Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Civic Schizophrenia

Benjamin Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. Norton, 2007.

Everyone remembers Benjamin Barber's best-selling 1995 book, Jihad vs. McWorld, but no one seems to remember what it was about! Most people who have read it think they remember that it was about the revolt of the Islamic world (Jihad) against globalization (McWorld) and the battle between them. That's an easy conclusion to draw in the post-9/11 world, especially since the book's cover art shows what appears to be an Islamic woman drinking a Pepsi.

But that's not what Barber actually wrote about. Barber (who denies that the Jihad in the title is meant specifically to refer to Islam) actually argued that globalization is twisting the world in two directions at once: toward traditional societies and values (his intended reference for Jihad) and towards market societies and values (McWorld). This twisting is important, he argued, because it undermines democracy. The threat to democracy, not 9/11, is the point of the book. But it isn't the point that most people remember.

I fear the same thing might happen to this book. Once again, Barber is concerned about democratic citizenship, which is still under assault from all sides. In this book, however, it is McWorld and the markets that are singled out as the main threat. Consumed is an extended account of the ways that market values threaten democracy.

The book is an interesting mix of anecdote and theory. I kind of like the theory chapters because I do think that the ideas of Weber and Schumpeter and the others are very relevant (and Barber does an excellent job connecting these dots). But, as was the case in Jihad, I am not as impressed with the "pop culture" chapters, even though they are very well-researched. This is both because there is a limit to how much I can care about the juvenile behavior of sports stars and celebrities and also because the pop examples are so vibrant and memorable that I fear that they may overwhelm the book's serious political message.

Which is this: Markets need us to be irresponsible consumers, needy, grasping, never willing to wait -- and market forces have trained us to behave in this way (the "infantilization" process). But democratic citizenship requires just the opposite. Citizens need to be responsible, resourceful, thoughtful and patient. The qualities that makes us useful consumers (to the businesses that depend upon us) make us horrible democratic citizens. This is the civic schizophrenia that Barber confronts in the final section of the book. I'm not sure that Barber is right about civic schizophrenia, but I do think he raises an interesting question -- one that deserves to be discussed.


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