Magazine article New Internationalist

Dumbing Down Democracy

Magazine article New Internationalist

Dumbing Down Democracy

Article excerpt

'Grow up!' We have all said it. We've all bad it said to us. Sometimes it's just gratuitous, but all too often it's an accurate description of real behaviour. The psychological tendency to revert to childish impulses and reactions exists in us all.

But what happens when an entire culture and its politics systematically caters to such impulses? Sigmund Freud had a name for this. He called it 'infantilization', by which he meant either getting stuck in or reverting back to a childish state, in order to avoid dealing with real-life problems and dilemmas. It can take many forms - narcissism, magical thinking, belief in invisible friends or enemies, desire for the protection of a mythical father (authority) or mother (nurturer) figure. None of these reactions is healthy for a self-governing democracy rooted in the notion that citizens need to come to terms with the issues they face and make collective decisions. But they continue to prove themselves exceptionally useful to the governing political classes, diverting popular alienation away from their use of power and the enjoyment of their prerogatives.

Capitalism has always been associated with different states of mind. In its earliest phases, theorists like the German sociologist Max Weber and the British historian RH Tawney connected capitalism's rise with the Protestant values of parsimony and salvation through endeavour. The idea was that frugality (save your funds to invest) and hard work shaped a personality fit for success both in heaven and on earth. While impediments to wealth-gathering were discouraged, private acts of philanthropy were lionized.

In our own times things have moved along - late or turbo-capitalism suffers from a crisis of 'overproduction': too many goods chasing too little demand. If you discount (as the market does) all those billions who have needs for basic food and shelter but lack the money to constitute legitimate 'demand', there is just too much stuff being produced. But it is the health of this production that keeps the economy humming along - creating jobs and profits (and, of course, waste, poverty and pollution).

Easy credit certainly encourages people to buy more stuff, but the crucial element for doing this is the advertising industry. So buy! buy! buy! is the mantra of our particular era. To make that happen, what seems to work best is to treat consumers like spoiled or anxious children. In his voluminous recent book on the subject Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin Barber connects turbo-capitalism with a cult of perpetual childishness, which is sweeping the industrial world.1 In English they are called Kidults or Adultescents; the Germans speak of Nesthocker; for Italians they are Mammones; Freeter in Japan; Zippies in India. A culture is emerging based on a prolonged lifetime of buying ever more toys (fancy cameras, jet skis, SUVs, a myriad of electronic paraphernalia) - nicely caught by that Florida bumper sticker: 'The one who finishes with the most toys wins'.

We don't need to be told much more about the sorry way in which advertising infantilizes us. The deformations of values and personalities that result are by now the subject of a vast, hand-wringing literature. Entire magazines, such as the clever Vancouver-based Adbusters, are dedicated to combating the deformities.

Less investigated, however, is the way the culture of infantilization is poisoning democratic political life across the industrial world and now beyond. This is not a conspiracy, but an entire industry. Pollsters, spin doctors, think-tanks, consultants, political marketers, makeover artists, writers, researchers, electoral demography experts, psychologists, backroom boys and girls and a host of other specialists cash in on the multi-million dollar business. Whenever election time rolls around, big political machines kick into high gear. God help you if you are in their path. …

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