Agency and Art in a Hyper-Consumerist Culture:
The Agent as Artist, as Consumer, and as Citizen
9/25/07 at the New School
There are many things that I have always felt were wrong with the world but have never been able to articulate exactly why or how they were wrong. Benjamin Barber was able to verbalize exactly what is wrong with our country right now. Barber, author of Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, covered a lot of ground in his talk. He started by defining “agency” and how the concept of “consumer” pushes against the idea of agency. That is, an agent actively makes something, a consumer is a passive recipient. Consumers do not make anything. He also talked about the life of the public as the life of a civilized society, and the dangers of inverting the public/private life of society. That is, it is dangerous to the life of society to talk about freedom and liberty in terms of consumer-citizens.
It’s a lot, I know. But there’s more. He described how the market system indentures young people to private consumerism by effectively destroying their agency and turning citizens into consumers. Producers now busy themselves not with the manufacture of goods but with the manufacture of needs. Personal choice is seen as the only definition of freedom, which Barber traced back to Reagan and Thatcher but really have their roots in the work of Milton Friedman.
Barber sees cause for concern about a major economic collapse in the U.S. However, he also was optimistic about revolutionary change. He believes the revolutionary change needs to happen in the government. I agree, our government does need revolutionary change. Hopefully with revolution will bring with it better taste and style. I was in Washington DC for a week over the summer, what a dull place. Monumental buildings, red, white and blue everywhere, and complete lack of imagination.