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消費者還是公民?Benjamin Barber, Consumed
2007/08/15 21:56

政治理論家Benjamin Barber去年曾應施明德講座之邀,在台大政治系作了三場公開演講,且接受中國時報專訪。現在,他的演講擴充成書(不知道有沒有提到台灣?)就是這本Consumed。我是今天看到Crooked Timber上的討論才知道的。老左派批評他不過是重複馬克思的「虛假意識」(卻不敢用這個詞),另外也有右派批他重複Galbraith的陳詞濫調(GalbraithThe New Industrial State今年剛由普林斯頓大學出版社重出),其實學術常常只是把舊的真理,用新的方式重新講述罷了。

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In the aftermath of Sept. 11, when publishers scrambled to provide explanations for the attacks, Benjamin R. Barber’s 1995 book, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” an examination of the tensions between consumer capitalism and religious fundamentalism, was dusted off, rushed back to press and propelled to best-sellerdom. Around that time, Barber also released a memoir of his stint as a freelance intellectual in the Clinton White House, a melancholy rumination on the failures of that administration as well as his own failure to be named chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. With his latest book, Barber, a political theorist at the University of Maryland, returns to familiar territory. But if “Jihad” provided an answer to the ubiquitous post-9/11 question “Why do they hate us?,” the question behind “Consumed” seems to be “Who wouldn’t?”

Barber, for one, is put off by much of what global capitalism has wrought. Hollywood movies are cartoonish and trashy; kids reared on video games and fast food miss out on childhood’s meaningful pleasures; life at the mall is soulless; much of popular culture is dreck. How all this came about takes up the bulk of his book.

According to Barber, global inequality has left the planet with two kinds of potential customers: the poor of the undeveloped world, with vast and unserved needs but not the means to fulfill them, and the first-world rich, who have scads of disposable income but few real needs. While an earlier capitalist economy, backed by a Protestant ethos, was built around selling goods like timber and buckwheat that served people’s needs, today’s consumerist economy sustains profitability by creating needs, convincing us that Wiis and iPhones are necessary. It has done so by promoting what Barber calls an ethos of infantilization, a mind-set of “induced childishness” in which adults pursue adolescent lifestyles, as evidenced by their tastes and spending habits. In other words, in order to sell superfluous stuff, the market must foster a permanent mentality of “Gimme” and “I want it now!”

The resultant “radical consumerist society” has set capitalism and democracy against each other, undermining both. Capitalism, Barber writes, “seems quite literally to be consuming itself, leaving democracy in peril and the fate of citizens uncertain.” Children’s lives are reduced to shopping excursions in which their identities are subsumed by brands — they’re the Nike generation, Abercrombie kids, iPod addicts. Meanwhile, the grown-ups have become so focused on the private “me” sphere, they’ve withdrawn from the public “we.” Our political culture compounds this by elevating the private sector over the public, encouraging Americans to believe that anything the government can do, private enterprise can do better (for example, prisons-for-profit are preferable to those run by the state, mercenaries trump the Marines, and so on). Left unchecked, Barber warns, “infantilization will undo not only democracy but capitalism itself.”

If this sounds like a bit of a stretch and a lot of muddle, it is. Yes, marketers target children. Yes, consumer capitalism infantilizes adults. Yes, the private sector is overvalued. All this is scary. But ultimately, Barber fails to tie the disparate strands into a coherent argument. Much of the book feels as if it were cobbled together by a series of grad students with a Nexis account. A chapter using mini-bios of Jakob Fugger (known as Jakob the Rich in 16th-century Germany), John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates to illustrate the history of capitalism would read like a sophomore-year textbook, were the source material not so shallow (in the case of Rockefeller, Barber relies almost exclusively on Ron Chernow’s “Titan”). Marginally relevant filler — like a chart of Google’s top queries from 2001 to 2005, a list of Howard Hughes’s lovers, and a rundown of reality TV shows and their earlier televised sources — pads the text, seemingly to generate book-length proportions.

Reading “Consumed” is like opening up and actually reading the contents of a direct-mail brochure sent by a politician whose campaign you support. You may agree with the guy, but must his message in written form — overblown, repetitive, clichéd — be so bad? One suspects that like most campaign advertisements, this book is not meant to be read at all; it’s an example of what James Fallows has called the “op-ed book”: an argument, even a valuable one, that could do in 900 words what it does in 400 pages.

