Friday, June 13, 2008

The Limits of Shopping as Political Revolt

There's been a lot of back and forth in the sustainability movement recently about "green shopping." The greenest shopping, critics point out, is no shopping at all, i.e., reduced consumption. Green products are nice - but if they're unnecessary or replace things that don't need replacing, they're just waste.

That argument gets reinforced (albeit indirectly) by Benjamin Barber in Consumed, where he discusses how marketers are using brands as a substitute for authentic democracy:
The intended consequence of the new totalism is that consumers buy consumables and services they do not necessarily need or want than they would in a traditional town square or agora where shopping was but one of a cornucopia of hhuman activities. In such an environment, consumers are more likely to think their citizenship begins and ends with how they spend their income in the marketplace, while corporations can believe that good deeds (or bragging about them) can turn them into [to quote Marc Gobé, Citizen Brand: 10 Commandments for Transforming Brands in a Consumer Democracy] "Citizen Brands, with aims of social responsibility as a core element of their corporate mission." Such strategies privatize democracy itself.
As Barber argues elsewhere, this is faux citizenship. The market only provides "choice" and "democracy" in limited forms. You can choose between different types of health plans - but you can't choose universal health care. You can choose a "green" car - but you can't choose to favor public transit and pedal power over automobiles in the construction of roadways. These are political decisions, not market decisions.

Either the polity makes these decisions as a collective, or corporations make them for us. These decisions require active involvement in local, state and national politics; they cannot be achieved by buying 50 different types of sustainable cleaning products.