Consumer Culture Vs. Civic Values
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.