claims and conceptions about its composition. This more mobile and
unfinished view of the social as the site of constructed positions and identities is captured
in Catherine Hall’s metaphor of ‘mapping difference’ in her study of metropole and
colony in nineteenth century England and Jamaica:

Marking differences was a way of classifying, of categorising, of constructing

boundaries for the body politic and the body social. Processes of differentiation,
positioning men and women, colonisers and colonised, as if these divisions were
natural, were constantly in the making, in conflicts of power ... The mapping of
difference, I suggest, the constant discursive work of creating, bringing into being,
or reworking these hieratic categories, was always a matter of historical
contingency. The map constantly shifted, the categories faltered, as different

It is, I imagine, possible to read all attempts to define social positions, places, identities
and relations as would-be governmental projects – but then there are no activating forces
other than the will to govern (to which everyone and everything aspires). So I would like
to think of other domains or sites of social formations having some weight and effectivity
of their own. Otherwise we are dealing with a different reductionism, where everything
but the governmental is an effect of the governmental.
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colonial sites came into the metropolitan focus, as conflicts of power produced new
configurations in one place or another. (2002: 17, 20)

This is a rich view of the social – the site (and product) of shifting, contested attempts to
fix its composition, to order a particular set of distinctions, divisions and identities, and to
create a social ‘map’ in which everyone ‘knows their place’, yet which are resisted,
refused and challenged. Hall also highlights the efforts to ‘naturalise’ differences – to
locate them outside the realm of contestability through reference to nature and biology.
The ‘body social’ is the focus of political-cultural projects – both in its own right and in
terms of the real and potential relations to the ‘body politic’. Time and place matter for
the articulation of the two realms, since social positions do not automatically translate
into political status. Citizenship has been – and remains – more conditional. It is possible
to be present in the ‘body social’ without the formal status of being part of the ‘body
politic’. Chatterjee (2004), for example, distinguishes between citizens and ‘the
governed’ in contemporary India – a distinction that underpins different forms of political
mobilization and articulation. Many of the struggles in and through ‘the social’ were
claims-making by the politically excluded (sections of the working class, women, and
other ‘minoritized’ groups). This, however, is to construct a view of historical sources
and resources for transitions that differs from the view of governmentality in post-
Foucauldian scholarship. It also implies a view of the social as a domain that pre-exists
particular governmentalities (and their technologies) – but does not pre-exist them as
an‘essentially’ constituted set of positions or relations. On the contrary, it suggests – as
Hall’s metaphor of contested mapping implies – that the social is a domain in flux and is
contested by attempts to stabilize or fix it. Governmental technologies – and their
conceptions – represent specific attempts at mapping (and institutionalising the maps),
but they have to negotiate both pre-existing and emergent mappings. They do not, so to
speak, have the social to themselves.

The second issue arises from Hall’s phrase about ‘as if these divisions were natural’,
since struggles around the social have also involved efforts to de-naturalize and
‘socialize’ some forms of difference and division. Yhe social remains a conflicted and
contested terrain – with struggles to mobilise ‘collective identities’ taking place
alongside, at the same time as, and in conflict with political-cultural projects that aim to
‘de-socialise’ (privatise, biologise, dis-place or historicise) contested inequalities (Clarke,
2004a chapter 3). As Lewis argues in the context of social/welfare policy:

In the attempt to challenge and dislodge the forms of inequality connected to social
differences, new social identities and political constituencies have been convened
around dimensions of difference. In this sense, we can say that social differences
also emerge from the challenges to domination and inequality and the struggle for
self-defined identities. Thus social differences are formed in the dynamic interplay
between domination and the struggle against it; between the attempt to establish the
boundaries of the normal and attempts to dislodge and/or expand those boundaries;
between the attempts to limit the criteria of access to resources (including those of
welfare) and the struggle to breach or replace those criteria. The result of all this is
that previously unrecognized social divisions and identities, such as those formed

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around subordinations or exclusions attached to race, disability, age and gender
difference, have reconfigured the social policy agenda (Lewis, 2003: 98).

