Is Consumerism Killing Democracy?

Political scientist Benjamin Barber thinks mindless spending is killing America. Barber went on Bill Moyers Journal to promote his new book Consumed, and to lambast us for being infantilized drones who drool over whatever big business shoves into our greedy little mitts.

BILL MOYERS: Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

BENJAMIN BARBER: “Tell us what’s going on? What’s wrong with American consumers?” Which is kind of what you and I have been talking about. But the trouble is we’re looking the wrong way. It’s not what’s wrong with American consumers, it’s what’s wrong with American capitalism, American advertisers, American marketers? We’re not asking for it. It’s what I call push capitalism. It’s supply side. They’ve got to sell all this stuff, and they have to figure out how to get us to want it. So they take adults and they infantilize them. They dumb them down. They get us to want things.

And then they start targeting children. Because it’s not enough just to sell to the adults. You’ve got to sell to that wonderful demographic, first it’s 12 to 18 year olds. Then it’s the ‘tweens. The 10- to the 12 year olds. But then it’s the toddlers.

BILL MOYERS: You used a word that went right past me. Infantilize? What do you mean?

BENJAMIN BARBER: What I mean is that grownups, part of being grown up is getting a hold of yourself and saying, “I don’t need this. I’ve got to be a gatekeeper for my kid. I want to live in a pluralistic world where, yes, I shop, but I also pray and play and do art and make love and make artwork and do lots of different things. And shopping’s one part of that.” As an adult, we know that. But if you live in a capitalist– society that needs to sell us all the time, they’ve got to turn that prudent, thoughtful adult back into a child who says, “Gimme, gimme, gimme. I want, I want, I want.” Just like the kid in the candy store. And is grasping and reaching.

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t all of this part of what keeps the hamster running? I mean, it–

BENJAMIN BARBER: — It is. But part of the problem here is that the capitalist companies have figured out that the best way to do their job is to privatize profit, but socialize risk. That is to say–

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

BENJAMIN BARBER: –ask the taxpayer to pay for it–

BILL MOYERS: Yes.

BENJAMIN BARBER: –when things go down. The banks now that have just screwed up so big, not one of those banks is going t go under because they’ll be bailed out by the feds. ‘Cause the feds, the federal government will say we can’t afford this gigantic multi billion dollar bank to go under. Happened with Chrysler 20, 30 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: Got to keep the wheel going.

BENJAMIN BARBER: And, therefore, it’s impossible to fail if you’re a business. You never get punished. Now the whole point of profit is to reward risk. But what we’ve done today is socialize risk. You and I, and all of your listeners out there, pay when companies like sub-prime market mortgage companies and the banks go bad. We pay for it. They don’t.

Businesses do fail, but according to Barber, they are the meaningful businesses that address a social need, rather than dollar stores and tchotchke malls that litter suburbia. He claims that as a society, our wasteful consumerism rewards the wrong values.

BILL MOYERS: But that is the creative destruction isn’t it. That’s at the heart of capitalism.

BENJAMIN BARBER: But, you know what? Democracy has a simple rule. The social conscience. The citizen trumps the consumer. We, Milton Friedman, with his help, we’ve inverted that. Now the consumer trumps the citizen. And we’re getting a society that manifests the trumping by the consumer of civics. Which means a selfish privatized and, ultimately, corrupt society. And one no one wants their own children to grow up in.

So what can you do?

BENJAMIN BARBER: Well, let me see, I think there’s three things we can do. First of all we, as consumers, have to be tougher. We are the gatekeepers for our kids and our families. We have to be tougher. I mean, I ask anyone out there who needs to go out at 2:00 AM to go shopping? For God sakes, wait ’til Monday afternoon. Second thing is capitalism has to begin to earn the profits to which it has a right, when it takes real risks. And there are companies doing that.

I’ll give you a couple of hopeful examples. There’s a company in Denmark that’s gotten very rich very fast making something called the Life Straw. It’s a thing about this long. And in it are about nine filters that filter out all the contaminants and germs that you find in third world cesspool water. If you buy one of these for a couple bucks that’s all it takes, a woman in the third world and her family can drink through that straw, and it doesn’t matter what water they have available. It cleanses that water. A little firm in Denmark that makes that life straw is making out like a capitalist bandit we’d say. But properly so. They’re being rewarded for taking a risk.

Inventing something that is needed. Folks working in alternative energy, some of them are going to make real money. And that’s a good thing. That’s what they ought to be doing. So capitalism has to start. And there are many cases of where–

BILL MOYERS: Creative capitalism and tough consumers. Third?

