City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

Books and Culture

Nicole Gelinas
Shop ’Til You Drop
Benjamin Barber, consumed by his own book
18 June 2007

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin R. Barber (W.W. Norton, 406 pages, $26.95)

Somewhere in Consumed, Benjamin Barber, a civil-society professor at the University of Maryland and the author of the 1995 book Jihad vs. McWorld, has a serious point to make: many Americans have opted out of a common civic culture based on shared values and have turned inward instead, to a relentless, infantile narcissism that free markets only encourage. But Barber can never quite grasp this point in his own book, or make practical suggestions on how to deal with the problem. Instead, he wildly overreaches and couches everything he writes in apocalyptic terms.

It’s worth quoting Barber at length, mostly because it’s fun. He opens the book with this breathless sentence: “In these paltry times of capitalism’s triumph, as we slide into consumer narcissism, Shakespeare’s seven ages of man are in danger of being washed away by lifelong puerility.” Elsewhere, he calls our consumer culture “pathological” and suggests that we are deluded and enjoy only “pretend freedom” in the West. He laments that “the cultural ethos of consumerism mandates compulsive shopping to satisfy its need for compulsive selling” and that “consumers find themselves trapped in a cage of infantilization, reinforced by . . . an identity politics . . . of branding.”

Barber’s main argument, sobered up a bit, is not particularly revolutionary. It’s that Western capitalism has moved from a production-based society, rooted in a Protestant ethos—which encouraged companies to create goods that met real needs and motivated citizens to work and save as much as possible—to a consumption-based one, in which companies must create new needs to keep the economy running.

As Barber sees it, companies must seduce people into spending, since, thanks to the old capitalism, they already have everything they truly need. That’s why diabolical advertising whizzes peddle brands to kids before they’re even crawling, molding them into falsely “empowered” consumers who don’t need adults to make decisions for them. And that’s why craven marketers encourage adults to think of themselves as perpetual adolescents, so that they’ll carelessly and ceaselessly spend on clothes, sneakers, makeup, vacations, movies, and McDonald’s food.

In Barber’s world, no one cares about boring common culture or even family activities like cooking at home, only about buying stuff in pursuit of their own personal “pleasure principles” and eating all kinds of disgusting, bad-for-you fast food—“the way dogs eat”—just to have the energy to keep going (and keep spending). And our pathological ways have even worse consequences for the Third World: according to Barber, when we’re not ignoring its residents—who have real needs, not superfluous ones, and thus aren’t potential consumers—we’re corrupting its wealthier people, particularly its wealthier kids, with our global marketing efforts.

It’s certainly true that consumption for pleasure is vital to the economy, and more so than ever before. Most readers can appreciate how difficult it is for parents today to protect impressionable children from the non-stop marketing onslaught that, as Barber notes, really does seem to start at birth. And anyone who’s ever seen Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment, in which the late-night host asks Los Angeles pedestrians questions like who’s running for president, or who fought whom in the Civil War and when, should be concerned that too many Americans know more about Paris Hilton than about the news or the nation’s shared history. I’m sure that Barber’s right this sad truth is partly due to kids and adults watching too much TV and caring too much about what they’re wearing.

But Barber doesn’t talk about how family breakdown may have contributed to civic decline. Nor does he examine the related failure of the nation’s public schools, even though it’s obvious that schools can’t simultaneously educate prepared children and play catch-up with others who come to school unprepared from day one. Ignorant adults don’t know much—about politics or history, or if it’s a good idea to eat fast food five times a week or buy $200 sneakers when they can’t pay the rent.

Barber also ignores, or twists, evidence that contradicts his argument. Sure, America consumes, but it’s difficult to draw an arbitrary line between a good, old-fashioned “production” society and Barber’s bad new “consumption” society. Hollywood produces movies and we consume them; is that production or consumption in Barber’s mind? We still consume all sorts of “hard” goods—cars, computers, and plasma televisions—that someone produced, even if he works in a factory abroad.

And consumption aside, America boasts a thriving culture of innovation, driving the productivity advances that give us the time, and money, to consume things. As if anyone needs reminding: Apple, Microsoft, and Google all originated in the United States. (Barber does write at length about Bill Gates, but not very kindly: “Inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly” through charity, he sniffs.)

