Barber, the prophetic author of Jihad vs. McWorld (1995), delivers a frightening analysis of the way consumerism is vitiating shoppers in the United States and around the world.
Once upon a time, Americans were obsessed with being productive; now, we’re obsessed with consuming. The consumerism that has infected society, Barber charges, both fosters and requires an “enduring childishness.” Corporations vie for ever younger consumers, and marketers understand that in order to keep people buying things they don’t need, potential consumers must be kept in a state of childishness that emphasizes play, impulse and entitlement over work, deliberation and responsibility. Some of Barber’s analysis feels a little banal—as when he points out that people buy goods hawked by celebrities because purchasers believe that Michael Jordan–endorsed shoes will make them like Jordan. But most of his thinking is fresh. One of the problems of consumerism, to which Barber devotes an entire chapter, is that it homogenizes an otherwise diverse population. He speaks of a kind of “market totalism,” if not totalitarianism, in which the consumer market is addictive, ubiquitous, omnipresent, self-replicating and self-justifying. But this is not an anti-capitalist screed. Rather, much of it is a history lesson. The culture of capitalism, Barber explains, has changed. In an earlier century, capitalism met the “real needs of real people,” and it fostered both freedom and citizenship. Today, capitalism meets only the needs of corporations looking to make a buck. Yet capitalism need not lead to unchecked consumerism. It can be made to promote equality, and not just profit. Barber concludes with a call to temper capitalism and renew a sense of civic belonging—not just nationally, but globally. Perhaps his next book will explain how we might heed that urgent calling.