Mad as hell

A new wave of militant consumer is rising, hitting large corporations where it hurts - in the wallet

Rail strikes are usually attacked for the pain they inflict on poor, hard-working commuters. This year's rail strikes will present railway-industry spin-doctors with a knotty problem: they're actually organised by the poor, hard-working commuters themselves. Last month's announ cement of plans by More Trains Less Strain to co-ordinate a national fare strike caused alarm in boardrooms across the country. It heralds the rise of Militant Consumer, an unaffiliated network of activists that has started attacking companies where it hurts - in the pocket.

Somerset-based More Trains Less Strain declared its intention to withhold its money after a limited but surprisingly successful local fare strike in January. The group persuaded 2,000 passengers to travel from Bath to Bristol submitting fake tickets and passes for their entire journey. Each ticket had Fare Strike written across the bottom in glaring capitals, the company's logo presented as Worst Great Western and the route given as Hell and Back. Passengers showing the fake tickets were waved through, with staff at Bristol Temple Meads even showing strikers out through a side gate.

Although the First Great Western spokeswoman Elaine Wilde insisted only one person had travelled with a fake ticket, the company caved in to the group's demands instantly, borrowing carriages from other train-operating companies across Britain to ease overcrowding. "We're now considering leading a national fare strike and we're collecting as many consumer groups as we can," said Peter Andrews, a founding member of the group. "It's just a ridi culous idea to run a railway like this."

The birth of More Trains Less Strain in December 2006 marked the end of a curious year of discontent. In the preceding 12 months, at least ten separate consumer groups began withholding or reclaiming money from utilities, banks, credit cards, incompetent councils and software providers across the UK.

"The problem is that the governments of the past 20 years have legally sanctioned poor service and aggressive disregard of customers by allowing large monopolies to grow up and then refusing to regulate their behaviour," says Gareth Coombs at the Cambridge Strategy Centre. "You get the sense that we're almost in a pre-poll-tax protest era - lots of people are really annoyed, looking at each other, all ready to go as soon as someone else does, but worried about acting alone. They're working on the principle that they can't jail everyone, but they want some-one to go first. This, of course, is how trade unions originally developed. Maybe the new generation of trade unions will be militant organisations designed to hurt the profits of firms who abuse consumers."

Marc Gander is at the forefront of this new wave of direct taxation. To date, he has cost the British banking industry roughly £50m, although it's hard to be sure of the exact total. He knows for a fact (he can produce the paperwork) that he's been responsible for £11m, although newspaper reports suggest it's significantly more - maybe £60m and rising.

At the end of 2005, Gander, an academic lawyer, was out of work. He was struggling to make ends meet and his bank threatened to close his account in a dispute over £150, an amount that meant a lot to him. The bank's indifference brought his resentment at the appalling service he had been receiving for years bubbling to the surface. With a computer programmer friend, he founded the Consumer Action Group in January 2006, based on his view that the bank's charges were unlawful. "UK law has it that you can only issue penalty charges to cover cost, not to make a profit," he says.

Groundswell of outrage

Gander posted sample letters and legal advice for those seeking to reclaim penalty charges on his website, www.consumeractiongroup.co.uk. These were picked up by other websites until the Consumer Association, Which? and various newspapers took up the cause. The CAG now has 140,000 members, 8,000 of whom have successfully won money from their banks. According to the Independent, more than two million non-members have also used CAG tactics to reclaim money. The groundswell of outrage forced the Office of Fair Trading to broaden its investigation into credit-card charges to include banks. "I expect the OFT ruling will drastically cut the charges, but I think the action group will go on," Gander says. "It would be a shame to let all this energy and commitment dissolve."

