Book Review: Consumed

Consumed – How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin R. Barber, W.W. Norton, 2007, 406 pg
Consumed by Benjamin BarberBenjamin Barber’s sortie against consumerism is sure to reverberate from the glass tower offices of big box USA to the indolent consumer buying pre-peeled oranges (a real example of infantilization of society).

As way of general review, Barber’s main avenue of assault is by drive by shooting.  Barber has a lengthy list of target and what he does is drive up, unloads his quick assault and then drives off to the next target, in other words, Barber’s pages are packed dense with many ideas and examples, but often he only spends a few sentences discussing them.  His writing sometimes feels like being in a swamp, a humid, slow trotting affair, that takes time to get through.  Other times Barber writing is lucid and reads like a car drives over fresh highway.   In other words: Barber writes like a political theorist, fitting because he is a political scientist by trade.  Barber divided his book into three sections: The Birth of consumers, the eclipse of citizens and the fate of citizens.

Barber’s main theme is fighting against the hyper-consumption in our contemporary era .  Consumerism, according to Barber is the latest stage of capitalism, one where needs are no longer met by producers but our needs are being produced by producers.  Advertising and marketing serve to enhance our wants, thus, producers can produce more.  The greatest threat to producers, is not over-producing, but people not buying enough. An ad in 1926 from Life magazine had the header “GO AHEAD AND MAKE US WANT” (pg.291), which shows us the early recognition of advertising in society.  This is the spine of his argument, to which Barber navigates various aspects of the rise of consumerism, the pass-over of the Protestant ethos to an infantilized ethos, the ascent of markets and the supremacy of the private, then Barber closes with some words on what can be done about this consumer melancholy.

Birth of consumers – section one
Barber uses the protestant ethos, one that he suggests has been the defining characteristic of the nascent United States (a ethos that values: self-restraint, delayed gratification, rationality, and order).   The protestant work ethic has been a resounding reason for the victory of American style capitalism.  I’ll interject, any work that is critical of markets, usually gets the typical vacuous responses, particularly among the right. However, while Barber is critiquing markets in our era, he is still an ardent defender of capitalistic virtues.  This is evident when Barber discusses early capitalism, a system that allowed for needs to be fulfilled while providing the right incentives to do so.  Our consumerist epoch however, is threatening to the virtues from early capitalism.

Infantilization is a big theme that Barber pursues in this book.  Barber writes that in one sense, infantilization is a metaphoric word that describes the “dumbing” down and bamboozlement of the citizenry of the West (or perhaps even the world!), date raped into buying things they don’t need. In the other sense of the word infantilization describes how children and young adults are now targets of marketers and advertisers and the inverse: adults are being being manipulated into buying things that were originally for kids .  Barber quotes conservative writer Joseph Epstein whilst making a larger point:

More and more adults are “locked in a high school of the mind, eating dry cereal, watching a vast quantity of television, hoping to make sexual scores” and generally enjoying perpetual adolescence, cut loose, free of responsibility, without the real pressures that life, that messy business, always exerts”. (pg. 16)

One of my first critiques would be Barber’s tangible examples when it comes illustrating the ever youthening of adults.  Barber lists a few examples in which ways adults have been dumbed down to buy consumer goods more for children.  I’ve noted a few other user reviews who take issue with some of the examples, but only because their activity was in the cross hairs. What Barber does, while doing his metaphorical drive-bys,  is describe some product or activity, declare it as juvenile and drive on.  One Goodreads reader was offended when Barber implied that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were juvenile books.  I can probably agree with Barber, especially when it comes to Harry Potter, but, the issue here isn’t these specific examples.  That’s not what matters, it’s how do we classify and perceive certain activities as childish or adult.

