The trouble with treating citizens as consumers

“The good citizen will demand liberty for himself, and as a matter of pride he will see to it that others receive liberty which he thus claims as his own. Probably the best test of true love of liberty in any country is the way in which minorities are treated in that country.”

Theodore Roosevelt
Speech delivered at the Sorbonne
Paris, France
April 23, 1910


Enormous crowds flocking to suburban sports venues in February (Ref: Elbow, L Reynolds, Rod Oaten).
The growing gulf between the followers and the players of any elite sport.
The nature of pay TV.
The casting of top level sport as just another player in the entertainment industry.
Following a sporting contest from overseas using only updates via smartphone.
Apathy concerning the Olympic Games.

All of these have recently brought into focus some heavy thoughts around where sport is going; sport in general. The arguments pertain to all top level sport, and indeed, to most aspects of life. (e.g. anxious public action seeking to reverse particular government policies.)



Citizens acting as citizens. Photo: Tom Clarke, @TomHRLC

A dangerous shift has taken place in western free market societies the world over, since probably the 1980s. Shifts to deregulate labour markets, shifts to free trade, shifts to a consumer-centred culture have dominated. Language and ideology of the free market now permeate many (non-economic) aspects of life. As a result, the old model of the Citizen in a Republic, as popularised in the epic “man in the arena” speech of Theodore Roosevelt, is a dead parrot. Instead, we now live within the model of Consumers in a Marketplace.


The change is significant across all of life. It stands to create the biggest difference in the field of politics. We only need to look at the opinion-poll driven revolving door of the Office of Prime Minister of Australia for evidence of the damage wrought by focus groups and consumer-thinking.


In many aspects of life, marketers and advertisers influence our choices. They are well paid for this. Much research goes into it. And yet, when enough of us make choices from the vantage point of the Consumer, as opposed to that of the Citizen, our essential community changes. In considering this, let us think of politics and of footy. And of the marketing of politics and of footy. And of what they really are in our lives (i.e. politics an essential aspect of democracy and footy a diversion of passion or interest). There are three main points of difference between the views of Citizens and Consumers.



How elite sport is presented to Consumers, 29 Feb 2016.


First point: Citizens are moral agents; Consumers are literally de-moral-ised.

or Citizens believe firstly in responsibility; Consumers believe firstly in freedom.

Here we can think of people’s relationship with guns, with drugs and alcohol, with gambling, with riding a bike without a helmet, with most things we define as crimes. We can think of looking after others and of happily paying appropriate levels of tax. We can think of our decisions around State and Private education and health.

In a Citizen society, without hesitation we would buy the most fuel-efficient, safe and reliable car on the market, to further the interests of the most people (including ourselves; for in the Citizen model we see ourselves as a part of the whole).

In a Consumer society, however, we’re prepared to buy the cheapest car so as to minimise our financial hit (the rest of you don’t come into our decision-making).

There are many great studies on human behaviour around financial reward and altruism. I’ve mentioned Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational” on other occasions. It’s worth a look.

So the Consumer always seeks to improve the world for themselves; what works best for them in the marketplace, regardless of others (e.g. “you’re either with us or against us”). Sometimes a Consumer chooses to express their values via their consumption choices (e.g. avoiding attendance at Sunday twilight games, favouring Australian-made tomato sauce), but this is not really a moral judgement of right and wrong.

A Citizen, on the other hand, is a moral agent – exploring their impact on others in lots of ways. Seeking to improve the lots of not just themselves, but of others, via their actions and choices (e.g. agitating for the funding of schools based on need, working as a volunteer).

In this light, there is no such thing as corporate social responsibility.

The language used by corporate entities (competitions, broadcasters, advertisers) around sports fans is telling in this regard. It once may have been shocking to hear, but fans being called “consumers” of a “product” is now normalised in sporting discourse. It’s going that way in politics, too. And in most of life.


A citizen doing fine moral work in a republic



Second point: Citizens are comfortable with a degree of uncertainty; Consumers always need certainty.

