Benjamin Barber on Holiday Capitalism

  • submit to reddit

Are Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other hallmarks of holiday consumerism examples of genuine supply and demand, or is capitalism manufacturing an unnecessary need in order to to feed itself? In this November 2007 Moyers Moment from Bill Moyers Journal, political theorist Benjamin Barber, author of Jihad vs. McWorld, says we’re buying things “we don’t want or need or even understand.”

“Capitalism needs us to buy things way beyond the scope of our needs and wants [in order to] to stay in business. That’s the bottom line,” Barber tells Bill. “Capitalism is no longer manufacturing goods to meet real needs and human wants. It’s manufacturing needs to sell us all the goods it’s got to produce.”


BILL MOYERS: Here we are, at the height of the holiday season. The malls and the shops are packed. Stuff is flying off the shelves. And like Grinch or Scrooge you stand up and say, "Capitalism's in trouble." Why?

BENJAMIN BARBER: Because things are flying off the shelves that we don't want or need or even understand what they are, but we go on buying them. Because capitalism needs us to buy things way beyond the scope of our needs and wants to stay in business, Bill. That's the bottom line. Capitalism is no longer manufacturing goods to meet real needs and human wants. It's manufacturing needs to sell us all the goods it's got to produce.

BILL MOYERS: But on the Friday after Thanksgiving, you know, go to the mall. Black Friday, the mall in Burlington, Vermont, where I happened to be, was just packed with people. I mean, they're not in there buying nothing. You're saying that they don't need that stuff?

BENJAMIN BARBER: Sure don't. And they don't need to shop at 4:00 AM. I mean, I've been looking for signs saying, "Please open the stores at 4:00 AM so I can go shopping at 4:00 AM." I don't see any. I mean, that's the stores' ideas. That's the marketers' ideas. That's the idea to create this hysteria about purchasing. About buying and selling. That makes Americans feel that if they're not in the store at 4:00 AM or 2:00 AM, and some of them open at midnight Thursday. And now a whole bunch were open on Thanksgiving.

BILL MOYERS: But, Ben, nobody is forcing them to do that. People are out there looking for bargains. You like a good bargain don't you?

BENJAMIN BARBER: I love a good bargain when it's for something I need and something I want. But here's the thing--here's the thing. We live in a world where there are real needs and real wants. And there's no reason why capitalism shouldn't be addressing those real needs and those real wants.

BILL MOYERS: Well, give me an example.

BENJAMIN BARBER: Give you a fine example. Here in the United States, we do -- the Cola companies, which couldn't sell enough Cola, figure out, why sell Cola when we can sell water from the tap that people can get for free, but we'll sell it in bottles from the tap. Twenty billion a year. Twenty billion dollars a year in bottled water.

BILL MOYERS: Right. Right. In bottled water.

BENJAMIN BARBER: In the third world there are literally billions without potable, without drinkable, without clean water. Now why shouldn't capitalism figure out how to clean the water out there and get people something they need and make a buck off it, because that's what capitalism does. It makes a profit off taking some chances and meeting real human needs. Instead of convincing Americans and Europeans that they shouldn't drink pure clean tap water but instead pay two bucks a bottle for it.

BILL MOYERS: Those people out there don't have the money to buy it. So that-- why would a company go into a place where people don't have money and try to sell them something?

BENJAMIN BARBER: In capitalism you don't expect a profit right away. You make an investment. You create jobs. You create products, you create productivity. That's the way it works. That's the way we created, in the west, our prosperity. But we don't have the patience any longer to do it in the third world. We don't want to bring them into the marketplace. We'd rather exploit a finished marketplace. But you're right, here's the paradox, those with the dough don't have any needs. Those with the needs don't have any dough. And so--


BENJAMIN BARBER: --capitalism has to decide how to treat it. And their decision has been to go for the dough, regardless of the needs. I was called on Black Friday by a lot of radio and TV stations.

BILL MOYERS: Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

BENJAMIN BARBER: "Tell us what's going on? What's wrong with American consumers?" Which is kind of what you and I have been talking about. But the trouble is we're looking the wrong way. It's not what's wrong with American consumers, it's what's wrong with American capitalism, American advertisers, American marketers? We're not asking for it. It's what I call push capitalism. It's supply side. They've got to sell all this stuff, and they have to figure out how to get us to want it. So they take adults and they infantilize them. They dumb them down. They get us to want things.

Watch Bill’s full conversation with Benjamin Barber.

  • submit to reddit
  • JagerBaBomb

    Spot on. This is why we’re ‘consumers’ now and not citizens.

  • R. Miller

    Absolutely – this has always been true to an extent, but is now all too blatantly obvious. I’m not an economist, but it strikes me that the U.S. might be heading toward another fiscal cliff. The realization that capitalism ultimately fails, because there isn’t any substance behind the glitz. I keep thinking Americans will wake up to this. When I was growing up, there was never this insistence on the American public getting out to buy just for its own sake. Now, to be American, the message is: to be patriotic, we need to over spend for the health of the nation. Talk about bas-ackwards! And the media does nothing but promote this obscenity.

  • Tamara


  • Robert McCuiston

    If people could only get it, they have a problem with large corporations but inturn still support them through their purchases from corporations?

  • GE/Toronto

    Is it the addiction of capitalism… or the capitalism of addiction?

