This morning, KUOW's Weekday talked to Benjamin Barber, author of Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, about consumerism. Listen to this show.
Barber repeatedly invoked "capitalism" as a market force developed to meet people's real needs that had changed or been corrupted from its puritan roots. It quickly became clear that Barber either a. does not understand what capitalism is, or b. is deliberately misleading people about capitalism. When I called into the show and said he was using the word "capitalism" incorrectly, the screener decided my opinion was not "about consumerism" and thus not appropriate for the show.
This is a classic example of what Noam Chomsky calls the "manufacturing of consent". By instinctively refusing, on grounds of relevance, to allow discussion of the basic forces that govern our lives, KUOW perpetuates the delusion that we can somehow defeat consumerism at the individual level without structural changes in the economy. Barber repeatedly evoked a beneficial Puritan Capitalist Ethic that never did exist, to which we could never return. He will get nowhere with this approach, and the blighted "consumers" he is trying to enlighten or help will get nowhere either. KUOW did its job to perpetuate this ineffectiveness by insisting callers focus on surface phenomena like whether there are enough chairs at Alderwood for mall rats to ogle each other.
To his credit, Barber did mention microlending as a force for providing people's real needs. This would have been a good opportunity to discuss how real capitalism could be leveraged to defeat consumerism. But of course, without talking about what capitalism really is, we can't really talk about how it can really help us.
Here's the email I sent in frustration after being put down by KUOW's screener:
Your guest, Benjamin Barber, repeatedly invokes a mythic "capitalism" as a system whereby markets provide goods that people need at reasonable prices for both the seller and buyer. This is not and never was Capitalism. Capitalism, as its root word suggests, is a system whereby capital (money) is traded on markets. It has never had anything to do with providing goods and services people need - except for money. For example, a friend of mine who was an early employee at Amazon now "makes her living" renting her Amazon stock to short sellers. This activity has nothing to do with people's needs in the sense meant by Mr. Barber.
Note that I am not saying Capitalism is bad. Capitalism is very beneficial in many ways, but it is needs-agnostic. Mr. Barber will never win his crusade against consumerism until he acknowledges that Capitalism never was about providing individual needs - it's about lubricating markets by allowing money to be traded. Capitalism will amplify the bad or good effect of any economic system by making it more efficient overall. There is no Puritan Capitalist Ethic to which we can return Our Democracy. It doesn't exist, and it never has.