Book Review: Benjamin Barber’s “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole
Author wants to see it start supplying real needs again
By James Pressley
[This book review was published in: The Vancouver Sun, April 21, 2007.]
Benjamin Barber, the brainy political theorist who gave us Jihad vs. McWorld, is back with a book that spouts Marx and Lenin, denounces privatization and says capitalism is corrupting our kids and killing itself.
This is no Stalinist rant. It’s the latest broadside from a serious thinker whose arguments are engaging and infuriating by turns.
Barber’s book is called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. His thesis is that the lush supply of goods in capitalist countries has outstripped demand, creating a market that never has enough shoppers. So merchandisers invent what Marx called “imaginary needs” be they for Calvin Klein jeans or Sun-seeker yachts.
To keep the mill of faux needs churning, companies have turned children into greedy consumers and adults into self-indulgent children, Barber says. The rise of an adolescent culture – in which kids of all ages wear baseball caps, plug into IPods and swarm to Shrek 2 – makes it easy for companies to sell the same wares the world over.
This “infantile ethos,” as Barber calls it, has spawned citizens who desire things antithetical to democracy. Adults who once displayed “weathered self-reflection and critical doubt” today exhibit a childish preference for whatever is easy instead of hard and fast instead of slow – hence easy listening, infotainment and a new cycle that now “moves faster than the news.”
Barber’s critique, however harsh, has plenty of company these days. Thinkers across the political spectrum are questioning the triumph of a capitalism that has slipped the leash of democracy. Recent titles as different as Raymond W. Baker’s Capitalism’s Achilles Heel and William Brittain-Catlin’s Offshore have explored the question of how democratic states can hold capital accountable.
Barber, who advised US president Bill Clinton, often sounds like a European socialist, praising French state intervention in television and veering into a screed against the free-market revolution fomented by Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
So it comes as a relief when he says he wants to save capitalism, not bury it.
“Overthrowing capitalism has never been either a viable or a desirable option – not at any stage in its long dialectical history,” he writes. Phew!
In his indictment of rampant consumerism, Barber can come across as a grumpy old man. He doesn’t like Twos, IPods or video games. He laments “the new consumer penchant for age without dignity, dress without formality, sex without reproduction, work without discipline,” and so forth.
He also lapses, at times, into academic gobbledygook. “The cultural pathology of late consumer capitalism effectively prioritizes consumerism at the expense of capitalism’s traditional balance between production and consumption, work and leisure, and investment and spending.”
Yet such passages are relatively rare. Every page demonstrates how widely Barber has read and how deeply he has thought things through. He succeeds in getting you to use your head (like an adult), even when you want to cry, “Rubbish!”
So what, exactly, must we do to save ourselves from being consumed? Barber wants to get capitalism back into the business of supplying real needs, notably in the developing world. Capitalism needs to be able to “address the vast and untapped marketplace of the billions around the world who still have real needs,” he says, citing such simple products as mosquito netting (to ward off diseases) and peanut-paste bars (to keep children from starving).
He cites some promising signs, including the spread of micro credit and the rise of consumer goods make Hindustan Lever Ltd. in India.
He says citizens need to wake up and reassert their “democratic sovereignty” over the market. “Even under the harsh but seductive dominion of capitalism triumphant, the fate of citizens remains in our own hands.”