Then there are the careless errors. Quoted writers and thinkers are misidentified or not identified at all. At one point Barber refers to a Hollywood tabloid couple, “Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt” (hello?!). Later, he accuses Steven Soderbergh of directing “Batman II.” Barber might consider such pop drivel beneath him — but then why write about it, let alone devote lengthy tangents to the Sims and Shaquille O’Neal?

This is a shame, because the messages contained in “Consumed” are important. Barber makes points that need to be made — about the excesses of consumer capitalism, the pernicious effects of creeping libertarianism and the cheapening consequences of omnipresent branding. Barber, who apparently aspires to the life of a public intellectual, with its talk show appearances and lecture circuits, could serve as the anti-Thomas L. Friedman, offering a decidedly less rosy view of life behind the Lexus wheel. If only he wrote a book half so well.

Pamela Paul is a frequent contributor to the Book Review and the author, most recently, of “Pornified.” Her next book will be about the business behind child rearing.

Born to shop?

Benjamin R Barber's Consumed makes Chris Petit ponder the perils of consumerism

Saturday June 23, 2007
The Guardian

George W Bush's infamous response to 9/11 was to order citizens to show their patriotic backbone by getting on with the business of shopping. But the imperative to shop is not as straightforward as it looks. It turns leisure into fetish and obligation, and a paradox of consumerism is that it is also a form of denial. Society now faces Debord's ceaseless manufacture of "pseudo-needs"; Marx's subservience to "inhuman, depraved, unnatural and imaginary appetites"; and what the present Pope has called modernity's "dictatorship of relativism", whose highest goals are to serve personal ego and desire.

There are 24 million compulsive shoppers in the US. According to a study commissioned by Yahoo!, members of the My Media generation can, by multi-tasking, fit up to 44 hours of activity into one day. With desire propelled in excess of the speed of light anything is possible, hence the growing number of internet addiction disorder clinics in the US. Shopping also functions like pornography, another form of accelerated desire with an emphasis on repetition. For the first time in history, a society has felt its economic survival demands a kind of "controlled regression, a culture that promotes puerility rather than maturation".

Simplifications were made to a popular Sony/LucasArts online game because it was felt there was too much reading involved and, according to its senior game director, "We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat". Watching a four-year-old wrestle with consumer choice, when faced with the "kidquake of kid-directed goods and services", is to see a child confused by being asked to behave like an adult. In a declining global consumer economy, children have become necessary targets.

Benjamin Barber fears that this process of infantilisation, combined with the associated practices of branding and privatisation, threatens democracy. Privatisation has merely privatised corruption and inequality without providing more adequate supplies or even turning much of a profit. True, but Barber undermines his argument with his susceptibility to pseudo-profundities, such as the idea that conspicuous consumption stems from a fear of death, and sentimental nonsense such as, "All of Hollywood at its best is not the equal in variety or originality of a single summer day's walk in a public park".

When he turns to Hollywood, the wheels fall off his argument altogether. He likens the increasing speed of cutting in film and video to a form of addiction, then compares it with the slower Hollywood films of the 1930s without grasping that such rapid cutting and camera movement were technically impossible then; or that, thanks to the VCR and remote control, we have become capable of absorbing information at much faster rates.

Barber, of course, disapproves of fast food and the decline of the seated meal but his language is so coagulated that it makes you want never to sit down at table again and "break bread together or dine or share a repast". What he fails to take into account is changing domestic practice, and, in his alarm, he misses the obvious mutation. If capitalism continues uninterrupted, then the cure of self-restraint will become another commercial facet of consumerism, like weight-watching or dieting or healthy eating - just another giant business in its own right.

· Chris Petit's The Passenger is published by Simon & Schuster

Hey, kids! Madison Avenue wants you!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

When the movie "Smokin' Aces" opened in late January, the first paragraph of the review by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott -- which, Scott went on to claim, constituted a "fair summary" of the movie -- read as follows:

" 'F.B.I.! F.B.I.!' Blam blam blam blam. '[Expletive]. [Expletive].' Blam blam blam. Spurt of blood. Plot twist. 'F.B.I.! F.B.I.!' '[Expletive].' Blam blam blam blam blam. '[Expletive].' 'F.B.I.!' 'Hotel Security!' Blam. Exploding skull. Guy sits on a chain saw. Montage. [Expletive]. Plot twist. Roll credits."

