Benjamin Barber on Holiday Capitalism

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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.

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