Citizens understand that society is full of problems, large and small, and that try as they might, they will never fix them all. There is an acceptance of imperfection. Consumers, however, demand perfection for their dollar.

Citizen footy fans used to stand all day and be rained upon in the outer. They expected it. But that was fine. They didn’t pay a lot for the experience. And it was what it was.

Nowadays Consumer footy fans smoothly enter theatres of electronic entertainment; a closely controlled environment. It’s sterile. It’s expensive. Like sitting in a Gold Class cinema seat, the experience is physically comfortable but spiritually bereft. As a Consumer though, it’s hard to define, let alone point to, a missing “spirit”. Much easier for the salesperson to point out the seat warmer, the 17% increase in seat pan size and the access to ubiquitous flat screen monitors and USB jacks.

Similarly, political parties now “sell” us campaign “packages” in “marketing” efforts, designed around “focus groups” whose answers to a dozen poorly worded questions provide a campaign with “certainty.”

The same could be said for whomever runs the AFL’s self-defeating match day experience exercise. A person actually does that. An individual signs off on that. Treating citizens as consumers in this case means that a product is actually being created, called “match day experience.” It defies logic. But there it is. No problem previously existed with Citizen’s match day experiences. But now, as Consumers, we have a problem. Or we are told we have a problem. A problem that can be fixed with a product. For which we pay.

(And the product will almost certainly fail to appease most people. Most people prefer the role of Citizen.)


Third point: Consumers can only at best have Enlightened Self Interest; Citizens can have Expanded Self Interest.

In a Consumer society, if I buy you a footy ticket we can understand that as an act of Enlightened Self Interest. Here, I know that by purchasing you a ticket I make it more likely that you will purchase one for me, or do me a favour. It’s the same idea as doing good deeds to make more profit.

But in a Citizen society, if I buy you a footy ticket, we can interpret that as an act of Expanded Self Interest. The act sees you as my friend; as someone capable of being, or as already being part of my ‘self’. I do it, truly, FOR YOU, because I see you as an extension of me.


Consuming politics and more via Twitter; 29 Feb 2016


Things don’t have to be this way

A generation ago this citizen and consumer dichotomy didn’t exist.

It simply didn’t exist.

The whole nature of democracy has changed the rise of Consumer-think; special-interest groups, lobbies and mass marketing have altered language and popular culture to the extent that we are less “people,” and more “units with purchasing potential”.


Where once delivery of service to the public was a core activity of Government, nowadays departments talk of targeting “consumers” with their “products”. In fact, the Government, which used to be seen by the population as part of “us”, is now seen as not. It is now seen as “them”. It is a fundamentally damaging basis for democracy when elected representatives are seen as unrepresentative.


There is plenty to know about the theory of consumers, and really, on how self-knowledge as a consumer (which all of us are, most of every day) can make a big difference. Check out the BOOK OF LIFE: Consumer Self-Knowledge.


In the world of elite sport, it is fundamentally damaging for decision-makers to be treating fans as consumers for the same reason. When they do, a distance is created between the (fan) population and the sport that they follow. That the distance can be theoretically reduced at a price (e.g. you can pay for access to players), further diminishes the whole exercise; the relationship between fan and sport.

People in positions of political and sporting management sadly invest most thought in questions of revenue; how to maximise the expenditure of those of us with purchasing power. Decisions are made seemingly without primary concern for the (fan) population; instead are made at the behest of corporations, or those running the corporations.


Parliament was once the people’s place.
Footy was once the people’s game.

Treating us first as citizens with interests, cares, responsibilities and needs, by understanding these and supporting us, political and large sporting organisations may start to win back favour. Opening footy grounds for a kick after the game was a nice touch last year. But we need more nice touches and less variable ticket pricing. We need more Government decisions of which to be proud and less of those engendering fear. We need more acknowledgement that as Citizens in a Republic, we care about this place.  We are not mere purchasing tools. We are Citizens.



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About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He shares the care of two daughters and a dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Mr Regnans, Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed there is no such thing as society. Our current leaders all concur with this, though none dare say it so explicitly. It reflects the contemporary world we live in. I could say so much, but rather than repeat what you have so accurately said i’ll focus briefly on my world.

