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Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

Russell Jacoby's article is a trenchant, pithy analysis of Mr. Barber's book. I know that this is taking some liberities, Sir, but I would like to go on a bit of a tangent.

Mr. Barber is, in my judgement, of a breed. A very clever person (he did manage to get a book published), who doesn't like the world so presumes to analyze the mechanics which brought these dire straits then offers prescriptions for salvation. The problem is that this is solipsistic hubris. This is the inherent fault of all political theory and ideology. In the words of the Bard: "There are more things in this world, Horatio, than are thought of in your philosophy".

The only reliable guide to humanity is human experience. History, for all its faults and ambiguities, must be our touchstone. The proof is in the pudding. Our modern Western world has brought prosperity and happiness undreamt of by our ancestors. You might quibble about causation and correlation but the underlying cultural fabric of the civilized world is Christianity.

The seminal event in modern history is the "The Declaration of Independence." "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". These words cystallized the Christian ethic. These words were were not written by a man who was notably pious nor an ardent Christian. They did lead to another event of equal importance, "The Constitution of The United States". From the preamble: "We the people of the United States,..." This was eloquently illuminated by Abraham Lincoln: “You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.” You don't win in the big game of changing the world unless you play by these rules.

As to Mr. Barker, I admire him. I wish him health, wealth and happiness. He has worked hard to produce a work that the formidable thinkers of The Nation have taken notice of. Certainly an accomplishment well beyond my history and capabilities.

Roy Lofquist

Titusville, FL

May 14 2007 - 1:32am

Web Letter

"The preference for the simple over the complex is evident in domains dominated by simpler tastes--fast food and moronic movies, revved-up spectator sports and dumbed-down video games." Yet is this infantilization? It seems more plausible to argue the opposite. Nothing is especially "simple" about fast food and action movies; they are constructed by adults with the most advanced know-how.

"Simple" as it's used here is not a critique of the sophistication of the manufacturers or their methods, it's a critique of the intellectual content or the aesthetic of presentation of the products under scrutiny, and, as such, is a perfectly accurate term.

Steven Augustine

Berlin, Germany

May 12 2007 - 8:02am

Web Letter

Russell Jacoby is far too tolerant of poor Benjamin Barber's rampant mentalism. Political science as Hegelian sorcery would be a more appropriate title. All is spirits, geists, and psychological causation.

Consumerism causes infantilization in the human mind. Shazam, the problem is isolated. Bigger Shazam, and the causal infantilizing ideas are transformed into new age world community. The Weber Thesis and Barber's childish mentalistic opinionizing are classic examples of miraculous cognitive idealism. I shudder when I remember how I was served the Weber Thesis as scholarship and holy writ as an undergrad in 1963.

Gerald Spezio

Willits, CA

May 10 2007 - 2:37pm

Web Letter

Henry Ford argued publicly that capitalism works best when every firm treats its workers as consumers. Marx observed that trade can be a search for consumers to replace local worker-consumers displaced by, among other things, efficiency, the increase in their own productivity. Another way to replace such lost worker-consumers is switching resource allocation from production of necessities for the poor and cheap, mass market items to luxuries for the richer. One utopian capitalist solution is near universal shareholderhood in virtually automated production. If worldwide, it would end Marx'as chase for new markets, but could resemble the bread and circuses culture of welfare, or state, capitalism at the extreme. What Ford urged was a private policy choice. Recent US optimum-employment variations, public and private, have included working husbands and spending, stay-at-home wives, make-work as public works or private featherbedding, protectionism, cheap foreign non-worker resources to subsidize wages and margins, and financed trade deficits.

Unions create artificial labor shortages to increase wages and benefits, which a global hiring hall defeats by bringing home (as imports, electronic signal or guest workers) an army of un- or underemployed replacements. China, India, Mexico and others have thousands of workers well-enough educated to replace domestics with a wide variety of skill sets. What electorate will vote to equalize world employment and compensation at its expense? To most voters this is suicidal foreign aid. Capitalist fundamentalists in a welfare state might get workers to see themselves as consumers, anti-abortionists or potential entrepreneurs for decades during which job exporting and guest-worker labor (lawful or black market) made no sucking noises, believing that growing the economy by increasing capital investment to produce more jobs would stay homegrown, not be diluted, much less absorbed abroad. Assembling imported parts at home while servicing R&D and financial needs abroad would help some home job markets, and could be touted as a model of relative trade advantage and successful global competition. At any given time, the numbers of workers affected and of dollars made and lost make this either a tactical or a strategic political problem.

But the difficulty is basic. Who makes what for whom and why? We do each other's washing; we divide labor, give up Adamic self-sufficiency to trade shoes for bread, for futures contracts, for a song. Full employment without inflation could be a socialist workers' paradise or a laissez-faire heaven and hell of winners and losers, all busy. But busy and productive as possible? Such a fit, even for a moment, even among launderers, is an ideal. There will be gluts and shortages, machine and worker excess capacity, and opportunity costs since no kulak or computerized Gosplanners can fully or even robustly appreciate in real time the permutations and combinations of land, labor, capital, invention and consumer preference. Economies are also the creatures of politics. Workers--minimum wage, union, yuppie--are both a factor of production and, as citizens, the ultimate beneficiaries of their state's actions that determine their actually existing economic system. The state may create a bourgeois civil society--a playing field of laws and law enforcement where a game (goals and rules) allocates scarce resources by NGO decisions within the limits set by the state--but nearly all the players are also voters who change the rules, a little or a lot, as variously valued, emerging democratic majorities. Recent history suggests that as long as work is valued as a commodity, and capital and natural resources are as well, this particular game will probably not produce economic equality, though tax and transfer policies may set and tweak educational opportunities and a social safety net the goal of which is creating as many stakeholders as possible, each for as long as possible, in business cycles of production and consumption. The result is a busyness that occupies the spectrum of productivity and efficiency, and is the liberty, real and illusory, and the interlocking fraternities of winners, contributors, dependents, illegals and the discouraged.

Why we buy is certainly part of this, and perhaps even the opening dialectical move in teasing secrets from so much data and past interpretations.

J.D. Muller

San Francisco, CA

May 9 2007 - 11:53am

Web Letter

Professor Jacoby's critique of Barber's "infantilism" does little to settle claims about the nature of maturing capitalism or the essential simplicity of the conjunction between production, consumption and consumerism. It does, however, alert us to the pride and profit that advertisers take in not only understanding but contriving a culture of mass consciousness so highly amenable to pervasive (persuasive) social control.

Barber ignored or is unaware that some years ago George Ritzer's MacDonaldization outlined the systematic processes underlying the social-economic imperatives that drive what Barber otherwise strikes at: efficiency, predictability and calculability, or a business's need to reduce or fix cost and ensure margin by constantly shifting portions of the burden to customers and machines. In each case, both the variablity of customer and employee need are dimished over time to a robot-like symbiosis. Ritzer concludes that a potential for irrationality is built into this highly rationalized process.

Barber's conceptual apparatus is not actually drawn from Max Weber's Protestant Ethic but more a clone of Weber's 'ideal type' characteristics associated with modern, bureaucratic institutional life and the 'iron cage' that can unfold and has on many occasions. Neither Professor Jacoby nor, apparently, Barber see Ritzer's association in these matters; however, they do see and agree the problem and offer remedial advice -- Jacoby's being the wiser though more difficult to entertain.

Robert Kircher

Laytonsville, Maryland

May 7 2007 - 11:35am