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Benjamin Barber on ‘Supercapitalism’
Posted on Dec 13, 2007
Take the example of Google in China. If you want to see China’s censorship of free speech defeated, don’t expect Google to do it; its executives don’t—and shouldn’t, according to Reich—“concern themselves with the moral question of when to defy a government. They have no authority to make such a decision. They are in business to make money for their shareholders.” The way to promote human rights in China is to “pass a law barring American companies from helping the Chinese government hobble the free speech of its citizens.” Ultimately, there is no privileged role for consumers or producers in the democratic process; only citizens have a right and an obligation to secure public goods and deal with the social costs of private-market choices.
Thus does Reich consecrate the social division of labor that allows the market to make money and democracy to promote justice. In his variation of Pope Gregory’s medieval doctrine of the two swords (render under Caesar those things that belong to Caesar and unto God those that are God’s), we should as consumers and producers render unto the market the profits that are its due, and as citizens give to democracy the power to regulate and oversee that is its right.
Reich’s is a beguiling argument with much to recommend it. But it is an argument that fails to take the full measure of its own political implications. What Reich seems not to fully understand is that both traditional democratic capitalism and the new supercapitalism oppose, manipulate, infiltrate and exploit government for their own private ends. Firm by firm, sector by sector, the goal is profit-maximizing, cost-slashing monopoly—whether it is secured by preventing government from cartel-busting intervention or using government intervention to put rivals out of business.
The underlying reality is the permanent tension between private-market interests and public goods. Reich’s rather lame argument that women and men are of “two minds” about their role as choosers does not capture the fundamental clash between private and public interests, between consumerism and citizenship. Consumers are indeed torn between their desire to get cheap and diverse goods from Wal-Mart without penalizing workers (Wal-Mart lowers prices on the back of its labor force with low wages and lousy or no pensions); they want extensive choice but do not wish to wreak havoc on local communities (driving small retail stores out of business and undermining the communities these retail stores anchor).
Yet what is at stake is a veritable civic schizophrenia that pits the consumer in each of us against the citizen in each of us. More nefariously, as the market assumes the state’s sovereignty (language Reich does not use), it tries to persuade us that private consumer choices are sufficient to deal with the social consequences of private choice. They are not. There is a profound difference between private liberty (choosing what “I want”) and public liberty (choosing what “we as a community need”). It is not just a matter of a contest between a me and a we, or of balancing private preference and public goods. It is a dispute over the essential meaning of liberty, an argument about whether personal (consumer) liberty, so often trivial and insufficient, can really be a surrogate for political liberty, which alone is public and regulatory. After all, the very meaning of democratic sovereignty is that the democratic we (public liberty) always and necessarily trumps the private me (individual liberty). Only public liberty can serve the commonweal.
Reich has an inkling that our predicament has to do with the unbalancing of the relationship between markets and the state, and the subordination of the latter to the former, but he appears not to understand that these are permanent features of the relationship between capitalism and democracy, not a peculiar feature of supercapitalism. The full restoration of democratic sovereignty is the only way to treat with the malicious social consequences of private consumer choosing. Yes, as consumers we like Wal-Mart and gas-guzzling cars, but as citizens we care about justice, community and ecology, so we make public choices that limit private liberty but enhance our public liberty. It is not consumers versus workers— “consumers get great deals largely because workers get shafted”—it is consumers versus citizens.
The issue is not about how market economics works but how democracy works. It is not about overheated supercapitalism, which is ultimately not so different from the old temperate capitalism, but about underachieving democracy. The battle is not over economic doctrine, but over political ideology, a battle Reich derides or ignores. The struggle is to overcome the privatizing ideology of the right-wing neoliberals—the struggle to confront consumer capitalism’s new and pernicious practices of marketing, branding, targeting children, dumbing down adults, and totalizing our plural life-worlds in order to keep markets humming, at whatever price to democracy and the commonweal.
Reich is on the right road, but pays little heed to real political and civic allies. Capitalism is a cultural and psychological as well as an economic phenomenon, and the ethos of modern consumer capitalism is infantilizing and totalizing in ways that can be neither disclosed nor remedied by economics alone.
Retrieving democracy is the common goal for economic progressives like Reich and humanist and cultural progressives. But to triumph over private interest they must acknowledge each other and work together, recognizing that what is economic is also cultural, what is psychological is also economic, and that the ultimate struggle is political. Under neither the old capitalism, in which monopolies belied the “free” competitiveness of the market sector and opposed government intervention, nor supercapitalism, in which corporate rivals use government to quash their competitors, can the public interest be sustained in the absence of the sovereignty of citizens and the subordination of private to public liberty. The struggle for democratic sovereignty remains the common struggle.
Benjamin Barber, distinguished senior fellow at Demos in New York, is the author of numerous books, including “Jihad vs. McWorld” and “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.”
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