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Jon Alexander ‘Citizenship is a muscle you build, not a cup you empty’

Following his viral Medium article, the activist and co-founder of the New Citizenship Project tells us why we should be thinking about ourselves as citizens, not consumers.

Jon Alexander TED

Jon Alexander, co-founder of the New Citizenship Project, at TEDxUCL.

Not long after the coronavirus outbreak, Jon Alexander wrote a piece about the UK government’s Covid-19 messaging which went on to be shared widely across many corners of the internet.

As well as responding to the Johnson administration’s ‘Stay Alert, Control The Virus, Save Lives’ slogan, he was pointing out the importance of looking at ourselves as citizens, not consumers. “In the Citizen story, Covid-19 is more like a force of nature, in the face of which we are all in the same boat and must all work together, than a war.”

I was introduced to the co-founder of the New Citizenship Project (NCP) by a mutual ally and this interview is the result of our conversations.

What’s your background and what is the New Citizenship Project?

I spent the first decade or so of my career working in the advertising industry. Over the course of that time, I was asking deeper and deeper questions about the role of that industry in society. Those eventually got me to the question: What are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we're consumers 3,000 times a day?

It’s a question that is not just about the impact of any particular ad or any particular product, but about the whole cultural narrative. Consumerism, as I have come to understand it, is a story of self and society, a story of who we are and what we're capable of.

Around the same time as that question crystalised in my head, I also started asking another: What would it look like to bring the creative energy that currently goes into flogging stuff to involving people in society as citizens?

That second question is really what NCP is all about. We're a strategy consultancy, but with a clear mission and point of view. We like to say we help organisations do stuff better and do better stuff because we think of people differently.

Our argument is that if you think of people as consumers, the only ideas you ever come up with are for stuff people buy from you, whereas if you start by thinking of people as citizens, there's so much more you can do - with people, not just for them. That’s true for local authorities, for museums and galleries, for mission-led businesses and many more besides. It’s when all those organisations step up and start telling a different story, creating space for people to be citizens, that things will really change.

Stay alert government covid messaging

Current government messaging on Covid-19.

Why should we be looking at ourselves as citizens rather than consumers, and how has our collective response to coronavirus supported this line of thinking?

There's a whole bunch of social psychology evidence, among other things, on this. One study in particular expresses it really well.

Simplified version: a group of respondents were asked to imagine they were part of a small community of four households, dependent on a single well for their water supply, and that the well was starting to run dry. So, they had to use less water. They were then asked how willing they would be to use less water themselves and the extent to which they would trust the others to use less water too. The clever bit is that there were two groups of respondents, and for one group, the word ‘households’ was replaced with the word ‘consumers’ in the description of the scenario. In that second group, they were less willing to compromise their own use and less likely to trust the others.

We've done similar experiments looking at everything from pro-environmental motivation to intention to participate in local community, and the negative impact of consumer ‘priming’ is really pronounced across the board.

I guess the important thing to emphasise is that this isn't something that we can easily control as individuals. It's less about how we explicitly choose to think of ourselves as it is about the story that surrounds us in our daily lives and unconsciously infuses itself into our behaviour whether we like it or not, and whether those are really our values or not.

That brings me onto your question about the coronavirus. The point is that when the coronavirus hit, the story of our society - the consumer story - was thrown up in the air.

In that time, we found we actually cared much more about each other than we ever really thought. Between February and May this year, the proportion of the population who think of Britain as a society where people look out for each other trebled. When the consumer story got thrown up in the air, a much deeper truth was able to come through and flourish.

The problem though is that this government is very deliberately trying to reimpose the consumer story, partly to cover their own backs for their failures and partly just because it's what they know and understand and feels safe to them. In this context, there’s a real challenge but also an opportunity for organisations and individuals to hold onto that deeper truth and not let the consumer story be reimposed. We’ve seen something different and we need to hold onto it.

What can we learn from the Mutual Aid movement and do you have any hopes of converting that energy into something sustained and more directed at citizenship, participation and democracy?

I almost want to ask: What can't we learn from mutual aid? There's so much in what happened in those groups and during that time. Perhaps the most important of all though is that this sort of mutuality is fundamentally joyful: it's something deeply human.

That deep joy is why I absolutely have hope that energy will convert into something sustained, because that sense of working together in communities, of shared purpose and power, is the most deeply human way of being there is.

I do worry because there is such a move from those in power to suppress it, but I also think that the moment of opportunity is going to be there for a good while, partly because that memory is now there to be tapped into, and partly because I think it's becoming pretty clear that we are only right at the beginning of this period of challenge and change.

Out of the Belly of Hell Anthony Barnett cover

Cover of Anthony Barnett's essay on Covid-19, Out of the Belly of Hell.


Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy feels coronavirus is a turning point for a more radical politics. Do you feel that same sense of opportunity and if so, what can we do to capitalise on this unique moment for positive social change?

Hell yes. I think there's two things we can all do to hold on to and build this deeper citizen story.

First, get involved in everything and every way you can think of on a day-to-day basis: make friends with neighbours, buy local, start or join a campaign to do something in your neighbourhood. Challenge the companies and organisations you're a member of, or shop with, or support, to do stuff differently.

Second, get political - with a capital ‘p’ too. The fact is that a huge amount of power in our society resides in Westminster and I don't think we can pretend otherwise. I think we all now have a duty to step into the system as it is. Some would argue that it's too broken to be worth it and I have some sympathy with that, but actually I think there's enough still there to work with and enough chance to win it back.

Imagine if in next May's local elections there were more candidates and a higher turnout than ever before. What signal would that send to a government that's actively undermining local democracy?

My friend Stephen Greene, who helped found the National Citizen Service, likes to say that citizenship is a muscle you build, not a cup you empty. I think what we can all do right now is keep working that muscle - partly because we're going to need it, partly because it’s just really good fun.

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