Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole
reviewed by Aaron Cooley - March 24, 2008
Title: Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole
Author(s): Benjamin Barber
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., New York
ISBN: 0393330893, Pages: 416, Year: 2008
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Benjamin Barber is a rather unique, American public intellectual. Many readers first became aware of his work with the reissuing of Jihad vs. McWorld: How globalism and tribalism are reshaping the world (2003), which became a bestseller. Yet, Barber is not just another Thomas Friedman-type authorBarber has serious intellectual chops. Barbers early work, such as Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for A New Age, first published in 1984, and later work on the civic importance of education, such as An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America (1992), are considered first rate even by critics. So, it seems somewhat odd that his recent volume, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007), received quite a few unflattering reviews. Some reviewers attack the style of the book: Overwritten[,] does not begin to describe Consumed, in which Benjamin Barber takes aim at kid culture, mass market juvenilia, and the infantilization of just about everything in American life (Galbraith, 2007, p. 51). More harshly, but in the same vein, another reviewer states:
Reading Consumed is like opening up and actually reading the contents of a direct-mail brochure sent by a politician whose campaign you support. You may agree with the guy, but must his message in written form -- overblown, repetitive, clichéd -- be so bad? One suspects that like most campaign advertisements, this book is not meant to be read at all; its an example of what James Fallows has called the op-ed book: an argument, even a valuable one, that could do in 900 words what it does in 400 pages. (Paul, 2007, p. 15)
Other critics hammered Barber on his critique of excessive consumerism as not being inspirational enough to confront the negative political forces he is attacking. For example, one critic stated:
It is Barbers hope that some unexplained democratic organization of consumers will save society from the virus of infantilization and prevent capitalism from failing in the West. Regrettably, this book is just not up to the challenge of rallying the troops and getting out the vote to make that happen. (Byron, 2007, p. 34)
Other reviewers seek a cute turn of phrase at Barbers expense while implying that his critique is not radical enough and that his conclusions are off base:
At his best, Barber gives us decaf liberalism brewed with fair-trade coffee. . . . Infantilization may actually signal the demise of the infant. Adult fashion and sexuality now encompass children and preteens. This suggests not the triumph of the infant but the triumph of adult marketing. (Jacoby, 2007, p. 32)
This is not to say that there have not been positive reviews of Consumed. One of the more laudatory reviews joins Barbers volume with Zygmunt Baumans Consuming Life (2007):
Barber and Bauman have written books that are engaged and important antidotes to the platitudes of the times. They know that while consumerism can be pleasurable, it can never be the basis for a responsible and honest human being in the world. These two books can be hard and complex, and they ought to be read slowly because only then will their nuances appear. They encourage the very human virtues they seek to recover from a world otherwise only concerned with the easy, the simple, and the fast. (Tester, 2007, p. 19)
My purpose in relaying these varied reviews is to reveal that Barbers text is complicated and controversial. Therefore, it is especially prone to misreading. I agree with the last reviewer in appreciating Barbers thesis and its details in this work. Barbers arguments and examples require an in-depth engagement with his ideas even though the overriding theme is refreshingly simple. These characteristics, matched with the fact that people do not enjoy hearing the type of conclusions Barber reaches, should do well in explaining the texts rather tepid critical reception. This review aims to shed further light on Barbers ideas in Consumed by looking at several critical sections that seem to encapsulate the essence of this noteworthy and needed project.
