is capitalism a threat to democracy?

Right before Christmas, Bill Moyers had University of Maryland political science professor Benjamin Barber, the author of the book “Consumed,” on his show. There’s lots of good stuff. You can find a transcript and video of the interview online, if you’re so inclined. Following are a few clips from Barber that I thought that you might find of interest.

…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…

But part of the problem here is that the capitalist companies have figured out that the best way to do their job is to privatize profit, but socialize risk…

Well, there are two things at stake here. First of all, capitalism itself is at stake. Because capitalism cannot stay indefinitely in business trying to manufacture needs for people in the middle class and the developed world who have most of what they need. It has to figure out how to address the real needs of people.

And it’s not just in the third world. We have real needs here for alternative energy. And I would want to reward corporations that invest in alternative energy. Not just bio fuels and so on, but also that look at geo thermals, that look at wind, that look at tidal. Tidal is an amazing new field where you use the tides and the motions of the tides. It’s expensive, difficult right now. But that’s what you get the profits for, by investing in that.

So there are lots of things we can do. Coastlines around this country with global warming are rising. We know hurricane damage. Housing that can withstand water. Big thing. You could make a lot of money figuring out how to build inexpensive housing that withstands hurricanes, withstands flooding. Very few people are doing it. That’s the way capitalism ought to be working.

So number one then capitalism itself is in trouble. But, second of all, capitalism has put democracy in trouble. Because capitalism has tried to persuade us that being a private consumer is enough. That a citizen is nothing more than a consumer. That voting means spending your dollars spreading around your private prejudices, your private preferences. Not reaching public judgments. Not finding common ground. Not making decisions about the social consequences of private judgments, but just making the private judgments. And letting it fall where it will…

There are a few things I don’t agree with Barber on, but I think it’s pretty clear that capitalism, at least as it’s currently being practiced in the United States, is not working to bolster our democratic institutions – quite the contrary… Agree? Disagree?

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  1. egpenet
    Posted January 6, 2008 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    I give you the (formerly) Big Three who have failed to achieve their own goals but have also taken the lives, families, homes and food from the tables of the people of our fair city.

    There are a lot of little groups in this town, but they don’t help anybody … at least not city-wide. And they don’t talk to each other. They even compete for donations and grants against one another. The pie is only so big folks.

    It starts at the neighborhood level, your house, my house, your apartment, your condo, then the Section 8 folks across the street, whose names we don’t know. By the way, what was YOUR name again? The Red Hat ladies or the Elks, etc. (nor city council) are NOT going to save Ypsilanti. You and your neighbors are!

    Join your neighborhood association and get involved at the sidewalk level … now, how simple is that?!

  2. Steph's Dad
    Posted January 7, 2008 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    See also the Moyers interview with Kucinich on the threat to democracy posed by the media.

  3. Edwards Fan
    Posted January 7, 2008 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    If you didn’t catch the last Democratic debate, Edwards talked quite a bit about corporate greed and the stranglehold that corporations have on our country. You can see a good exchange at One Good Move.

  4. Posted January 7, 2008 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I hate to repeat myself, but if you really want to see what can happen when capitalism is unfettered read The Shock Doctrine. Every chapter hurts. A lot.

  5. John on Forest
    Posted January 8, 2008 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Edwards Fan,

    I too was thinking of J. Edwards even before I read your post.

    Special interest groups, PACs, corporate lobby groups, big religion…and there are probably many others…are disproportionately influencing our “elected” officials. Many, but not all, of our congressmen are representing their special interest groups, rather than the populace that elected them.

    Capitalism is one leg in this, as big business is a huge funder of these special interests. Not the only one though.

  6. Posted January 10, 2008 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    No, it doesn’t bolster democracy, but it’s not necessarily worse today than it has been at any time since the Civil War. Large corporations have manipulated public discourse and done back room BS to increase their profits ever since large corporations were invented.

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