In July 2006, the Guildford IT consultant Andrew Morrell took a similar approach to Thames Water. He was so incensed that the company had missed its leakage targets for the sixth year in a row that he decided to withhold roughly 32 per cent of his bill - the proportion of water that leaks out of Thames's pipes every year. "There's a contract that I agree to pay Thames for the water, but it agrees to repair its leaks," he explains. "It's not fulfilling its promises, the regulator does absolutely nothing, and the company has just been sold for a vast profit." Morrell's website - www.thameswas ter.co.uk - offers a calculating system to work out what to remove from your bill, links to sites selling consumer-friendly meters, and tips on making it as expensive as possible for Thames Water to get heavy.

Meanwhile, over at www.bbctvlicence.com, Matt D offers extensive advice on avoiding prosecution for non-payment of the licence fee. In April, the website carried the following message: "This site has reached a small but significant milestone in that it has helped 739 people resist BBC harassment. This means that in the six and a half months this site has been running, a tidy £100,000 has been denied to the BBC. Admittedly, that is not much compared to the £18m salary paid to Jonathan Ross, but it is a start. If BBCtvLicence.com has helped you get rid of your fear of BBC intimidation, please repay by telling other people about this site."

This year the action has spread to individual hit-and-run consumer terrorists. On chat forums such as www.penaltycharges.co.uk, campaigners swap tips for future skirmishes. Even mainstream financial websites have felt the mood of their audience change and started adding guerrilla advice. MoneySavingExpert.com, for instance, now offers a "credit-card revenge" page, with step-by-step guides for borrowing money from zero per cent credit cards and investing it in high-interest accounts.

Elsewhere, militant consumers have used more surreal protest tactics. The Complaints Choir of Birmingham (www.complaintschoir.org) encourages local people to set their complaints to music and then gather outside the offending organisations to sing their criticism - to the chorus "I want my money back". Similar complaints groups have sprung up in Helsinki, St Petersburg and Pittsburgh. What's curious is that all these campaigns began around the same time, and all avoid mainstream consumer organisations in favour of the kind of action that was previously the preserve of the militant left: becoming the Animal Liberation Front to the mainstream's RSPCA, if you like. Few of these group's organisers have any previous experience of protest. Indeed, most of them are previously respectable pillars of Middle England. These new-generation Militant Consumers find themselves sitting on broken trains, being palmed off by financial service companies and ignored by monopolistic utilities companies. In the words of Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more.

According to Mark Ratcliffe, who runs the consumer research company Murmur, this tide has been rising for a long time. Until the 1990s, he argues, Brits were happy to rely on the Consumers Association, TV watchdog shows and ombudsmen to police the high street. As companies made more money and we received worse service, however, our faith in the usual watchmen declined.

"People have spent the past ten years seeing, for instance, banks profits soaring but their behaviour seeming ever more petty and vindictive," says Ratcliffe. "Then these companies put out huggy-lovey advertising that people think is disgusting, and everyone recoils.

"I'd say the next target will be the mobile-phone companies. Everybody hates them, but they're a necessity. We all know that if they gave us free calls and free internet for £40 a month they'd still be making £30 from us. Consumers are itching to find a way to put a rocket up their arse and as soon as someone's found it, you watch it kick off."

Ratcliffe and Coombs both predict a rise in Militant Consumer action. "The chance of mainstream political parties and even established pressure groups responding to people's day-to-day experience is becoming ever more remote," Ratcliffe argues. "If no one is listening and you have nowhere to turn, you either despair or do something about it.

"At the moment, it feels as though the British are getting ready to do the latter."

Militant Consumers Worldwide

Bus fares in Athens rose so sharply in 2002 that transport staff refused to collect the fares.

Vincent Ferrari heard it was notoriously hard to cancel an AOL account, and recorded himself pleading to cancel for his blog. It got 700,000 hits. AOL complied and apologised.

The food giant GlaxoSmithKline was fined £80,000 when two Auckland schoolgirls proved that Ribena is not "rich in Vitamin C".

Furious customers in Mexico City used a website called Apestan.com (theystink.com) to wage a campaign against a furniture company.

Research by Shabeeh Abbas and Jonathan Pearson

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?