The Coming of Kidults

Consumedby Benjamin R. Barber

W.W. Norton & Company. 406p $26.95

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I found myself rooting for this book as I went through the early pages. But about one-third through Consumed, I began thinking “repetitious,” then tried to convince myself that it had a nice “range,” but eventually had to admit that it was a rambling reflection best described as a promising article buried in an overblown book.

Benjamin Barber is a political theorist (perhaps a would-be cultural anthropologist) who teaches at the University of Maryland. He can turn a phrase: “The young are big spenders way before they are even modest earners.” Again: “The needy are without income and the well-heeled are without needs.” Still again: “Manufacturing needs rather than goods is a primary task of consumer capitalism.”

Barber is convinced that “many of our primary business, educational and governmental institutions are consciously and purposefully engaged in infantilization.” As a result, “we are vulnerable to such associated practices as privatization and branding.” By infantilization, he means “induced childishness.”

In his view, privatization is an ideology—“a fresh and vigorous expression of traditional laissez-faire philosophy that favors free markets over government regulation and associates liberty with personal choice of the kind possessed by consumers.” Privatization reverses the road to maturation, he says.

By branding, he means “commercial identity.” “Lifestyles are branded and brands stand in for lifestyles which take the place of character of the kind that once was the marker of identity. Every brand has its demographic so that companies...try not only to attract a particular tranche [portion] of consumers but to persuade them that the good life for them must be defined by wearing or eating or using the brand in question.”

Once “production-focused” on manufacturing products, our economy is now “consumer-focused” and much concerned with creating brands, not to mention the need to possess those brands. Whereas the system in days gone by produced goods and services to meet real needs, and whereas advertising simply provided information to bring need and the corresponding product or service together, now the system creates the need in the mind of the consumer, and advertising has to persuade consumers that their identity depends on connection to the branded product or service. In order “to figure out ‘who you are’ you must decide where (and for what) you shop.” That, says Barber, “is modern branding’s simple secret.”

The author takes his reader down a long and rambling road “through branded wants and manufactured desires.” That road traverses “creative capitalism,” “investment capitalism,” “liberal capitalism” and “managerial capitalism” before arriving at—you guessed it—“consumer capitalism,” which is where we are today. It is supported by an ethic of infantilization in much the same way as the Protestant ethic was seen (by Max Weber and others) as supporting the robust and rugged spirit of production-oriented capitalism generations ago.

Readers of Barber’s other work will not be surprised to discover that he looks to democracy to rescue capitalism, “by serving real rather than faux needs, by providing services to those who are not yet consumers rather than those addicted to consumption.” He sees this as “civic consumer” resistance.

It is Barber’s hope that some unexplained democratic organization of consumers will save society from the virus of infantilizaton and prevent capitalism from failing in the West. Regrettably, this book is just not up to the challenge of rallying the troops and getting out the vote to make that happen.

I couldn’t help thinking of Enron as I tried to speculate about the potential of democratic processes and practices for warding off the problems that eventually brought that company down. Would democratic procedures have helped prevent this? I suspect they would. You’ll remember that Enron started out as a natural gas company. In an environment of deregulation, Enron became an unregulated energy contract trading company with relatively few real assets. If you are a trading company, all you really have is your credit. Enron lost both credit and credibility. It tried to hide its losses by inflating earnings reports and shifting debt from its balance sheet to newly created off-shore partnerships.

For the “system” to work, the public has to be able to trust the numbers. This means trusting those who post the numbers and those who certify them to be true. Democracy, of itself, does not guarantee veracity. Nor does democracy assure the presence of trust. Enron failed to warn its employees of impending doom. In fact, it positively misled employees to believe the company was strong and prevented employees from selling the Enron stock in their 401(k) retirement plans (because the company switched plan administrators) at the same time top executives of the company were unloading theirs.

It is more a culture of lies than an ethos of infantilization that corrupts the markets and kills companies like Enron. Simple truth-telling will go a long way to save the system.

 

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