Shelf Life

Consumed with consumption

Kai Ryssdal Mar 22, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: We like to buy things, we Americans do. Cars, clothes, the latest and greatest gadgets. We buy even when there’s nothing much we really need just because we can buy. Capitalism in its ultimate expression.

Author Benjamin Barber isn’t gonna take it anymore. His theory is capitalism has been turned on its head and doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. He writes about it in his latest book, “Consumed.” Ben, good to talk to you.

BENJAMIN BARBER: Nice to talk to you, Kai.

RYSSDAL: You know, capitalism used to bring with it some implicit virtues. Is that now no longer the case?

BARBER: It brings virtues, but different virtues. And we don’t really see them as virtues. That is to say, in the beginning of capitalism — in the 15th and 16th century — capitalism was focused on production, on hard work, on deferred gratification, on altruism. People investing and saving and capitalists acquiring wealth and keeping it in order to do further investments. All in the name of producing goods for people with very real needs and down the line making some profit from it as well. The problem is, today we have not a productivist economy but a consumer economy. And the emphasis today is not on production, but on consuming. And you’ve got a capitalism which is producing an awful lot of goods which are chasing very few needs, while real needs are going unmet around the world.

RYSSDAL: So is the real problem here a search for some kind of reallocation of resources so that more people can afford to consume?

BARBER: Well, the ultimate problem is how to redirect capitalism to what it does really well, which is to meet real needs and produce profits longterm for those who engage in meeting those needs.

RYSSDAL: Regrets are all well and good, but that boat’s already sailed. It’s not like you can turn around 150 years of capitalism and say “Oh well, now, you know what, we need to pull it back and do this the right way.”

BARBER: Well, I’m not sure that’s so. Because in fact, capitalism is actually on a kind of false journey now. Two-thirds of the world have very real needs. They don’t have potable water, they don’t have transportation, they don’t have basic jobs. The dilemma is that those folks don’t have the wherewithal to provide immediate profits. And here, you might say part of the problem is the short-term horizons of modern capitalism, which are looking for profits each quarter, each week, each day. In the longterm, the question is can capitalism readjust itself to what it does so well, meeting real needs by deferring its own gratification for profits? As I say, there is even within capitalism a number of ways of mobilizing the poor to becoming part of the marketplace — that’s what micro-credit, Muhammad Yunus‘s wonderful idea . . . he just got the Nobel Prize, that’s what that’s about. De Soto’s notion of capturing the invisible wealth that the poor hold, but is it legitimized, is another idea. The problems we face are very great, but the solutions are there for the taking.

RYSSDAL: What’s America’s export role here? Is it exporting capitalism throughout the world and trying to change things that way, or is exporting democracy?

BARBER: It’s very interesting, because what we have been involved in is actually exporting infantilization. Exporting consumer capitalism for those who we think can play the game. When Secretary of the Treasury Paulson was in China in December, and then more recently President Bush in January, both said “The problem with China is they save too much. You know, we need a China that spends more, that consumes more.” So once again, to the extent we’re exporting, we are exporting a world of false needs so that others, too, will get engaged in keeping our capitalism afloat by buying the iPods and the new technologies, which for the most part are, at best, marginal improvements on traditional goods that are not really necessary.

RYSSDAL: When was the last time you did something just for fun?

BARBER: I have a . . . again, let me say, I have a lot of fun. Somebody said to me once, You couldn’t be writing about this stuff unless you enjoy consuming. And that’s true. I like shopping. This isn’t a argument about abstemiousness or about asceticism. My problem is we live in a world where shopping and consumerism and advertising are ubiquitous and omnipresent. They’re everywhere we go. I mean, imagine a world in which for every sign you see advertising something, we saw a sign about how wonderful the party or the president was. You know, we call that totalitarianism. But when we have a society totally dominated by consumerism and markets, we say, “Oh! That’s liberty.” I don’t get it.

RYSSDAL: Benjamin Barber is a regular commentator on this program. He’s also a professor of civil society at the University of Maryland. His latest book is called “Consumed.” Ben, thanks for stopping by.

BARBER: Thanks so much, Kai.

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