books consumerism globalisation lifestyle

Consumed, by Benjamin Barber

‘Consumed: how markets corrupt children, infantilize adults, and swallow citizens whole’ is one of those classic volumes of modern American sociology, sitting alongside Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ or Ritzer’s ‘McDonaldization of Society’. It shares the broad, sometimes grumpy critique of the former, and coins new terms and overstates its case like the latter.

In brief, Barber is searching for an account of consumerism, seeking to define what it is doing to us, where it is taking us. In the past capitalism operated under the ‘protestant work ethic’ – it was restrained, dependable, forward-thinking, responsible and hard working. Through it, resources were distributed and needs were met. In capitalism’s later days, argues Barber, all the needs have been met, and it ends up consuming itself

Because it must keep growing, the consumer society must keep selling. Plenty of people do not have their basic needs met yet, but since they do not have the means to buy, capitalism ignores them:

“consumer capitalism’s paradox has been that those with real needs are without the means to enter the marketplace, leaving producers with no alternative to fabricating needs among those whose wants it has already oversupplied.”

Two things result, argues Barber. First, children are targetted as consumers. Secondly, adults are prevented from growing up, by a pervasive ‘infantilization’ of culture. We are encouraged not to think, not to wait. We are encouraged to behave like children. To use Barber’s poetic diatribe, we are pushed towards

“…age without dignity, dress without formality, sex without reproduction, work without discipline, play without spontaneity, acquisition without purpose, certainty without doubt, life without responsibility, and narcissism into old age and unto death without a hint of wisdom or humility.”

There’s some truth to this. You only have to consider the Cult of Apple: the California company announces a new iPod, and we want it, regardless of whether we need it or can afford it. Whether it’s the defining story of consumerism is less certain. Barber certainly thinks it is, dedicating long sections of the book to explaining why “the ‘infantilist ethos’ is as provocative and controversial’ as the idea of what Weber called the ‘Protestant ethic'”. That’s for posterity to decide. Personally, I think ‘Consumed’ is a little in the shadow of Barber’s prescient earlier book, ‘Jihad versus McWorld’ (written six years before 9/11), and he is working too hard to persuade the reader that his new theory will be as important.

Still, there are valuable insights to be gleaned. The line “we sow as individuals what we would not necessarily choose to reap as a community” made me stop and think for quite some time. He de-bunks the idea of the consumer empowered by choice – “genuine empowerment always treats the person as an end in herself”, and laments the loss of character in a branded world that “prizes communication over content.”

Instead, Barber advocates a return to citizenship and civic calling. although he admits he does not “have a formula for their realization.” He offers culture jamming and consumer boycotts as the beginnings of a resistance, and makes all-too-fleeting mention of the Grameen bank and business aimed at the poor, and Hernando de Soto’s radical economics for the bottom of the pyramid. The reader is left hanging somewhat, with avenues to follow but no answers, making ‘Consumed’ a wake-up call rather than a way forward.

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