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. 🙂


Some Numbers to Ponder

Over the past weekend, $52,400,000,000 was spent by 223 million shoppers in the orgy of consumerism that now stains the four days of the calendar bookended by Thanksgiving and Advent Sunday.

For just 40% that amount, a supply of clean, safe water could be provided for the nearly one billion humans who currently live without it.  

 

 

I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’ . . .  (I will spare you the sort of rant I made last year at this time). 

 

 


Documentary Round-Up Pt. 2: Down with Wal-Mart and McDonalds!

Whereas the documentary in the first post, Inside Job, took on the behemoths of the American banking industry, and did it very effectively, these next two documentaries likewise sought to expose the dark underbelly of American corporate giants–two of the most iconic: Wal-Mart and McDonalds–but were less effective in their execution.

The High Cost of Low Price
Message: 4.5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 2.5/5
Cinematography: 1/5

This film is an attack on Wal-Mart’s business practices, pointing out, essentially, that the wonderful benefits to American society of being able to buy $10 cardigans and $5 earbuds do not come without a price.  Obvious, perhaps, yet it is stunning how many ardent defenders Wal-Mart still has.  The movie covers the obvious bases–running small businesses into the ground and destroying downtowns, appalling Third World labor conditions, barely liveable pay for First World Wal-Mart employees–along with some less obvious ones–poor security at Wal-Mart parking lots leading to high crime rates, very poor environmental standards, for instance.  All of this is very much a story that needs to be told.

Unfortunately, it was clearly told on a very low budget by a very under-competent director.  The film quality is quite poor and worst of all is the sound mixing–there are many points where you simply cannot hear what the interviewees are saying because of over-loud background noise or music.  Of course, that’s no great loss, because they often don’t have anything very interesting or intelligent to say, generally offering little more than subjective personal experiences, which, although readily believable, doesn’t carry much weight in a company with 2 million employees.  That is, of course, the line of defense that anyone inclined to contest this film’s premise could easily take: yes, abuses have happened–bad labor practices, bad environmental practices, etc., but Wal-Mart is just so enormous that of course there will be instances of such–that doesn’t mean they are systemic or intentional.  The movie offers some evidence and statistics to prove that they are in many cases, but it might not be compelling to people otherwise inclined to trust Wal-Mart.  To really prove his point, the director would have needed to secure interview with more highly-placed people who could bring damning evidence against the company on a macro level.  

The other line that Wal-Mart defenders might take is, “Well, sure, Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its employees much, sure it cuts some corners, sure it drives small retailers out of business, but that’s what’s necessary in order to supply its customers with really cheap products, and that helps so many struggling people make ends meet.”  A distributist would be appalled at the absurdity of this defence, but it is the common one among right-wing defenders of Wal-Mart.  The director undercuts this line of defence, however, near the very end of the film when he looks at how much money the Wal-Mart executives make, and how fantastically rich the Walton family is.  It turns out that Wal-Mart could keep its prices just as low and still afford to pay its workers a much more livable wage, if the lucky few on top weren’t trying to live like emperors.  A deeper way of refuting this objection (and perhaps this is beyond the scope of a documentary), though, would be to argue that getting the cheapest products is not the best thing for a society–that the whole business model of a Wal-Mart, convincing the consumer to substitute quantity for quality, is destructive to society.  But for that, perhaps we should all just go read The Human Condition.

Super Size Me
 Message: 4/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 3.5/5
Cinematography: 3.5/5

Yep, believe it or not, I’d never gotten around to seeing this before.  Since it was almost entirely first-person in focus, it was very fun and engaging, and did not require the first-class cinematography of an Inside Job in order to hold the viewer’s attention or make its argument.  It was also, unsurprisingly for anyone who knows the premise, nauseating almost the whole way through.

Just in case anyone doesn’t know the premise, here it is: A guy named Morgan Spurlock, curious about the lawsuits against McDonalds, decides to test out just how unhealthy McDonald’s food really is.  So, with thorough health monitoring throughout the process, he embarks on a month-long binge of eating only McDonalds food–breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  The result–a man in exemplary good health manages to run his body into the ground, putting himself at serious risk of liver failure by the end of the month–was to me at least hardly surprising.  I mean, what else would you expect from an exclusively McDonalds diet?  

What was surprising–and really disturbing–about the film was the fact that it was surprising–to the doctors involved.  At the beginning of the process, Spurlock asks his physicians what ill effects they expect.  Not much, they say–modest weight gain is about it.  By two-thirds of the way through, they’re begging him to stop for his own safety, and at the end, they confess they had no idea that fast food could do that much damage to a person, though in hindsight it makes sense.  This is a damning indictment of the vacuum of nutritional knowledge (or even common sense) among the medical professionals that we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate.  

Of course, the film does not really do all that much to improve this situation.  There is very little discussion of just why it is that this food is so bad for him–his liver in particular.  Spurlock and the doctors vaguely chalk it up to a “high-fat diet,” but clearly fat per se is not the problem.  A bit is said about the degree of processing that fast food goes through, but not much.  I would’ve been interested to see a more thoroughgoing exposure of all of the things that go into making this food so unnatural and so unhealthy, instead of simply blaming it all on fat.  For this, Food, Inc. is a better starting point.   

The most interesting part of the movie, to me, were the interspersed bits of investigation into McDonalds’s marketing practices, and an interview with a spokesman for the lobbying firm that represents America’s food industry.  His defence, of course, and the standard line of defence for free marketeers that want to defend the American food industry, is to say that businesses’s responsibility is simply to make sure to get all the relevant “information” out there–to make sure that the public is well-informed about their products.  If consumers choose not to take advantage of this information, or, having consulted it, choose to buy their products, then they are solely responsible for the effects.  