Undaunted -- indeed, apparently delighted -- the studio quoted from the paragraph in their ads. Predictably enough, millions of American moviegoers turned out to see it.

It's almost certain the studio was not trying to fool unwary readers into thinking Scott had liked the movie. Rather, they simply knew their audience. An audience that likes movies that go "Blam!" and are mostly filled with dialogue that cannot be reprinted in the major papers. An audience that sees professional film critics as either entirely irrelevant or as stuffy authoritarian figures whom it is a pleasure to defy. An audience, that is to say, of adolescents and infantilized adults -- a group of people who, as Benjamin Barber makes clear in "Consumed," have come to represent the mainstream in American entertainment, society and politics.

That, Barber claims, is just the way corporate managers and marketers like it:

"[F]abricating needs is today the self-conscious and acknowledged 'wisdom' of the marketers themselves. We no longer have to reference Vance Packard's warning about hidden persuaders: the persuaders have come out of the closet and are teaching corporate managers the arts of marketing to teens at national conferences and are articulating toddler marketing techniques in textbooks and business-school marketing courses. [...] [M]any of our primary business, educational, and governmental institutions are consciously and purposefully engaged in infantilization and as a consequence of that we are vulnerable to such associated practices as privatization and marketing. For this is how we maintain a system of consumerist capitalism no longer supported by the traditional market forces of supply and demand."

The transformation of Homo sapiens into Homo consumerus takes place in two stages. The first, to borrow a phrase from marketing consultants, is the "consumerization of the child." (Or, to use child-development scholar Susan Linn's more appropriate term, "the hostile takeover of childhood.") This process is not so much an accelerated transition to a more mature stage of development as an enforced intrusion of shopping-centered behaviors, more properly associated with adulthood, into children's early lives. The idea, essentially, is to put buying power -- whether exerted by the kids themselves or by the parents who feel bound to serve their wishes -- into the hands of youngsters who have not yet developed the ability to distinguish between what one actually needs and what one merely feels a transitory urge to possess, while at the same time encouraging them to develop brand consciousness (and inevitably, brand loyalty) and the social customs of habitual shoppers. Barber quotes the words of youth marketer James McNeal, who sees the ideal young customer as "a confident little 9 year old with a cute little nose and arms full of shopping bags, emerging from a department store ... confident, a big spender, able to cope in the market place."

The second stage is infantilization proper, the unnatural extension of consumerist adolescence into later stages of life. Here the aim is to preserve and reinforce the gains won through child consumerization by encouraging young people to become Peter Pans who never grow up. The result is a generation of "kidults" who, possessing no deeper conception of character than that provided by the market, attempt to define themselves through brands; people who truly believe that, in the words of Seiko's monumentally silly slogan, "It's your watch that says the most about who you are." A ready and pliable modeling clay for the marketers' sculpting techniques, kidults soon learn to be entirely unreflective about their wants and impulses, granting automatic authority, not to mention urgency, to every whim they might happen to feel.

One can predict the results of such a process: a populace obsessed with trivial and largely narcissistic concerns; a general lowering of the level of intellectual and political discourse; and a society that regards politics, religion and culture as nothing more than mechanisms for self-satisfaction. Indeed, if Barber is correct, the vision embodied in the consumerist ethos is fundamentally at odds with the very idea of a public sphere:

"[T]he private relates to public as childish stands to the adult. Prioritizing the individual and rendering community private in a way that makes it look like an aggregation of private individual wants and needs is a puerile way to understand and explain the social world. Obviously individualism and narcissism are not synonymous, but the reduction of a commonweal to a series of private first-order desires and the trivialization of the common good as nothing but aggregated discrete private interests can be thought of as a kind of regression."

