The book reciew section of today’s Washington Post contains a review of Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. (Barber is the author of the 1990s tome Jihad vs. McWorld, and he’s always struck me as a kind-of thoughtful version of ubiquitous New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which isn’t saying much as Friedman is one of the least thoughtful people currently writing for something other than Townhall.com.)
Despite being a committed anarcho-capitalist, I actually like what the book review itself says about Barber’s thesis (assuming the WaPo author is correct, and I don’t have enough time right now to read books like Barber’s for fun), that consumer capitalism has arrived at the point where goods and services no longer address existing needs but need to create new “needs” and then cater or market to them:
In a never-ending effort to make consumption the centerpiece of every American’s existence, marketers have succeeded in infantilizing adults (“kidults,” Barber calls us). We’re increasingly governed by impulse. No wonder consumer debt and personal bankruptcy have never been higher. Feeling dominates thinking, me dominates us, now dominates later, egoism dominates altruism, entitlement dominates responsibility, individualism dominates community, and private dominates public. Imagine having the ship of state guided by leaders elected by a nation of 12-year-olds. That, according to Barber, is what we’ve got.
I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to this view, if for no other reason than the economy of constant growth is a sham that requires constant regulatory rejigging (the nonsense of quarterly and annual filings by “publicly traded” corporations) and extensive subsidies, all of this in an environment in which the economy is based on state-monopoly fractional-reserve banking in which “money” is wished into existence through the creation of government debt. But partly it’s just my desire to live like a monk. I’m not impressed all that much by material affluence, stuff because I’m not interested much in either. It is essential for a truly free human being to understand that he or she is not a consumer, not a thing to be condescended or marketed to.
The problem, however, that I have views like Barber’s is that his only alternative to being a consumer is citizenship, and truly free human beings don’t consider themselves citizens either:
Barber is a distinguished political theorist who for years has been writing about the deterioration of “civil society” and what must be done to reclaim it. Many others have criticized our obsession with materialism and consumption, a theme he explored in Jihad vs. McWorld, but Barber’s aim is not to be a scold. The Reagan revolution convinced us that turning the market loose would be good economics and good politics. Barber, in contrast, argues that “Once upon a time, capitalism was allied with virtues that also contributed at least marginally to democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. Today it is allied with vices which — although they serve consumerism — undermine democracy, responsibility, and citizenship.” In other words, in the modern era, it’s not so much democracy and capitalism as it is democracy or capitalism.
Why is this a problem? Because a consumer can say no. A citizen cannot. The very essence of the nation-state is exclusion and compulsion. If I have to choose between Barber’s nihilistic market and the nation-state — the very nation-state which can compel my participation and support — the nihilistic market has the fact that I can, in fact, effectively say no and secede from.
Now, if we want to consider other kinds of non-consumer entities people can choose to belong to — confessions, ethnic groups, neighborhoods or enclaves — with a considerably weaker ability to exercise power, then Barber and I have something to talk about. But if his goal, and the goal of those like him, is to reconstruct the first five or six decades of the 20th century (and the last two of the 19th) in which we all pledge allegience to national republics, their forms of government, and their leaders, then Barber is much too interested in recreating the horrors of the totalitarian state — in its Fascist, Socialist and Liberal forms. There are other ways for human beings to create shared moral and ethical purposes greater than the mere accumulation of stuff that do not involve compelling others to follow the same program. We do not need the state, and we do not need to be its citizens.