Infantile capitalism

In: Uncategorized

7 May 2007

Russell Jacoby, a professor of history at UCLA, has written an astute review article in the Nation on the redefinition of capitalism in terms of consumption. Although the idea is not new in itself a new book on consumer culture by Benjamin Barber, a political theorist, takes it further by arguing that the latest stage of capitalism is driven by an “infantilist ethos”. However, Jacoby argues that this idea is not really developed. Instead Barber takes readers on a familiar discussion of “hyper-consumerism” driven by privatisation, branding and total marketing.

Jacoby is also sceptical about the solutions that Barber offers:

“In the last section of the book Barber sketches out “a moderate and democratic way” to resist consumer capitalism. He wants to restore capitalism to “its primary role” as an efficient producer and to uphold the “democratic public” as the regulator of “our plural life worlds.” But the weakness of his ideas shows through his PowerPoint presentations. He locates three types of consumer resistance and subversion: “I will discuss them under the rubrics cultural creolization, cultural carnivalization and cultural jamming.” By creolization, he means the effort to turn market brands against the market, where commodification serves heretical groups or movements, like Hasidic rock, in which ultra-orthodox Gad Elbaz sets pious lyrics to throbbing rhythms. By “jamming” Barber means tactics derived mainly from Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters magazine. In Lasn’s words, the jammers paint their “own bike lanes, reclaim streets, ‘skull’ Calvin Klein ads, and paste GREASE stickers on tables and trays at McDonald’s restaurants.” “

Jacoby also criticises other ideas by Barber on muting the impact of the market:

“In addition to his three forms of cultural resistance Barber comes up with other, more disparate, perhaps desperate, efforts to rein in the market–such as consumer activism (dolphin-safe tuna), creative video games (SimCity) and especially George Clooney movies (Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana). Barber is only the latest progressive to go gaga over Hollywood. He dreams its milquetoast offerings are revolutionary provocations. Movies like Bulworth, with Warren Beatty, and American Dreamz, with Hugh Grant, demonstrate Hollywood’s “own dialectical capacity to generate rebellion and subversion.” It is more likely that they demonstrate Barber’s capacity for wishful thinking. The ravages of the market in the impoverished Third World also catch Barber’s attention–at least for ten pages. Here too he finds counter-movements or partial remedies like Doctors Without Borders’s 500-calorie Plumpy Nut bar, which is “a miracle cure for the starving,” and Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus’s idea of microcredits for the very poor.”

So, at least judging by Jacoby’s review, Barber has an insight into the contemporary market he does not properly pursue. As a result Barber comes up with mundane solutions to what he sees as the problem.

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