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–


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]