“What do I want?” is a good question in a restaurant or shop. But government is not a business and our most important challenges cannot be met by toting up private desires: “I wants.”

Those challenges require public values: “We needs.”

And the Tea Party GOP call that … tyranny. (More)

America Consumed, Part II – A Consumer Democracy?

This week Morning Feature considers Benjamin Barber’s 2007 book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. Written before the 2008 economic crisis, it foreshadows and explains the failure of consumer capitalism. Yesterday we considered why consumerism encourages us to set aside adult, public values in favor of childish, private demands. Today we explore how consumerism undermines democracy and threatens our species’ survival. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to challenge consumerism and restore our values.

In Rob Reiner’s 1995 film The American President, embattled President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) finally breaks his silence to discuss his values in a speech that includes this passage:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. […] I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.

Dr. Barber might disapprove of citing a Hollywood romantic comedy to explore how consumerism threatens democracy, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin struck resonant and important chords. Alas, “advanced citizenship” is difficult in a culture that tells us to celebrate “I” and ignore “We.”

Civic Schizophrenia: Desire vs. Value

Dr. Barber spends 50 pages exploring the question of why democratic government so often disappoints us. The common meme – both left and right – is that the other side dominates public debate and our elected officials don’t really hear us. He suggests a different and intriguing answer: our market-driven culture frames political debate in terms of our desires as consumers, and those may not match our values as citizens.

A debate among childlike consumers asks the question “What do you want?” Dr. Barber calls that a first-order question. In Freudian terms, it solicits an answer from the id, or at most the ego. Pollsters usually include a set of options and respondents choose a personal preference from within that set, much like ordering from a menu in a restaurant. Tote up the responses, consumer-framed debate says, and you have the vox populi: the voice of the people.

Dr. Barber suggests that a debate among adult citizens would ask the question “What do you want to want?” or “What do we need?” That is a second-order question, and in Freudian terms it solicits an answer from the superego. I may want better shopping nearer my home, a private desire that ignores public consequences … until the mall is built and I complain about the traffic on our roads. Then the vox populi changes.

Challenged Sovereignty: Private vs. Public

The difference between those first-order and second-order questions points to a key distinction between consumerism and democracy. Consumer capitalism proposes private sovereignty: I should be free to spend my money as I wish. It frames liberty in the negative, freedom from government intrusion. The foundations of that trace to our founding narrative and the challenge against monarchy and rule by divine right. The Framers’ response to monarchy was not the plutocracy of private sovereignty, but the democracy of popular sovereignty. Government was deemed legitimate in that it enforced the will of the people, not the will of each person. It frames liberty in the positive, freedom to participate in government.

Contrast that to the market-driven, private sovereignty advocated by the Tea Party GOP and their mantra “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” In that view, government is legitimate only if it enforces the will of each person or, in real terms, those whose private resources allow them to set the menu from which we consumers of government may choose.

Consumed Senses: Buying vs. Being

The recasting of government as business and citizens as consumers reflects not only an economic takeover of government. It is but one example of an economic takeover of our entire lives, proposing that everything about being human can and should be cast in terms of marketing and transactions.

Most law schools now have courses in “Law and Economics,” and many universities offer courses in “Psychology and Economics” and other “and Economics” curricula. People speak of “shopping for churches” and dating sites encourage us to “shop for partners.” Trademarks became brands became lovemarks, telling us to “fall in love” with a product and “have relationships” with companies that have been “part of your family” for decades.

Dr. Barber argues that consumer capitalism has become totalizing, if not quite totalitarian. Instead of human beings, we become merely humans buying, urged to pursue our desires and mistake bargains for values.

We’re consuming our democracy, and our planet. But as we’ll see tomorrow, there are solutions.


Happy Friday!