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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.
Its worth quoting Barber at length, mostly because its fun. He opens the book with this breathless sentence: In these paltry times of capitalisms triumph, as we slide into consumer narcissism, Shakespeares 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.
Barbers main argument, sobered up a bit, is not particularly revolutionary. Its that Western capitalism has moved from a production-based society, rooted in a Protestant ethoswhich encouraged companies to create goods that met real needs and motivated citizens to work and save as much as possibleto 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. Thats why diabolical advertising whizzes peddle brands to kids before theyre even crawling, molding them into falsely empowered consumers who dont need adults to make decisions for them. And thats why craven marketers encourage adults to think of themselves as perpetual adolescents, so that theyll carelessly and ceaselessly spend on clothes, sneakers, makeup, vacations, movies, and McDonalds food.
In Barbers 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 foodthe way dogs eatjust 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 were not ignoring its residentswho have real needs, not superfluous ones, and thus arent potential consumerswere corrupting its wealthier people, particularly its wealthier kids, with our global marketing efforts.
Its 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 whos ever seen Jay Lenos Jaywalking segment, in which the late-night host asks Los Angeles pedestrians questions like whos 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 nations shared history. Im sure that Barbers right this sad truth is partly due to kids and adults watching too much TV and caring too much about what theyre wearing.
But Barber doesnt talk about how family breakdown may have contributed to civic decline. Nor does he examine the related failure of the nations public schools, even though its obvious that schools cant simultaneously educate prepared children and play catch-up with others who come to school unprepared from day one. Ignorant adults dont know muchabout politics or history, or if its a good idea to eat fast food five times a week or buy $200 sneakers when they cant pay the rent.
Barber also ignores, or twists, evidence that contradicts his argument. Sure, America consumes, but its difficult to draw an arbitrary line between a good, old-fashioned production society and Barbers bad new consumption society. Hollywood produces movies and we consume them; is that production or consumption in Barbers mind? We still consume all sorts of hard goodscars, computers, and plasma televisionsthat 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 shouldnt 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 Barbers 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 dont need Nike sneakers, Barber might respond. In Barbers world, Nike forces us to buy them by confusing us, through brand politics, into thinking well 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 buysa 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. Thats it, thoughI havent 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 todays intense marketing efforts is that consumers are increasingly immunizing themselves to Madison Avenues wiles. Were 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 Barbers 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 theres 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 childs bedroom on computer and television screens, he writes. But his reasoning is circular: if your child doesnt have a TV or computer in his room, the digital octopus cant find him there. And though parents cant hide their kids from the world, they can make a big difference in how their kids perceive and respond to the world.
Barbers 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 its 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 books 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 doesnt think the rest of us can do the same is a mystery. But I hope the new world legislature wont be as corrupt as the New York State legislatureand I hope its solons will let me keep my Crate & Barrel couch.