In short, rather than taking the social as the object of a specific form of governmentality
(associated with a particular space-time delineation of liberalism), it may be more
productive to think of it as a domain subject to shifting and conflicting ‘mappings’ in
which its composition and configuration are represented in different ways. From such a
starting point, we might treat the rise of the ‘multi-cultural’ and the re-emergence of
community as a locus of governing as the combined outcome of challenges to earlier
conceptions of the social (as racially ‘white’ and so on), and attempts to find
governmental conceptions and technologies that can ‘take account of’ such challenges.
This would be a rather more dynamic political-cultural view of the social – and would
open up questions about why mapping the social as a ‘nation of communities’ emerged as
a governmental strategy (and why it may not be wholly stable or all-encompassing).

Thirdly, the account of the transformation of the citizen into the consumer as a
governmental subject raises several problems for me. It may underestimate the problems
of articulating this version of citizenship with other versions (active citizens, activated
citizens as the products of workfare; local/communal citizens; national and transnational
citizens and so on). It over-estimates the ‘contractual’ form of this reconfiguration, taking
the contract/charter as the new mode of relationship – when the empirical variation
between forms of service and their users suggests that the form has not yet settled.
Certainly expertise and ‘producer power’ have been challenged – but the re-working
through the citizen-consumer remains an uneven and contested locus. In our current
research, policing, health care and social care are marked by very different adaptations of
the ‘consumerist’ moment, shaped by very different institutional logics and trajectories.
The quasi-contractual form is not a dominant feature, though it appears alongside
varieties of individuation, personalization, and communalisation of services. But choice
and contract are interwoven with forms of ‘indeterminate involvement’ that range from
the consumerist forms of expressed want/need or perceived satisfaction through to more
participatory forms of consultation about services and service design (from ‘citizen’s
juries’ to user panels). Empirically, then, the transition is both more complex and less
uni-directional than the view from advanced liberalism might suggest.5

Finally, I have a more general problem about the view of subjects and their subjection in
governmentality studies. Subjection is a presumed effect in many of these analyses, rather
than being treated as a problematic ambition which may or may not be achieved in
practice. Do citizens (itself a problematic and incomplete subjection) now perceive and

This seems to be a common feature of govermentality studies where the attempt to
unify rationalities, technologies and practices ‘over-reads’ empirical instances and
neglects divergent or contradictory tendencies. It is difficult to have an argument about
what is not advanced liberal, or where is not advanced liberal, given the elasticity of the
idea. In this respect, there is a resemblance to the role that neo-liberalism plays in
political economic approaches where it not clear what and where may not be neo-liberal.
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experience themselves as consumers? Interestingly, Dean’s overview of governmentality
addresses this particular issue:

Regimes of government do not determine forms of subjectivity. They elicit,

promote, facilitate, foster and attribute various capacities, qualities and statuses to
particular agents. They are successful to the extent that these agents come to
experience themselves through such capacities (e.g., of rational decision-making),
qualities (e.g., as having a sexuality) and statuses (e.g., as being an active citizen).
(1999: 32)

However, having already eschewed ‘sociological realism’ (1999: 31), the investigation of
‘success’ (or the conditions under which agents do, or do not, come to experience
themselves as the announced subjects) has not, I think, been a central feature of
governmentality studies. In this context, at least, I think that the ‘success’ of constituting
citizens as consumers might be an interesting empirical question – in both analytical and
political terms.

The citizen-consumer as a politics of articulation.

I now turn to a more detailed analysis of New Labour’s view of the consumer as a form
of being a citizen – or more precisely to the hyphenated ‘citizen-consumer’ - that
identifies some of the peculiarities of the New Labour project. My aim here is to sketch
the outlines of a more ‘conjunctural analysis’ that sees political-cultural formations as
composed of contradictory trends and tendencies. Although it is important to identify the
dominant forces or lines of development in such analyses, it also matters that there are
non-dominant elements. Raymond Williams (1980), for example, usefully distinguished
between dominant, residual and emergent cultural elements – noting the problem for the
would-be dominant was how to exercise domination over both residual and emergent
formations. Such a conjunctural analysis would place political-cultural projects –
attempts to create new configurations and directions out of a contradictory field of forces
– in a more central role than either political economy or governmentality approaches.

