“Citizens need to understand that they are consumers”: Irish Water and the Language of Disenfranchisement

Nonameef

The above slide is taken from a presentation called Building Irish Water. After Kerrigan’s article spoke of its existence I did some googling and sure enough I found the slide in two versions of Irish Water presentations online: one bearing the name of Jerry Grant Head of Asset Management for Irish Water, and the other copy is part of an EPA conference presentation given by Dr John Tierney, Irish Water’s Managing Director. The slide lays out their basic marketing objective which is to shift public perceptions of their relationship to water services from that of citizens with water rights to the more compliant role of “consumers” and then “customers”. So much for civic engagement, sounds more like civic disenfranchisement. This reminds me of many participants that I interviewed for a project concerning the public response to climate change. They would often speak of their vague role solely in terms of being a consumer. It was generally about reducing their individual energy usage or recycling while there was never any talk of their role as stakeholders, civic engagement or collective community action. I suppose this is hardly surprising when considering the centrality of the market in contemporary Irish society and how new managerialism in the public sector has already advanced a discourse of customer services as opposed to citizenship. Also it is worth reading  what Prof. Peadar Kirby has to say about the continuous depolitization of civil society under the long periods of FF dominance since they came into existence.

However, what is interesting for me is how blatant Irish Water’s position here is as the relationship of power to language is often more subtle and less obviously intentional. As already noted in this blog language plays a powerful role in framing how we see the world. Sociologist Bourdieu has much to say on the symbolic violence of language. This subtle violence occurs when the categories (e.g. dichotomies, occupational taxonomies, categories of taste or gender) through which the general public perceive the world are shaped by the dominant, imposing a vision of the world where hierarchical relationships appear natural. This serves to legitimate the dominators while judging lower classes or a specific gender, ethnicity, sexuality and the associated lifestyles as inferior. Those on the receiving end of symbolic violence, perceiving (and sensing, as this is also a bodily form of oppression) themselves through such forms of othering, are more inclined to submit to the logic of the ruling elite and accept how that logic positions them as a lesser being. This development is rarely as obvious or as conspiratorial as Irish Water’s behavioural slide. Instead it tends towards more subdued forms of manifestation: like in how certain persons whisper in art galleries where unwittingly they accept their words as unworthy in such consecrated spaces.

Now it seems we are to submit to the role of the “Irish Water Customer” who always pays her bills and believes in the myth of ‘the customer is always right’ despite service saying otherwise. De-citizenized in our relationship to our water, are we now to accept the failures of the state in not dealing with the mass of leakages from our shoddy water infrastructure and no longer entitled to whine about the unfairly distributed nature of the charges (after all we are all now individualised ‘customers’, there to be (mis)treated equally regardless of our inequalities). Remember these charges were also meant to be a disincentive against water wastage but who on 80 grand a year is going to be concerned about water charges of a few hundred euros? As non-citizens where will the moral compunction to conserve water (along with the energy used in processing it) reside for those whom the disincentives fail.

1. Bourdieu P (1999) Scattered Remarks. European Journal of Social Theory 2 (3): 334-340.

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