The Well Spent Book Club: Consumed

In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, author Benjamin Barber follows up on issues he raised in his 2005 book Jihad vs. McWorld, particularly the connection between culture and the ugly, dangerous side of capitalism. According to Barber, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Maryland, contemporary consumer culture is not only soulless and manufactured, but a force that will undermine democracy if left unchecked. Barber is an academic and not a journalist, and unsurprisingly, the book is grounded in theory, from the Protestant ethic and Karl Marx, to Max Weber and the entrepreneurial cheerleader George Gilder. Yet, the intended audience is clearly the mainstream reader, and the bulk of Barber’s chapters are filled with anecdotes and plain language. The message is clear: modern capitalism is dangerous and requires moderation, but in our culture of “carnival consumerism”, there are very few prospects for doing so.

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Barber’s focus on childhood – both children and adults who act like it – is particularly interesting. He goes further than Susan Thomas’ wonderful Buy Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds (2009), by engaging with the market as a stakeholder itself. The market (and the marketing firms that serve it) needs new consumers, but fortunately more are born every day. And even more fortunately, “kidults” are consuming earlier and in greater quantities, and this is not an accident, or unfortunate fact of social evolution. Barber charges corporations and media outlets with three types of “infantilization”: easier consumption over harder, simpler experiences over more complex, and faster enjoyment over more leisurely. Here he echoes Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985); childhood, both men argue, is being shortened by capitalism.

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Childhood is not being lost entirely, however. In fact, the concept of infantilization Barber focuses on for the first third of the book also suggests that adult consumers are increasingly treated as low-sophistication, childlike consumers as well. Children, according to Barber, are turned into consumers at a young age, and then the marketing machine does everything in its power to keep them shopping at that intellectual level for as long as possible. Chapters on corporatization and branding reinforce the idea that consumers are continually losing autonomy, but cheerfully rewarding the firms who take it away with loyalty and cash. Here, however, is where Barber needed a less kind-hearted editor to rein him in and force him to focus. Instead of a tight narrative on the forces that drive and constrain consumer choice, he wanders into disconnected complaints about the length of scenes in Hollywood movies and the evolution of video games. The book suddenly becomes an op-ed on pop culture, with Barber playing the grouchy old man shouting from his porch, instead of the seasoned political theorist.

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The lengthy discussion about infantalization builds to Barber’s thoughts on the connection between consumer culture’s “new totalism” and the democratic system, which is the weakest part of the book. He argues that in an environment where goods are “marketed everywhere and available at all hours”, consumers have come to believe that “citizenship begins and ends with how they spend their income in the marketplace”. Other elements of Barber’s argument are constructed on a theoretical foundation and supported with examples, but here he leans on rhetorical flourish to make his point. “Either democracy must be globalized,” he writes, “or globalization must be democratized.” Barber is correct, however, to point out that one negative consequence of wealthy firms having political influence is the weakening of regulations and the invisible externalization of costs (we pay for gasoline directly, for example, but not the carbon emissions it creates).

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Unfortunately, our prospects for escaping Barber’s consumerist prison (built and locked voluntarily, of course) are not good. In the next few days, we’ll see stories about Buy Nothing Day set against stories about Black Friday. There is at least a growing movement to protest the encroachment of Black Friday sales into the evening of Thanksgiving itself, but the concern is overwhelmingly workers’ rights instead of a general fear of mounting consumerism.

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In the end, Barber raises a number of important questions about marketing and consumer behavior, but none that haven’t been addressed before. The value he adds to the discussion is grounding these questions in political and social philosophy, and the book is weakest where he wanders farthest from this approach.

Some questions for discussion:

  • Barber ends the book with a statement that the fate of consumers is in our own hands. But collectively, what can we do? What effect, if any, can movements like Buy Nothing Day or Adbuster’s “no-brand” merchandise have? Is there any value in motivating the already-convinced?
  • Does Barber too easily excuse consumers from our part in creating and perpetuating this system? The stores open at 7pm on Thanksgiving would argue, naturally, that they’re just responding to consumer demand.
  • How does the growing demand for products from small-scale, ethical producers (Archival Clothing, Rancourt Shoes, Wolf vs. Goat) undermine the argument in Consumed? Or does it? After all, that market is still driven by advertising, marketing, and consumer demand (albeit of a very different sort).

