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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Consumerism An Ethic?

Barber argues that the new ethic of capitalism is one of ‘infantilisation’: money today is to be made in maintaining adults as needy children, who stuff down dumbed-down films, saccharine food and video games. While in the early stages of capitalism it benefited the capitalist system for everybody to save their pennies, now it benefits the system for us to splurge every penny and borrow more. While in the time of Franklin people were encouraged to restrain themselves and reinvest, now, says Barber, we are encouraged to act on every immediate whim, to be the grasping child in a sweet shop unable to say no.

Barber is very worried about infantilisation. He uses the word ‘puerile’ a lot, not just in one chapter title but at times every few pages or so (p171 discusses the ‘puerile ways in which we think about who we are in terms of what we buy’; p174 mentions the ‘puerile [beer] ads featuring hot girls’). He contrasts our infantile consumption with the responsible and upright bourgeois gent, and finds us wanting. He says that while early capitalism encouraged the virtues, with the working man’s ‘robust notion of agency and a spirited grittiness’, now capitalism encourages the vices. One of the solutions he broaches is a rejuvenation of the work ethic, ‘a revolution that is more like a restoration of the situation under which capitalism has historically been most successful’.

The book captures well the grotesque features of contemporary capitalism, in which genuine needs go unmet and false needs are splurged and indulged. Barber’s formulation of this paradox – ‘the needy are without income and the well-heeled are without needs’ – is a neat one, and he portrays the decadent and senseless ends to which human time and resources are put. More on advertising than on aid; more on plastic surgery than on cancer surgery; more on Viagra than on tackling AIDS.

Yet Barber is wrong to call consumerism an ethic, or to present the current culture as an all-out celebration of stuff. There is no contemporary Benjamin Franklin singing the praises of video games and junk food; there are no respected books urging you to splurge all your pennies. All the respectable books say the same thing as Barber about consumerism, with their titles such as ‘Enough’!, ‘Affluenza’! or ‘The Paradox of Choice’. (Indeed, authors like the sound of ‘Affluenza’ so much that there are two books and one film by the same name.)

The sources Barber quotes as evidence of what he calls the ‘religion of selfishness’ include: a Porsche advert, a book subtitled ‘the capitalist pig guide to investing’, and the 1987 film Wall Street (which had the clear moral lesson that greed is not good). In actual fact, the celebration of consumerism that Bell identified – the 1960s revelling in personal liberation and sensation – is long gone. In the 2000s, man is uptight and anxious, consuming plenty but often guiltily, searching out the low-carbon, low-calorie, organic, fair-trade option from the supermarket shelves.

What happened to work?

If consumerism is emphasised more in our culture than production, play more than work, this is not only because consumption is what Western capitalism needs now – it is also because the production side of life is so lacking in ideological justification. Contrary to what Barber suggests, modern life is not just one long video game. Consumers work, do they not, before they can consume?

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Posted by Ajay :: 5:23 PM :: 0 comments

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