Of course, at this point one may be forgiven for wondering whether Barber has overreached. At the very least, his apparent tendency to classify every form of self-fulfillment as either immature or morally questionable should be called into question, as should his apparent failure to consider the possibility that the private sphere, as much as the public, represents and helps to protect important and valuable aspects of human existence. (To my mind, the primary purpose of education is the highly self-oriented goal of self-betterment, and the reading of literature one of the most private experiences that exists. Perhaps Barber means something different by those massively general terms "private" and "public" -- but it is not clear what.)

Moreover, Barber is on occasion surprisingly judgmental toward those who do not share his vision of what maturity requires. Choosing not to reproduce, for instance, is on his view unjustifiable and juvenile, and fails (for reasons he does not bother to explain) to represent "a legitimate life choice"; those who make this choice, he goes on to say, are "like children" themselves, devoted to "a narcissistic quest for their own freedom from grown-up responsibility in favor of self-obsessed acquisitiveness."

But to attribute such motivations to all persons who make this choice is both simplistic and intolerant. Surely, in the final analysis, maturity is a matter not of whether one has children, but of how one behaves toward them -- and, more importantly still, how one behaves toward the world that all children will one day take over from us.

Barber closes his book with a number of suggestions as to how late-stage capitalism's tendency to "corrupt children" and "infantilize adults" might be corrected. Some of these -- "cultural creolization" (the process by which global entities are reshaped to conform to and express local cultures and norms) and "culture jamming" (subversion of the global powers using their own methods) are supposed to "grow out of capitalism itself." Barber seems able to muster only a limited enthusiasm for these responses. Cultural creolization, as he recognizes, can only go so far; the flattening effect of the global market has proven to be far more powerful than the countervailing force exerted by any indigenous or otherwise local culture. As for culture jamming, Barber is right when he despairingly admits that the "marketing industry is the master-jammer and engages less in 'pretend subversion' than in instrumental subversion -- subversion and transgression as hot sentiments and cool ideals to be associated with commodities to which they bear no relation [...]." In other words, the likely fate of any resistance we might manage to offer is to be incorporated by industry, repackaged and sold back to us (with, if we are lucky, a free Che Guevara T-shirt thrown in).

The other type of possible fix, which involves the development of a "transnational citizenry" via the creation of "transnational civic entities," seems to presuppose cooperative efforts by various individual nations to reign in the excesses of capitalism. "We need democratic sovereignty to moderate market anarchy and market monopoly," he writes. "But sovereignty is no longer viable within nations alone." But it is simply not clear to me just what, precisely, Barber has in mind with respect to the second sort of solution, or how, in his view, the inexorable logic of consumerist capitalism might successfully be curtailed or undermined by government action. As in his best-known book, 1995's "Jihad vs. McWorld," the analysis of the problem is convincing, but the proffered solutions are sketchy at best. (Indeed, many of the solutions sketched here -- various variations on the theme of the rehabilitation of the public realm -- seem to more or less repeat those found in "Jihad vs. McWorld.")

One can understand, of course, why Barber might have wanted to end his book on a (guardedly) optimistic note. (Happy endings sell tickets -- though not, perhaps, as many as do plot twists.) Ultimately, however, I suspect that even those readers who are most sympathetic to Barber's campaign against hyper-consumerism, infantilization and the general dumbing-down of American society -- and I count myself among that number -- are going to end up finding his proposed solutions more hopeful than helpful.

Troy Jollimore is an External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. His poetry collection, "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," won a 2007 National Book

Critics Circle

This article appeared on page M - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


Buyer Beware

Are we training our kids to be consumers rather than citizens?

Reviewed by Barry Schwartz
Sunday, April 8, 2007; BW08


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

By Benjamin R. Barber

Norton. 406 pp. $26.95


Inside the Ruthless Battle for America's Youngest Consumers

By Eric Clark

Free Press. 259 pp. $26

Immediately after 9/11, President Bush addressed the nation. Here was a chance to bring a grieving people together -- to articulate shared purposes and ask for shared sacrifice. Instead, all the president asked of us is that we keep doing what Americans do . . . and shop. Not exactly Churchillian, but if Benjamin Barber is right, Bush was just tapping into the spirit of our times. In Consumed, Barber argues that shopping is pretty much the only common purpose Americans have left. For two generations, consumerism and citizenship have been battling it out for America's soul. And consumerism has won.