I think there were some low-hanging fruit that Barber could’ve grabbed to help make his case: like self described “nerds” buying toys (Look Sheldon bought a batman toy!), or the mass flocking to reliving the Nickelodeon nostalgia days, Sponge Bob anyone?  But it doesn’t matter – I do for the record, think that Barber missed his target on some of these.  He mentions video games for instance -and as a gamer and being cognizant of not trying to sound like that particular Goodreaders reader – but dumping the whole category as just childish play things, requires a bit more arguments, not pursued by Barber.  Although while he makes such blanket statements early on, he does go on later to extol the virtues of some games like Sim City.

Barber does a better job describing infantilization by talking about infantilization in terms of psychological dyads (pg. 83). Barber quotes a list of psychological traits that contrast childlike behaviours over adult behaviors.  The childlike behaviors are what make up the infantilization ethos.

impulse over deliberation
feeling over reason
Certainty over uncertainty
Dogmatism over Doubt
Play over work
Pictures over words
Images over Ideas
Pleasure over Happiness
Instant gratification over long term satisfactions
Egoism over Altruism
Private over public
Narcissism over sociability
entitlement (right) over obligation (responsibility)

Physical Sexuality over erotic love
individualism over community
Ignorance over knowledge

As I read this for the first time, I felt like a few of these were apt descriptors of consumerism, particularly the ones I highlighted in bold.  For his project Barber combines these traits down to three dualisms:
Easy over hard, simple over complex, and fast over slow.  These dualisms are the core traits that define the infantilized ethos.  Barber is effective in describing each dualism and providing evidence of them. One such example that Barber supplied (in this case an example of simple over complex), was when comedian Jon Stewart went on the CNN show Cross Fire and told the hosts that they were supposed to be doing real political discourse, not simple political hackery (pg. 96).  Crossfire being held up as an example of over simplified political journalism.  Barber also draws upon some novel observations, like movies and how their scenes on average have been getting shorter in movies, as a result of fast over slow.  But, again, while I am sympathetic to Barber’s arguments, I’m not sure that example holds as much water as I’d like it to.  Can we really assert that shorter movie scenes are a symptom of lower attention spans, a crushing need for swiftness? Maybe movies are better with shorter scenes, I’m not sure, an evolution of cinema art, or attention deficit disorder? Or maybe both?

The Eclipse of Citizens (Section 2)

This section contained a lot of beef and gives a good look at the consumer problem. When Barber talks about consumerism, he isn’t just talking about the over consumption idea, or the materialistic idea, his thesis is standing at the foot of capitalism and markets in general.  Although, don’t think for a second his critique is a stalking horse for Marxism (or socialism, et al)- Barber is a defender of capitalism, hyper-consumerism is just a cancer that threatens capitalism and democracy.  He has quite the intellectual arsenal to go after neoliberalism and the supremacy of markets.   In short consumerism , exacerbated by neoliberalism has empowered citizens to regress into consumers. Consumers are infants, where as citizens are adults and have a sharp eye on the public.   Consumers are obsessed with the private and are empowered to be narcissists.  The ultimate aim of this tug-of-war, is the soul of democracy itself.  Consumerism has empowered people just to look after themselves.  In other words,  the harrowing pursuit of self-interest, a categorical rejection of government and other ideas are incubated by consumerism.

Section 2 looks at how producers have captured the market.  It looks at the bag of tricks and references quite a few ways in which we have slipped into a primordial state where we function as customers and have shirked our responsibilities as citizens. In short, democracy is imperiled by consumerism. Citizens have been put into a chrysalis, where they then emerge as a consumer, a mere customer. The consumer has been infantilized, concerned more about how many brand name t-shirts rather than problems confronting reality. Lots of things are on the table here, in some instances, we are shown how identity has instead by co-opted by consumer purchases.   Identity is expressed through what we consume rather than more traditional ways of identity.

Barber offers many reasons to the consequences of growing shroud of consumerism, media, the fourth estate, now are just offering commodities. Barber references shows such as The Today Show which started off as a semi-serious news show, but now is more about infotainment (pg.181).  To help support Barber’s point, I can think of a couple examples that illustrate the “infantilization” of our media: in this case a congress women is interrupted by breaking news of Justin Bieber being nicked by Florida police.

