Perhaps prompted by the Miliband-led furore over energy prices, I recently visited an energy price comparison website, to see if we could do better than the extortionate monthly payment that NPower were extracting from our household. It transpired that, yes, we could do a great deal better, so a switch seemed like the sensible option, and is now underway. But not before I had to go through the following phone call, which seemed to speak volumes about the bizarre form of consumer 'sovereignty' that our current political economic model offers us.
[Phone rings; I answer; pleasant-sounding Geordie guy on the other end]: Hello, I'm ringing from NPower. I understand you want to switch energy suppliers, which is fine, but there are some questions I need [sic] answering before I can go ahead with that.
NPower: Can I ask why you're switching?
NPower: OK, I understand. Can I ask who you're switching to, and what the saving is?
Me: Doesn't matter - I can't remember. I found it through a price comparison website
NPower: OK, that's fine. Can I ask what you put down as your current usage?
Me: Doesn't matter. I can't remember
Note how at this point, I am having to play the role of an ignorant fool, purely to get through the conversation.
NPower: OK. Because, just so you know, those price comparison websites don't necessarily take [refers to various contingencies] into account.
Me: Oh. Right.
NPower: Can I ask which price comparion website it was, because they're not all the same.
Me: Can't remember.
NPower: Was there anything in particular that prompted you to start looking for a new supplier? Are you unhappy with the service?
Me: It's not the service. It's the price. And, as you probably know, there's a big debate going on right now, which got me thinking.
Npower: Oh aye, it's all kicking off isn't it!! But I was just wondering - would you be interested in our new flexible rate?
Me: No. I want to switch.
NPower: Even if the rate I'm about to offer you is cheaper?
By now, I have had to swing from the role of ignorant fool, to the role of irrational, ignorant fool, who not only knows nothing about his own electricity consumption, but has declared that he selects energy suppliers on the basis of prejudice and instinct, not on price. He has also backed me into a position which contradicts my earlier declaration, that I am motivated by price.
NPower: Because judging from your recent bills, I can see that our new rate could make a huge saving for you.
Me: Right, here's your problem. This is why everyone dislikes your company. Not you, I know you're just doing your job [Why must my middle class guilt always compel me to say this?]. But why are you offering me a massive saving now, when I'm leaving? Why not offer it before?
NPower: I quite agree. They should do that.
So now me and pleasant NPower call centre operative are getting all chummy in our shared opinion that the behemoths that control his time and my energy are evil scumbags, who rip us all off equally. But, as the phonecall "may be recorded for training or quality assurance purposes", I assume he has not gone very far off-script. So the monstrosity which is the modern, shareholder-oriented PLC becomes a strategic asset, whereby the alienation of the frontline staff can be mobilised as an asset to win customer loyalty.
NPower: I can also offer [starts to list various additional savings, apparently slashing my bill into smithereens, which I am no longer listening to]. I just wondered if any of that would be of interest to you?
Me: OK, you said at the beginning of the phone call that you had questions you had to ask me in order to make the switch. I assumed they were questions that needed answers, without which you couldn't facilitate the switch. None of these questions seem necessary. They are simply trying to prevent me switching. So please can we skip them all now. Is there anything you absolutely have to know from me?
Me: OK, thankyou.
NPower: I wish you all the best mate, I really do.
By this point I feel like an ignorant, irrational, slightly aggressive and impulsive person, kicking and screaming in the face of a calm, knowledgeable, rational person who is simply trying to help me, while also pitying me for my plight, even more than he pities his own.
The question we have to ask, which those in the Michel Callon tradition of economic sociology have been asking for a while, is precisely where and how is homo economicus situated, enacted and constructed? For a brilliant politicised take on this, which looks at the unequal capacities of actors to define what the market is and how its prices should be set, see Koray Caliskan's Market Threads.
The regulator has only the most general construction of a rational consumer, who shows up via the abstract vision of the 'competition' which (neo-classical theory states) is the guarantor of consumer autonomy. Unless there is some form of 'market failure', or a proven strategy to mislead consumers, the consumer is a priori assumed to be in control of their own fate. This is demonstrably a fiction. (On which note, it's interesting that David Cameron's response to the new politicisation of energy prices is to call for 'real competition', a call that neoliberals can make ad infinitum, seeing as competition is only ever abstract, and so its 'realisation' is always in the future.)
We then turn to the internet, hoping that consumer autonomy is enacted and guaranteed by price comparison websites, possibly with the charismatic oversight of Martin Lewis or the normative authority of Which?. But, as I discovered in my attempt at consumer rationality, these sites require one to be quite a committed consumer, of the form Martin Lewis encourages. I needed to know more about my energy usage and bills than I was able to conveniently find out. People who self-identify as money-saving consumers are like environmentalists: they base their choices on an informed political-moral worldview. The rest of us can have a go at it, but quickly discover that we're not very well-equipped. I will only really be able to find out how 'rational' my switching decision was after the fact, by which point it will be too late.
So then there are the corporate behemoths themselves. And they specialise in constructing consumer rationality in ways that suit them. They are expert at performing slippage between 'consumer self-interest' and 'shareholder interest', the silent duplicity which has dominated our model of political economy since the late 1970s. Over the course of a short conversation, NPower had left me with no other basis for switching than an impulsive hatred of the brand which (I had scarce empirical reason to believe) had been fleecing me once a month for the previous few years. This is like people voting for David Cameron in 2010, because they were "sick of that Gordon Brown" or "would love to wipe the smile off Labour's face". In the democratic arena, the intelligentsia likes to sneer at this uninformed nonsense. But this is what our lame attempts at a 'market' leave us doing, in order to try and exert consumer sovereignty.