Benjamin Barber, in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantalize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, offers a riveting critique of modern consumerism. Yet he is not sure how citizens can resist the power of a marketplace out of control. He rightly dismisses ascetic anti-consumption movements. While the phrase “simplify your life” has a certain appeal, only a small segment of society is going to do that to any significant extent. Even then, people tend to get bored and after tuning out, quickly tune back in. Many of us know people who for awhile lived on the land, but are now running e-bay stores or engaged in the dream of American consumerism.
Barber, who also wrote McWord vs. Jihad back in 1995, makes the charge that modern consumerism subverts capitalism and, in a strongly Freudian ananlysis, infantilizes society. This includes the phenomenon of “kidults,” adults whose actions and tastes are more childish than mature. Adults have become perpetual Peter Pans, wanting to look, act and stay young as long as possible, undisciplined and selfish. While I don’t disagree with Barber, I wonder if there is too stark a connection between thinking like a child and infantilization. Is there something wrong with seeing life as play? The world of mystery, magic and joy we knew as children now gets drowned out by worries about retirement, job angst, and of course consumerism. Isn’t our masochistic seriousness one of the problems facing society?
Barber labels one method of resistance “Cultural Carnivalization.” He cites the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin who saw carnivalization as a form of liberation, one which preserves playfulness, spontaneity and innocence. Yet, citing social theorist James C. Scott, Barber notes that those embracing a Bakhtinian interpretation of capitalism as carnival ignore the power structures underlying modern consumerism. The power is in the hands of the marketers, and the “infantilist ethos” which now dominates (replacing the earlier protestant work ethic) serves the wealthy and powerful. When the carnival is not a break from reality but becomes the every day, its power to resist is minimized.
Consider the absurdity of the modern condition. About 20% of the planet not only consumes over 75% of the world’s wealth, but spends hundreds of billions to find new toys and gizmos to create and market. Wants are converted to needs by psychologically savvy marketeers, able to pull emotional chords to get one to associate artificially faded jeans that don’t fit and with a hole on the knee as justifiably expensive pieces of cool fashion. Last week, I compared such consumerism with fascism. Yet as we (or often because we) hyperconsume millions starve or lack basic necessities, and the market ethos sells young girls into slavery and sets up third world sweat shops designed to satisfy our insatiable wants.
Yet that absurdity leads to incredible cynicism, aptly summed up in a favorite line from one of my best friends, “people are stupid.” And any rational read of news stories from the serious to the mundane seems to bear out very much the reality that there is something fundamentally absurd and stupid about human existence. It was this, in fact, which motivated the fidiest thinking of Pascal I discussed last week.
That can lead to political movements, righteous rage, and even positive action to try to make known who sells sweat shop clothes, the reality of life as child sex slaves or soldiers, and the need to address basic human needs around the globe. Yet it does not really threaten hyperconsumerism because while it is a rational and serious argument, it cannot overcome the appeal to emotion that embodies consumer culture. Those who see the flaws seem condemned to feel helpless in a world of mass consumption, while those caught up in the game fare little better, living ignorantly in material comfort, while not being able to handle the anxieties and uncertainties of the modern world.
In that, a form of “carnival consumerism” could be a solution. But not the raucous sense of unity and lack of rank described by Bakhtin. With consumerism all-consuming, the carnival has eaten the host, and instead of being a social release for individual renewal, the individual is subsumed and lost in a faux carnival created by marketers and manipulators who shift and create meanings in a manner designed to keep the individual from leaving that sense of eternal carnival in favor of individual reflection. It’s more than the absurdity of the human condition noted by Pascal almost 400 years ago, this is a particular condition in our culture which, by its very pervasiveness, undercuts the capacity for the kind of carnival that can provide the Bakhtinian renewal.
The reason is that playfulness, or that connection to the innocence of childhood and the sense of magic and imagination, is subdued in both the serious analysis of the human condition, and in the infantilist condition of hyper-materialism. Just as children’s games become more organized and coordinated than ever, adult fun is marketed and consumed. We received a Disney DVD about vacations at Disneyland, all about magic, play and escape — and all neatly packaged and stacked. To enjoy magic and imagination you need neither; Disney provides it all.
So how does one have a carnival within a permanent carnival? How does one discover playfulness when modern play equals hard work and consumption? How is the magical embraced when reason tells us that magic is for the superstitious, and that rational materialism is all that is? How can one connect with the ‘inner child,’ without simply embracing childishness and selfishness? Consumerism has wedded rational enlightenment thought with the emotion of market manipulation, making it appear that letting Disney define magic is rational, while to seek magic in ones’ own life would be some kind of flakey, new age thing.
Ultimately, Theodor Adorno is probably right that this has to come from the arts, something I alluded to in ‘alienation and the arts.’ Whether music, literature, dance, paintings or maybe even blogs, the one culturally powerful and acceptable form of expression and release remains various forms of art. And with new media creating ever more outlets for artistic expression, even as globalization seeks to totalize the market place, there could still be a way to reclaim individual identity from the seduction and destruction of hyperconsumerism, and recapture the sense of play and magic from the clutches of the Walt Disneys of the world. It doesn’t have to be experimental or alternative culture; just as Bob Dylan could write songs that cut through the noise of the sixties to inspire that generation, filmmakers and artists today can resist the culture even while striking a popular chord. Shakespeare, after all, was popular because he aimed his work directly at the mass audiences of his time.
If Horkheimer and Adorno in seeing the enlightenment as unable to provide meaning, and thus providing those with power the capacity to construct meaning and manipulate people to embrace and believe their constructions, then enlightenment philosophy and rational analysis alone won’t break us out of the consumerist trap (though an economic storm might force the issue), rediscovering the creative and curious side of our lives through the arts just might.