The Socialist 20 September 2007 |
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How markets corrupt children, infantilise adults and swallow citizens whole
Benjamin R. Barber, W.W. Norton & Company, London
Readers of the socialist could readily agree with the title of this book. The destructive nature of the capitalist system, based upon production for profit and not social need, is spelt out, sometimes extremely brutally, and very wittily.
Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party General Secretary
What the author describes as the "consumerist society" is indicted for progressively demolishing "the life cycle's traditional stages, shortening childhood and following it with a few murky passages. Adolescence... begins before puberty and, for some, lasts forever... age denial is everywhere."
The "infantilist ethos" has replaced the so-called "Protestant work ethic" which, according to some philosophers of the system such as Max Weber, marked out capitalism, particularly Anglo-American capitalism. Spelt out are the "Peter Pan tendencies" of the US in particular.
Barber argues that "consumer capitalism... [is seeking] to encourage adult regression, hoping to rekindle in grown-ups the tastes and habits of children so that they can sell globally the relatively useless cornucopia of games, gadgets and myriad consumer goods for which there is no discernible 'need market' other than the one created by capitalism's own frantic imperative to sell." Child development scholars are quoted on "the hostile takeover of childhood" by corporations vying "more and more aggressively for young consumers".
Even The Economist admitted a few years ago: "Once, when you grew up you put away childish things. Today, the 35-year-old Wall Street analyst who zips to work on his push-scooter, listening to Moby on his headphones and carrying annual reports in his backpack, has far more in common with a 20-year-old than he would have done a generation ago."
At the same time, four million "not-so-young adults" between 25 and 34 in the United States still live with their parents. The same trend is shown in Europe, in Italy, for instance, and increasingly in Britain. A major factor is that wages are too low to buy or rent separate accommodation, as well as the chronic housing shortage.
The author contrasts previous eras of capitalism, which he describes as "productivist", that allegedly met the "real needs of real people": basic goods, food, housing, tools, etc.
His argument is that capitalism today only progresses through "consumerism" because "essential needs have already been satisfied".
But this is not true of the majority of the world's population, particularly in the neo-colonial world, who live in grinding poverty. Poverty also exists and is growing in the advanced countries.
Karl Marx pointed out that capitalism continually develops new 'internal' markets, catering sometimes for what were at one time "imaginary needs" - e.g. mobile phones and iPods - but are now 'essential'.
But there is also a lot that is correct in the author's criticisms of 'modern capitalism', particularly the idea of shopping for shopping's sake.
The extent to which the "consumerist ethic" has penetrated US society was shown by the role of Bush at the time of 9/11. Barber writes: "When President Bush wanted to find a metaphor for normalcy in helping Americans find their way back from the nightmare of 9/11, he seized on shopping - imploring Americans to show al-Qa'ida its patriotic backbone by going to the mall and getting on with the business of consuming."
Shop till you drop
Also, the Vancouver Sun newspaper - Vancouver's largest, most popular daily - published an "editorial" on the ethics of shopping titled "Shop till you drop: It's a moral imperative".
William Greider in his seminal book on modern neo-liberalism, One World, Ready or Not, pointed out that "too many unprofitable products chase too few consumers, too many of whom must be prodded, pushed, and cajoled into consumption".
This is a joyless compulsiveness which, as this book shows, is conjuring up opposition to the very nature of modern capitalism, even before a full economic meltdown.
This is reminiscent of the 1960s leading to the social earthquakes of 1968-69. The new generation of workers and students began to reject the crude, selfish materialism of capitalist society. This revolt was a harbinger of the mass working-class revolts to come.
In support, the author quotes the pertinent comments of Marx: "The expansion of production and of needs becomes an ingenious and always calculating subservience to inhuman, depraved, unnatural and imaginary appetites."
Marx described in graphic general terms what the author of this book spells out in detail; the 'alienation' of the producer, the worker in capitalist society, both from his means of production and his product - to become a cog in the modern industrial machine. He charts out what he understands are the different stages of capitalism.
