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Friday, 20. April 2007

Barber on Consumption and Capitalism: Choosing toppings instead of what really matters...

On the April 15th episode of Media Matters, Benjamin Barber (author of Jihad vs. McWorld) talks at length about his new book Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults, and swallow citizens whole. It struck a strong chord with me. My title here refers to the fact that modern society gives us all kinds of choices - like the "liberty" to choose the toppings on our fast-food potato skins - but not about what really matters. It mirrors some of what European intellectuals have been saying for several centuries.

The central premise of the book is that market capitalism has recently (last several decades) gone sour in that our consumer identity is now winning out over our civic identity to the detriment of all. Each of us has and exercizes our individual identity as consumer and producer in the economy. We also have a civic identity as part of our community and polity. Capitalism was historically based on the idea that our personal choices as producers and consumers served civic purposes as well. Self interested participation in the system served an altruistic purpose in that we produced things that served the real needs of others and consumed what others produced, giving them a livelihood. I think professor Barber idealizes how well this supposedly functioned historically (think of capitalist slavery, for example), but he makes a strong case that it doesn't work any more: Since capitalism has essentially succeeded in providing for most all of our real, material needs, it now has to expand to create artificial needs through marketing.

This marketing moves the consumer identity to eclipse our other personae and leads to all kinds of social pathologies including the infantilization of adults and the erosion of democracy. It used to be the case that people had these first-order wants (food, shelter, sex, etc.) and then, as adults, developed second order wants - things we "want to want" - like a finer palette, a more refined taste in cultural goods, patience, thoroughness, etc. It used to be the case that societies fostered that move from childhood to adulthood (an example that occurs to me is the multi-generational household which has almost totally disappeared). Now, marketing, which gets hold of people at younger and younger ages, rears us to stay children and keep wanting buyable goods. Instead of serving our second-order needs - the discussion about what kind of things we want to want, what kind of society we want to live in - it feeds us what we now, impulsively want. It is like giving a drug addict drugs instead of what he wants when he is not high - to get off drugs and live a fuller life.
  • The private logic of the consumer displaces the public logic of the citizen in that we equate freedom with consumer choices. WalMart, for example, is a great thing for consumers because it offers us an unbelieveable array of choices at very low prices. The civic externalities are the destruction of retail communities, urban sprawl, etc.
  • The state is where we have a voice, in theory, but the state is deregulating and leaving everything up to private companies leading to a loss of civic, collective choices about how we want to live together. Similar tendencies are visible in education, the media, etc. Greater choices for individuals do not necessarily mean more real options.
  • The generation of consumer needs fosters infantile personae. The last thing the market needs are thoughtful, prudent adults who do all kinds of things unrelated to shopping. What best serves the market are the traits of the child or teenager: impulsivity, instant gratification, low-brow tastes, constantly changing interests and fetishes, etc.
  • This is evidenced in the banality and courseness of popular culture, from Spiderman to Britney Spears to fast food to talk radio.
  • If all the space, in magazines, on TV, on billboards, etc. which is now dedicated to selling stuff were instead used for political or religious propaganda, we would be shocked and think that is totalitarian. But we have learned to accept from powerful corporations what we would never accept from the state. I would add that advertizing is far more effective than crude political propaganda. It is driven by profit which is precisely measureable. It is done at a much higher level of psychological sophistication than totalitarian propaganda ever was. Our behavior shows that we have accepted its logic.
  • We thus move from the "nanny state" that was the big ideological project of the 1930s to 1970s to the "nanny corporations" which are now unregulated but represented by tens of thousands of lobbyists on K Street who know how to use the state. An interesting example Barber doesn't mention in the interview is the electric car, which was introduced by state action and forcibly removed from the market again by corporations despite its popularity.
  • It cannot be argued that we are simply being given what we want, because if that were the case, marketing would hardly be necessary. These wants, which move in to replace the well-rounded adult persona, are being aggressively and artificially created.
Three interesting examples:
  • There are more and more communities that do not allow children. Barber explains this as the need to stay a child onesself, to remain the center of attention. The hallmark of adulthood is taking on the responsilbitiy for another person, expending energy on their needs. In a community without children, we don't need to do that.
  • The ever-present cult of youth is an obvious example.
  • The dominance of youth culture in the cultural sphere is omnipresent.
The crux is this: While we thus abrogate our ability and responsibility (two attributes of adulthood, I might add) to the corporate elite, more and more problems which are collective in nature and require collective action are making the pathology of the system more and more obvious. Barber mentions Katrina, which showed a clear role for more government, global warming, Iraq (which is also the most privatized war in U.S. history), etc. He also mentions such fields as education and public transportation. I would add criminal justice, where more and more is being turned over to the private sector.

The point in the interview I can most closely relate to my own professional experience as an online educator was when he and host Bob McChesney talked about the three core tendences:
  • easy over hard
  • simple over complex
  • fast over slow
The example they use in the interview is talk radio: crude and polarizing, simplistic, quickly moving from one subject to the next with simple, easy answers lacking all subtlety and complexity. It is easy to consume and believe, gratifies our hedonistic sense of self-righteousness, etc. It feeds on shock value instead of real information. It is essentially juvinile.

We can see this happening with the internet: It is about shopping, pornography, games, etc. It is becoming an electronic mall, not the new democratic community we might have thought ten years ago.

In the classroom, I note a sense of that in some areas:
  • Students want to do everything at once and get it over with, without really engaging the material (two jobs, raise a kid, take three classes at once). There is no time to really get into it - or anything, for that matter.
  • I like to sew ambiguity in the classroom by providing counterexamples to commonly held assumptions. Education is subversive of simple answers. This bothers some students who simply want to know which hoops they have to jump through to get to that higher pay grade. I recently had a student drop because I would not clearly-enough delineate those hoops. I want students to engage the topic - not just check off the boxes. In the subjects I teach - and in any subject properly taught, I imagine - there are rarely hard and fast answers. It is about learning and studying an approach and weighing factors, not memorizing facts.
The interview closed with what reminded me of the main thesis of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? Namely, why aren't conservatives up in arms about this? How is it that values conservatives, especially religious people, aren't mad as hell about this? Why do they continue to vote for policies that foster this? Where are the Christians who see that the unregulated market can and does threaten the communities that they want to build? Any alliance between Christians and post-1960s progressives would later have quite a fight over the spoils of any victory over the mainstream corporate-political oligarchy. But they could cooperate for several election cycles at least, I would think.
mhatlie - 2009.10.29, 14:20

Having read Ron Paul's book "The Revolution: A Manifesto," I find it interesting to revisit this post and consider how he might address this issue. As I said at the end, conservatives should be angry about this too. The solution is not necessarily government regulation to prevent a concentration of power with the "corportations," but perhaps less government involvement in things that make concentrations of power possible. Conservatives and liberals - and I less and less certain about which I am - can agree on much of this and I don't even think they would disagree on many of the solutions. The problem is getting it done under current conditions.

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