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Infantile Liberalism | The Nation

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Infantile Liberalism

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In the last section of the book Barber sketches out "a moderate and democratic way" to resist consumer capitalism. He wants to restore capitalism to "its primary role" as an efficient producer and to uphold the "democratic public" as the regulator of "our plural life worlds." But the weakness of his ideas shows through his PowerPoint presentations. He locates three types of consumer resistance and subversion: "I will discuss them under the rubrics cultural creolization, cultural carnivalization and cultural jamming." By creolization, he means the effort to turn market brands against the market, where commodification serves heretical groups or movements, like Hasidic rock, in which ultra-orthodox Gad Elbaz sets pious lyrics to throbbing rhythms. By "jamming" Barber means tactics derived mainly from Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters magazine. In Lasn's words, the jammers paint their "own bike lanes, reclaim streets, 'skull' Calvin Klein ads, and paste GREASE stickers on tables and trays at McDonald's restaurants."

In a new book on consumer culture, Benjamin Barber argues that commercialism encourages adults to behave like children.

About the Author

Russell Jacoby
Russell Jacoby, a professor of history at UCLA, is the author of The Last Intellectuals, Dialectic of Defeat and other...

Also by the Author

HELEN THOMAS, HELEN THOMAS

If you missed the 1995 CUNY "Question of Identity" conference, the issue
of October magazine devoted to it, the "remarkable" essay on the
same subject in Diacritics or--even worse

The last Leninists may scoff at such stuff: What does this have to do with overcoming capitalism? This would be unfair. In an airless political universe, any sparks should be appreciated. However, it wouldn't be unfair to wonder at the sharp limits of this cultural subversion, about which Barber is well aware. As soon as he introduces his forms of cultural resistance, he notes how easily they get incorporated into the market. A coffee chain in India that challenges Starbucks--to Barber, inexplicably, an example of creolization--looks very much like an Indian Starbucks. The Adbuster jammers have launched their own brand of athletic sneakers, which takes on Nike. The "Unswoosher" not only is union-made and "earthly friendly" but comes with a red "sweet spot" on the toe "for kicking corporate ass." Nice, but isn't this just another hip brand, as subversive as Ben and Jerry's or Whole Foods?

In addition to his three forms of cultural resistance Barber comes up with other, more disparate, perhaps desperate, efforts to rein in the market--such as consumer activism (dolphin-safe tuna), creative video games (SimCity) and especially George Clooney movies (Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana). Barber is only the latest progressive to go gaga over Hollywood. He dreams its milquetoast offerings are revolutionary provocations. Movies like Bulworth, with Warren Beatty, and American Dreamz, with Hugh Grant, demonstrate Hollywood's "own dialectical capacity to generate rebellion and subversion." It is more likely that they demonstrate Barber's capacity for wishful thinking. The ravages of the market in the impoverished Third World also catch Barber's attention--at least for ten pages. Here too he finds counter-movements or partial remedies like Doctors Without Borders's 500-calorie Plumpy Nut bar, which is "a miracle cure for the starving," and Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus's idea of microcredits for the very poor.

No one can fault Barber's earnestness, humanism or goodwill, but his book is spongy--soft in its prose, edges and center. He only half believes and half pursues his thesis on infantilization. Weber's notion of the Protestant ethic remains safe; and for an analysis of what drives consumption, the New York Daily Tribune freelancer is a better bet. The acts of consumer resistance that Barber highlights, however salutary, amount to little; and his reflections on the global market, its disasters and imperfect antidotes, like the Plumpy Nut, lack conviction.

Barber refers more than once to a "fiendishly simple method of trapping monkeys in Africa" as a metaphor for consumer capitalism. In this trap a nut can be accessed through a single small hole in a closed and secure box. The hole is too small to allow the monkey's fist to withdraw and the monkey will not release the treat. Hunters come by "hours or even days later, because the monkey--driven by desire--will not relinquish the nut. It will die first (and often does)." For Barber "consumers are capitalism's one-trick monkeys.... With the infantilist ethos stroking their desires, inside the infantilist monkey trap they find themselves unable to let go."

In its clunky prose this is pure Barber, but there is another problem. The "infantilist" monkey trap is itself a myth. Monkeys do not die in these traps, and they flee when hunters approach; consumers may be equally wise. Perhaps this does not matter, but it may illustrate something of Barber's less-than-rigorous approach. His indubitably well-intentioned book represents not hard-hitting social commentary but soft-core liberalism.

He concludes by calling for "a transnational citizenry" in which citizens reassert their control over the global market. This would entail putting "the trump card back into the hand of the public." As usual, Barber's language turns flabby. The new citizenship, he explains, "relies on innovative forms of traditional commons, including new information rooted in new technologies." The problem is not the weak prose but the anemic ideas. Barber believes he is offering a bold "utopian dream." But where is the utopia? His goal of "democratizing globalization" and restoring "the balance between citizens and consumers" suggests tinkering, not transformation. At his best, Barber gives us decaf liberalism brewed with fair-trade coffee.

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