March 21, 2007: Benjamin Barber explains why consumer culture is bad for humanity
copyright © 2009 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org
Great News! The good life will soon return to America. Auspiciously, months before the holiday shopping season began, Americans were told that after more than a year of fiscal recession, or what some have characterized as akin to an economic depression, consumers were optimistic. The confidence index and other indicators were much improved. Manufacturing executives assured the public, the engine that drives the free enterprise system was in a “sustainable recovery mode.” In the very near future, products, and people’s sense of need, would be fabricated again. Everything will be right with the world, economically. Few feared the threat that, long ago, Americans had come to accept. The foundation of a democratic system had eroded in favor of consumption.
Egalitarianism had been so swiftly and subtly replaced by free enterprise, only a small number observed what had occurred. Mostly, Americans were out in the marketplace, the malls, or in the halls of their homes contemplating what else they might buy. The Declaration of Independence, the document that calls for equality could not be seen amongst the clutter. People in this Capitalist country do not necessarily ponder the contradiction. Satisfied and secure in the belief “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The purpose of government is to protect these rights. Perhaps not, In the United States the population acts as though there are more important concerns to consider.
Citizens are certain the core issue is, “How might I retain my right to buy goods and services?”
The oft-heard answer: manufacturing. American industry and individuals must invent and invest in expansion. The United States must produce products to sell. People to serve the needs of purchasers are also indispensable. The need to fabricate an adequate supply, and the staff vital to support it, will increase employment. Jobs will provide workers with greater purchasing power. Expenditure will generate profits. Proceeds provide a gain that can then be invested in manufacturing. The only missing component in this cycle is perchance the most crucial, promotion. In America, we, the people, have allowed our selves to be manufactured. Citizens are no longer the government; they are customers.
Toddlers, teens, twenty, thirty and forty something’s are taught just as earlier generations were, for an industrialized country to thrive consumers must “feel” confident. An apprehensive public needs to be convinced it is safe and sane to buy. Thus, patrons are told they can pay later. No money need be placed down. Credit can be arranged. Long-term loans are available, and why not take advantage. Americans have been given ample confirmation; debt will not destroy them or our “democracy.”
Besides, banks built empires on binge spending and received billions in bailouts. The country and Capitalism did not collapse. The economic crisis was but an ephemeral blip.
Fiscal institutions and financial advisers assuage Americans; there is bad debt and good debt. Borrowing has its benefits, a new sofa, a sweet set of wheels, and a sensational home. Damn democracy, social equality, the homeless persons alongside the road, and those without health care coverage. Full speed, or better said, a shopping spree ahead.
As a barrage of information built on the argument, the economy is stable, buyers began to believe. Indeed, faith in the American free enterprise system was born long ago.
Birth of a Notion
Adam Smith introduced an idea. “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” Later Economists expanded on and extrapolated from the original theory. Then, early in the twentieth century, Edward Bernays, the father of Public Relations maximized the maxim, much to the delight of American manufacturers., such as the architect of the assembly line, Henry Ford, and the originator of the premise, “planned obsolescence,” Alfred P. Sloan.
Together, this team of 20th century tycoons converted what had been the crawl, from a reluctant consumer, to an abundantly content and avid trot. In America, babies were not born, shoppers were. These gents understood that if companies were to create a commitment to covet, it would take time, talk, and constant titillation. Consumers are as children. Advertisers must hold the hand of potential customers. Marketers will teach them the lesson; what you think is only a want is truly a necessity.
Radio and television broadcasters must also encourage expenditures. Periodicals must print the message. Peers will surely support Capitalist principles, as will those Representatives who are well financed by free marketers. “As consumption goes, so goes the American economy.”
Economic Expansion Energized
By Thanksgiving eve, with Black Friday just round the bend, bargain hunters had become sufficiently encouraged. There were signs that consumers and the Commerce Department were sanguine. Buoyed by the numbers the Labor Department released, retailers trusted there was reason for holiday cheer. “Unemployment benefits slid to 466,000 last week”, the lowest in more than a year, from 501,000 the prior week. It was the fourth straight weekly decline. The first time since January that claims dipped below 500,000.”
The evidence was in. U.S. durable goods orders were up in August. Granted, the government’s “cash-for-clunkers” program spurred consumers to spend more on major purchases. Similarly, the $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers helped revitalize housing sales. Nevertheless, what truly drove the American people was manufactured and purchased long ago. Citizens are nothing but customers. The American people have come to resign themselves to a manufactured reality. Government is not of, by, or for the people; it is the rival. Today, the population professes, Administrations do not protect our rights. The public protests. Imposed rules and regulations deny the common folk their birthright to acquire.
History; Democracy on the Decline
It all began back in the day, in 1776, to be specific. Not only did the acclaimed Adam Smith present his political economic essays in The Wealth of Nations, at the same time the American Declaration of Independence was signed, sealed, and delivered. Author Adam Smith, the oft-acclaimed engineer of a free market system, or more fully his followers, gave birth to a notion that self-interest is a superior mission. Hence, whilst our forefathers worked to give birth to a democratic nation, one in which egalitarian principles are prominent, those who espouse entrepreneurial ethics endeavored to ensure that free enterprise ruled.
Indeed, tis true; Adam Smith advocated for independent thought and actions. He, however, was also a believer in the greater good. He understood and advanced a need for government. Yet, free-trade Economists such as David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, as well as tempter Edward Bernays, and tycoons Henry Ford, and Alfred P. Sloan promoted a further cultural shift. Businesses must manufacturer consumers, and so they did.
Purveyors pursued the public. People were persuaded to purchase. The American populace became nothing but pawns. The common folk are not forced to buy; they are only constantly coaxed to believe wants are needs. Equal representation and freedom to choose has been converted to Capitalism. Adults have been infantilized. Mature Moms, Dads, men, and women say, “Give me. Give me. Give me.”
Shoppers Succumb. Economic Strength Expands Again
Buyers trust; they can have all they want. Prosperity was the dream, the undertaking, and indeed, in America, affluence is the way of life. We ponder it, produce it, and protect policies that will promote it.
Educated elders, Economists, and elected officials expound; if businesses are bestowed with the freedom to bring in new revenue, bliss will be ours today, tomorrow, and for time in eternity.
Wealth will be shared equally amongst all our citizens, or at least the opportunity to acquire; to aspire, to ascend, towards the American Dream will be possible. We only need to begin to buy again. Economic experts, just as everyday commoners trust in the Capitalist system of consumption, and why not. In this country the constant refrain is “Capitalism is the worst economic system . . . except for all the others that have been tried.”
With this thought in mind, it is easy to ignore history. We need not reflect upon the seventeen recessions and world crises since The Great Depression. In this North American continent, forever, we have faith; we are constantly “turning a corner” Perhaps we are. Americans have moved back to the future.
Back to a Boom and Bust future ‘
‘Without regard for the existing recession, nor the threat of a deeper Depression, citizens brush aside the words of woe and warning. Mindful of the messages massaged by the powerful few, who control the media, the former Vice President Albert Gore observed television covers trivial excess. In his latest book, The Assault on Reason, Mister Gore acknowledged American democracy “is in danger of being hollowed out,” as are the brains of buyers who know what they want. Good news?
The summer doldrums gave way to greater news. Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke affirmed there is raison d’être for bliss; “Even though from a technical perspective the recession is very likely over at this point.”
Finally, Americans can muse once, twice, or thrice more; assembly lines with accolades to Henry Ford, will hum again. The nation’s most powerful tool, mass manufacturing, will ensure near full employment. “Planned obsolescence,” a tribute to Alfred P. Sloan, will still serve as the old reliable economic engine. The “need” for newer, better, or the best will bring mighty manufacturers new business. The time to consume is once again upon us.
Indeed, Edward Bernays ensured that the free enterprise system would be easily assimilated. Adam Smith while the originator of the theory did not implant the seed of shopping as well as later Economists did. David Ricardo with assistance from John Start Mills enhanced, and would create an American culture of coveters.
In 2009, we witness the outcome. As US Novelist William Faulkner observed “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” What was is ever-present in our lives.
The economic downturn has required reflection. Americans think to adopt a paradigm, which is difficult for those, accustomed to endless shopping sprees to accept, self-control, and a sense of being part of a broader society. While from appearances, in the near term, it would seem the people have been easily able to reduce spending in truth, consumers lie in wait, hopeful that this recession too shall pass.
Economic Past is Ever Present
For a short while, Americans were given an opportunity to ponder the predicament, people began to save., The electorate believed that economic debt and emotional deficits could no longer be endured. Fiscal frugality had become the favored fashion in America. “Reluctance to spend became the legacy of the recession.” Citizens said, countless decades of spending in excess of earnings must cease. Protests could be heard; government cannot continue to print more paper to cover corporate creditors arrears. Our countrymen must no longer rely on credit.
During the height of the fiscal crisis, Americans looked to the country’s core value. Social equality, as delineated in the Declaration of Independence, was finally thought to be the more attractive commodity. However, its appeal was short-lived. Democracy could not compete with more tangible temptations. Ultimately, citizens, consumers, surrendered to their concrete desires.
News reports served to reassure restless shoppers. Advertisers did as well. Earlier in the year, whilst mechanized factories stood silent and still, merchants remained hard at work, Businesses continued to manufacturer customers. Commercials sustained America’s shared awareness. “Buy. Buy. Buy!” The people confidently did.
Capitalism; The Credible Crucible
Indeed, for the first time since the recession began more businesses planned to hire workers rather than fire employees. There seemed to be ample reason to hope.
Some Economists stated there will be strong growth in 2010. Existing Home Sales in the United States Jumped. Prices fell. Home Depot announced profits were better than analyst estimates. Luxury retailer, Saks Fifth Avenue, whose clientele was once thought immune to severe recessionary slumps, beat the street. All around, earnings were surprisingly strong. Principles planted firmly in Americans’ collective consciousness assure us we will be fine.
It is as Adam Smith proclaimed. The notion of the free enterprise system, works. Every individual is led by an invisible hand to achieve, and ,to do the best with his or her abilities. However, poverty is not necessarily reduced. Prosperity does not consistently or evenly grow, Innovation is and is not encouraged’ and social and moral progress is evident only for the elite and entrepreneurs.
What is true, Statistics say one thing, citizens say another.
The numbers make obvious the need to save. Nonetheless, consumers covet and cling to the idea that what they want is truly what they need . Accolades to Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mills, and most assuredly to Henry Ford, Alfred P. Sloan, and the maestro Edward Bernays, the mastermind behind a Century of Self.
With thanks to these theorists and tycoons, consumers are happy to ignore Unemployment rates of 10.2 percent of Americans in October. Certain that the economy will rebound, consumers will just shop until they drop.
Black Friday, the holiday shopping season will be blissful. Customers will remain confident and content. All will be right with the world. Capitalism will be stable, secure, and the economic system of free enterprise will endure. Only the underlying principles of Democracy will be lost. What a small price to pay.
References for Recession and Reason . . .’
- The Great Recession versus the Great Depression, By Paul Krugman. The New York Times. March 20,2009
- Rapid Declines in Manufacturing Spread Global Anxiety, By Nelson D. Schwartz. The New York Times. March 19, 2009
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- Declaration of Independence. July 4, 1776. Presented by The Avalon Project. Yale University.
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- Edward Bernays, ‘Father of Public Relations’ And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103, The New York Times. March 10, 1995
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