These avatars of consumer capitalism are seeking to encourage adult regression, hoping to rekindle in grown-ups the tastes and habits of children so that they can sell the useless conucopia of games and gadgets for which there is no discernible “need market” other than the one created by capitalism's frantic imperative to sell. ...
In capitalism's more creative and successful period, a productivist capitalism prospered by meeting the real needs of real people. Creating a synergy between making money and helping others – the Puritan Protestant formula for entrepreneurial virtue – producers profited by making commodities for the workers they employed, a circle of virtue that benefited both classes and society at large. Today consumerist capitalism profits only when it can address those whose essential needs have already been satisfied but who have the means to assuage invented needs.
Barber calls this new epoch one where “the needy are without income and the well heeled are without needs,” where economic inequality leaves capitalism with a dilemma: “the overproducing capitalist market must either grow or expire.” Hence, if the poor of the Third World cannot be enriched enough to become consumers, “then grown-ups in the First World, with vast disposable income but few needs, will have to be enticed into shopping.”
Barber quotes the observations of a 1930s entrepreneur, who understood the dilemma even then: “Not the overproduction of merchandise, but its nondistribution was the problem. From the point of view of business people, they were not producing too much, consumers were buying too little.” Barber continues:
I am arguing that many of our primary business, educational, and governmental institutions are purposefully engaged in infantilization. For this is how we maintain a system of consumerist capitalism no longer supported by the traditional market forces of supply and demand.
Astute manufacturers have learned that on the international scene, where hunger and destitution still prevail in abundance, “there is little profit in selling to those in need.” So, merchandisers must not only “create homogeneous global products aimed at the wealthy young,” but must also vigorously engage in the “consumerization of the child.”
Rather than employ schools to help children grow out of their toys, we import toys into the schools – video games and computers as “edutainment” teaching aids, as well as ad-sponsored TV in the classroom. ... In high school classrooms, this commercialization is supported by outfits like Channel One Network that offer in-school soft “news” television complete with advertisements that sell at rates that rival the Super Bowl. In higher education, colleges and universities that once acted as a counterpoint to commercial culture have gone prostrate before corporate sponsors of research that administrators have neither the will nor the independent funding to oppose. ...
Exit sensitive writers like J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll, who capture children in literature to free the imagination. Enter those whose aim is to capture children's imagination in order to indenture them to the marketplace: enter Super Mario Bros., Britney Spears, “American Idol.” Kiddie consumerism dressed up as consumer cool. ...
Barber reminds us of the time when conservatives pilloried welfare statism for creating childlike dependency. He says,
Totalitarian states historically were thought to act as overweening authorities that infantilized their subjects to keep them in line. Yet if paternalistic states create top-down forms of infantilization, markets today are creating bottom-up forms – less visible because they arise from supposedly pluralistic and competitive markets that turn out to be coercive in intractable ways as they seek to inspire childlike dependency in consumers.
Whatever happened to those days when we were exhorted by the Church to guard against gluttony and greed in our daily lives and were warned against falling into the consumer trap of “keeping up with the Joneses?” Barber suggests that a new ethos has overtaken American culture.
Capitalism ... once allowed energetic risk takers to prosper by serving the growth and welfare of emerging nations. It did so with the succor of a Protestant ethos that lent moral weight to hard work, far-sighted investment, and ascetic self-denial – the very qualities productivist capitalism needed to thrive. Today its productive capacity has outrun the needs it once served even as its distributive capacity has been stymied by the growing global inequalities it has catalyzed. Depending for its success on consumerism rather than productivity, it has generated an ethos of infantilization that prizes the very attributes the Protestant ethos condemned.
Benjamin Barber is the author of Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (Norton), from which the above essay was excerpted.