This is hogwash on at least three levels, and yet it is utterly pervasive among free marketeers today.  First, it is simply not true that the food industry, particularly the fast food industry, wants to get all the relevant information out there to every consumer–on the contrary, it requires thorough and aggressive research, such as that underlying Food, Inc. to get to the bottom of many of its dirty secrets.  Second, it is absurd to say that as long as a company tells you that it is selling something it knows to be harmful, then there is no ethical problem with it continuing to sell it.  If that were so, then why prosecute drug dealers?  If we believe that we have any responsibilities for our neighbor’s good, then surely we must believe that it is wrong to knowingly help another person harm themselves (and make money off it!), even if they choose to do so.

Third, it is based upon the myth of the consumer as a rational, independent choosing agent, who requires only to be informed with relevant facts, so that he can make his purchases accordingly.  Of course, food companies know better than to act on the basis of this myth in their advertising!  They know that the way to win consumers is to bypass their rational faculties and play to their fears, their cravings, their addictions, their sentimental associations; and of course, they know that the best way of all to do this is to capture their consumers when they are only children.  Super Size Me gives some attention to the aggressiveness with which McDonalds seeks to rope in children and thus create brand loyalty for life.  If this is your marketing strategy, then it’s bald hypocrisy to wax on about how the key is supplying the consumer with all the relevant facts so they can make an informed purchasing decision.  

Super Size Me was fun and a good start, but a small budget and staff meant that it doesn’t dig nearly as deep as it ought to.


Happy Thanksshopping

Although I have oft deplored Black Friday, this trademark of a culture gone mad, this most sacred of all holidays to our national god of Mammon, I had not until today stopped to reflect on the sad irony of its position in our national calendar.  Its defilement of the liturgical calendar, with expectant, ascetic, penitent waiting for the Advent of our Lord being overrun with the frantic feeding frenzy of the Christmas shopping season, is something that has increasingly troubled me in recent years.  But sharper still is the contrast with the day that now marks the start of this shopping orgy: Thanksgiving.  

The origins of our Thanksgiving, and of its analogues in many other cultures, lies in a grateful celebration of the gifts of sustenance that God has supplied us from the bounty of creation.  Thanksgiving is the day when our ancestors rejoiced that their basic needs had been supplied, and expressed their contentment and gratitude for their freedom from want.  Today, no sooner do we pause to engage in this now-artificial ritual than we hurl ourselves with wild abandon into the whirl of covetousness and discontent, leaving behind the repose of satisfied needs to stoke the fires of artificial wants and needs.  Of course, the theologically-minded defenders of our modern consumer capitalism will insist that there is a connection–that the extravaganza of shopping can serve as an expression of gratitude for the gifts we have received, that enable us to purchase so freely, and indeed, to purchase gifts for others.  But this is to overlook the deep difference between the gratitude that accompanies the satisfaction of genuine human wants and needs, and the still-restless temporary satiation that accompanies the indulgence of artificial needs that a bottomless consumerism constantly creates.  The former is not impossible, even for the modern American shopper; but it is increasingly uncommon.  

Since my birthday always falls on or near Black Friday, and I have for years received mostly cash gifts after relatives despaired of following my arcane and eccentric tastes, I have for several years found good reason to join the teeming masses and make an uneasy truce with the manic ritual.  This year, the day’s proceedings concluded on a note of heavy irony with my final purchase–a book called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.   

In it, the author Benjamin Barber (best known for the prophetic Jihad vs. McWorld) argues, more or less, that in its quest for ever-greater consumption of its limitless production (I think of Arendt’s The Human Condition), global capitalism has learned to expand its consumer base by aggressively marketing to children, the easiest to persuade and hardest to satiate, and hooking them early on the consumerist drug, and by increasingly converting the adult populace to a state of childlike gullibility, dependence, and insatiability.  The result is the simultaneous destruction of childhood and the infantilization of adulthood. 

I have only read the first chapter so far, whose thirty-seven pages read like one great rant composed in a fever of moral passion which, though often merely reactionary, occasionally attains heights of genuine eloquence.  Although the moral passion rings somewhat hollow in the absence of any theological conviction (as I found also with Naomi Klein), such a prolonged and at times cranky rant is on the whole justified by the seriousness of the subject and the keenness of Barber’s insight.  Already in this first chapter he exposes the risible obsolescence of appeals to a “free market” that is based, more often than not, on manipulation and captivation of the defenceless, to the “Protestant work ethic” of a capitalism that is now much more about consuming than producing, and to the operation of the “law of supply and demand” in an economy where supply does not so much meet demand as create it.  Here are a couple striking quotes, one from near the beginning of the chapter and another from near the end: 

“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 indolence.  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.  In the epoch in which we now live, civilization is not an ideal or an aspiration, it is a video game.”
 
“The consumer at once both imbibes the world of products, goods, and things being impressed upon her and so conquers it, and yet is defined via brands, trademarks, and consumer identity by that world.  She essays to make the market her own even as it makes her its prisoner.  She trumpets her freedom even as she is locked up in the cage of private desire and unrestrained libido.  She announces a faux consumer power even as she renounces her real citizen power.  The dollars or euros or yen with which she imagines she is mastering the world of material things turn her into a thing defined by the material–from self-defined person into market-defined brand; from autonomous public citizen to heteronomous private shopper.  The boundary separating her from what she buys vanishes: she ceases to buy goods as instruments of other ends and instead of other ends and instead becomes the goods she buys.”