In this specific context it may matter that this citizen-consumer is, so to speak, both a
governmental strategy and political project: the effect of different but inextricably
interwoven forms of calculation about how to govern, and how to be in government.
Governmentalities need to be enacted – that is, turned into technologies, lodged in
apparatuses, expressed in practices – otherwise they are ‘merely rhetorical’. What
mediates the general and the particular – and how their relationship is conceived – is
clearly a matter for debate. For my purposes here, I want to insist that enactment in
particular times and particular places is conditioned by particularities of political-cultural

The return of a Labour Government in 1997 raised new questions about the future of
public services. However, a sustained commitment to containing public spending, a view

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of public services as backward and in need of modernization, and a view of the public as
consumers of services (and government as their champion) have been central parts of the
politics of New Labour. As a result, these commitments to public service – and to the
transformation of public services – have been part of the ‘evidence’ debated in the
attempts to establish the political character or tendency of New Labour: is it a
continuation of Thatcherism, or a way (like the Major government) of occupying, rather
than transforming, the political and social landscape created by Thatcherism (what Colin
Hay (1996) has called ‘Blaijorism’)? Is it a distinctive and different ‘Third Way’
constructed between and beyond the Old Left and the New Right – as its practitioners and
protagonists claim (Blair, 1998; Giddens, 1998)? Is it merely the latest incarnation of
neo-liberalism or an embodiment of advanced liberalism?

In this context, I want to argue something rather different. New Labour does indeed have
strong continuities with Thatcherism and is profoundly shaped by neo-liberalism as a
transnational hegemonic project (Clarke, 2004a, chapter 5). But this underspecifies its
character as a political project and programme. Rather, the transnational ambitions of
neo-liberalism need to be negotiated into specific national political-cultural formations –
they cannot simply be imposed, at least in the context of Western nation-states (Clarke
2004a). New Labour’s public service discourse is marked by attempts to deal with
potential sources of discordance, disagreement and opposition and suture them instead
into the logics of neo-liberalism. Such processes involve more than ‘mere rhetoric’: they
involve a politics of articulation, drawing alternative conceptions (and the forces that are
attached to them) into supporting, but subordinated, roles in the new project. New Labour
has to deal with a range of potentially difficult and contradictory conceptions of public
services. It has had to negotiate the following political-cultural conditions and forces (at

• the expectations of a public anxious to see public services revived and restored
after eighteen years of Conservative rule;
• the expectations of people working in public services who hoped to see the ethos
of ‘public service’ revalorised;
• the general and party specific value attached to ‘equality’, not least in the light of
the deepening patterns of inequality visible during the 1980s and 1990s;
• challenges to the limited univeralism of public services from social movements
(often against forms of ‘second class citizenship’). Such challenges made visible
the relationships between ‘difference’ and forms of inequality ranging from
income and wealth differentials (and their social distribution) to differential
treatment by public services;
• the complex of forces that have been expressed as demands for ‘empowerment’
(user movements; the rise of new knowledges and forms of expertise; and a more
generic decline of deference and rise of ‘demotic’ populism).

The starting point for New Labour’s articulation of the citizen-consumer is the critique of
the ‘old’ formation of public services – and its anachronistic character in the ‘modern
world’ of a consumer culture. As the earlier quotation indicated, the New Labour project
juxtaposes old and new in the distinction between a ‘rationing culture’ and a ‘consumer

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culture’. It recurrently represents this distinction in the comparison of old state
monopolies as being built on a ‘one size fits all’ model in contrast to the diversity of
wants, needs and desires in the modern world:

Since every person has differing requirements, their rights will not be met simply
by providing a 'one size fits all' service. The public expects diversity of provision as
well as national standards. (Principles into practice, p 13)

… we must respond to the individual's aspirations and needs, and we must reflect
the desire of the individual to have more control over their lives. We must
recognise that the one size fits all model that was relevant to an old industrial age
will neither satisfy individual needs or meet the country's requirements in the years
to come (A Future Fair for All, 2003, p 17).