  • Ralph Bormet

    Think about it. If we only purchased what we absolutely need to survive, how much would that be compared to what we actually spend. LIfe might be a little dull, no? Even if we expanded our spending for a few enjoyable experiences or trinkets, how much lower would our spending be? We have become conditioned to believe that our wants and desires are necessities. T
    his is not to dispute the fact that they are truly hungry, homeless and needy people in our society,

  • Dex Kerma (writer)

    Thanks, this is really intriguing. I’ll have to watch the full conversation, and add ‘Consumed’ to my reading list.

  • A.O.W.M.

    Previous to his passing in 2009 the sci-fi author James Graham (‘J.G.’) Ballard wrote a fine dramatization regarding all that Dr. Benjamin Barber so succinctly expresses here. It’s called KINGDOM COME and I’d say if we and if capitalist ‘need-manufacturers’ don’t pay attention, that will be the reality we live in. As ever, Mr. Moyers, well done.

  • Anonymous

    Wrong, that would be true if the manufacturing were in the US. As manufacturing was off shored, the only jobs left were in retailing all the materials. That is where retail becomes more important to the economy.
    It is a crazy system. We borrow money to fight wars to continue manufacturing at home bombs and war machinery which the country consumes along with young lives in war. But this manufacturing does not bring prosperity to the people. It does not enrich lives, except for those making the bombs. Consumer products; dishes, clothes, automobiles, toys, even appliances are either entirely imported or imported in part.
    The retail industry must turn drive consumerism.
    What I find even more alarming is the poisoning of our produce. Even if you avoid prepackaged foods and all their preservatives, dyes, and flavor chemicals, our fresh produce is laced with weed killers and chemicals to preserve the shelf life of “fresh” fruit and vegetables.
    ADHD is up 40% in the last DECADE!. AUTISM AND ASPERGER’S are soaring. Why are we allowing this to happen? I know, politicians on the take that willingly sell their soul and our health and prosperity for bribes.
    Solutions! Bill, no more problems presented without clear solutions!

  • Anonymous

    I am pretty sure Mr. Moyers likes to believe that we are, as human beings, intelligent enough to come up with our own solutions. Why is it his onus to provide the answers?

    That said…let’s deal with China. We need to let our elected Congress people know that we KNOW they are in collusion with the unfair and ultimately ruinous (not only to America, but the world) trade practices with China.

    Sadly, I don’t see Obama coming to the table on this issue any time soon.

  • not Kidding

    *the capitalization of addiction… feeds… economics of capitalism… feeds… addiction to capitalism… feeds… capitalization of addiction

  • Anonymous

    Nor did any of his predecessors not probably will his successor. Nor would Mr. Romney have done so. We are in so deep we don’t know how to get out.

  • Anonymous

    Well, if we buy it – – isn’t the onus on us? We can be ethical and economically responsible consumers – – or not.
    Just as we are responsible for how we take care of; or do not take responsibility for how we take care of our health.
    So, I ask, what do families teach in the home and,ethically and more alarmingly, what are schools ALLOWED to teach in the classroom?
    On the other hand; reach out anywhere or any way in our country and you notice the huge amount of people and other economic resources devoted to all kinds of mutations of the National Security Agency. Who can actually believe that all of this is necessary, effective or wise?
    Millions of Americans work of less than a living wage and yet, on the surface of this national image is a stupefying complacency – – not to mention the PACs of politicians dedicated to maintaining these horrors as delusions of success.

  • Anonymous

    The manufacturing may be in other countries – on other shores, so to speak – but the profit is often in the pockets of top executives in the U. S. In fact, as did Gov. Romney in his campaign last year, they downplay the off-shoring of manufacturing because they increase their company and personal wealth by reducing labor costs at our expense. It is a little circular, to be sure, but it weighs in favor of large operation across oceans and boundaries that give them leverage over labor. If they had to pay equivalent to the standard of living that wages for the job here in the U. S. bring, it would be a whole different kettle of fish. But monetary systems are not based on the value of the labor which is the core of the value of all things; they are based on arbitrary values of commodities (metals, energy resources, food-stuffs). What we allow is the devaluation of work and yet we know that without labor there is no economy.

  • NotARedneck

    “LIfe might be a little dull, no?”

    No. It depends upon how interesting you are in the first place. Shopaholics are nearly always very dull people. Unfortunately our society is geared to worshipping those with money and the more people spend, the more likely people are to think that they have it.

  • GBG

    Some poor people only buy what they need because they don’t have any to waste. Some of those people are not mentally or physically able to do any better. It’s the people in other countries starving to death without food that gets me to thinking about the rich spoiled Americans buying 500 times more than they need. If those same rich Americans were living beside those poor starving people, they would be ashamed. Anyways, I guess we need to take care of ourselves. We cant save the entire world without putting ourselves in a horrible position.

  • Nickolas

    people are slaves to their addictions. The addiction of never being satisfied. this is the problem. not corporations or capitalism. This has and always will be the case.

  • Nick

    I. WANT. MORE!!!

  • Anonymous

    This is old news, way older than 2007. Acquisition is the real American religion.

  • Political Pundit aka Paul Ryan

    Could someone agree that if our factories were abuzz with activity from feeding the consumption; it would be so sweet? Now, thanks to the Bain Boys, China wins….along with Mitt. Look at Apex tool of Gastonia,NC for a standard model.