Invisible hand has to be led by us all

May 25, 2007

Capitalism, which invents needs for the wealthy but ignores the needy, will consume itself if left unchecked, warns Benjamin Barber.

Capitalism is in crisis. Too successful in meeting the core needs of people in the developed world, it is now busy manufacturing new needs to sell all the goods and services it produces just to stay afloat. In doing so, it has become a pervasive totaliser, penetrating every realm from religion and culture to education and politics. Universities today are not merely corporatised but nurseries of branding, where students are as likely to sell their foreheads as billboards or to "buzz-market their friends" as they are to study philosophy or classics. They are not merely learning marketing, they are living it.

It was not always thus. In capitalism's early "productivist" days, it was able to marry altruism and self-interest. In producing goods and services that answered real consumer needs, it secured a profit for the producers. Doing good for others meant doing well for yourself.

This formula worked best, however, when nurtured by an ethos of hard work and deferred gratification - what was once called the "Protestant ethos". Today conditions have changed. Capitalism's success means that too many goods are now chasing too few needs. Yet capitalism requires us to "need" all that it produces in order to survive. So it busies itself manufacturing "needs" for the wealthy while ignoring the wants of the truly needy. Why? Because global inequality means that while the wealthy have too few needs, the needy have too little wealth. Capitalism is stymied, courting long-term disaster.

As once the manufacture of goods was abetted by a Protestant ethos, today the manufacture of needs is abetted by an infantilist ethos that encourages easy credit and impulsive consumption while discouraging saving and investment. We still work hard, but only in order to pay and play.

To infantilise is to dumb down the consumers, shape their "wants", take over their life worlds, encourage impulsive buying, cultivate shopaholism and invent new "needs". And at the same time, it is to "empower" kids as shoppers by legitimising their unformed tastes and mercurial "wants" and detaching them from their "gatekeeper" mothers and teachers to lure them to the shopping network, the iTunes archives and the shopping centre. Toddlers now recognise brand logos before they can talk.

Consumerism needs this infantilist ethos because it favours laxity and leisure over discipline and denial, values childish impetuosity and juvenile narcissism over adult order and enlightened self-interest and prefers consumption-directed play to spontaneous recreation. The ethos feeds a private market logic ("what I want is what society needs") and combats the public logic fashioned by democracy ("what society needs is what I want to want"). The neoliberal ideology of privatisation is the political theory of this ethos, buzz-marketing and brand identity are its practices. It plays at Peter Pan, but wrests children from the safety of their parents to deliver them to the always and everland of the shopping mall.

We try to resist the assault on our children but find ourselves fractured: adult citizens capable of imagining the goods of a family and community pitted against infantilised consumers obsessed with a private menu of contrived private needs. The result is a kind of civic schizophrenia. "I want" is pitted against "we should" - the gas-guzzling SUVs that I "want" to drive versus the hybrid I "ought" to be driving.

This schizophrenic dysfunction develops in the absence of conscious manipulators. It is capitalism's all too logical way of solving its own success, making consuming ubiquitous and turning shopping into an addiction.

The problem is not shopping but nothing-but-shopping: consumerism as a surrogate for living. Compare any traditional town square with a modern suburban mall: in the square, a school, town hall, library, general store, park, cinema, church, art gallery and homes - a true neighbourhood exhibiting our human diversity as beings who learn, vote, work, read, play and pray as well as shop. But our newtown malls are all shopping, all the time.

How is it that when we see politics permeate every life sector we call it totalitarianism and when we see religion everywhere we call it theocracy, but when commerce dominates everything we call it liberty? Can we redirect capitalism to its proper end, the satisfaction of real human needs?

The world teems with elemental wants and is peopled by billions who are needy. They need potable water, not colas. They need inexpensive retrovirals, not the Botox we buy to pretend we can be for ever young. They need not MTV but the rudiments to learn their ABCs.

To serve such needs, however, capitalism must once again learn to defer profits and empower the needy as customers. To do this, it requires the assistance of democratic institutions and of an adult ethos. Public citizens must be restored to their proper place as masters of their private choices. To sustain itself, capitalism will once again have to respond to real needs instead of trying to fabricate synthetic ones - or risk consuming itself.

Benjamin R. Barber is professor of civil society at the University of Maryland and distinguished senior fellow at Demos in New York in the US. His book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole is published by W. W. Norton, £16.99.

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