    But before i proceed i must say that terms like corporate social responsibility are oxymoronic; they’re mutually exclusive.

    Here in the health field we no longer deal with patients, instead we support/work with clients and/or consumers. The whole issue of the being people with a right to access health care is an antiquated process. they no longer have rights, instead they have choices. Watch the implementation of the NDIS a market driven voucher system. It is quite likely , we will see unqualified shonks turning up. offering discount services, similar to those who rorted the Pink Batts scheme killing those young men.

    Markets are not some mythical god like deity above and beyond humanity. There is no hidden hand, rather huge corporations use their resources to manipulate the production and distribution of products. Sadly this means that currently the primary nexus in human relationships is reduced to cash exchange for personal gain.

    Much, much more i can say but time to get off my soapbox, finish my lunch break and back to my; CONSUMERS !?!


  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Citizen Wilson,
    I’ve shared the same concerns for a long time and as an educator I’ve seen first hand how this infiltrates the minds of the young to the point that if you are remotely suspicious of consumerism, there might be something wrong with you. Don’t have the latest Iphone or clothes brands? You must be ‘povvo’ or don’t care enough about yourself. I’ve been trying very hard to de-condition my 15 year old daughter. She sees that it is bullshit, but feels the pressure to go along let she feel left out or othered, especially in regards to technology.

    Quote from Morpheus in The Matrix:
    “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

  3. Rod Oaten says

    Thatcher also said there is no such thing as greed. She and Reagan started the selfish neo-liberal mantra picked up and run with by Australian politicians especially the Conservatives.
    Don Watson’s latest book deals with crap words we are daily fed via politicians, tabloid press and shock jocks.
    Well done E regnans, I loved it.

  4. Nice one citoyén E.R.

  5. Dave Brown says

    Yet membership numbers are at an all time high. As is revenue. Gillon just earned himself $1.7 mill heading up a not for profit that generated half a billion in revenue and paid not a lick of tax. More people go to watch footy now than ever (although probably not on a per capita basis). Under those circumstances it’s too easy to dismiss disaffection as the grumblings of the uncool, out of touch. Disengage. Go to the level of footy where they have always treated you like a citizen because they never had any other choice. Have fun.

  6. Barry McAdam says

    Exactly right ERegnans. It’s why us citizens in Hobart don’t have an AFL team and the consumers in Greater Western Sydney do. Bloody brilliant article.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I agree with a lot that you (and others) say here ER, but I suspect that self-interest didn’t just spring up in the last generation, if I’ve understood you correctly. What may also have changed is the ability for those with vested interests to retain and wield that power to further their own interests on a far larger scale than they once could?

  8. Peter Warrington says

    This is profound. Sadly profound and inspiringly profound

    I come across a new type of individualism everyday. It’s not really antisocial, more anti-collective. I don’t relate to it at all :(

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Well written (and said) Dave. Much to think about. Found myself agreeing with pretty much everything said. I’ll be reading it again.

  10. Former pie seller at the MCG says

    I used to let the AFL frustrate me because it presented itself as a brand and considered itself a product. But then I realized that IT IS a brand and a product and now I don’t let that frustrate me anymore. Trouble is, though, I’m now in a malaise over the AFL because of what it is. Still, I rid myself of that pesky frustration, so that makes me comes out evens, I guess.

  11. ER very profound and thoughtful. In my view the movement of society from citizens to consumers took root when we became a litigious society. I am more important that you, and therefore I will sue. This is inherently divisive.

    I disagree with those who lay all this at the feet of Reagan and Thatcher. We, the larger community, made choices and Reagan and Thatcher were nothing without those choices. We demand to be allowed to live however we wish to live. We demand that the resources are made available to us to do whatever we wish. We consume and consume with recklessness. But if it all goes south we also demand that the government rescues us and to hell with the cost. But shouldn’t responsibility come with democracy?