BENJAMIN BARBER: And, number three, we’ve got to retrieve our citizenship. We can’t buy the line that government is our enemy and the market is our friend. We used to say government can do everything, the market can do nothing. That was a mistake. But now we seem to say the market can do everything and government can do any– nothing. Government is us. Government is our institutions. Government is how we make social and public choices working together. We’ve got to retrieve our citizenship.

Bill Moyers talks with author Benjamin R. Barber [Bill Moyers Journal]

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  1. “Barber went on Bill Moyers Journal to promote his new book Consumed, and to lambast us for being infantilized drones who drool over whatever big business shoves into our greedy little mitts.”

    hypocrisy much?

  2. Curiosity says:

    This seems to somewhat couch socialism as capitalism – Not to say that the market can do everything, but it is somewhat obvious that kings, the government, and business have something in common – they aggregate power away from “The People” (not only society but the individual).

    Perhaps the solution is to think for yourself, realize that at times this includes others, and understand that long term gains are equally important to short term gains.

  3. howie_in_az says:

    Does anyone really need a book to point out that we should all be living within our means and not buying useless plastic crap?

    ps Bonus points for Griffindor if the book is sold at WalMart.

  4. Curiosity says:
  5. backbroken says:

    Allow me to strike the first blow for anti-consumerism by not buying this book.

    I have to admit though, he makes a point.

  6. Curiosity says:

    However he does make valuable points in other interviews about consumption – such as capitalist business should meet real needs (found at his blog [blog.civworld.org]):

    Author Benjamin Barber says the American economy has taken a wrong turn toward encouraging consumption – and that’s not what capitalism was supposed to be about. He talks with Kai Ryssdal.

    KAI RYSSDAL: We like to buy things, we Americans do. Cars, clothes, the latest and greatest gadgets. We buy even when there’s nothing much we really need just because we can buy. Capitalism in its ultimate expression.

    Author Benjamin Barber isn’t gonna take it anymore. His theory is capitalism has been turned on its head and doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. He writes about it in his latest book, “Consumed.” Ben, good to talk to you.

    BENJAMIN BARBER: Nice to talk to you, Kai.

    RYSSDAL: You know, capitalism used to bring with it some implicit virtues. Is that now no longer the case?

    BARBER: It brings virtues, but different virtues. And we don’t really see them as virtues. That is to say, in the beginning of capitalism – in the 15th and 16th century – capitalism was focused on production, on hard work, on deferred gratification, on altruism. People investing and saving and capitalists acquiring wealth and keeping it in order to do further investments. All in the name of producing goods for people with very real needs and down the line making some profit from it as well. The problem is, today we have not a productivist economy but a consumer economy. And the emphasis today is not on production, but on consuming. And you’ve got a capitalism which is producing an awful lot of goods which are chasing very few needs, while real needs are going unmet around the world.

    RYSSDAL: So is the real problem here a search for some kind of reallocation of resources so that more people can afford to consume?

    BARBER: Well, the ultimate problem is how to redirect capitalism to what it does really well, which is to meet real needs and produce profits longterm for those who engage in meeting those needs.

    RYSSDAL: Regrets are all well and good, but that boat’s already sailed. It’s not like you can turn around 150 years of capitalism and say “Oh well, now, you know what, we need to pull it back and do this the right way.”

    BARBER: Well, I’m not sure that’s so. Because in fact, capitalism is actually on a kind of false journey now. Two-thirds of the world have very real needs. They don’t have potable water, they don’t have transportation, they don’t have basic jobs. The dilemma is that those folks don’t have the wherewithal to provide immediate profits. And here, you might say part of the problem is the short-term horizons of modern capitalism, which are looking for profits each quarter, each week, each day. In the longterm, the question is can capitalism readjust itself to what it does so well, meeting real needs by deferring its own gratification for profits? As I say, there is even within capitalism a number of ways of mobilizing the poor to becoming part of the marketplace – that’s what micro-credit, Muhammad Yunus’s wonderful idea . . . he just got the Nobel Prize, that’s what that’s about. De Soto’s notion of capturing the invisible wealth that the poor hold, but is it legitimized, is another idea. The problems we face are very great, but the solutions are there for the taking.

    RYSSDAL: What’s America’s export role here? Is it exporting capitalism throughout the world and trying to change things that way, or is exporting democracy?

    BARBER: It’s very interesting, because what we have been involved in is actually exporting infantilization. Exporting consumer capitalism for those who we think can play the game. When Secretary of the Treasury Paulson was in China in December, and then more recently President Bush in January, both said “The problem with China is they save too much. You know, we need a China that spends more, that consumes more.” So once again, to the extent we’re exporting, we are exporting a world of false needs so that others, too, will get engaged in keeping our capitalism afloat by buying the iPods and the new technologies, which for the most part are, at best, marginal improvements on traditional goods that are not really necessary.

    RYSSDAL: When was the last time you did something just for fun?

