It’s not hard to find arguments that hinge on the idea that consumer power is the key to social transformation.
Following the disappointing results of the Amazon union election in Bessemer, Alabama, the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo opined that Amazon customers could “marshal [their] power on behalf of Amazon’s workers” by emailing Jeff Bezos to complain about the company’s inhumane labor practices.
In 2019, UK prime minister Theresa May asserted that consumers’ voices — more influential than businesses or governments — could end the global epidemic of slavery in our supply chains, while Slate contended that customers have a “moral obligation” to review small businesses on sites like Yelp.
Left-leaning people are urged to speak with our dollars to end racism, resist Trumpism, and secure a green future. On the Right, the rhetoric of consumer choice has been used to defend everything from private health insurance to school vouchers. When Nike featured former NFL player and activist Colin Kaepernick in an ad, conservatives vowed to boycott the company and liberals promised to show their approval by purchasing more Nike products. Across the political spectrum, neoliberalism asks us to cope with our shared sense of political impotence by “voting” with our wallets.
These arguments make intuitive sense to us because they conform to the age-old grammar of consumer sovereignty. “The customer is always right,” a phrase popularized by retail magnates like Harry Gordon Selfridge, is ubiquitous in consumer discourses. Our rightness is understood to derive not only from the fact that we pay hard-earned dollars for goods and services, but also from the idea that consumption is a patriotic calling.
Tapping this rich rhetorical vein, neoliberals preached that the free market would enable the all-powerful consumer to make rational spending choices, which would bring about the best outcomes for society. It is true that consumers collectively make or break new products and businesses, a majority of which fail. But as consumers, we’re limited to playing in a perpetual home game for capitalism, which ultimately sets the terms of our contest.
There’s no clearer illustration of this dynamic than the proliferation of consumer-feedback technology, from public review platforms like Yelp and RateMyProfessors to private evaluation tools like Ziosk and Presto (those tabletop tablets that let you order, pay, and rate your experience at chain restaurants) and the ratings prompts built into gig services like Uber and TaskRabbit.
When we give feedback using these tools — especially when the feedback is negative — we feel like we’re taking control and exercising power. In reality, we’ve been coaxed into using our leisure time to surveil and manage workers, providing data that tells companies what and whom to discipline. The whole process ultimately redounds to capitalists’ benefit at our own expense.
Consumers are made, not born.
Political scientist Joshua Sperber and others have described how early consumers were created, reared, and groomed by capitalists, whose profit-seeking drove them to manufacture demand where none previously existed. The transition to a capitalist economy forced people into wage labor and required them to purchase mass-produced supplies that were once made or grown at home. The conditions of wage labor caused new problems, like alienation (from each other, our work, and ourselves), which companies were then able to exploit for further profit, marketing consumer products as a means to fill the void.
Capitalism’s requirement of constant growth causes the market to encroach on every inch of our skin and every moment of our time, establishing profitable connections within each impulse of our hearts and minds. As every aspect of our humanness becomes monetizable, we see ourselves transformed into data points, surveilled and manipulated for corporate optimization. Naturally, we feel powerless.
The market offers us ways to regain what we’ve lost: a feeling of community membership and a belief that our voices matter. Social media, for example, gives us opportunities to express ourselves and connect with others. We can even speak directly to our leaders and attempt to hold them accountable, whatever that means. This alleviates the feelings of helplessness produced by our oligarchic political system and returns the sense of community that capitalism stripped away.
Similarly, the rating technology that is increasingly built into our consumer experiences provides us with a feeling of managerial control, reinforcing the illusion that we have power in our role as customers.
When we use Yelp or Google to rate and review an experience like dining at a restaurant, we have the impression of being part of a customer community, answering a call to civic duty by contributing valuable information. We get to amplify good experiences and warn others about bad ones. This taps directly into our feelings of alienation and powerlessness under capitalism, perpetuating the fiction that our sovereign consumer voices can change the world.
Managers refer to review sites like Yelp, so using these platforms gives us a way to respond directly (and publicly) to businesses we feel have mistreated us. But Joshua Sperber’s research, outlined in his book Consumer Management in the Internet Age, suggests that managers routinely ignore reviews that deal with things like food quality, ambience, or “chasing” customers out, while routinely instrumentalizing reviews that deal with aspects of service like perceived attentiveness or server affect. This selective incorporation of reviews demonstrates that customers, like workers, are structurally disempowered under capitalism. We’re encouraged to raise our voices insofar as they further the interests of management on behalf of capital. When our interests conflict with bottom-line profit needs, they’re disregarded.