    Your analogy with the AFL and top line sport is spot on. The separation of our sporting idles from the community is sad. But have we brought it on ourselves? We can blame it on neo liberalism or any other sort of “ism” but have we simply voted with our feet? Do we just demand too much of everyone and everything such that there is a natural retreat into the sanctity of emptiness? Have we, the larger community, simply trashed our moral compass at the altar of “feel good”? Who do we blame? Us or “them”?

    George Orwell’s 1984 is still incredibly instructive here. If we mutilate language we mutilate freedom and intellect.

    I am very baffled and befuddled by it all. Thanks for helping me think it through.

  12. Mr Regnans, to have different take on what it might be like if we were once again citizens not consumers you may like to peruse a posting of mine from 24/1/16. It’s called ‘the ‘Future of leisure’, being a roughly put together ideas re leisure and participation in a future society.

    It’s a garb bag of loose ideas, not one of my better worded articles but please peruse and comment.


  13. Neil Belford says

    Very well put.

    Dips is correct, we are collectively responsible. Carrying the day in any argument is down to leadership (regardless of values). Thought leadership, like your article Dave, is what we need more of. The concept of citizenship needs to be re-ignited, and given new passion. To succeed it has to be a revolutionary voice, and perhaps a spiritual voice. The Matrix, and ‘The Hunger Games’ have this voice for example. It dawned on me reading this that in the main, the Footy Almanac is the voice of the Citizen. While it is often written in a reactionary voice this is to some extent unavoidable, when reaction is the only available voice.

    A few years ago, if you recall, we had a long discussion about what our tag line should be and

    Sport. Write from the heart

    won the day – because it was the best thing we could think of. While that is an accurate description, I don’t find it inspiring. I think collectively we didn’t achieve ‘enlightenment’ :). But David – I think you have opened up the door for something much better for the Almanac.

    Sport. The voice of the citizen

  14. Excellent, thought provoking piece ER.

    Pigs in the trough, that is AFL HQ and all their corporate leeches, sorry ‘partners’.

    ‘Year of the Fan’. More like flash in the pan.

    Here, have a few scraps. Now get back with the program. It’s not variable, it’s DYNAMIC!

    It’s a sad story but it’s not of that much interest to me, said the game’s Cardinals to the courted hordes.

    Hell’s Pell.

    Dave Brown has the best and only solution for the citizens of footy.

  15. Read this yesterday and been scratching my head about how to respond. The analysis about the widening schism between being self-centred (consumer) and other-centred (citizen) is spot on. But part of me says that it was ever thus. Another part says that the speed of change and technology means that we cannot easily hold those competing tensions within the one body (personal or political).
    The world is a scary and uncertain place. So is life. BUT I can’t think that I would ever like to live in a different place or time.
    I am in Dave Brown’s camp but I would word it differently. I see it as the exact opposite of disengage. Disengage from the manipulative crap and bullshit by all means. Atomise. Think locally. Work within your circle of influence, not your circle of concern (Covey). Be the change you want to see in the world. Lighten up. Have fun. Follow Yvette’s memorial speech principle.
    Give feedback on as many lovingly crafted Almanac pieces as I can. Every piece is lighting a candle in the personal and collective dark.
    Thanks for making me think Dave, even if I found the overall tone a bit pessimistic.

  16. David Conallin says

    Good summary.
    It was John Kerr’s fault. It took a while but a fish rots from the head down! I seem to remember when a Liberal pollie resigned because he did,nt pay the duty on a colour TV! Now look at em. Lie, cheat on expenses etc etc and then try to prosecute a fellow pollie for political gain!! As Bob Dylan said “Money doesn’t talk it swears”!

  17. PB , jog my memory. Didn’t you pen a piece on a similar topic a couple of years back ?

    i’ve been to a meeting earlier talking about changes to hACC funding. Buzz word Consumer kept coming up. Choice, market, these also got a good run. Much more i can say, but these changes to this essential service for older people has, all the hallmarks of our commodified world. All someone needs is an ABN number to set themselves up as a n organisation delivering services to the oldies. Qualifications, experience not pre-requisites, like the Pink Batts disaster

    Things are crook in Tallarook.


