“I encourage you all to go shopping more,” advised President Bush at a press conference last winter. Shop and prime the pump, goes the idea. Spring for a plasma television set and spur more production and employment. The newly employed go to the mall to pick up more goodies and widen the circle of production and employment. At least Wall Street is following orders. Its million-dollar end-of-the-year bonuses caused a flurry of shopping. Young hedge fund analysts were “scooping” up $2 million to $3 million “starter” apartments. Things were tougher in Connecticut, where a car dealer lamented a waiting list of fifty for $250,000 Ferraris.
Of course, there are always naysayers, unconvinced that shopping will lead to universal prosperity. These included the cleaning staff at the London branch of Goldman Sachs, where the bonuses were highest. While the financial house handed out gifts that averaged $600,000–and often reached millions–its custodians contemplated going on strike. With their hourly wage they would attain the average bonus in twenty-two years. Of course, at the end of twenty-two years, they would have spent that amount on life and its necessities.
The idea that individual consumption drives the economy has a long pedigree. It seems intuitively obvious. Without people wanting and buying iPods, there will be no iPod assembly workers, ergo, no economy. One fellow, now forgotten–a freelancer who wrote for the defunct New York Daily Tribune–challenged this. Karl Marx focused on production, not consumption. Insofar as capitalism sought to minimize the amount of labor it needed, Marx noted, it proved to be extraordinarily productive; fewer workers produced more goods. Yet it also proved vulnerable to crises of overproduction. As the industrial apparatus becomes more efficient and requires fewer workers, it undercuts itself. After all, the workers themselves are part of the market. If they are unemployed, they buy little or nothing and the commodities go unsold. The specter of overproduction haunts the modern economy, which responds in several ways: by selling goods to new consumers (say, baby formula to breast feeders); by selling more goods to existing consumers (say, bigger television sets to television set owners); and by selling more goods to the government (say, aircraft carriers and Hummers to the military).
Advertising addresses the first two markets and insures that no one escapes the imperative of consumption. Even the exits lead to the checkout counter. Advertising cannot put money into the pockets of shoppers, but it can create a need to consume out of unformed insecurities and desires. Sales of Listerine mouthwash skyrocketed in the 1920s when its manufacturer promoted the term “halitosis” and encouraged all to think they suffered from chronic bad breath: “Even your closest friends won’t tell you.” At least they did not tell tragic “Edna,” who remained unmarried at 30, the victim of bad breath. “Often a bridesmaid but never a bride,” ran the famous advert for the mouthwash. Not only Edna benefited from Listerine but so, presumably, did the workers who produced and packaged it.
Benjamin Barber, a political theorist and author of Jihad vs. McWorld, wades into the debate on shopping and advertising in Consumed. His is an ambitious book that seeks to define a period as well as to outline forms of resistance, which include a new type of global citizenship. A century ago German sociologist Max Weber attributed the rise of capitalism to a new religious spirit, a Protestant ethos of saving and hard work. That argument has yielded a small library of elaborations and refutations. Barber, who is not exactly a shrinking violet, seeks to revise Weber with an idea equally “provocative and controversial”–the notion of an “infantilist ethos.” Once upon a time capitalism, driven by a Protestant spirit, “shaped a culture conducive to work and investment,” serving nations and citizens, but today a consumerist capitalism, driven by an “infantilist ethos,” “shapes a culture conducive to laxity, shopping, and spending,” turning us into hapless shoppers and in the process gutting democracy. Not only have children and teens become a vast consuming market but adults no longer grow up: “Aging adults remain youth consumers throughout their lives.”
But what exactly is the “infantilist ethos” that Barber offers as his contribution to the vast literature on consumption? “Infantilization aims at inducing puerility in adults and preserving what is childish in children trying to grow up.” Unfortunately, this does not take us very far. Barber offers a series of what he calls dyads that “capture infantilization”: easy over hard, simple over complex and fast over slow. “Easy versus hard acts as a template for much of what distinguishes the childish from the adult.” We have “easy listening” and “shopping made easy,” which “promote commercial products” attuned to the attention span and tastes of the young. Yet Barber’s heart is not in this. He prefers maundering on about political thinkers, not psyching out infantilization. One paragraph after announcing the “easy over hard” dyad, he informs us that “the preference for easy plays off of modern utilitarian ideas,” which allows Barber to discourse on Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. How could this be? Are modern capitalists reading Bentham and Mill? Are children?
Barber’s dyads seem questionable. “The preference for the simple over the complex is evident in domains dominated by simpler tastes–fast food and moronic movies, revved-up spectator sports and dumbed-down video games.” Yet is this infantilization? It seems more plausible to argue the opposite. Nothing is especially “simple” about fast food and action movies; they are constructed by adults with the most advanced know-how. Nor is “simple” something to be censured. On the contrary. Classic childhood games–hopscotch, hide and seek–were simple and required nothing except vigor and imagination. Simple food is often excellent. Compare a meal based on garlic sizzling in olive oil, cheese and pasta with a meal from a trip to a Subway sandwich franchise, with a choice of seven breads (all the same) and fifteen varieties of subs, each of which allows numerous options in condiments and toppings. That’s complicated.
The genius of capitalism turns the simple and easy–meals, relationships, joy–into things complicated and hard; it commodifies all of life. With a click of the mouse and a credit card number it also offers instant pleasures. What once could be done outside the market–for instance, games and sports–now requires money and purchases. “Infantilization” may actually signal the demise of the infant. Adult fashion and sexuality now encompass children and preteens. This suggests not the triumph of the infant but the triumph of adult marketing.
Infantilization, for Barber, is a catch-phrase that he does not really analyze. Rather, he turns to what he calls “affiliated ideologies” of privatization, branding and total marketing, which promote hyperconsumerism. Here, where Barber feels more at home, he ranges far and wide; he reviews the fetish of everything private–housing, roads, schools, security–and the suspicion of everything public. He surveys the omnipresence of brands and “lifestyle” advertising in American life. He outlines the supremacy of the market. But while Barber is a thoughtful guide, he is not an especially incisive one, and often the drone of the political science professor takes over: “There are five forms of market domination that constitute the substance of my argument… I will argue that the consumer market is ubiquitous (it is everywhere); that it is omnipresent (it is ‘all the time’)…it is addictive (it creates its own forms of reinforcement)…it is self-replicating (it spreads virally); and it is omnilegitimate (it engages in active self-rationalization and self-justification).” Pssst! What time is class over?
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.”
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.