Similarly, tools like Ziosk or the ratings features built into gig services like Lyft and DoorDash exploit both our market-driven sense of helplessness and the popular idea that we can and should derive authority from our status as consumers. Unlike Yelp and other social media, these tools don’t offer us a megaphone or a feeling of community membership. But they do seemingly enable us to speak directly to powerful companies in order to curate consumption experiences around our unique preferences.
The one-to-five ratings scales embedded in these tools trick users into thinking that ratings of three or four describe average, acceptable experiences. In fact, workers often face harsh penalties for any rating below five. Gig workers can lose valuable business or even get kicked off their platforms due to one low rating from an irate (possibly mistaken) customer. In the case of Ziosk and Presto, ratings based on food quality, wait time, and other factors outside servers’ control are nonetheless used to discipline servers, often triggering serious financial penalties in the form of decreased hours or poor section assignments.
Managers are legally barred from evaluating workers in explicitly racist or sexist ways, but customer-managers are bound by no such rules of fairness and decency. BuzzFeed’s Caroline O’Donovan interviewed servers who recounted stories of managers highlighting and sharing degrading, sexualized Ziosk comments — effectively disciplining workers for their body types.
Aside from the problem of worker humiliation, these issues point to the fact that customer ratings systems elevate both the capriciousness and the casual bigotry of the public. Like their spiritual predecessor, tipping, ratings apps exacerbate inequality by giving managers a purportedly neutral excuse for making decisions that disproportionately hurt marginalized people. Yelp has introduced a black-owned businesses attribute and an alert system that dings firms accused of racism. But its business model, like that of Ziosk, Presto, and the entire gig economy, relies on heightening the racialized precarity of the workforce.
Because the market pushes capitalists to extract ever more value from workers, management would prefer to regulate employees’ each and every movement, facial expression, and vocal inflection. And indeed, worker surveillance programs seek to do just that. But as Sperber points out, micromanaging can kill precisely the creativity and spontaneity (i.e., the humanness) that make customer service transactions so lucrative. Consumer sovereignty discourses teach us we have a right to feel valued by capital, and people-turned-automatons can’t give us that illusion.
The overly intrusive manager therefore poses a problem for businesses. But the corporate strategy of “consumer management” solves that problem, enabling a surveillance scheme far more effective than any video, audio, or movement-tracking program. This is why Sperber and others have referred to ratings systems as a “digital panopticon,” wherein workers must always assume they’re being watched and reported on.
Capitalists have steadily recruited us into freely performing the already low-wage labor of the mystery shopper, who exists to foreclose every possibility of employee dissent. Before these surveillance systems, employees could talk back to or even withhold service from rude customers. Today, customers’ ability to retroactively and anonymously rate an experience tips an already imbalanced playing field even further against workers.
Servers and drivers must now assume every cruel or bigoted customer is a manager in disguise, prepared to project their limited voice in a way that makes it harder for workers to eat and pay rent.
Sperber suggests that consumer management represents the acme of prosumption, a process through which consumers voluntarily produce value for capitalists.
Prosumption includes everything from assembling Ikea furniture to navigating through numbered options on a customer service call. With the advent of Web 2.0, which enabled companies to monetize user-produced content, prosumption advanced from the menial labor involved in, say, filling up your own gas tank, to the creative intellectual labor of maintaining a Twitter profile or creating materials for YouTube or Substack.
With Web 2.0, Sperber argues, consumers have in a sense reached a maturity level at which capitalists can “free” us to engage our creative and intellectual powers on their terms and terrain. With everything from cancel culture to ratings systems, we see that the customer’s desire to feel powerful no longer represents any contest to the actual power of CEOs.
We can express ourselves all we please; our voices make cheap, engaging content for multibillion–dollar enterprises. And in the case of ratings apps, our voices enable capital to impose harsher, more dystopian discipline on wage laborers. In other words, our ability to feel powerful is predicated on our willingness to reproduce the coercive relations that caused our sense of powerlessness in the first place.
As we strive to exercise authority vis-à-vis capital, the narrative of the sovereign customer is understandably seductive. But our transformative power doesn’t flow from our role as customers. If it did, we would have chosen something other than leaded baby food and hospitals where we get bedsores from profit-driven understaffing.
Most customers are also workers, and in that role we do have power. We should resist the allure of technologies that offer a false sense of agency — encouraging what Sperber calls a “displaced attack on power” — while helping corporations squeeze more and more value out of their employees.
When capitalists seek to turn us against each other under the guise of consumer empowerment, we should decline to play their game. We can exercise our real power by showing solidarity with other workers.