Another example might be the transition of the Jerry Springer show.  To the surprise of many, Jerry Springer used to be a serious guy.  His show was originally about politics and issues.  Oliver North and Jesse Jackson were guest at some point, hard to believe when you consider what the show has devolved in.  These serve as concrete examples of “dumbing” down of consumers and the emphasis of commercial appeal.

Moving on, one particular point that has stuck with me is the role of choice.  Choice is the fertile crescent that is supposed to be alluring to the calls of consumerism.  Barber points out that we may have, for all intents and purposes, infinite choice when it comes automobiles, or other consumer goods, so much choice that no mortal consumer could possibly make a rational choice (something that I felt when doing research for building a computer).   As consumers we may have all these options on the menus but we lost out on crafting the menu.  Barber references transportation and the fact that the auto industry has helped shape America into the auto-loving country that it is today. Try to take a high-speed rail across the country. Can’t do it. Some cities don’t have public transit or public transit that doesn’t work very well.

Barber also notes that markets have become totalitarian.  Libertarians and the like are categorically suspicious of egregious government influence, yet, are totally blind to the tyranny of commercial expansion.  The public square is gone, or even worse, replaced by the food court of the mall. Suburbs are noted for their shopping prowess.  Barber argues that merchant activity has a place in society, but he disagrees with the high level of influence that markets have now.

This leads to the privatization of the citizen.  We are being shaped to act in selfishly at the behest of corporations.  This elucidation is very important and this where I like Barber’s work.  The determinant to society is made clear.  Our values, identity, and ultimate choice for direction as a society is lost when corporations have steered us into the seas of profits for too long.

The Fate of Citizens – Section 3

How to crawl up from this hole that we find ourselves in?   I found it interesting that Barber critiqued the anti-consumption ‘movement’ in it’s inability to really stem consumerism.  The Aesthetic movement, built on people personally opting out as best they can has failed to bring the muscle needed to counter consumerism.  Barber also sets his sights on the magazine Ad Busters and some of the culture jamming stuff they have done. One culture jamming tactic Ad Busters has done has been selling ‘ethical shoes’ to compete with Nike and the likes.  Ad Busters tries to stem consumerism with ethical consumerism.  But Barber notes that either way the shoes aren’t going to change anything and even if the blackspot shoes are anti-commodities, in the end they are still commodities.  Naomi Klein was also critical of Ad Busters in her book No Logo.

Barber notes a couple ways to improve what we have.  Corporate citizenship and civic consumerism.  Not a breakdown of markets, but organizing power within markets to effect change: boycotts for instance. Barber talks of “reel change”, a effort to get more the media (movies, TV, games, etc) to be more sensitive to moral issues and complexities.

Barber’s argument finishes off, not with a blue print, but with a calling for citizens to retake their democracies.  He rightfully notes that such retaking cannot take place just in one particular country, the “flat earth” of today, or in other words, the globalized world we live in now, means that we all must rise up and challenge consumerism.  Barber notes that we cannot do it alone, any meaningful change will have to be done with the intervention of the government.

This book was sharp, yet at times, a little daunting.  The ~340 pages were packed densely and sometimes his writing wasn’t consistently lucid.  Barber’s examples weren’t always on point, yet, I still think he’s putting rounds down range where he needs to be shooting.  Barber descriptions of the high tide of consumerism is spot on and as an anti-consumer sympathizer, I can appreciate much of what Barber says.  I liked how his work looked at markets in general and reminded us of the obligations that we have to our nation for the prosperous health of our  democracy.  I ultimately appreciate the angle that Barber is fighting from, his threat assessment cuts deep.

I would recommend Consumed for reading, check it out at your local library or find a used copy somewhere! I also embedded a video below: Barber talks at Demos about consumerism. The whole thing is over an hour and a half, his actual lecture is only about 40-60 minutes the rest of the talk is a question and answer period.





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