Are companies like Microsoft, and thousands of others, manufacturing fake desires so that they can seduce the American public into spending money they shouldn’t be spending? Ask yourself: is your computer, equipped with Microsoft Windows and a Google search engine, a superfluous luxury some evil capitalist hoodwinked you into buying? And if “manufacturing needs,” in Barber’s phrase, is a bad thing, when did it become one? Was it OK to invent the combustion engine, which nobody “needed” before its existence? How about the printing press?

Maybe we need our computers, but we don’t need Nike sneakers, Barber might respond. In Barber’s world, Nike forces us to buy them by confusing us, through brand politics, into thinking we’ll become someone else if we buy them. As Barber writes of one hypothetical consumer: “The boundary separating her from what she buys vanishes: she ceases to buy goods as instruments of other ends and instead becomes the goods she buys—a Calvin Klein torrid teen . . . or a politically conscious Benetton rebel or a Crate & Barrel urban homesteader. . . .”

Well, I own living-room furniture from Crate & Barrel and plenty of clothes from Benetton. I wear the clothes and sit on the couch. That’s it, though—I haven’t “become the goods.” Barber does mention the 8 percent of Americans who, he purports, are addicted to shopping. But even if so many millions of Americans are shopping “addicts,” 92 percent of us are not: such addiction would be an aberration, not the norm.

And the idea that marketers have forced us to become their shopping-addicted slaves also ignores a key fact: One reason for today’s intense marketing efforts is that consumers are increasingly immunizing themselves to Madison Avenue’s wiles. We’re skipping ads on TiVo, or just watching YouTube instead, to an extent that terrifies corporations, advertising agencies, and TV executives.

As for the Third World: undeveloped nations have never before in history had the access they have now to First World charity, including the billions provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. More important, developing nations have unprecedented access to Western markets, and the jobs and improvements in living standards that they provide.

Barber also gives short shrift to the Internet. He oddly maligns it as a “creator of its own addictive pathology.” It is true that too many people seem addicted to their e-mail, and they should stop using their BlackBerrys at Broadway plays. But in other ways, the Internet helps us to maintain a civic culture. Political blogs have allowed regular Americans to keep themselves engaged and informed, to a level not imagined before the present decade, and even Chinese peasants have coordinated public protests via text-message. Ascribing evil intent to the Internet is symptomatic of Barber’s tone throughout. The Web, of course, is just a neutral tool, and you do with it what you want.

Even if one grants Barber the point that we should work to shore up our civic culture and engage the Third World, his proposed solutions are studies in utopian impracticality.

Barber dismisses outright what he calls “strategies of ascetic withdrawal,” saying, in effect, that there’s no point in monitoring what your kids watch or cooking at home once in a while. These tactics are “hardly an option [when] the family hearth is no longer a refuge in a world of virtual commerce where the tentacles of the digital octopus stretch out around the family gatekeepers and into the child’s bedroom on computer and television screens,” he writes. But his reasoning is circular: if your child doesn’t have a TV or computer in his room, the digital octopus can’t find him there. And though parents can’t hide their kids from the world, they can make a big difference in how their kids perceive and respond to the world.

Barber’s main solution is to create a “transnational citizenry that might counteract the tendencies of the global market.” While he never explains how this idea would work in practice, he seems to envision some sort of a United Nations for individual people, not for countries. In fact, he criticizes the UN as inadequate for this task because it’s “a congress of nations, not a world legislature.”

But maybe Americans worried about consumer culture would be better off monitoring what their kids watch on TV and on the computer, while making sure that they also get a good education and have a healthy family and social life, so that they might grow up to be mature, well-balanced adults.

Interestingly enough, Barber seems to think that this very approach is working with his teenaged daughter, Cornelia. In the book’s foreword, he writes that Cornelia “knows how to shop and takes pleasure in it, but she also knows the limits of shopping and has the will and insight that allow her along with many others in her generation to mount a resistance to a hyperconsumerist society from within.”

Why Barber doesn’t think the rest of us can do the same is a mystery. But I hope the new world legislature won’t be as corrupt as the New York State legislature—and I hope its solons will let me keep my Crate & Barrel couch.

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