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by Benjamin Barber
Wednesday, Apr. 23, 2008 at 10:45 AM
Happy Earth Day! That doesn't mean buy a Toyota Prius! Buying a Prius can be a substitute for sparing the environment. While capitalism, consumerism and commerce arenot evil, life is denatured when commerce is everything.
“WE BELIEVE, WE ARE WHAT WE BUY”
Political Scientist Benjamin Barber on Identity-Shopping
[Consumerism gives us goods we do not need. When the citizen is only the customer, democracy dies. US political scientist Benjamin Barber warns. This interview published in: www.taz.de 4/12/2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Benjamin Barber, 69, teaches at the University of Maryland and is one of the most influential US political scientists. In 1996 he became well-known in Europe with his book “Jihad against McWorld.” “Consumed” was published in Germany by C.H. Beck.]
Taz: Mr. Barber, what is so bad about consumerism?
Benjamin Barber: Shopping, capitalism and commerce are not terrible. They are only terrible when there is nothing but shopping and we are exposed nonstop to commerce. When commerce penetrates all life worlds day and night, that is debilitating. The commercial side is a part of a pluralist life where we do other things, play, shop, pray, amuse our children, practice sports, make art and love and go for a walk.
…but do we do all this?
No, that is the point! In a thoroughly commercialized society, nearly everything we do is for money and profit. We jog after we buy a pair of trendy gym shoes. We listen to music after we buy an IPod and download music for money. Every activity becomes a commercial activity. This is even true for politics and the churches. Politics only moves with contributions for the candidates. Television preachers are only concerned about money. “Will it sell?” has become the central question in the arts. That is hyper-consumerism.
Doesn’t that have a dangerous influence on our character?
Yes, because we believe we are what we buy. We are what we wear. That is the new identity-shopping. Everything turns on branding. Products are associated with a lifestyle, not with their practical value or their quality. You drive a sport-utility vehicle so you look like a rugged type even if you never leave the city or you drive a gas-saving Toyota Prius with hybrid drive so everyone sees you are a green bobo.
But this also means that people know who they want to be. This identity is then expressed with commodities. The goods help them.
No. You buy healthy food to show you are healthy and thin. You don’t have to live a life that spares the environment. Buying a Toyota Prius is enough. The brand is the substitute for authentic conduct.
In your new book “Consumed,” you write that consumerism makes people childish. Why is that?
People must be made childish to buy things they don’t need. Grown-up persons who are capable of rational decisions must be made headless or panic-stricken children who shout “I want, I want” at the supermarket checkout counter. From our first days, the market trains us for this conduct.
While consumers should act like children, should children also become consumers?
Yes, that is the system. The background for all this is a capitalism that is so successful that most genuine needs of most people in developed countries are satisfied. Thus how can the machine be kept going? Capitalism has real problems if people aren’t made to buy things they don’t need. We stand at the threshold to a recession. What does President Bush say? That people must go to the shopping mall and spend more and more. Even though we have a negative savings rate, people are given several hundred million dollars so they can shop. Whether you need or can afford a house, you must buy it because we must sell it. In the long run, that is a disaster for the character of people.
But if people don’t shop, disaster would occur rather immediately, not only in the long run.
Yes if the whole world looked like Paris or Charlotte burg. But unhappily for the world and happily for capitalism, there are many regions of the world where genuine needs are satisfied. Even in the developed world, there are enough important things to do. The problem is that you have a capitalism that doesn’t want to take any risks. In the past, entrepreneurs were always pioneering with innovative business ideas and developed useful things. When it clicked, they had success. When it didn’t click, they went bankrupt. Nowadays risks are socialized. When a bank goes bust, the government came to the rescue. When Chrysler pursued a foolish strategy, the taxpayer pays.
What useful things could be developed by the capitalist economy today?
We know our dependence on oil is paralyzing – economically, ecologically and politically. Alternative energy is a vital necessity. There are new challenges for architects and the construction industry. Think only of the disaster of New Orleans. There is enough to do with solar energy and healthy water for the third world.
The friends of free enterprise would say there are enough firms investing in these branches. The market should regulate this.
I am not against capitalism. But today’s capitalists want more secure profits and refuse to take risks any more. They don’t want to invest in any difficult market environments. They don’t have enough patience to allow new markets to arise. Furthermore, a balance is needed. Capitalism always needs democratic controls, a mechanism, and a functioning state. After thirty years of deregulation, there is no balance any more.
You write in your book that consumerism endangers democracy. Why?
People tell us freedom has to do with elective possibilities on the market, with the choice the consumer has. But that is not middle class freedom. The important decisions that mark our societies are public democratic decisions, not private consumer decisions, common or shared decisions, not private decisions.
Can you give us an example?
When you go to Los Angeles, you have an incredible freedom of mobility. You can choose between 200 car models; you can buy, rent or lease one. You can buy a car for ,000 or for 0,000. But you can’t choose public transportation. That does not exist. Free decisions which the market cannot replace are most important for a free society.
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