Lost in the Market

By Barbara Miner

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole

By Benjamin R. Barber
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Paperback, $16.95. 406 pages.

Any book that refers to “lifelong puerility” in its first sentence is going to be a tough slog. Luckily, the book in question — Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole — is worth the work.

First, about “puerility.” After turning to the dictionary, I found that it is the noun form of puerile, which is defined as “belonging to childhood; juvenile; immature, childish.” While I first suspected Barber was merely an academic in love with big words, I came to think that he was instead trying to be careful and choose the best word possible for what is a complicated and nuanced analysis.

Consumed, first published last year and released in paperback this spring, takes on the difficult task of trying to not only understand modern-day capitalism and its consumer culture, but to place it in its historical context and show how it differs from the market-based economies of earlier centuries. Equally important, he lays out the consumer culture’s threats to democracy, and explores what might be ways to resist consumer culture and re-energize public institutions.

It’s a tall order, and it is both a strength and weakness of the book that Barber expects a certain intellectual tenacity from the reader. On the plus side, the book shies away from simplistic analyses. On the other hand, it is sometimes dry as dust. Barber is a senior fellow at Demos, a national public policy organization based in New York City, and a professor at the University of Maryland. The author of 17 books, he is perhaps best known to educators for his plea for democratic schooling in his 1992 book The Aristocracy of Everyone.

In certain ways, Consumed is a follow-up to Barber’s book Jihad vs. McWorld, which outlines two competing and equally undemocratic forces vying for dominance in our globalized world. Part One of Consumed deals with the evolution of capitalism from what Barber calls productivist capitalism, focused on producing goods actually needed by people, into modern-day “consumerist” capitalism which ignores the needs of the global poor and survives via an ever-expanding consumer culture marketing invented needs to the more well-to-do — marketing that convinces people they “need” the latest iPod, or pair of Nikes, or trip to Disneyworld.

There is nothing radically shocking in Barber’s analysis that we live in a consumer culture that increasingly markets inappropriately adult products to children and unbelievably infantile products to adults. (How else to explain television shows such as Desperate Housewives?)

The book is far more than yet another complaint about how Americans are trained to shop until they drop, however, and makes the connections between consumerism, privatization, and the shrinking of democratic institutions and the public sphere. As Barber notes, we live in a world “where shopping seems to have become a more persuasive marker of freedom than voting, and where what we do alone in the mall counts more importantly in shaping our destiny than what we do together in the public square.”

Consumed is one of those books that most people will read piecemeal — a chapter here, a chapter there, depending on one’s interests. A few hardy souls may read the entire book, and whether or not you agree with Barber, it will challenge you to think. (With some books, the more I read the less I like them. With Barber’s book, the more I read the more I liked it, and my aggravation with his fondness for obscure words dwindled as I appreciated how each chapter built on previous chapters to form a more compelling whole.)

For teachers and those concerned with public education, the most valuable section will be in Part Two, where Barber outlines consumer capitalism’s threat to democracy and our public institutions.

Chapter Four, “Privatizing Citizens,” dissects what Barber calls “the ideology of privatization, 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.”

In his third and final section of the book, Barber looks at ways to resist consumer capitalism. He argues that “overthrowing capitalism has never been either a viable or a desirable option” and that the challenge is to restore a balance so the consumer culture does not swallow whole and completely corrupt other important institutions. “Not everything needs to earn a profit, not everyone needs to be a shopper — not all the time,” he writes.

While intriguing, this section is the least satisfying — and indeed, almost all prescriptions of how to counteract consumer capitalism have their shortcomings. If it were an easy question to resolve, there would be far more examples of effective resistance that go beyond tactical victories in limited geographic areas.

Barber lays out three cultural responses to consumers that, he argues grow out of consumerism itself — cultural creolization, cultural carnivalization, and culture jamming — and two market-side responses: corporate citizenship and civic consumerism.

The explanations of these forms of resistance and subversion are interesting but leave gaping questions: What of political responses? What of organizing for better environmental regulations, labor laws, or universal health care? Surely there must be more than cultural forms of resistance to consumer capitalism.

That being said, I appreciated Barber’s attempt to move beyond critique and to ask what to do in response. And, as appropriate, he takes the long historical view — that just as humans have built the institutions of consumer capitalism, we likewise have the power to change that reality.

Barbara Miner is the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools.