For the past few days the media have been full of reports about the Top Pot Bakery chain, after the company’s advertising about using only natural ingredients with no chemical additives was revealed not to be entirely true. While many people have been slamming the bakery chain, some Internet posters are asking whether there is any need to make such a fuss over buying a few loaves of overpriced bread. Indeed there is. It is a very serious matter. The point is the Top Pot affair is not just an isolated incident, because this kind of infringement of consumers’ rights has become a daily occurrence as expanding capital markets have come to dominate our lives.
Dramas like this are being played out all the time around the nation. Not long ago there was a scandal over toxic additives in starch. A number of big corporations implicated in the case first denied that there was any problem, and when that did not work, they set about shifting the blame onto others. Eventually the public began to forget about the whole affair, letting those responsible get away with it.
Paying scant attention to consumers’ right to buy safe food, these unscrupulous manufacturers have failed to improve the way they work or to reflect on their mistakes. It is almost exactly the same as what is happening now with Top Pot Bakery.
Citizens’ rights arise along with the rise of nations and evolve in tandem with nations’ development. In his essay Citizen and Social Class, British sociologist T.H. Marshall divided the evolution of the concept of citizenship into three stages. The first stage, starting in the 18th century, was civil rights, based on the right of individual freedom, and include property rights, liberty of the person and the right to justice.
Next, in the 19th century, came political rights, meaning principally the right to vote and stand for election. The third stage followed in the 20th century, when people started striving for the right to work, the right of subsistence, the right to education and other rights coming under the category of social rights. All these rights are a matter of citizens demanding either positive action or passive non-interference by the state, so they are all closely connected with the state.
However, in the 21st century, the dominance of the state is in decline as ever-expanding capital markets usurp its powers. In his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard professor Michael Sandel uses actual case examples to describe the intrusion of market mechanisms into the realms of personality, morality and traditional virtues and values.
Sandel says that the market mechanism of monetary exchange has penetrated into all aspects of daily life, invading areas that used not to be ruled by market forces, such as medicine, education, law, politics and social relations.
To put it another way, markets are rapidly replacing the functions of states and governments. Governments no longer stand alone, because another colossus has arisen in the shape of the market. In the past, citizens claimed their rights by resisting the government and placing demands on it, but nowadays they must also be on their guard against the market.
The media and those in power label some public issues as being matters of “consumer interests.” Their purpose is to weaken the formation of a collective citizens’ conscience, so that the forces of resistance find it hard to stand on principle and claim the moral high ground. This may induce many citizens to restrict themselves by turning their rights into commodities that can be bought and sold for a price and seeing things only in terms of how they affect their wallets or harm their personal interests.
However, if, for example, the import and sale of US beef containing traces of leanness-enhancing agents is treated as merely a consumer issue, it will allow the strongest global economic powers to grow stronger and more arrogant, while public health and the nation’s leverage in international negotiations are laid to waste.
If simultaneous gasoline and electricity price increases are just a question of bringing prices into line with supply and demand, what need is there to take into account unreasonably high electricity purchase prices and misguided investments?
If false advertising, malicious price increases, monopolies, trickery and concealment are allowed to become the norm in the markets, it would mean allowing public interests to be whittled away. We will be tolerating the denial of a role for citizens’ action and allowing the state to sit by as the market dominate people’s lives.
The path from citizenship to citizen’s consciousness and on toward a civil society is one that involves incessant conflicts. If people are not willing to stand up and fight even over “little issues” and “petty rights,” how can they hope to ever build a firm foundation for a civil society?
Hsu Chia-tien is a director of the National Alliance of Taiwan Women’s Associations.
Translated by Julian Clegg