Thirty years ago the one size fits all approach of the 1940s was still in the
ascendant. Public services were monolithic. The public were supposed to be truly
grateful for what they were about to receive. People had little say and precious little
choice. Today we live in a quite different world. We live in a consumer age. People
demand services tailor made to their individual needs. Ours is the informed and
inquiring society. People expect choice and demand quality (Alan Milburn, Annual
Social Services Conference, Cardiff, 16 October 2002).

So the figure of the Consumer embodies the effects of major social changes, to which the
‘old’ model of public services is ill-adapted. But it is also clear that New Labour has to
address social and political expectations that were not met by Thatcherite programmes of
privatization, marketization and residualization of public services. In the public as a
whole, among public service workers and among party members, there has been a
consistent view that public services are necessary and that they need to be improved (not
least because of the effect of 18 years of Conservative degradation). In this field of
expectation, we can see (at least) three key issues that New Labour’s commitment to
reform and modernization has to engage with, and incorporate. The first is the question of
what political principles or values should drive these reforms (especially in the light of
public and party misgivings about ‘privatization by stealth’ or the abandonment of ‘old
Labour’ commitments). What emerges is a typical Third Way distinction between
persistent values and changing means of enacting them in the ‘modern world’:

The values of progressive politics - solidarity, justice for all - have never been more
relevant; and their application never more in need of modernisation… At home, it
means taking the great progressive 1945 settlement and reforming it around the
needs of the individual as consumer and citizen for the 21st century. (Tony Blair,
Labour Party Conference, Blackpool, 1 October, 2002).

The second key issue is that of equality. The political juxtaposition of market and state in
twentieth century social democratic discourse involved a contrast between inequality-
producing mechanisms (the market) and equality-producing (or inequality-remedying)

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mechanisms (the state). Reforming public services around principles that derive from
contemporary forms of market society (the consumer, choice, etc.) needs to be negotiated
against this view of inequality. This is done in two ways: first, it is argued that the state –
in its public services – has created inequality; second, it is claimed that choice can be a
means of producing equality.

To those who defend a mythical past of public service uniformity we point to the
evidence that only now are we tackling major inequalities in the quality and
outcome of public services. (Blair, AFFFA, 2003: 7, our emphasis)

To those on the left who defend the status quo on public services defend a model
that is one of entrenched inequality. I repeat: the system we inherited was
inequitable. It was a two-tier system. Our supposedly uniform public services were
deeply unequal as league and performance tables in the NHS and schools have
graphically exposed. …The affluent and well educated.. had the choice to buy their
way out of failing or inadequate provision - a situation the Tories 'opting out';
reforms of the 1980s encouraged. It was a choice for the few, not for the many.
(Blair, Fabian Society Lecture, 2003).7

A choice for the few, not the many, emerges as an anchoring point for the second
argument about inequality: that by extending choice to active consumers of public
services, equality will be enlarged (and public services will be sustained):

Now there is concern that by moving away from the monolithic, one size fits all
approach, inequity is created in the system. That it is unfair not to treat all in the
same way. By providing choice you introduce an element of competition, of
difference, which is corrosive of public services. I reject these criticisms. To deny
choice would lead to the break up of public service provision as we know it today.
It would create real two-tierism, as those who could afford it would flee to the
private sector in order to be able to exercise choice. If this were to happen it would
put at risk universal provision funded through general taxation. We cannot allow
this to happen. Offering choice is one way in which we can bind into the public
sector those that can afford to go private (Stephen Byers, Social Market
Foundation, London, 28 May 2003).

‘Choice’ is glossed in two different political ways here. First, the extension of choices
previously only available to the affluent (those able to buy themselves out of the public
system) to all is an extension of equality. But second, choice is a necessity to bind the

Discourses may contain internal contradictions, sometimes generated by the need to
negotiate different dilemmas or competing positions. Here, the view of public service
uniformity becomes a myth of the ‘old Left’ who would defend the status quo. Earlier, of
course, it was a truth about a failing model – the uniformity of ‘one size fits all’ – that
needed to be challenged.
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affluent into the public system – and prevent the emergence (or extension, the tenses
make it unclear) of ‘two tierism’.8

The Consumer discourse also picks up on a range of challenges to public services around
‘equality’ issues – around race/ethnicity; gender, sexuality, age and disability, for
example. From these, New Labour has articulated a need to make services responsive to

Since every person has individual requirements, their rights will not be met simply
by providing a ‘one size fits all’ service. The public expects diversity of provision
as well as national standards. Government too wants such standards, but not at the
expense of innovation and excellence. So these goals must be complementary, and
support each other in practice (Principles into Practice, p 13).