    BARBER: I have a . . . again, let me say, I have a lot of fun. Somebody said to me once, You couldn’t be writing about this stuff unless you enjoy consuming. And that’s true. I like shopping. This isn’t a argument about abstemiousness or about asceticism. My problem is we live in a world where shopping and consumerism and advertising are ubiquitous and omnipresent. They’re everywhere we go. I mean, imagine a world in which for every sign you see advertising something, we saw a sign about how wonderful the party or the president was. You know, we call that totalitarianism. But when we have a society totally dominated by consumerism and markets, we say, “Oh! That’s liberty.” I don’t get it.

  7. SBR249 says:

    I for one, will not buy a book whose main point is to tell me to use common sense.

  8. csdiego says:

    Works for me.

  9. mac-phisto says:

    bring it on! personally, i’m looking forward to psychotropic drug rations, the feelies & the group orgies.

  10. appetite88 says:

    I agree that consumers need to be tougher. Seems everyone is willing to accept low quality and bad service at full price and businesses have caught on. Customer service there days is nonexistent because we are treated like part of an inexhaustible supply of consumers rather than valuable customers.

    Barber should add a number 4 to the list: shop local. Smaller local businesses promote local culture and they have less marketers, lobbyists, and lawyers on hand to screw up the world external to their business. …Also, the smaller the business, the smaller the boycott or protest is necessary to influence their practices. …Plus, it’s just better for more people to own businesses… The list of benefits go on and on and on…

  11. Curiosity says:

    @mac-phisto:
    Ha ha – I guess there is a silver lining to everything.

  12. whytee says:

    This guy’s not the most articulate in the world but he’s right. We’re being dumbed down by the most sophisticated, focus-group-tested mind control techniques on the planet, being told we “deserve” to have what we want and owe it to ourselves to buy buy buy. That’s why debt’s higher than it has ever been and education at an extremely low ebb. Advertisers have more access to kids than parents or teachers do. And advertisers reward only one thing. It’s sick and wrong.

  13. mconfoy says:

    no will remember you for what you bought. perhaps they might remember you for what you did or didn’t do though. so i guess the question is, “do you want to be remembered by those that come after you for something good or does living for yourself today the thing you want?”

  14. JMH says:

    I think the point Barber makes about government bailing big businesses is a lot more… important? valid? than the one about 2am Black Friday shopping.

  15. KJones says:

    Barbar’s point about privatizing profit and socializing risk reminded me of something that happened in Japan during the late 1980s or early 1990s.

    Large corporations were selling shares to investors but not treating them the same. Large investors (the wealthy, venture capitalists, banks, corporations) were being paid their promised dividends even when the companies lost money, while small shareholders were forced to eat the loss. It caused a huge uproar and major downturn in the Japanese stock market.

    I would love it if US consumers just one day decide to say, “Fuck it!” and en masse refuse to pay their credit cards anymore until the banks at their own mistakes. I bet we’d see them finally change their attitude towards working-class borrowers.

  16. KJones says:

    That should read, “eat their own mistakes”. Whoops.

  17. Curiosity says:

    @KJones:
    I use a similar idea – “scapegoating risk” – the transferring of blame to a minority by forcing a minority to assume risk either (a) “appropriately” if they receive an equitable chance at profit for the risk; or (b) “unfairly” if they receive a profit less than equitable as compared to the risk.

  18. Curiosity says:

    Here it would be unfairly scapegoating risk b/c the public does not get a profit according to the risk.

  19. ElizabethD says:

    Wow, I have been thinking a LOT this past fall about the capitalism-democracy nexus and why it feels to me as if the damn country is going down the tubes in a giant fit of materialism and corporate/executive cupidity.

    So, I agree with a lot of what he’s saying.

    Get off that hamster wheel, people! (Yeah, I should talk. Sigh.)

  20. AnnieGetYourFun says:

    I love hearing this guy talk, because he’s passionate and makes me feel better about controlling my spending (it’s hard, since I’ve been infantilized since birth). That said, the book is boring as hell. Unbelievably repetitive. He also uses the phrase “Protestant work ethic” so often that you kind of start wondering if he doesn’t have another motive for writing it.

  21. S-the-K says:

    Setting aside the fact that Bill Moyers is a flaming public flag-bearer for Socialism…

    There are so many things killing America than “consumerism”. Without “consumerism”, what would we have? I believe it’s called the Soviet Bloc. You can’t accuse the Soviet Union and the countries behind the Iron Curtain with being infected with “consumerism”. And they were workers’ paradises, unlike the heck-hole we live in now. Those were the good ol’ days. Back in the day, you had one kind of thing and that’s all you had. No different models of thing. No different colors of thing. No things with different features depending on your need. If a particular thing did not exist, then you did not need it.