Sunday, November 04, 2007

November 2007 Book Club Selection : Consumed, Benjamin Barber

Barber applies Jihad vs. McWorld model a little closer to home

In Jihad vs. McWorld Barber essentially muses at length about the concept of cultural warfare, whereby consumerism (McWorld) is pitted against traditionalism (Jihad) in a conflict wrought with parocialism, and heavily dependent on identity politics.

In Consumed, Barber turns his attention to the home front, as it were, as he examines how North American culture, in particular, has become beholden to a form of post modern capitalism wherein the role of capitalism has become not meeting people's needs, but rather inventing newer, more profitable needs.

In short, Barber argues that consumerism has supplanted the public good, and has threatened to overwhelm democracy.

Given the choice between passively consuming intricately-designed messages telling people what they should believe they need and actually demanding that capitalism meet their actual needs, all too many people are choosing the former over the latter. What has since emerged is a new form of global capitalism pulling out all the stops to sell people in wealthy markets Coke over Pepsi, but can't (or won't) produce clean drinking water for people in the developing world.

Branding, in particular, is a phenomenon that Barber seems to find problematic. Postmodern capitalism has struggled to convince people that their identities are defined by what they consume. On a national scale (at least in the United States, but equally as arguably in Canada), this has led to a society that defines itself more in accordance to its ability to consume, and less in regards to the virtues of the society itself (freedom, civil rights, etc).

This tendency, in Barber's view, is beginning to lead North American culture toward what he identifies as Consumer Totalitarianism: the development of collective identities through the compulsive consumption of branded goods and services that are arguably erasing the boundaries between public and private life. The subsequent branding of individual and public identity threatens to undercut diversity necessary to foment the plurality necessary for democracy to thrive.

Barber's analysis often seems troubling, but he also goes to great lengths to remind readers that every individual has the power to reclaim their identity, reestablish their primacy over public and private space, and reclaim democracy from the clutches of consumerism.

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