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Modern infantilism -- does Benjamin Barber have the solution?

The subtitle of Benjamin Barber's latest book hints at his dislike of consumerism. Frustrated with the ubiquitous glorfication of "the market" in our current political discourse, Barber asks the following almost rhetorical question:

"After all, when religion colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result theocracy; and when politics colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, we call the result tyranny. So why, it might be asked, when the marketplace -- with its insistent ideology of consumption and its dogged orthodoxy of spending -- colonizes every sector of what should be our multidimensional lives, do we call the result liberty?" [219-220]

According to Barber, this ubiquitous "colonization" of our lives by consumer ideology has confused us about what liberty is. Libertarian apologists tell us again and again that the freedom of a consumer to choose from among different products in the marketplace is identical to (or, not inconsistent with, a prerequisite for, a consequence of) the freedom of a citizen to govern themselves. But Barber doesn't believe it for a minute. Instead, consumerism makes the achievement of genuine liberty much more difficult. Consumers are conditioned to pursue what Barber calls first-order desires -- what we want, not what we want to want. We want the big SUV because it looks shiny and smells like new leather, but we want to want a vehicle that doesn't contribute to global warming or increase our dependence on foreign oil. The mark of maturity is the ability to resist first-order desires for the sake of second-order desires, and consumers, like infants, are incapable of this. As Barber puts it, in our consumer society "the empire of impulse is allowed to trump the empire of will, and then is rewarded with a crown called liberty." [221]

Barber has a good point. To the extent that we act as consumers, our success is measured by how quickly and often our desires are satisfied. The means for satisfying our desires are almost always commercial -- when we want to feel sexier, elevate our social status, assuage our guilt, have fun, or find love, we can always purchase something that helps us satisfy our desires. The other traditional vehicles for achieving timeless human longings are ignored and underappreciated in our consumer culture. And this is a difficult problem to even identify, because consumer thinking and behavior are "omnilegitimate." Consumerism doesn't dominate our lives like communism tried to dominate the lives it affected. It doesn't forbid us from thinking and acting on alternatives, it merely conditions us not to recognize that there may in fact be other valuable ways of acting. Barber quotes Neil Postman: "No Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As [Aldous Huxley] saw it, people will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared what that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one." [251]

The question is how to overcome puerile consumerism without taking comfort in "antimodern ascriptive identities drawn from religious fundamentalism and ethnic extremism."

Here is where the book disappoints. Barber argues for several different outcomes without making clear what the connection is between them, or if he thinks there are any connections at all. The major concern of the book seems to be the question of responsibility. Barber's goal is to redirect us away from a juvenile conception of freedom as the absence of anyone telling us what to do, and toward a more mature freedom as self-governance -- away from negative liberty, and towards postive liberty. Barber argues that we should all "grow up," exercise more responsibility, and accept mature constraints on our behavior. But how to do this without sacrificing our freedom to a tyrannical government or a dictatorial religion?

That's a great question, so it's disappointing that Barber never really tackles it. In large stretches of the book, he writes as if the main problem was the excess of limits imposed by the market. Big business is bad because it dominates the marketplace and prevents smaller operators from succeeding economically. Religion is bad because it dictates outcomes and prevents people from exercising freedom of choice. [259-260] American culture is bad because it's ubiquitous and prevents third-world singers from succeeding as artists without caving in to the demands of globalized pop music.[264-267] Capitalism is bad because it ignores the real needs of poverty-stricken people in its quest to satisfy the faux needs of the wealthy.[316] All of these things are certainly objectionable. But Barber doesn't explain what, if anything, they have to do with the problems of infantilizing consumerism and the refusal to take responsibility for what we do. In the end, we're not sure if Barber's main beef with modern consumerism is that it harms its participants, or that it doesn't allow enough people to participate.

Benjamin Barber ought to write some books about the injustices of the market. But I wish he'd also finish this book about the tension between the need for freedom and the need to take responsibility. Consumed is a good statement of the problem, but because of its tangential digressions, it doesn't provide a thoughtful answer.

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