Shrunken Sovereign: Consumerism, Globalization, and American Emptiness

Two narratives bound our era and, by degrees but unmistakably, our predicament: the story of consumerism and the story of globalization. In recent years, the two have combined to produce a single and singularly corrosive narrative. Consumerism has meant the transformation of citizens into shoppers, eroding America’s sovereignty from within; globalization has meant the transformation of nation-states into secondary players on the world stage, eroding America’s sovereignty from without. In collaboration, the trends are dealing a ruinous blow to democracy—to our capacity for common judgment, citizenship, and liberty itself.

The common thread that winds through these two stories is the erosion of national autonomy—and, with it, the state’s monopoly over violence, the power to enact binding laws, and other essential aspects of sovereignty. Sovereignty, in turn, is an obvious precondition for democracy (which you cannot have without a state). When the sovereign state erodes, democracy erodes. It is that simple—and, beset from within and without, it is happening even today.

There is, to begin with, an accelerating process of internal disintegration—and the engine, consumerism, that drives it. Critics such as David Riesman, Theodor Adorno, and Jean Baudrillard have been writing about conspicuous consumption, keeping up with the Joneses, outer-directed men in gray flannel suits, the dialectic of enlightenment and one-dimensional men since the end of World War II. The story is by now well chronicled: Productivist capitalism, molded by a Protestant ethos conducive to work, investment, deferred gratification, and service, has long since given way to consumerist capitalism, defined by an ethos of infantilization conducive to laxity, impetuousness, narcissism, and consumption. Where once Americans worked harder than almost any other people, today pop commentators such as Thomas Friedman can worry about the “quiet crisis” in which the tendency to “extol consumption over hard work, investment and long-term thinking” creates an America whose vaunted productivity is in decline and where kids “get fat, dumb, and lazy,” squandering the very moral capital the Protestant culture once promoted and sustained. Tellingly, President Bush after 9/11 did not invite Americans to sacrifice or work hard in order to defeat terrorism; he invited them to go shopping.

In the civic realm, meanwhile, hostility to the commonwealth has intensified since the early 1950s, when social science critics such as David B. Truman insisted there was no need to take account of the common good in discussing public interest “because there is no such thing as the public interest.” Politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (the latter asserted that “there is no such thing as society”) were only echoing and reinforcing a powerful skepticism about government and society, a skepticism accompanied in recent years by an astonishing faith in the limitless capacity of markets to “coordinate human behavior or activity with a range and a precision beyond that of any other system, institution, or social process,” as political and economic theorist Charles E. Lindblom has put it.

In this revival of laissez-faire economics and political libertarianism, liberty has acquired an exclusively negative connotation: to be free from. Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist, offered definitive language. Nearly a half century ago, he insisted that “every act of government intervention limits the arena of individual freedom directly and threatens the preservation of freedom indirectly.” Put into practice, what this means for liberty (as Reagan was to argue) is that government is always part of the problem. That belief has encouraged the privatization of any and all government functions, a process that has become a crucial ally of the dominion of consumers.

The problem is that, in the name of abstract personal liberty, libertarians and privatizers actually pervert and undermine real autonomy, given that as Hannah Arendt argued, “political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participant in government,’ or it means nothing.” The tension between private choice and public participation is clearly embodied in the tension between the consumer as private chooser and the citizen as public chooser. 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.

Even as an ethos of limitless consumption encourages us to regress, privatization compels us to withdraw from our public selves, to secede from the public square and fence ourselves in behind gated communities, where we deploy private resources to turn what were once public goods, such as garbage collection, police protection, and schooling, into private commodities. What we fail to see is that when public goods are privatized, they are subverted. You cannot protect a few in the midst of general insecurity; you cannot educate a few in the midst of societal ignorance.

Such, in brief, is the story of consumerism and the privatization of sovereignty. The story of globalization is easily as old, marking a dramatic journey that started at the end of the nineteenth century and quickened after World War II, a journey in which nation-states found their sovereignty undermined by global markets and by the emancipation of corporations from the very countries that had harbored and nurtured them.

