Consumer Culture Vs. Civic Values

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In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, political theorist and University of Maryland Prof. Benjamin Barber argues that we have shifted from a "work hard" ethic to one that idealizes immediate gratification and selfishness. In the process, he says, we have lost our sense of civic responsibility. He points to high divorce rates, adults who act the way kids do, and the glorification of shopping as Americans' new national pastime. In an E-mail interview, U.S. News asked him why he was so dismayed with consumer culture.

What is wrong with a culture that glorifies consumerism?

A culture that glorifies consumerism belittles other values, including all those activities that define nonmaterial life and give us our human character: play, prayer, art, love, recreation, creativity, friendship, and thought. The problem with consumerism is that it strives not just to be part of our lives—it should be that—but strives to be everything, to occupy all our time and space and push out other things. In this sense, it is both homogenizing and totalizing.

If short-term gratification is replacing hard work, as you say, will our productivity and economic growth decrease over time?

At present, we manage to both work too hard and work too hard at playing. We are productive materially but increasingly unproductive creatively, ethically, spiritually, and in other ways. We focus hard on the now—work and play—but forget how to invest in the future and defer gratification to increase real satisfaction. In this way, we move away from the "Protestant ethos" of early "productivist capitalism" and fall into the lassitude of late "consumerist capitalism." We work like hell but work in order to play and play by consuming.

You criticize aspects of pop culture, such as Hollywood movies, for turning adults into children. But isn't it just allowing them to buy the kind of entertainment they most want? In other words, maybe adults are really just kids at heart, and pop culture allows them to be themselves.

Those who shape and condition our "wants and needs" by manufacturing needs to sell all the goods they produce do what those with influence and power have always done: claim that they are merely giving people "what they want." Yet aside from the fact they spend billions of dollars a year in advertising and marketing to "help" people "want" what they are producing, they also leave little room for the kinds of alternative nonchildish goods we might actually want, if given half a chance.

Limited multiplex movie screens rarely show "serious" films, and despite the supposed variety of television, there is a commercial sameness to much of what is shown. So I would say not that pop culture "lets people be themselves" but rather [that it] creates a flat and homogenous kind of self that it then encourages them to "become"—or pretends they already are.

What kidlike behaviors do you engage in?

I make a distinction between childlike or kidlike behavior that is spontaneous, playful, and creative and doesn't cost money to engage in, and the kinds of infantilized behaviors that demand shopping and consuming as a condition for being mindless and impetuous. I myself (like all of us, I suspect) enjoy being childlike at times: playing with my kids and grandkids, indulging in games, enjoying silliness.

But I don't think that buying things and having 2-year-olds watching Baby Einstein or Baby First TV has very much to do with real childhood. The irony is that even as it dumbs down adults to turn them into shopaholic consumers, the market tries to get kids to grow up quick into little consumers who spend all their parents' discretionary income!

You talk about the fact that the marketplace makes people think they "need" things that they really don't. Do you find yourself falling victim to this?

Yes, I think we all tend to buy into fads and "push marketing" consumables that we are convinced we can't get along without. You know, the latest Michael Jordan high-top or that oh-so-cool iPhone or that bottle of tap water in the gorgeous bottle. I recently almost bought a luxury hybrid, kidding myself that I could somehow have a power car and help Al Gore save the environment. Until someone pointed out that it got worse mileage than the same nonhybrid model! Marketing works! Even on "educated consumers." That's why companies spend billions on it. That's why it's so pernicious.

What's your advice to people who want to resist being "consumed" by the modern marketplace?

Talk to family and friends about what your real needs are...Do you have to have that latest gadget, or might real happiness come from spending some time with them (for free!) walking or talking? Ask yourself whether you would really "want" to buy something if you hadn't read that cool ad or seen your rival with it.

Think not about what you "want" but what you think would be good for your kids, your neighborhood, and your community. Often when we change the subject from "me" to "we," many artificial wants and needs melt away and the really important things come into focus. Think as a citizen as well as consumer.

You describe consumerism as pretty severe. Could it get any worse in the coming decades?

The bad can always get worse. As capitalism fulfills our real needs and wants, it tends to manufacture phony and faux needs to keep selling us stuff. But there are countertrends. Capitalism can also revert to meeting real needs, of which there are plenty in the modern world. Instead of selling us $20 billion a year in bottled water, we can get clean and free from the tap, it can help solve the world water shortage and help get billions of people without clean water access.

There are signs that young people are looking for alternative music, alternative art, and alternative lifestyles that don't just depend on consuming stuff. So while consumerism is all-consuming, there is hope—if we are willing to take the problem seriously and act like grown-ups.

You write, "The family hearth is no longer a refuge in a world of virtual commerce where the tentacles of the digital octopus stretch out around the family gatekeepers and into the child's bedroom and computer and television screens." Even though our televisions and Internet connections blare advertisements and focus on short-term gratification, is it possible, at some point, to turn those off and experience rich inner lives?

Of course it is. Humans like material things but love what goes beyond the material. We want consumables but need human comfort, religious experience, civic commonality, creative expression, and many other activities that cannot be bought. We may be addicted to shopping, but we long for comfort—which can be found only in knowledge or art or family or religion or love. So yes, turn off the TV, go offline, and try living with the gifts we are born with. The things we can't put a price on are the things we most prize. Just try it.