At the outset of the book, it is vital to understand how Barber views capitalism and its effects on the world to understand his broader critique of the infantilist ethos. Here, Barber harbors no particular sympathy for any alternative economic system to capitalism. He has an egalitarian bend, but it does not veer towards Marxism. Barber simply feels that capitalism is caught in a downward spiral from its bygone glory days of improving the common persons life. He wants that positive nature of capitalism to be reclaimed. In Barbers words:
Once upon a time, capitalism was allied with virtues that also contributed at least marginally to democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. Today it is allied with vices, whichalthough they serve consumerismundermine democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. The question then is whether not just democracy but capitalism itself can survive the infantilist ethos upon which it has come to depend. (pp. 4-5)
Of course, some detail must now be added to what Barber means by infantilist ethos. In this instance, Barber conceives of a rather hierarchical perspective on human development. Regardless of what one might think of this schemes empirical veracity, it makes for a remarkably effective metaphor. Quite simply, Barber is frustrated by the pull of American culture towards the most childish and juvenile of aims. He makes his feelings clear in the following passage:
Thus, consumerism urges us to retrieve the childish things the Bible told us we had to put away, and to enter into the new world of electronic toys, games, and gadgets that constitute a modern digital playground for adults who, the market seems to have concluded, no longer need to grow up. Rather than employ schools to help children grow out of their toys, we import toys into the schoolsvideo games and computers as edutainment teaching aids, as well as ad-sponsored TV in the classroom. (p. 14)
Clearly, Barber thinks capitalism has gotten off track and it must be set back on the rails to rescue America and the world from its most puerile impulses. He has admiration for certain tendencies in the history of capitalism that allowed for great leaps forward in standards of living for the masses. He yearns for these characteristics to return. He views present day capitalism as having begun to swallow its own tail in the shift from a focus on production to a focus on consumption. Barber concludes:
Capitalism itself has come full circle. . . Depending for its success on consumerism rather than productivity, it has generated an ethos of infantilization that prizes the very attributes the Protestant ethos condemned. It seems quite literally to be consuming itself, leaving democracy in peril and the fate of citizens uncertain. Although it affects to prize and enhance liberty, it leaves libertys meaning ambiguous in an epoch where shopping seems to have become a more persuasive marker of freedom than voting, and where what we do alone in the mall counts more importantly in shaping our destiny than what we do together in the public square. (pp. 36-37)
It must be said that this line of thought is a seemingly strange argument for a liberal political theorist. I say this because Barbers argument for the ascendancy of consumption in capitalism is a perspective that has been burning intensely among Continentally inclined thinkers (to use that tired and clunky moniker) since, at least, Jean Baudrillard published The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (1970). What is unfortunate is that Barber, who is familiar with Baudrillard and theorists of the Continental canon (Marcuse, Debord, and Foucault just to name a few), does not put them to their full use. Instead, Barber puts their contributions into his own work more as parenthetical additions than substantively guiding ideas. To me, this is one of the few oversights of the work, which is even somewhat forgivable considering the wide audience to which that volume was aimed.
This book is also remarkable for its style and, here, I must offer the simple observation that Barber seems to be offering a version of a cultural studies analysis through his use of sources and examples drawn from popular media, especially film, television, and the internet. It is common for political philosophers to draw on examples of how theories would play out in the real world, but I do not recall the likes of even those extremely grounded scholars Michael Sandel or Brian Barry dropping so many pop culture references. Indeed, I understand that Barbers thesis necessitates such work (and I welcome more of it); however, it is odd, but intriguing to think that this volume begins to resemble the meditations of Slavoj Zizek more than the stiff logical analysis of Barbers liberal colleagues such as John Rawls.
The end of Barbers text is optimistic, but realistic. He contends:
Today, under the hyperconformist conditions we have examined here the civic calling will feel to many people like a vacant phrase, global citizenship like a utopian dream. I do not have a formula for their realization. . . The only question is whether we discover or invent and then embrace new forms of global civic governance which the costs of the infantilist ethos cry out for, and which the crises of consumer capitalism mandate; or whether we first pay a terrible price in puerility, market chaos, and unrewarding private freedom. That price is already being paid, but paid by those who can least afford it, the very children we think to emulate and empower with our foolish addiction to the culture of infantilism. . . the fate of citizens remains in our own hands. (p. 339)
Barber has faith in democracy and in the ability of people to realize that their rights and responsibilities as citizens are slipping away from them. For Barber, this is a tragic event that he desperately hopes will not happen. His desire for a newly revitalized capitalism that benefits more people will strike some on the left as naïve and those on the right as a step towards socialism. Hence, we need not be surprised by the books reception nor should we back away from Barbers call to make citizenship and democracy mean more than they presently do.
Barber, B. (1984). Strong democracy: Participatory politics for a new age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Barber, B. (1992). An aristocracy of everyone: The politics of education and the future of America. New York: Ballantine Books.
Barber, B. (2003). Jihad vs. McWorld: How globalism and tribalism are reshaping the world. New York: Ballantine Books.
Baudrillard, J. (1998). The consumer society: Myths and structures. New York: Sage Publications:. (Original work published in 1970).
Bauman, Z. (2007). Consuming life. New York: Polity.
Byron, W. J. (2007). The coming of kidults. America, 197(4), 34.
Galbraith, J. K. (2007). The sins of affluence. Washington Monthly, 39(7), 51-53.
Jacoby, R. (2007). Infantile liberalism. Nation, 284(20), 30-32.
Paul, P. (2007). Proceed to checkout. New York Times, 156(53908), 15.
Schwartz, B. (2007). Buyer beware: Are we training our kids to be consumers rather than
Washington Post. Retrieved on January 18, 2008, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/04/06/AR2007040600049.html
Tester, K. (2007). Why shop till we drop? Times Higher Education Supplement, (1803), 19.
Wilkinson, W. (2007). Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults, and swallow
citizens whole. Cato Journal, 27(2), 293-297.