But where social movements drew attention to, and challenged, the relationship between
patterns of difference and patterns of inequality, the Consumer discourse treats diversity
as an individual fact:

. The challenges and demands on today’s public services are very different from
those post-war years. The rationing culture which survived after the war, in treating
everyone the same, often overlooked individuals’ different needs and aspirations
(Reforming our Public Services: Principles into Practice, p 8).

Here, differences are not inequality-related (or generating). Rather, differences exist as
individual characteristics or aspirations to which services should be more responsive.
Structural conditions that generated Equal Opportunities conflicts over forms of ‘second
class citizenship’ are dissolved into a flat field of individualised idiosyncracy.

Finally, the figure of the Consumer owes much to another discourse about the role and
value of public services – the neo-liberal critique expressed in Public Choice theory. In
its economic reductionist analysis, all activities are articulated through the intersection of
Producers and Consumers. In an ideal world – the market – the interests of Producers are
disciplined and directed by the power of Consumers. In the world of public services,
however, Producer interests can range unchecked since Consumers are locked into
monopoly provision and unable to exercise choice (Finlayson, 2004; Niskanene, 1971).
New Labour’s appropriation of the figure of the Consumer brings with it this antithetical
view of Producer and Consumer interests (and the role of government as the People’s
Champions against the Producer interest, see Clarke, 1997 and 2004a, chapter 7).

Choice is a profoundly unstable term in this discourse. It is heavily referenced to the
experience of market choice in a ‘consumer culture’, but is not linked to a cash-nexus
conception of public service delivery (either cash or vouchers). It refers to different sites
and forms of choices (choice of provider; choice of service; choice of place and time,
etc.). It wanders across needs, rights and wants unpredictably. See also Greener’s
discussion of the shifting meanings of choice in relation to the NHS (2002).
CCCespanet 14 13/8/04
Public services… have to be refocused around the needs of patients, the pupils, the
passengers and the general public rather than those who provide the services.
(Blair: ROPS 2002 p8)

That means addressing the ‘inflexibilities’ of public service structures, cultures and

There is a need to break down the rigidity of structures which can sap the
enthusiasm of even the most committed… Managers need the flexibility to change
local terms and conditions so that they are best able to customise service.
(Reforming our Public
Services: Principles into Practice, 2002, p 19).

Good customer service cannot be compromised by labour market rigidities,

restrictive practices or role demarcations. For services to be responsive, public
service staff must be rewarded for their responsibility and contribution, if they are
to be accountable for standards. As is recognised both through performance related
pay in schools and the plans for police reform, those who are at the front line
deserve to have that responsibility rewarded. That in turn can mean changes in
working patterns. Opening hours or working patterns may need to become more
flexible. Staff may need to be better trained so that they can relate better to
customers (Reforming our Public Services: Principles into Practice, 2002).

It may also mean introducing ‘contestability’ by looking for alternative providers:

Our aim is to open up the system - to end the one-size-fits-all model of public
service, which too often meant one supplier fits all, with little diversity, irrespective
of how good new suppliers - from elsewhere in the public sector, and from the
voluntary and private sectors - might be. (Tony Blair, Progress and Justice in the
21st Century, The Inaugural Fabian Society Annual Lecture, London, 17 June

In the New Labour discourse about public service reform, the figure of the Consumer is
central. That does not mean that other terms have disappeared. General concepts –
citizens, communities, the public, users of services – continue to appear. So, too, do more
service specific terms patients, passengers and – oddly – parents, when health, public
transport and education are being discussed (other services do not seem to have such
clear identifications attached to them).9 Nevertheless, these are increasingly subordinated
to the idea of the consumer (and/or customer) which links accounts of the direction and