Where states once ruled, corporations and cartels not rooted in national identities became more prominent; where power had been rooted in assets and goods—natural resources, manufacturing prowess, and military capability—it grew progressively more transactional, ever more dependent on culture, information, and networking, ever less grounded in national sovereignties. The story of globalization is a story that reinforces the run-amok tendencies of consumerism, since the globalization of market relations exempts them as well from regulation and oversight by democratic institutions. In the global setting, there is neither sovereignty nor legitimacy—nor justice, either.

The story of globalization, already visible in economic relations before World War I, became a political narrative in the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent establishment of the United Nations, international monetary institutions, and the new European order. With the assistance of the hegemon that had helped them move beyond a history of warfare and mass slaughter, Europe’s rival nations sought new forums for transnational cooperation and “pooled sovereignty.”

The narrative was by no means linear. During the Cold War, the economic logic of globalization was overshadowed by the political-military logic of bilateral enmity. In 1989, the fall of Communism and with it the bipolar world yielded not genuine multipolarity but a burst of capitalist triumphalism in which the United States reasserted its global hegemony. The American military and economic power that had shaped the postwar era was now reinforced by cultural power and information networks that did as much to cement a new American empire as to foster globalization. National sovereignty, however, could no longer be understood as the distinguishing feature of that empire.

This was brought home murderously on September 11, 2001, when unelected but self-proclaimed representatives of fundamentalist Islam offered a brutal tutorial to the United States about the meanings of both interdependence and anarchy. The emergence of noxious and anti-democratic forms of anti-imperialism, or whatever term one prefers for the creed that brought terror to New York, should have taught us something. Although America was the only truly global sovereign power left standing, sovereignty itself seemed to have lost much of its historical meaning on that day. To speak of the end of sovereignty would of course be absurd; in a hundred ways, the United States continues to dominate the world just as sovereignty continues to dominate the affairs of nations. But to think that sovereignty’s dynamics have not been fundamentally altered in this interdependent era of global communications, global markets, and global terrorism would be equally foolish.

Regarding the last of these, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas forge alliances with weak states or operate to a degree in their stead, but they are palpably not themselves states and thus not fully vulnerable to the defeat of the states with which they associate. “Taking out” Taliban Afghanistan and Baathist Iraq is of little avail; non-state actors like al-Qaeda constitute a kind of malevolent NGO, with branches across the globe. Overwhelming American firepower is of limited use in this asymmetrical world, where civilians are soldiers and soldiers are permanent migrants of no particular nationality or national loyalty. The balance of terror during the Cold War functioned because the adversaries had addresses, known to one another. Deterrence today is a recipe for irrelevance. Absurdly, a counterstrike against the 9/11 perpetrators could have just as logically been aimed at New Jersey, where several of the conspirators had lived, as at Iraq, where none had ever set foot.

On globalization’s parallel track, demarcated by markets rather than territorial boundaries, corporations and firms have displaced nation-states as the key players on the international scene. They more often use the political institutions created by nation-states to work their will than they are used by those states to enact sovereign political objectives. Even philanthropies such as the Clinton Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation have become weighty actors in the international marketplace, boasting an economic clout that many nation-states cannot begin to exercise.

Consider the ways in which the powerful do business nowadays. When President Hu Jintao of China came to visit President Bush in 2006, his first stop was not in Washington, DC, but in Seattle, Washington, where he met with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (the eminence grise of real American power). When President Bush visited China later in the year, the most important message he delivered was not to the government but to Chinese consumers. The message was, “consume more, save less” (so America might reduce its trade deficit).

The lesson implicit in these examples is that private power now trumps public power, because globalization has robbed sovereignty of its force. The United States cannot stop capital and jobs from flowing out and illegal immigrants from flowing in. Its public health campaigns cannot interdict HIV or avian flu or the West Nile virus. Secure borders will not impede terrorism or illegal immigration any more than a radical reduction in American auto emissions (were Americans ever to legislate such a thing) will curb global warming.

