Sunday, November 6, 2011

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

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

By Benjamin R. Barber

You know, I couldn't help but enjoy the irony of the fact that this was a book I bought new in a bookstore. To thicken the irony, consider that I am probably the least-consumerist person I know buying (consuming) a book about consumerism. As if that wasn't enough, this was the first book I have bought with money in over a year. A book reader that doesn't purchase books purchasing a book about consumerism in a bookstore, an establishment the book reader rarely, if ever, enters. I'm sure Benjamin R. Barber would laugh.

Or would he?

Consumed is not for the faint of heart. It is every bit as heavy-hitting as the title implies. Barber takes no prisoners in his thrashing of first-world consumption habits and their corrosive social implications. Barber covers the gamut of consumerism from media, through consumption, desires (both real and imagined) and the manner in which all of this is packaged up and fed to us. This book is Barber's line in the sand, his last stand against the monolith of consumerism that is poised to devour all of us. And once you get through the first chapter, which reads like a social scientist gone mad (dyadism?), it is a very poignant piece of writing and very, very convincing.

The crux of Barber's argument is that the endgame of global capitalism is not the manufacturing of products to sell, but rather the manufacture of needs and that once you convince citizens that they need specific products (brands, media etc...), then the system continues on until all one's needs are satisfied (which, of course, with rampant technological innovation and re-branding, is never). In an effort to create needs, marketing "specialists" and advertisers have accelerated the process of "dumbing down" the population and infantilizing citizens via movies, sports, advertisements, brand consumption etc... The thesis, which is that we are en route toward a totalitarian version of capitalism when we are entirely consumed by media at all times (on the computer, in the car, at work, in the bathroom...), everywhere and that our very psychological profiles are being altered in very real ways by such a vast quantity of information, is all terribly logical and frighteningly clear to see when one stops and looks around.

Barber also discusses ways in which various people have tried to reverse the trends of consumerism, with varying degrees of success. His dismissal of culture-jamming is especially disheartening in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement which was dreamt up by the writers and editors of culture-jamming itself, Kalle Lasn and Adbusters.

Consumed is the logical progression in a series of post-modern, socially relevant books that started along the Adbusters theme. From Naomi Klien's classic No Logo through a plethora of other books such as Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, Nobrow by John Seabrook, and Barber's earlier work Jihad vs. McWorld. Consumed continues the flavor of these works and adds a whole new dimension to the arguments that have come before, although Barber seems totally devoid of a sense of humor.

This is the sort of book that will be read by a very select cross-section of the reading public, which is a shame. While the entire book is worthy of a long, hard look by anyone remotely interested in markets and sociology (or both), the chapter entitled The Eclipse of the Citizen is a sociological diatribe for the ages. Barber chronicles how corporations and advertisers manipulated the wants and needs of consumers and how they go about infantilizing the population into nations of "Kidults." as one reviewer put it, this chapter is "chapter and verse." I can't say it any better than that. Barber's observations and conclusions are startlingly clear.

While most readers might find Barber's style dry in the way that only sociologists can be, Consumed is worth the effort in reading if only to understand the ways in which each and every one of us are manipulated by the media. This is not to say that I agree with everything Barber writes. I do think that consumerism plays a role, especially in emerging markets, the overall notions are difficult to disagree with.

Consumed is a well-researched, well presented piece of work. It will and has received a ton of criticism by its detractors but stand up well to the best attempts at debunking. Along with his previous work in the same vein, Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber has placed himself as one of the world’s pre-eminent authors on the perils of consumerism and their social, economic and political implications.

He just doesn’t seem like he’s much fun at parties.


Man of la Book said...

Sounds like a fantastic book. At this point in my life I simply teach my kids that everything they see on TV is a lie and that the people on TV are "idiots".

I often admired the genius behind the advertising folks who not only sell us stuff we don't want to buy, but make it a "must" to have the crap they sell.
Special kudos goes to those companies which make it a law that you have to buy their products (bicycle helmets for example).

Ryan said...

I just wish Barber had a sense of humor.

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