Consumed: A Book Review

It took me more than a year to finish this book–sometimes, that should tell you something about me, but in this case, that should tell you something about this book.  While Barber’s overall thesis is compelling and important, his presentation of it seemed calculated to alienate any possible allies.  Pompous and blustering, he writes most of the book’s 339 small-font pages in a breathless, melodramatic tone of fervent moral passion and outrage (I suppose the subtitle should’ve warned me adequately: “How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole”).  Now, this would understandable as an occasional device.  The subject is one that calls for moral passion and outrage, and I, for one, am sympathetic to the desire to indulge in rhetorically-charged passages chock-full of unusual polysyllabic words.  But intense rhetoric is only effective as an occasional device, as a departure from the benchmark of more restrained rhetoric.  Unfortunately, for Barber, the bombastic was the benchmark, from which he almost never departed.  And as you can imagine, that begins to grate on one. 

As part of his tirade against consumer culture, he seeks to include pretty much every example and phenomenon he can think of, regardless of whether it’s relevant or compelling.  Instead of a focused account of some of the most alarming trends and damning evidence, Barber is determined to offer a comprehensive account of everything that is wrong with the world today under his heading of “infantilization.”  Couple that with the fact that he seems to have been too pompous to have accepted any advice from his editor, and one has to endure many pages of irrelevant or laughably overblown laundry lists of complaints.

And yet, I did the book the honor of reading till the end, because I believe his overall thesis is compelling and very important.  Barber argues that a vast distance separates the consumer capitalism of our own day from the productive capitalism of yesteryear which pundits continue to laud, idealistically imagining that our economic system today is scarcely different from that of 100 years ago, and that today’s critics of capitalism can be answered by appealing to capitalism’s virtues of yesteryear.  As a somewhat nostalgic, rose-tinted view of capitalism’s past, Barber’s portrait leaves me skeptical, but as a diagnosis of our contemporary condition, I think he is spot-on.  Originally, says Barber, capitalism served to meet genuine human needs, and it did a really excellent job of this; now, however, with genuine material needs sated in the West, capitalism has had to turn to *creating* artificial needs and wants that it can satisfy.  Not only that, but although there are still many places in the world with genuine needs, urgent needs, it is far less profitable to service these than it is to continue to feed the pathological desires of consumer society.  

This leads to the phenomenon which Barber calls infantilization, which constitutes the heart of his argument.  Producers, eager to create as much demand as possible to a strategy of infantilization, market to children, and try to turn us all into children.  After all, children have far less sales resistance, far less ability to discriminate what they really want and really need, far less ability to make rational decisions about what they can afford and what they can’t, so it’s much easier to sell to children than adults, easier to get them hooked on brands and products.  Barber chronicles the sinister ways that companies have sought to take over childhood with commercialism, barraging children not only with a surfeit of children’s products, but also colonizing childhood prematurely with the trappings and products of adulthood.  Not only that, but it pays to keep adults in a perpetual state of childlike neediness and dependency, to establish habits of impulse buying and brand addiction that people will never outgrow.  Some of Barber’s examples of the phenomenon of infantilization (e.g., the popularity of Pixar, which makes “children’s movies”) are quite poor, and even hurt his thesis, but overall, as I say, it’s compelling.  Of course, it’s important to note that Barber does not treat this simply as some big conspiracy on the part of manufacturers (although occasionally he comes off that way), but as an overarching social phenomenon of regression and loss of self-control in which we are all complicit.  

This pattern of infantilization carries with it a corollary, which is the other key theme of Barber’s argument—”privatization.”  Barber uses this term not in its common narrow sense of handing over government functions to corporations (though that is part of it), but as a wider problem of the destruction of the public, the atomization of society, and the consequent loss of corporate moral agency (note that “corporate” here and following does not mean “relating to a corporation”).  Although I’m not sure that he cites her at all, Hannah Arendt’s fascinating discussion of the “privation of the private” in The Human Condition provides an excellent foundation for his argument here.  He argues that we have made such an idol out of personal choice and freedom that we find ourselves powerless to oppose all kinds of things that almost no one wants and almost everyone considers harmful–unrestricted pornography, aggressive marketing of junk food to children, etc.  Indeed, he points out in a section that should be of great interest to conservative Christians how this demographic finds itself in a ridiculous quandary.  On the one hand, conservative Christians are most concerned about many of the things the culture is throwing at our children, and the ways that the ubiquity of media and the aggressiveness of advertising make it impossible to escape from, and yet conservative Christians are most likely to eschew any public means of combating this onslaught, and are reduced to each fighting their own losing battles as tiny enclaves.  In the interests of freedom, we have actually accepted a great loss of freedom, since to resist some evils and protect some freedoms, it requires corporate agency–to remain free, we cannot each rely solely on our own resources.  Barber offers a compelling apologia for regulation, understood not as the officious meddling of power-hungry bureaucrats, but as the collective decision of citizens to stand against and rein in forces that undermine society and morality.

Now, we are naturally inclined to suspect that Barber is simply going to take us out of the frying pan and put us into the fire, substituting the evils of big government for the evils of big market.  This knee-jerk suspicion is often unfair, because there is a genuine place for government in restraining rapacious markets.  But in this case, we are right to be a bit suspicious.  Barber is almost as eloquent in eulogizing “democracy” as he is in decrying consumerism.  He has this rosy idea that somehow if we all stepped up to the plate and were willing to be “citizens” again, and engage in real democracy, exercising our corporate moral agency, then everything would be alright.  Given the depth of the cultural malaise that Barber identifies in this book, I’m awfully skeptical.  For this reason, the last two chapters, trying to offer a way out of our current predicament, are the weakest.  

 

For all this book’s weaknesses, however, I would definitely recommend reading the first four chapters, if you can handle that much of the hypertrophied rhetoric.  For a more disciplined treatment of some similar issues, read Naomi Klein’s No Logo.  And for a very concise and thoroughly theological overview of many of the same problems, read Cavanaugh’s fantastic Being Consumed.  And, of course, for a primer on the nature and importance of corporate moral agency, read Richard Hooker. 🙂

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