Citizens cannot be understood as mere consumers because individual desire is not the same thing as common ground; public goods are something more than a collection of private wants. A republic is by definition public, and what is public cannot be determined by aggregating private desires. Asking what “I want” and asking what “we need” are two different things: the first question is ideally answered by the market, the second by the community. When the market is encouraged to do the work of democracy, our culture is deformed and the character of our commonwealth undermined.
In thinking about modernity and modern capitalism, Max Weber spoke a century ago about an iron cage. Consumerism brings to mind a different cage. There is a fiendishly simple method of trapping monkeys in Africa that suggests the paradoxes which confront liberty in this era of consumerism. A small box containing a large nut is affixed to a well-anchored post. The nut can be accessed only through a single, small hole in the box designed to accommodate an outstretched monkey’s grasping paw. Easy to reach in, but when the monkey clasps the nut, impossible to get out. Of course, it is immediately evident to everyone (except the monkey) that all the monkey must do to free itself is let go of its prize. Clever hunters have discovered, however, that they can secure their prey hours or even days later because the monkey – driven by desire – will not release the nut, even until death. Is the monkey free or not?
And what of the consumer? There is of course endless talk about giving people “what they want,” and how the market “empowers” consumers. The market, indeed, does not tell us what to do; it gives us what we want – once it gets through telling us what it is that we want. It promises liberty and happiness while, in truth, delivering neither. More to the point, consumerism encourages a kind of civic schizophrenia, a disorder that divides the citizen into opposing fragments and denies legitimacy to the part that we understand to be “civic” or “public.” The market treats choice as fundamentally private, a matter not of determining some deliberative “we should” but only of enumerating all the “wants” that we harbor as private consumers and creatures of personal desire. Yet private choices inevitably do have social consequences and public outcomes. When these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often irrational and unintended, at wide variance with the kind of society we might choose through democratic deliberation. Such private choices, though technically “free,” are quite literally dysfunctional with respect to our values and norms. Privatization means the choices we make eventually determine the social outcomes we must suffer together, but which we never directly choose in common.
This explains how a society without villains or conspirators, composed of good-willed but self-seeking individuals, can produce a culture that so many of its members despise. Consumer capitalism does not operate by fielding self-conscious advocates of duplicity. Rather, it generates thinking on the model of the narcissistic child, infantilizing consumers to the point where puerility is not simply an option; it is a mandate. If the attitudes and behaviors that result turn out to undermine cultural values extraneous to capitalism’s concerns – however deeply relevant they may be to moral and spiritual frameworks and to the shape of an ideal public culture – that is too bad. This ethos does not disdain civilization; it is merely indifferent to it. Consumer capitalism encourages individuals to indulge in behavior – however corrupting to civilization – that is useful to consumerism.