Most of us tend to think of market capitalism as an essential contributor to liberty and democracy, both because it's an engine of material prosperity and because it underpins freedom of choice. Barber argues persuasively that this positive relationship between capitalism and democracy did exist when capitalism was about producing goods that met human needs. But those days are long gone. Now, "needs" must be created: Producers and marketers of goods and services have to convince those with money to buy them. Viagra and Botox become readily available here while drugs to combat life-threatening malaria and diarrhea are not in developing countries.

In a never-ending effort to make consumption the centerpiece of every American's existence, marketers have succeeded in infantilizing adults ("kidults," Barber calls us). We're increasingly governed by impulse. No wonder consumer debt and personal bankruptcy have never been higher. Feeling dominates thinking, me dominates us, now dominates later, egoism dominates altruism, entitlement dominates responsibility, individualism dominates community, and private dominates public. Imagine having the ship of state guided by leaders elected by a nation of 12-year-olds. That, according to Barber, is what we've got.

Barber is a distinguished political theorist who for years has been writing about the deterioration of "civil society" and what must be done to reclaim it. Many others have criticized our obsession with materialism and consumption, a theme he explored in Jihad vs. McWorld, but Barber's aim is not to be a scold. The Reagan revolution convinced us that turning the market loose would be good economics and good politics. Barber, in contrast, argues that "Once upon a time, capitalism was allied with virtues that also contributed at least marginally to democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. Today it is allied with vices which -- although they serve consumerism -- undermine democracy, responsibility, and citizenship." In other words, in the modern era, it's not so much democracy and capitalism as it is democracy or capitalism.

This is a strong view. Even good liberals such as New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas L. Friedman seem to believe that market competition, like aspirin, can fix anything. In my opinion, Barber is right. The heart of this book -- a section titled "The Eclipse of Citizens" -- provides chapter and verse. We adults, addicted as we are to consumption, may be too far gone to reclaim democracy. For that, we have to wait for our children to take over.

But it may be too late for them, too. In The Real Toy Story, investigative journalist Eric Clark gives us an inside look at a $21-billion industry that starts training kids to be consumers at about age 2. With less than 4 percent of the world's children, Americans consume 40 percent of the world's toys, most of them produced in Asia, under sweatshop conditions. American kids see about 40,000 commercials a year. Lucrative product-licensing deals turn the shows they watch into commercials (including pristine PBS), while marketing experts have figured out ways to exploit the "nag factor" -- how to make kids persistent enough in their pursuit of goods that parents will give in, just to shut them up.

Clark does a fair amount of hand-wringing about relentless marketing, cutthroat competition among producers and retailers, and abysmal factory working conditions. The book bills itself as a kind of exposé. But Clark's heart isn't really in it. Much more memorable are his descriptions of some of the great toys in history and their inventors' struggles to get them to market. You root for these folks, imagining the childlike gleam in their eyes as they tinker in their garages and lament that the massive concentration of market power among producers (Mattel and Hasbro) and retailers (Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us) may be driving clever innovators away. These tales of triumph make it hard to stay focused on the big story, which is how the toy industry is training the next generation to choose consumerism over citizenship before they even have a clue what "citizenship" means. If you find Barber's book depressingly convincing, Clark's will make you want to cut your throat.

Many years ago, the distinguished economic historian Albert Hirschman wrote a book called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, in which he pointed out a fundamental difference between the market and the state. We respond to dissatisfaction in the market with "exit": We leave a store (or Web site) and go to another. We respond to dissatisfaction in the state with "voice": We march, we write letters to the editor, we work in political campaigns, we pressure school districts to improve the quality of education in our kids' schools. It's a serious mistake, Barber points out, to confuse the two. And it's an equally serious mistake to assume that the success of one implies the success of the other: "The victory of consumers is not synonymous with the victory of citizens. McWorld can prevail and liberty can still lose."

These two books show us that McWorld -- the commercialization of everything -- has prevailed, that liberty is losing and that the market machine is turning our innocent kids into shallow, egoistic "kidults" right in front of our eyes. Even when our collective memory of 9/11 has faded, the serious problems these books describe will still be with us. ?

Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less."

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