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Manufacture Goods, Not Needs

As part of his vision for diverse regional economies, E. F. Schumacher advocated for production and manufacturing from local resources for local needs. “It is not a question of choosing between modern growth and traditional stagnation,” Schumacher advised, but rather “of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility…” More than ever before, the current economic crisis implores us to identify contemporary articulations that support Schumacher’s Buddhist Economics and tools and vehicles for its advancement.

Distinguished author and senior fellow at Demos, Benjamin Barber provides one such articulation, by first offering an incisive portrayal of global capitalism at its worst. It’s what he calls ‘push capitalism’: manufacturing needs for the goods we’re producing—a disastrously far cry from producing useful goods to meet real human needs. Barber explains in his 2007 book, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, that capitalism “seems quite literally to be consuming itself, leaving democracy in peril and the fate of citizens uncertain.” In it he offers a vivid critique of the market’s fabrication of needs and its branding and commercialization of just about everything.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barber encourages idealism as the new realism and points to possibilities for liberating ourselves from the “civic schizophrenia” brought about by the modern age of consumerism. He points to various seeds of resistance: consumer boycotts, renewed funding for the arts, micro-lending, and the corporate responsibility movement. He challenges business to earn profits through creative innovation that serves instead of endangers. Most urgently however, Mr. Barber encourages us to take informed responsibility for our role in economic exchange, and calls for deep change in our cultural and civic lives:

The struggle for the soul of capitalism is…a struggle between the nation’s economic body and its civic soul: a struggle to put capitalism in its proper place, where it serves our nature and needs rather than manipulating and fabricating whims and wants. Saving capitalism means bringing it into harmony with spirit—with prudence, pluralism and those “things of the public” (res publica) that define our civic souls. A revolution of the spirit.

(The Nation, 2009)

Benjamin R. Barber is a Senior Fellow at Demos, as well as president and director of the international NGO CivWorld at Demos, and its annual Interdependence Day event. An internationally renowned political theorist, Dr. Barber brings an abiding concern for democracy and citizenship to issues of politics, culture and education in America and abroad. He consults regularly with political and civic leaders in the United States and around the world.

Benjamin Barber’s 17 books include the classic Strong Democracy (1984); the recent international best-seller Jihad vs. McWorld (1995 with a Post 9/11 Edition in 2001) and Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, published by W.W. Norton & Co. in March, 2007.

Please join us on Saturday, October 17th in welcoming Benjamin Barber at the 29th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures. He will be joined by speakers Bill McKibben and Alisa Gravitz.