“Push capitalism” turns us into full-time consumers and non-citizens

December 21, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

Bill Moyers recently interviewed Benjamin Barber, a renowned political theorist and a distinguished senior fellow at Demos — a public policy think tank here in New York City. Barber’s most recent book is Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007). What’s the focus of this book?

[T]he global economy produces too many goods we don’t need, too few of those we do need, and, to keep the racket going, targets children as consumers in a market where shopping is a twenty-four hour business. Capitalism, he says, “seems quite literally to be consuming itself, leaving democracy in peril and the fate of citizens uncertain.”

Barber argues that we now have “push capitalism”:

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.

One prominent example is bottled water, which is often actually bottled tap water. Was there ever really a demand for expensive bottled tap water?  Yet so many of us demand it and claim to need it. Barber argues that American adults are, indeed, infantilized.

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.

Barber argues that push capitalism is threatening democracy.  It seduces us into thinking that being a consumer is being a citizen.

That a citizen is nothing more than a consumer. That voting means spending your dollars spreading around your private prejudices, your private preferences. Not reaching public judgments. Not finding common ground. Not making decisions about the social consequences of private judgments, but just making the private judgments. And letting it fall where it will.

How do we combat this threat of the hyper-consumption of un-needed goods and services that is driving us deeply into debt?  Barber makes three suggestions.

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. Inventing something that is needed. Folks working in alternative energy, some of them are going to make real money.

Barber’s third approach is a slap at those who disparage government and naively tell us that we should look to the “free market” to solve our problems.

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. [But] 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.


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Economy, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. xxxx says:

    not sure i get it. do you want to pass a law banning non-essential goods? who gets to decide what is essential?

    anyway, why can't i buy stuff i don't need just because you don't think i ought to have it? and if you don't let me buy it i won't need any more money so maybe i will stop working and investing in risky businesses (and employing people) and then a lot of people won't have any job at all so they won't be buying anything. will you be happy then?

    as i said, i don't get it.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I don't have any interest in passing any law to ban the sale of any goods or services I (or anyone else) might consider "non-essential."

    My program is somewhat Buddhist at its core. It would be an educational program to help people to extinguish those cravings they have for all of these unnecessary goods. I agree with Barber that these cravings have resulted in too many people (including many people I know) withdrawing from the political system. It starts with unabated cravings for frivolous things, resulting in the "need" to work long hours, resulting in failing to spend critically necessary time on the things we all (in our sober moments) deem "the most important things." These include things like spending time with our children, working to maintain and improve our communities and our nation, and challenging ourselves with a detailed history of where we've been, along with new ideas to light up promising paths stretching far into the future.

    Too many of us have become self-absorbed ignoramuses living almost entirely in the present. In the aggragate, cravings for non-essential goods and services appear to be a primary cause of this condition.

    I suspect that you could remove 50% of the stuff out of most people's homes and they would be better off for it.   We've got a country that offers us immense numbers of creature comforts.   I suspect that we've sold our souls to get to this point, though, and that we'd be a whole lot better off with a lot more of the things that money can't buy.

  3. xxxx says:

    "My program is somewhat Buddhist at its core. It would be an educational program to help people to extinguish those cravings they have for all of these unnecessary goods."

    Will you be passing a massive tax bill to pay for your educational program? If so, count me out.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    No taxes. No indoctrination camps.

    I am interested in media reform that recognizes the corrosive effects of ubiquitous advertising and gives more advertising-free zones to viewers, especially young viewers.

    I'm talking about a grass roots campaign that relies on the power of ideas, not an artificial crutch such as financial penalties. We need to ween ourselves of these environments that cause us to THINK that we need to devote our lives to having so many unnecessary things. Think of how attitudes have changed regarding how we treat women, blacks and gays. Yes, there have been laws enforcing new attitudes, but I think that the progress has been driven by ideas being made salient in social arenas. A natural place to get this started would be churches, though most of them have been corrupted to the point where they wouldn't dare suggest to their members that they are frittering away their lives due to their obsessions with useless things. Here's one example of that: http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=511

    I haven't developed a finished program, as you well know. However, another good first step is to recognize and study our own materialist cravings. See http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1747

    I'm not suggesting that we should all live in shanties. There is nothing wrong with living in comfort, where one owns only things one really uses or treasures.

    I'm arguing that we have been driven to high levels of dysfunction by slick advertising combined with deep biological vulnerabilities.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I caught the broadcast and I am now looking into Mr Barbers books. I find it refreshing that someone actually gets "it".

    To address XXXX comment. A healthly national economy thrives on innovation. Bottling tap water at a few cets per 100 cubic feet, and then selling it for a dollar per bottle is not innovation. Barber points out that a small Danish company is producing a straw like device (http :www.lifestraw.com) that filters water, sells for about $3 (although dealers on Ebay are selling them for $15) is an inexpensive way to address 90% of the worlds need for clean drinking water.

    One part of push capitalism is where we are sold an item that can only be used with a long term subscription, such as cell phones. There are continuing attempt to move the US economy toward a "service Based" economy where by no production of goods takes place in the country. Such an economy is un sustainable. True a few people will get revolting rich before the collapse, and they will probably leave the country when that happens.

    We don't like corruption in government. We are somehow of the belief that corruption is okay in the commercial world if we get some token in return. We see this in the corporate push to privatize government services, As pointed out in the documentary "Sicko" , the commercial privatization of the US health care system is the major cause of the problems with it. It is a complex system of opposing corporate interests, top heavy with management, where the consumer is considered a resource to be exploited for the profit of the company. Often it is more profitable for the insurance to let a patient die from a treatable condition than to pay for necessary surgery. This happens more often than the media reports, and the insurance run HMO's involved may be fined a trivial amount and the ordeal is swept under the carpet.

    The only answer posed by any presidential candidate (who is receiving praise from the media for this ) is to increase privatization by making health insurance legally mandatory as it is with car insurance. Since most states can take your license or car if you are uninsured, I guess that means they will take your life if you don't have health insurance.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a graphic that sums things up.  Click here.

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