This is the modern world

Sunday June 3, 2007

From the evils of consumerism to malign religions and manufactured pop groups, three books look at the parlous state of Denaissance Man, says Rafael Behr

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin R Barber. WW Norton £16.99, pp320
Have a Nice Doomsday, by Nicholas Guyatt. Ebury Press £10.99, pp320
Take That: Inside the Biggest Comeback in Pop History, by Martin Roach. Harper £6.99, pp304

Western civilisation has reached a strange place at the start of the 21st century: fatalistic, superstitious, afraid of knowledge, uninspired by democracy. We are suspicious of science, fretting that it tampers with nature. We are anti-intellectual. Wisdom, after all, is aged and gnarled, offending our cult of unblemished youth. The growing trend in religion is faith that is dogmatic and apocalyptic. We distrust our rulers, but are resigned to their rule. We doubt we can make a difference.

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It has become fashionable for liberals to chart a rise in public irrationality and see it as retreat from the Enlightenment. But it’s worse than that. It isn’t just atheistic scepticism in decline, it is the whole spirit of inquiry. We aren’t just rejecting the Enlightenment, but the Renaissance, too. If the liberal Jeremiahs are right and we are heading for new Dark Ages, we will first have to go through a Denaissance.

What would the Denaissance look like? First, it would see the rise of an ideology that is hostile to the very idea that man can improve himself. Society would embrace complacency and celebrate mediocrity. That is exactly what is described by Benjamin R Barber in Consumed

Barber starts from the view that the dominant idea of our time is consumerism, a mutant child of capitalism. It puts the onus on citizens to sustain the economy by shopping. Consumerism has its basis in orthodox liberal economic theory: private wealth generates demand for goods, the supply of which employs workers who get wages to spend on more goods. The circle turns virtuously. The problem comes once essential needs — food, shelter and the like — are met. New needs have to be invented. The economy gets skewed towards inflating people’s appetite for trivia and branding it as necessity.

This analysis isn’t new — Galbraith identified the problem and Marx anticipated it before him — but Barber moves things on by fingering what he calls the ‘infantilising ethos’ at the heart of consumerism. The perfect consumer, he says, is like a toddler: unable to defer gratification, lacking empathy, clinging to material objects for security, wanting to be told the same stories over and over again.

The advertising and marketing industries spend billions implanting demand for their products in infant imaginations. They also aim to prolong immature behaviour in adults, selling them sugary treats and hi-tech toys, nurturing a sense of self-righteous entitlement (‘because you’re worth it!’), denigrating self-restraint and adult responsibility.

Consumerism, in Barber’s view, exploits the unsophisticated and voracious demands of children and makes adults emulate them. It actively promotes the pursuit of bliss through ignorance. It is fundamentally hostile to history and metaphysics, to anything in fact that might intervene in a citizen’s consciousness and make him aware of the difference between what he wants now, as an individual, and what he might want in the long-term, or for society. So, for example, he fancies another cheeseburger, but he would also like a healthy cardiovascular system. He wants an SUV, but he also wants a temperate planet. Consumerism makes it imperative that he choose McDonald’s and the Range Rover.

This is the political economy of the Denaissance. A peasant in a pre-modern society didn’t distinguish between what he wanted and what he needed, because they were the same thing — a full stomach and a roof over his head. The 21st-century consumer applies the same sense of atavistic urgency to his desire for a blueberry muffin or a smoothness of chin that can only be achieved by the simultaneous application of five tiny razor blades.

If Denaissance society is childishly materialistic, what happens to Christianity, which for centuries was the engine of Western civilisation? During the Renaissance, the collective European consciousness was infiltrated by non-Christian sources of knowledge: the scientific advances of the Arab world, the philosophical insights of antiquity. Then there was the Reformation, empowering individuals to define their relationship with Christ.

A Denaissance church would eschew theological complexity. It would return to literal readings of the Bible as the revealed word of God, and would reject metaphorical interpretations of scripture. It would be anti-humanist. Man, it would teach, has no meaningful freedom apart from the choice to be a Christian or be damned.

