Robert Reich (Bill Clinton's secretary of labor) has made available an excellent chapter about "the conflicted consumer" from his new book Supercapitalism. As Mr. Reich points out, we're all more than mere consumers, being each also an investor and worker.
The awkward truth is that most of us are two minds: As consumers and investors we want the great deals. As citizens we don't like many of the social consequences that flow from them. The system of democratic capitalism in the Not Quite Golden Age struck a very different balance. Then, as consumers and investors we didn't do nearly as well; as citizens we fared better.
What's the right balance? Are our gains as consumers and investors worth the price we're now paying for them? We have no real way to tell. The old institutions of democratic capitalism, and the negotiations that took place within them, are gone. But no new institutions have emerged to replace them. We have no means of balancing. Our desires as consumers and investors usually win out because our values as citizens have virtually no effective means of expression -- other than in heated rhetoric directed against the wrong targets. This is the real crisis of democracy in the age of supercapitalism. ...
These issues of economic security, social equity, community, our shared environment, and common decency were central to democratic capitalism as we knew it in the Not Quite Golden Age. They were -- and still are -- concerns to us in our capacity as citizens. But as power has shifted to us as consumers and investors, these issues have been eclipsed. We've entered into a Faustian bargain. Today's economy can give us great deals largely because it punishes us in other ways. We can blame big corporations, but we've mostly made this bargain with ourselves.
After all, where do we suppose the great deals come from? In part they come from lower payrolls -- from workers who have to settle for lower wages and benefits, or have to get new jobs that often pay less. They also come from big-box retailers that kill off Main Streets because they undercut prices charged by independent retailers there. They come from companies that shed their loyalties to particular communities and morph into global supply chains paying pennies to twelve-year-olds in Indonesia. They come from CEOs who are paid exorbitantly; from companies all over the world who wreak havoc on the environment; and, in some instances, from companies that pump out violence or porn or nutritionless foods and beverages.
You and I are complicit. As consumers and investors, we make the whole world run. Markets have become extraordinarily responsive to our wishes -- more so all the time. Yet most of us are of two minds, and it is the citizens in us that has become relatively powerless. Supercapitalism is triumphant. Democratic capitalism is not.
I don't really see the situation as a "crisis". The fact of the matter is that we get what we want; even though we loudly proclaim our desires for "economic security, social equity, community, our shared environment, and common decency", our actions speak louder than our words. The irony is that we're either ashamed to revel in our avarice or too greedy to follow through on our altruism, and neither condition is likely to be fixed through public policy.