His comments on the 'philanthropy' of the millionaires and billionaires prior to the First World War are apposite given the character of capitalism today. This philanthropy, which amounted to distributing some of the swag pocketed by the capitalists from the exploitation of the labour power of the working class, was not done in order to create an egalitarian society. It was a sop to try to mollify the masses and, through the rich's 'benevolence' and 'kindness' to bind the working class to capitalism, its aims and 'morality'.
The US spent over $230 billion in 2001 on advertising, with as much as $40 billion aimed at children (up from $2.2 billion in 1968 and $4.2 billion in 1984). Advertising in Europe is approaching $100 billion per annum.
Hollywood, the so-called "dream machine", is correctly blamed for its role in the process of dumbing down and infantilising modern society. Barber contrasts the critical, radical films of the 1960s, when "American film-making caught fire and grew up, and then Spielberg and Lucas came along and put out the flames in a great deluge of cash generated by junk food for 14-year-olds."
Shallow infantilism and frenetic demands for speed exist in all spheres: "Fast food, fast music, fast film-editing, fast computers, athleticism in which speed alone counts, digitalisation where speed is the primary objective, the fast-track life (even where it is actually no-growth road to nowhere) - these are the ever-more imbedded trends that dominate popular youth culture and commerce worldwide. In India, the new generation of fast consumers call themselves 'Zippies'. "
In Southern Europe, there is a ferocious attack on the siesta and "long lunches". The Fundaci-n Independiente in Madrid has launched a campaign, declaring: "Two to three hours are very pleasant [for lunch] but they are not very productive."
In other words, everything must be bent to the production of profit - no matter what the cost in stress and the consequent unhappiness and illness - to what the English writer Carlyle called the "cash nexus".
The author concludes: "The culture of modern consumer capitalism has thrown all this Freudian (and Protestant) baggage to the winds. For the first time in history, a society has felt its economic survival demands a kind of controlled regression which promotes puerility rather than maturation."
Barber correctly denounces the attempt to abolish the 35-hour week in France, which the working class in the rest of Europe want to emulate, but which the European capitalists and their counterparts worldwide are ganging up with each other to prevent.
Compared to some other writers on the horrors of modern neo-liberal capitalism, Barber is clear what this system means for the majority of the population: "Inequality is built into the market system, which too often becomes a race to the top for those who are wealthy, and a race to the bottom for everyone else. Inequality is not incidental to privatisation, it is its very premise." The public sector is perceived as a kind of "self-financing leper colony that cannot self-finance".
Moreover, "politicians are merchandised and sold as commodities to a public regarded not as a body of public citizens but as a clientele."
Barber correctly rejects the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat, with its implication that the conditions which exist in the US will become the norm for the whole of the world.
The reality is unparalleled divisions between North and South, between rich and poor, between wealthy 'hubs' within countries and the angry and poor dispossessed parts which are left behind.
The divisions have never been greater. In place of this so-called 'flat world', the English philosopher Hobbes's nightmare of "each against all" is becoming a reality with poverty, corruption, crime and insecurity drawing in more and more of the world's population.
In most respects, Barber's forensic analysis of modern capitalism cannot be faulted. It is in his alleged remedies that the fault of this book lies. These amount to a reformist programme to blunt or eliminate the worst aspects of capitalism such as his proposal for "democratising globalisation... What is missing is a transnational citizenry that might counteract the tendencies of the global market".
The International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, as well as the United Nations, are seen correctly as "creatures" of sovereign nation states - "for the US" - but what he wants to put in their place are "transnational bodies controlled by global civil society". These amount to utopian proposals or, at best, palliatives which will not check the inhuman tendencies of neo-liberal capitalism.
Remedies for a sick system
Socialism and Marxism's challenge to capitalism is not just that it is an economically inefficient system that cannot use the full potential of the productive forces built up by the labour of the working class.
It is also cultural; capitalism is increasingly inhumane, promoting selfishness - dog-eat-dog - alienation, "puerility" and grey, one-dimensional human beings.
Democratic socialism will lay the basis for ending this dead end through human solidarity, which will open up new vistas in art, science and industry for society as a whole and for each individual.
Only the organised working class on a world scale - beginning their fight against capitalism and for a new socialist order in their own national arenas and linking together internationally - can show a way out of the economic and cultural morass which Barber describes so well.