As it happens, the Denaissance church already has a sizable congregation. In a 2002 poll, 60 per cent of people in the US said they thought the events prophesied in the Revelation of John would come true. Twenty per cent — 50 million people — thought it would happen in their lifetime. These alarming statistics come from Have a Nice Doomsday, a jaunty report by Nicholas Guyatt from the front line of wacky religious fervour. Guyatt, a Briton who has lived and studied in the US, meets the preachers and authors who spend their time mapping the correlation between Iranian nuclear ambitions and verses in the Book of Ezekiel.

Guyatt tries to conceal the wrinkle all of this puts in his secular nose, not always successfully. He isn’t a polemicist, but he doesn’t leave much doubt, for example, about his scorn for America’s pro-Israel foreign policy. Israel is important to Bible-belt fundamentalists because it is where the Final Battle happens. The worse things get in Jerusalem, the nearer we are to Armageddon (which is, if you are a righteous believer, a good thing). As Guyatt points out, Christianity has had apocalyptic spasms throughout its history. But the last time it was so fixated on the Antichrist and his designs on the Holy Land was around the 12th century. Prophetic literalism is Denaissance theology.

What happens to art in a Denaissance? Society is infantilised and religion denies the idea of progress, which doesn’t leave much room for originality. Innovative polymaths drove the Renaissance. Man went into the Renaissance cowed by fatalistic humility and left it striving to perfect himself. A Denaissance would spurn that challenge as too difficult. It would consign technical virtuosity to a minority pursuit for the elite and celebrate instead effortless banality. Denaissance culture would not seek to challenge and improve, but to distract and reassure. It would lionise idiots. It would deal in mechanistic spectacles and moralising fables, built around easily replicable formulae. It would look like a Hollywood blockbuster.

In music, it would sound something like Take That, the star boy band of the Nineties who disappeared from view, only to re-form last year and top the charts again. The story is told by Martin Roach in Take That: Inside the Biggest Comeback in Pop History. The essence is as follows: clever Svengali signs up precocious but uncharismatic singer-songwriter, recruits four more pretty lads and markets them brilliantly until they burn out. Years later, they spy a lucrative market in anxious, nostalgic young adults and tap into it.

But in Roach’s hagiography, Take That become boy heroes, lovable and roguish in just the right measure. Fate deals them a cruel blow, but a loving public redeems them in the end. Inside the Biggest Comeback in Pop History is well-researched and breezily written. It isn’t a bad book. But it is a fairytale about eternal youth.

The members of Take That are certainly more talented than plenty of people who achieve celebrity status nowadays. But the point isn’t their musical ability, it is the fact that they have conquered time and age. By virtue of comparison with the truly vacuous celebrities who have come along since, Take That have achieved something like cultural credibility. They are brilliantly anodyne, transcendently mediocre. They are Denaissance art.

We aren’t actually living in the Dark Ages. We know the world is round and orbits the Sun. We aren’t rejecting modernity. But we have moved on from modernism, which took the perfectability of man to aggressively utopian lengths. We were made existentially queasy by post-modernism, which challenged objective truth and made all values relative.

But there isn’t yet a word to describe what happens after postmodernism. We crave reassuring certainties, but have run out of the intellectual steam to find them. The big questions of the Renaissance are still there: What is man? What is he for? Only now we answer with another question: ‘Am I bothered?’ That is the spirit of Denaissance.

Further reading

Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire by Morris Berman
Extreme individualism and expansion made America great — and make it one terrorist attack away from being a police state.

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by David Wann, John de Graaf & Thomas H Naylor
The American mantra ‘to live, we buy’ decreases all prospects for a happy, healthy future.

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky
America brings the world closer to the brink of disaster by imposing its own false values on ‘failed states’ around the world.

What Would Jesus Buy?: Reverend Billy’s Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse by Billy Talen
A comic manifesto on how to avoid consumerism with a serious look at the problems it causes.
Liam O’Driscoll

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