THE CRISIS IN subprime mortgages betrays a deeper predicament facing consumer capitalism triumphant: The "Protestant ethos" of hard work and deferred gratification has been replaced by an infantilist ethos of easy credit and impulsive consumption that puts democracy and the market system at risk.
Capitalism's core virtue is that it marries altruism and self-interest. In producing goods and services that answer real consumer needs, it secures a profit for producers. Doing good for others turns out to entail doing well for yourself.
Capitalism's success, however, has meant that core wants in the developed world are now mostly met and that too many goods are now chasing too few needs. Yet capitalism requires us to "need" all that it produces in order to survive. So it busies itself manufacturing needs for the wealthy while ignoring the wants of the truly needy. Global inequality means that while the wealthy have too few needs, the needy have too little wealth.
Capitalism is stymied, courting long-term disaster. We still work hard, but only so that we can pay and play. In order to turn reluctant consumers with few unsatisfied core needs into permanent shoppers, producers must dumb down consumers, shape their wants, take over their life worlds, encourage impulse buying, cultivate shopoholism and invent new needs. At the same time, they empower kids as shoppers by legitimizing their unformed tastes and mercurial wants and detaching them from their gatekeeper mothers and fathers and teachers and pastors. The kids include toddlers who recognize brand logos before they can talk and commodity-minded baby Einsteins who learn to shop before they can walk.
Consumerism needs this infantilist ethos because it favors laxity and leisure over discipline and denial, values childish impetuosity and juvenile narcissism over adult order and enlightened self-interest, and prefers consumption-directed play to spontaneous recreation. The ethos feeds a private-market logic ("What I want is what society needs!") and combats the public logic fashioned by democracy ("What society needs is what I want to want!").
This is capitalism's all-too-logical way of solving the problem of too many goods chasing too few needs. It makes consuming ubiquitous and omnipresent, turning shopping into an addiction facilitated by easy credit.
Compare any traditional town square with a modern suburban mall. In the square, you'll find a school, town hall, library, general store, park, movie house, church, art gallery and homes -- a true neighborhood exhibiting our human diversity as beings who do more than simply consume. But our new town malls are all shopping, all the time.
When we see politics permeate every sector of life, we call it totalitarianism. When religion rules all, we call it theocracy. But when commerce dominates everything, we call it liberty. Can we redirect capitalism to its proper end: the satisfaction of real human needs? Well, why not?
The world teems with elemental wants and is peopled by billions who are needy. They do not need iPods, but they do need potable water, not colas but inexpensive medicines, not MTV but their ABCs. They need mortgages they can afford, not funny-money easy credit.
To serve such needs, however, capitalism must once again learn to defer profits and empower the needy as customers. Entrepreneurs wanted! With micro-credit, villagers can construct hand pumps and water filters from the clay under their feet. Pharmaceutical companies ought to be thinking about how to sell inexpensive retro-virals to Africans with HIV instead of pushing Botox to the "forever young" customers they are trying to manufacture here. And parents can refuse to relinquish their gatekeeping roles and let marketers know they won't allow their kids to be targeted anymore.
To do this, we will require the assistance of democratic institutions and an adult ethos. Public citizens must be restored to their proper place as masters of their private choices. To sustain itself, capitalism will once again have to respond to real needs instead of trying to fabricate synthetic ones -- or risk consuming itself.