I’ll be back with the next iteration of the book club in January, and I’m looking for suggestions! What would you like to read? What do you recommend? Please leave a comment with where you’d like to see the Well Spend Book Club go next!

J.D. is an environmental consultant in the New England region. He has worked on issues of sustainable development and green consumption for more than a decade, advising companies in the US and Southeast Asia.

  • J.T.

    What makes a small-scale producer ethical? Is it simply because they make clothing in the US?

    Yes, the clothing made in the US is subject to US labor law. But is it enforced? Do these workers feel safe in their jobs? Are they respected? Do they like their work enough to encourage their children to work in the field?

    I thought there was a particularly telling piece that Well-Spent posted themselves. Kyle Rancourt of Rancourt & Co. did a piece upholding the virtue of hand-making shoes, when I’m pretty sure he doesn’t actually do that for a living, he just blogs about and handles marketing.

    It was an article written by a boss chastising a worker wanting for better for their children. Wanting the child to go to college, so maybe they could have a job at a desk. You know, like Kyle Rancourt.

    Just because it’s made here, doesn’t mean it’s made ethically. There are sweatshops in this country. I’d like to see third-party certification from meaningful organizations, not the FLA. I’d also like to see people think long and hard about what it means to keep manufacturing jobs here, especially when they focus on the technologies of last century.

  • Adam

    I agree, JT.
    I am trying to wean myself of all this consumerism, not for any real ethical reason but simply because I cannot afford to keep living the way I have been (broke because of over spending, basically).

    I’m way better than some (very little credit card debt, got some $$ in savings now) but I still feel the pull to buy buy buy. I have culled most of the blogs from my RSS reader that tempted me and now I’ve only got Well Spent, Put This On, and Four Pins, but I am sure those three will be gone within the next few months.

    From my point of view, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter if you are spending all your money on expensive basics made in the USA under the highest conditions or whether you are buying them at Target. You’re still consuming way way more than you need to and let’s be honest here: unless you are buying the absolute cheapest shit, one t-shirt is not going to last any longer than another.

    The problem is we just want more. Easing yourself off the mass-produced product train and onto the Well-Spent (archival clothing, rancourt, WvG, etc) wagon is fine and all but that’s not the end. The end is recognizing that you do not need a fucking waxed canvas roll top backpack or another pair of jeans or whatever. You probably have more clothes in your closet than 90% of the Earth. So stop buying. Just stop. Find something else to do with your time, energy, money.

    Not trying to be preachy. I am trying to take my own advice. I am making progress but it is hard.

  • MythReindeer

    Sorry I missed this book club. It looks like a good one, so I will try to read it in the near future. I do love the comments from J.D. and readers.

  • Kyle Rancourt

    I don’t know where to start. First, your comments reflect how little you know about the US dept of labor and OSHA. Their regulations and the laws that allow them to enforce them are extremely rigorous. I invite you to come to our factory in Lewiston, ME and experience them first hand.

    Secondly, your comments reflect how little you know about me and understand about running a business. Yes, I handle some marketing for my company and I was invited to write a column about manufacturing shoes in the US by Well Spent. However, that is hardly my complete story. This is not the time or place to expound on my skills or expertise, but I am confused as to why you believe that you know anything about me, when clearly you do not. In a business, even a small family business like mine, we all have our roles. My role is developing products and then doing what I can to sell those products so that everyone in my company can continue to make a living doing what we love.

    Lastly, I fear that you completely missed the point of my column about US manufacturing jobs. No one was chastised for making a comment, I simply disagree with the sentiment that going to college guarantees success or a better life than a manufacturing job. This is evidenced by the dozens of successful people that work at Rancourt & Co. and other shoe factories in our country including Alden, Red Wing, and Allen-Edmonds. We all have skilled people that have worked in factories for decades and have made a good life for themselves and their families. This is further evidenced by the dozen or so craftspeople in our factory that have brought family members into the trade. These include children, sibling, and spouses.