In the world of education policy (specifically schooling , rather than higher education),
parents – not pupils – are positioned as the consumers of education. ‘Choice’ refers to the
capacity of parents to choose the schools that their children are to attend (although in
practice this combines with the capacity of schools – at least ‘successful’ schools – to
choose the pupils (and parents) that they will admit. Children and young people do not
choose – they are spoken for by their parents as ‘proxy consumers’.
CCCespanet 15 13/8/04
weight of social change, the individuation of a diverse society, and the antagonism
between producers and consumers. It is this interlocking net of themes that has enabled
the Consumer to play this central and organizing role in the discourse of public service
reform in the UK. But this formulation is an uneasily hyphenated assemblage – these
remain citizen-consumers for a variety of reasons. Politically, New Labour has to
negotiate (and subordinate) older conceptions of public services. Culturally, it has to
negotiate (and subordinate) older and emergent conceptions of citizenship. Stuart Hall
has recently described this complex negotiation as New Labour’s ‘double shuffle’ (2003).
He argued that:

New Labour is confusing in the signals it gives off, and difficult to characterise as a
regime. It constantly speaks with a forked tongue. It combines economic neo-
liberalism with a commitment to ‘active government’. More significantly its grim
alignment with the broad global interest and values of corporate capital and power
– the neo-liberal, which is in the leading position in its political repertoire – is
paralleled by another, subaltern programme, of a more social-democratic kind,
running alongside. This is what people invoke when they insist, defensively, that
New Labour is not, after all, ‘neo-liberal’. The fact is that New Labour is a hybrid
regime, composed of two strands. However, one strand – the neo-liberal – is in the
dominant position. The other strand – the social democratic – is subordinate.
What’s more, its hybrid character is not simply a static formation: it is the process
which combines the two elements which matters. The process is ‘transformist’. The
latter always remains subordinate to and dependent on the former, and is constantly
being ‘transformed’ into the former, dominant one. (2003:19).

The citizen-consumer provides one example of New Labour’s discursive ‘double shuffle’
– working to subordinate and transform conceptions of citizenship through the imagery of
consumer choice. But that is not the end of the problems to be negotiated. New Labour
also has to deal with the institutional conditions of ‘customising’, ‘personalising’ or
‘contractualising’ the relationship between the public and public services. Public services
are not easy ground for the elaboration of consumerist practices given their conditions of
limited resources, the persistent relationship between knowledge and power and their
contestability (Clarke, 2004c).

So, to the extent that neo-liberal or advanced liberal tendencies are being installed and
enacted through this political project, this analysis draws attention to two related issues.
First, there is the political work that has to be done to construct this formation. Secondly,
there is the question of what sort of political-cultural transformation is being achieved –
relations of domination and subordination are conditional achievements, even in New
Labour discourse. Their maintenance, reproduction or extension requires further political-
cultural work to create the political conditions for further electoral success. But it must
also create the conditions for the governmental programme of constituting a ‘modern
British people’ fit to be governed in the ‘modern world’ (Miliband, 2000).

The process of creating citizen-consumers is about the transformation of the ‘social’ into
new forms – to be managed, regulated, ordered and governed in new ways. It does,

CCCespanet 16 13/8/04
indeed, involve the transposition of identities from the ‘marketplace’ into new locations.
And it involves the attempt to create new subjectivities – the self-directing, choosing,
citizen-consumer. But the ‘hyphenated’ citizen-consumer is also a marker of the complex
conditions and contested political-cultural work that goes into bringing about such
changes. This is not a simple replacement or displacement – since citizenship was itself a
complexly formed, experienced and contested identity, and cannot be made to readily
disappear. Indeed, one might argue that there is, instead, a proliferation of ‘citizenships’
(active, activated, European and national, fiscal (the citizen-taxpayer), prudential,
responsible, and so on, alongside the consumer of public services). The hyphen marks the
site of political work – the attempt to construct a transformative articulation in the
relationships between state and citizen, and between public and public services. In that
sense, it is a ‘governmental project’ – an attempt to re-map these relationships and
institutionalise the new forms. But it is also a political (or political-cultural project),
subject to political ‘calculation’, and the efforts to ensure political rule as well as social
transformation. And, finally, we should be careful about ‘reading off’ outcomes from
intentions or objectives: producing new subjects is an unpredictable process.

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