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May 7, 2007

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin Barber

Awful. What an awful, awful book. It's obtuse, condescending, and redundant. Barber should be ashamed of himself.

The basic argument behind Consumed is that markets have spun out of control, and at this point have begun to shape the culture itself by creating false "needs" for which more products can be sold. In doing so, says Barber, the market both seeks to "empower" children into good little consumers, but also hopes to retard the emotional growth of adults in order to keep them impressionable and easy to manipulate.

Now, I am always up for a good critique of market capitalism. But Barber's stiff, ultradeclarative prose rubs the wrong way, not to mention his inability to define what this "infantilization" actually means in anything more than the most vague or hysterical terms:

Beyond pop culture, the infantilist ethos also dominates: dogmatic judgments of black and white in politics and religion come to displace the nuanced complexities of adult morality, while the marks of perpetual childishness are grafted onto adults who indulge in puerility without pleasure, and indolence without innocence. Hence, the new consumer penchant for 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.

Peanut butter without jelly! Rock without rhythm! Color without texture! One might as well declaim any of those three as any of Barber's ranting, or for any amount of evidence that he provides to back up his points. Most of it is anecdotal, and most of it in support of what seem to be a curmudgeonly set of dislikes: Barber apparently doesn't much care for birth control, video games, or most of Hollywood's output. He blames David Hume, of all people, for unleashing hedonism on the world. For someone who claims to be concerned about children, he doesn't seem to like the young very much. In one bizarre passage, he even takes potshots at the childless as being childish, of all things.

Even grown-ups who avoid having children or interacting with them seem animated by childish desires. A paradoxical example of the infantilist ethos in action in the marketplace is the movement for "childfree" environments that bar kids from grown-up settings in order to allow adults to "be themselves" and hence to be free. But to be free from what? "Free from brats," ardent advocats say. Actually, free to be brats, it would seem--to conduct themselves without the usual grown-up concerns for and responsibilities toward children, hence to be just like children.

Damned if you do, and all that. The book's ability to claim support for its thesis despite all common sense to the contrary is practically Freudian in its magnitude--but perhaps a better comparison is to Tom Friedman, whose market philosophy Barber may abhor but whose writing bears a similar tendency for the pedantic and sloganeering (the word "puerile" is massively overused, ironically, as though Barber is a precocious five-year-old who recently learned it).

But of course, there's no chance that he could fill 350 pages with statistics about how many people search for "Britney Spears" online. So the book devotes a chapter to the mythical "precapitalists" that paved the way for monopolists like Bill Gates or John Rockefeller, then spends the best part of 200 pages rehashing better anti-globalization works like Naomi Klein's No Logo. The themes of infantilization largely disappear from this part of the book, since Barber can't find an easy way to bring them back in.

The entire book is exhaustively footnoted--but then, so is Ann Coulter's trash. Just because something has a citation, it doesn't mean that it was well-researched, and in this case it may mean the opposite. I think it's more than a little ridiculous to claim that John Perry Barlow or William Gibson had anything to do with the rise of Bill Gates, for example, and the footnote on World of Warcraft is clearly referring to another game entirely. That kind of geeky, pop-culture error would feel less striking if it didn't make up a significant part of Barber's argument against pop culture.

And at the end, what are the solutions to this problem that we are assured will soon destroy our perfect capitalism? Why, such bold steps as: ...a boycott. Or "cultural creolization," what most of us probably term cross-pollinization. Even better, let's form "global citizenry." After so much ado, such weaksauce solutions and bargain-basement utopianism are worse than nothing. It's insulting. There's an attempt to appeal to the plight of the developing country--but since Barber argues in another part of the book that the poor have been excluded from this entire system of manufactured desire, it's unconvincing at best.

It's a shame that the argument is so mangled and the results so scattershot, since there's a valid critique to be made of global free market boosterism. Every now and then, Barber stumbles over an interesting point, but he's mostly just casting about. Reform needs to start somewhere, but it's certainly not going to start here.

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