Can I Talk to a Manager?

Liberals believe in a society ordered like a restaurant: some eat, some serve, and there is a manager to keep it all going.

An umbrella adorned with the European Union flag is carried by a protester during a march in May 2016. Christopher Furlong / Getty

If Guy Debord were alive today, he might say that “in societies where the neoliberal conditions of political economy prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of customer service interactions.” That is, to the liberal, all relationships are business transactions.

Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in the contemporary liberal approach to political organizing, which seems to be reducible to a great cry of Can I speak to a manager? And nowhere was it better exemplified than in early October, when several thousand middle-class dog owners marched through central London to protest Brexit. Yet another outgrowth of the “People’s Vote” campaign (which is pushing for a redo of the Brexit referendum), the demonstration was called the “Wooferendum.”

The ur-concept of contemporary liberal politics is faith in the authority of a rule-governed order, and an expectation that the appointed minders of that rule-governed order will operate society, more or less, as a service to those who pay for it. In other words, “Excuse me, I do not mean to cause a fuss, but I’m not entirely satisfied.”

In the two years since its vote to leave the European Union, the UK has seen innumerable marches on parliament advancing the demand that the government cancel Brexit, or at least offer a People’s Vote. These marches, proudly unaffiliated with a political tendency, and frequently tinged with rhetoric suggesting that the Brexit vote was enabled by provincial rubes or spending skulduggery, have been an exhortation to the government of the day to just act, please. They are billed as marches politicians “cannot ignore,” that politicians have gone on to ignore. The political theory of change used by The Wooferendum, and others like it, is that once displeasure is voiced by enough people, the powerful — be they billionaires, political leaders, or whoever else — will then graciously remove the offending policy.

This phenomenon, of course, is hardly confined to the United Kingdom. In the United States, the years since Donald Trump’s election have been marked by a liberal obsession with the prospect of a released tax return or well-placed confession extracted by special counsel Robert Mueller to get rid of him. Just act, please.

“Speaking to the manager” is a sort of tyrannical helplessness; it is the haughty demand for intercession on one’s behalf by an array of greater forces you assume are servile. It is worded like a demand, but it is in fact a plea. It relies on a deeply held belief that society has been ordered for your benefit, because you bought it. And by repeatedly reminding those in charge that society is not entirely to your liking, a number of dutiful institutions or solicitous political Jeeveses will course correct and bring things “back to normal.”

It also assumes a hierarchical society, ordered like a restaurant: some eat, some serve, and there is a manager to keep it all going. This is why these same liberals tend to find the prospect of greater popular control over the media, economy, or society chilling, because they must confront the possibility that they will no longer be served and tended to.

We have been conditioned by the market to believe “the customer is always right.” But the power the customer holds over a business is a thin simulacrum of power. Power is classically understood as the ability to compel others to do what, but for you, they would not have done. Yet “consumer” power relies on businesses doing what customers say when it is in their interest to do so. The human construed as a customer can pull but one lever for change: “no.” The customer can decline to purchase, even voice displeasure, but the role of customer is inherently passive.

What can the call center worker on the phone do other than accept your vitriol, a modern whipping post for your catharsis? After all, a consumer possesses no independent force to shape his or her choices in the world, merely choosing between an array of options presented by actors separate from them.

It is no coincidence that the citizen-as-customer is a phenomenon of neoliberal society, where every day we remold ourselves and our world in the image of the homo economicus, the uber-rational individual who calculates every action according to cold self-interest. The roots of this idea can be traced back to Hobbes, Locke, and other theorists half remembered from Political Science 101. What the contract theorists had in common was the belief that “society” was external to those living in it, a kind of trust all humans transacted with to produce a desired outcome: trade a little liberty, receive the enforcement of contracts in return. It is not a long jump from the social contract thinkers’ view that society exists to serve those bought into it to the Third Way consensus: we agree it’s nice to be compassionate, but taxpayers ought not to fund lavish lifestyles for welfare queens.

This is a classic case of Capitalist Realism — the concept Mark Fisher introduced in his 2009 book of the same name, where those ensconced in late capitalist society cannot imagine any alternatives; it seems so natural, inevitable, and overwhelming. It is obvious to these people that, as taxpayers, they are entitled to influence society, and that no organizing or labor on their part is necessary. It is not only obvious, it is inevitable. I mean, it worked at Liberty’s or Bloomingdales. They are now Aladdins pleading with a disinterested genie.

The Wooferendum, the cute protest signs, politically charged knitted hats — all are bold statements by liberals that society is a thing separate from me, that I bought as a service, which is not actually delivering an outcome that is entirely to my liking. It is, equally, the product of political imaginations that have been irreparably circumscribed by The West Wing and Crooked Media. It is a supreme arrogance (all exists to serve me) combined with supreme impotence (all I can do to change is dependent on the belief that my dissatisfaction can, and should, move heaven and earth).

Tory Brexit is in crisis because its promises were impossible and the Conservatives cannot reconcile their internal squabbles. Donald Trump’s associates are landing in jail because they are small-time political grifters and snake-oil salesman who stumbled into the limelight.

Make no mistake: if Brexit stops tomorrow, or if Donald Trump finds himself in irons, the ongoing humiliating public displays of authoritarian obsequiousness by liberals will have had nothing to do with it.