In absolute terms, sovereign nations like the United States, China, and Nigeria may not have become less powerful. But the world’s interdependent realities have become far less susceptible to sovereign power. No nation-state has ever enjoyed the unrivaled hegemony that defines the United States today. Yet no superpower has ever been less capable of managing its own destiny. This is the paradox of American power as exerted in places like Iraq, Hong Kong, Colombia, Russia, India, and Sudan: nation to nation, the U.S. should be able to prevail and its interests should dominate. But the issues in question are not national at all, so the powerful sovereign often fails to secure even its minimal interests.

As to enthusiasms for the market’s ability to further the American cause, it is not the beacon of liberty that shines forth from YouTube, and it is not the spirit of patriotism on display at MySpace. Nationalism’s advocates cheer privatization and globalization and seem not to recognize the contradiction. They desire sovereignty without the state, and global markets without a loss of American greatness. They will get neither.

If sovereign power is in decline, and anarchy on the rise, the soft power of the West—its branding and commercial influence—flourishes. Washington is losing the propaganda war to fundamentalist adversaries, but American films and television programs continue to win the media war. The soft brands, however, distance themselves from sovereign America (McDonald's, for example, has embraced the Gallic cartoon figure Asterix and now serves “McLutece” burgers in Paris). Shrek and Spider-Man go where the First Cavalry Division no longer dares. Americans no longer win real wars, but they dominate the video war-game market. It is no longer a Nixon in China who incites transformation in a culture, but Google in China that does so—both bolstering traditional Communist tyranny (Google has removed democratic keywords to please the government) and undermining it (Google pokes holes in China’s closed society).

While granting that sovereignty has passed from the political sector to the economic sector, and at the same time has migrated from the national to the international arena, some suggest that this has merely shifted the venue of sovereignty without altering its character. In fact, it has undermined sovereignty’s core meaning, which is inseparable from the meanings of both politics and the nation-state. The changes have yielded rational control over daily life, traditionally exercised in legitimate political communities, to non-state powers with no legitimacy, or to the chaos of a lawless international system.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, medieval jurisdictions and the residue of an ever less potent Holy Roman Empire could no longer contend with the national aspirations of peoples organizing themselves around language and history rather than around feudal loyalties. They had instead to yield to the new idea of the sovereign nation-state as articulated by Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes. Today, the sovereign nation-state can no longer preserve its own autonomy or accomodate the new transnational forces that erode its power and test its capacity for justice. The twin forces of global capital and consumerism leave little room for global citizens to emerge. But neither can sovereign states any longer offer the traditional benefits of citizenship, or even contend with the anarchy loosed by interdependence. Inasmuch as working democratic institutions are tethered to sovereignty’s throne, the gradual passing of sovereignty presages the slow death of democracy.

Even within states, where a diluted sovereignty still obtains, consumerism steadily degrades its meaning. The conflation of consumption and citizenship is poisonous to democracy’s survival: When prudent adults become grasping children, the concept of public interest forfeits all meaning. If there is hope, then, it must be in restoring a balance between consumers and citizens, between markets and democracy, and in finding innovative ways to establish that balance globally, where there exists little in the way of democratic oversight or regulation.

For what interdependence really means is that all of the pathologies and problems corroding the modern state have fled the nation and gone global, beyond the reach of sovereign power, while citizens and democracy and institutions of social justice remain trapped inside a sovereign box. The problems are all interdependent, the solutions still tied to independent states; the great questions are global and beyond sovereignty; the remedies are local and bound by sovereignty—a dire asymmetry that puts all at risk.

If globalization and democracy cannot be reconciled, there is likely to be no answer. The center will grow weaker without making the periphery stronger. The entire world will look more and more like Darfur or Basra or Gaza on a bad day—out of control and threatening to all, but without any real benefit to those in whose desperate name the chaos advances. Within nations, the sovereign center to which liberty is tethered will not hold. Among nations, there will be neither center nor sovereignty. Democracy will have no home.

Benjamin R. Barber is a political theorist and writer. He is the author of Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World.

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