  18. E.regnans says

    G’day all.
    Interesting times.
    Glen! – good example of detail at the small scale reflecting changes at the big scale. Striking.
    P Dimitriadis – at least opening eyes to *another way* can be helpful. Being aware.
    R Oaten – thanks. I don’t know much about Thatcher/ Reagan. But language is vital.
    SCSBTHD: merci.
    D Brown – Evidence-based arguments are sound in a scientific setting, with controlled experiments or randomised trials. It’s probably illogical to quote membership and revenue increases as evidence of *success* here because there has been no controlled trial. There is no cause and effect. A further point of departure is the notion that memberships and revenues should be used as measures of *success* anyway. This was an exercise in thinking outside of the mainstream messaging. Disengaging from the propaganda, maybe. Happy to disengage, stand back; have a think. That’s the point.
    B McAdam – that’s a solid perspective from which to write.
    Swish – Not too concerned about time scales. That’s an interesting idea about degree of power and reach of control.
    P Warrington – Hopefully not too sad – it’s an idea and an idea for improving the state of things. Anti-collective makes sense.
    L Reynolds – thanks.
    FPSATMCG – perspective changes are useful. Yes, AFL is a brand. Football is the game. They are very different things.
    Dips – “Have we, the larger community, simply trashed our moral compass at the altar of “feel good”? Who do we blame? Us or “them”?” That’s some great wondering. Some great questioning.
    Glen – thanks- I’ll check it out.
    N Belford – It feels like a conversation that needs to happen. And probably needs to go on.
    JD – thanks. It’s difficult (in AFL, politics, any large organisation) to enact change when those in power are reluctant to devolve that power, of course. And power can be used to help the many or to help the few. Perhaps moral leadership is needed.
    P_B – Love it. Love the one you’re with. That’s it. Regrettable that you found the tone pessimistic. I tried to end with a “all you need is…” refrain (pride, acknowledgement), but unlike Yvette, I forgot the ultimate need.
    D Conallin – quite a decisive strike.
    Glen – it’s becoming a player in education circles, too.
    cheers all.

  19. daniel flesch says

    Merely a trifling example in the whole issue , but as an ex Melb. tram conductor and ex Sydney bus driver it really peeves me that the citizens who we used to call passengers are now referred to as customers. Not a big deal , but symptomatic nonetheless.
    Next it’ll be hospital patients being called customers , though when the Libs have done their number on Medicare it’ll be an accurate description if we put “paying” in front of “customers.”

  20. Daniel – further to your example, the Victorian State Revenue Office, which collects taxes such as Land Tax and Stamp Duty from the besieged taxpayers, refers to the said taxpayers as “clients”. The word client implies a certain voluntary action. For example, a client chooses a lawyer or accountant. But no one chooses to deal with the State Revenue Office. We just bloody well have to!! Some mindless focus group probably decided it was a good idea. More mangling of the language. More deception by false description.

  21. David

    I thought of your piece this week at a Human Resources conference I attended, where a speaker was the head of HR at the Vic Public Transport Corp. She said that in 2014 they finally got the organisation to see tram and train travelers as customers and to think of the customer in everything they did. A big ask for public transport workers but they finally got there and it spread positively throughout.

    With the change to a new State Govt in Victoria, this concept became persona non grata, and had to be changed, in that the Labour Govt saw train and tram travelers as citizens, to be provided for as a right, not customers, from whom they associated the concept of profit.

    Interesting in that consumers of a product were seen as economic not otherwise, and that customer was seen as bad.

    Thought provoking piece


  22. There is also a parallel with higher education where a university can go in a generation from “seek wisdom” to ‘achieve impossible”
    I believe that the rot set in with the advent of human resources departments in every company and institution, replacing personnel department.We were instantly commodified and went from being people to being goods, to be added , subtracted, shelved as our bosses and leaders saw fit
    I particularly remember the impersonal and abrasive tone and approach of a HR officer that I dealt with in local government, who had learned her ‘trade’ working at a UK nuclear power plant. She was seen as the perfect employee for her position.No citizen,she.

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