FACUA logo 'consumers in action'. Wikicommons/public domain.As both the number of consumers and the costs involved continue to be totted up, the scale and significance of the Volkswagen emissions scandal is still sinking in. As a failure of corporate regulation, a US Congress committee recently judged it to be on the scale of Enron. The fallout from 'diesel-gate' doesn’t, however, stop at Volkswagen or even the car-making industry. A worrying piece on The Conversation suggests that the culture of cheating regulatory testing, or ‘metrics gaming’, is widespread in the industry and across other sectors, including health, food and sport.
For just over a month now I’ve been working at FACUA, a national federation of consumer organisations across Spain. As the largest consumer organisation in the country,FACUA has been the principle voice of those affected by the Volkswagen scandal. The national forum (or ‘platform’) set up by the organisation to mobilise and represent Spanish consumers affected by the fraud now counts more than 30,000 members.
FACUA carries out many of the functions associated with a consumer organisation like Which? in the UK: research, market studies and consumer information. However, its style and approach is markedly more confrontational, with a much stronger focus on campaigning and bringing forward legal action. This reflects the participatory nature of the organisation, focused on representing its members (or socios - a word suggesting more partners). Its spokesman, Rubén Sánchez, is a familiar presence across all television, radio and social media platforms denouncing various forms of fraud, announcing the association’s own action on behalf of its members and urging the government and regional authorities to intervene.
The ten demands FACUA recently put to the Spanish government in relation to the Volkswagen scandal are illustrative of this more assertive approach to consumer politics. On account of the Spanish government’s failure to challenge Volkswagen so far, and with elections looming at the end of this year, the association also sent its demands to the leaders of all the other major parties.
Perhaps the best illustration, however, comes in the form of Rubén Sánchez’s new book Timocracia (‘Scamocracy’ in English). Subtitled ‘300 tricks companies and governments use to fool us’, the introduction to Scamocracy states that the book is intended to:
"…offer a collection of weapons not only to defend ourselves, but also to move to counterattack. In a society where so many of the politicians who govern us are actually partners in crime of those who commit the biggest abuses, where those who are really in charge are the multibillionaires who manage big corporations, it is vital for citizens to rise up and change things".
Based on Sánchez’s own experience as a veteran journalist and campaigner for consumer rights, Scamocracy takes aim at what he sees as the root of consumer scandals and fraud: the systemic collusion and lack of action from politicians which allow them. Its message, in this sense, echoes that of recent research by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) highlighting the extent of ‘corporate capture’ of democracy in the United Kingdom as a result of the ‘Better Regulation’ initiative.
In her article The next VW scandal, one of the report’s authors, Christine Berry, argued that removing regulation and encouraging self-regulation was simply opening the door to further instances of corporate irresponsibility.
Timed deliberately to coincide with Marty from McFly’s arrival in the future, the first chapter of Scamocracy was released on 21 October. Taking 1985 - the year that Marty left from - as a reference, the analysis in this chapter looks at how utility bills have risen in Spain over the last 30 years relative to average wages. Looking at five utility sectors in turn, Sánchez makes the case that privatisation and deregulation has enriched a small elite while the country’s consumers have suffered progressively more.
In the context of high levels of unemployment and low wages, rising utilities bills are very much a raw issue in Spain. This was reflected in the much hyped ‘face to face’ between the leaders of Spain’s two new populist parties on the current affairs programme Salvados last weekend.
In the debate (summarised here in Spanish), the language of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias in relation to nationalisation was clear and threatening: “We need to tell the power companies either they fix a price that the people can pay, or the game’s up”. He accused these companies of “systematically taking us for a ride” - here using the same expression as the book’s subtitle (‘tomando el pelo’).
If its reception is anything to go by, the book’s overall argument also struck a chord with popular sentiment. The release of the first chapter was hailed with coverage across a range of major news outlets, including interviews with the author in El Diario and El Pais. The hashtag #TimocraciaEs became a trending topic in Spain for a 10 hour period on Wednesday, the day of the release.
If the notion of consumer politics is relatively unfamiliar to us in the UK, it is perhaps because we assume traditional left wing parties and unions will represent those affected by corporate irresponsibility. Perhaps they once did. Even so, the number of people indignant about the abuse and deregulation of the market will always go far beyond the traditional left.
While there are a number of pressure groups in the UK shining the spotlight on corporate corruption, they lack the clout and influence of consumer movements in Spain and elsewhere. FACUA’s model of activism is based on inspiring and involving its members, on encouraging active and informed consumers. If we want to make sure corporate scandals on the scale of Volkswagen don’t keep recurring, then this kind of consumer politics could have an important role to play.
Scamocracy will be available free and in installments from www.timocracia.com/ . The first chapter will be released this week (The Spanish version is accessible already from the same site).