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.
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.