The essay ‘Towards the aetiology of paedophobia‘ explores the hypothesis that the current hysteria around paedophilia is an unintended consequence arising from a series of factors which are (other than the incest taboo) proper to capitalism and which are currently interacting in such a way as to create a perfect storm of anxieties around childhood and child sexuality.
These factors are: the disappearance of the child from the community and from the world of work; the education system; the predominance of the nuclear family; the operation of the incest taboo in the nuclear family, and conflicting archetypes of ‘the child‘.
One of my original intentions when starting this blog was to write at least one essay on each of these factors. So far I’ve only got as far as writing about the disappearance of the child from the community, in ‘Where Have All The Children Gone?‘.
There are historical and causal relationships in the interactions between the above factors which suggest a logical sequence to such a series of essays, starting with the most fundamental and historically anterior factors and then working forwards causally and historically.
In writing about the ‘consumer child’ at this early stage I am bucking this logical sequence and starting closer to my destination than to my point of departure – ideally I would have first written about ‘the nuclear family’, ‘the incest taboo’ and the ‘innocent child’.
My excuse is simply that the issue of the ‘the consumer child’ is one which has much preoccupied me lately and which I have been researching. I feel I have enough that I want to explore and write about on the subject for two, maybe even (gulp) three, essays , and that I’d best set my thoughts down whilst my research and reflections are still reasonably fresh in my rather unreliable mind and sieve-like memory.
In WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) there exist two dominant archetypes of the Child: the Innocent Child and the Consumer Child. The ‘Innocent Child’ is endemic to industrial economies, particularly Industrial Capitalism; the ‘Consumer Child’ is, of course, a product of Consumer Capitalism.
These two archetypes are fundamentally incompatible with one another, and this incompatibility is being played out on political, social, psychological and interpersonal levels – most significantly between parents and their children. This conflict has created a state of confusion and anxiety which, I strongly suspect, finds one of its expressions in the complex of ideas and feelings that might, for convenience, be described as ‘paedophobia’.
In the first part of this essay I address the emergence and nature of consumer capitalism, the invention of the ‘teenager’ and how the teenage identity has been extended to adults in order to make them more avid and less discriminating consumers.
From Protestant Ethic to Consumer Ethos
The most famous work of the sociologist Max Weber (1864 -1920) is ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism‘. In this essay he argues that capitalism emerged out of, and justified itself by reference to, protestant values such as deferred gratification, rationality, order, hard work, saving and investment, and service to others. As such, capitalism in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries provided an effective way of linking together self-interest and altruism: it offered a mechanism whereby, through investing in products and services which addressed core human needs and wants, one could respond to those needs, increase the bounty and productivity of society and, at the same time, make a profit.
The profit motive was a powerful mechanism for harnessing invention, enterprise and investment for the meeting people’s needs. It generated enormous growth, prosperity and productivity in capitalist societies (as well as, of course, extraordinary injustices and inequalities both in the capitalist societies themselves and the societies which it colonised and plundered). Many inventions and products that have made life easier for ordinary people were developed through this combination of the profit motive and ‘protestant’ values – the internal combustion engine, the spinning Jenny, seed drills, the steam engine, rail roads, electric lighting, modern medicine are all results of this catering to a genuine need via the profit motive.
But today this form of Protestant Capitalism faces a problem. It has become victim of its own success: in the developed world the core needs and wants of the wealthy have largely been addressed and fulfilled.
Of course two-thirds of the world still have many unfulfilled core needs. Unfortunately, they have no wealth, which means that they are invisible to the mechanisms of capitalism. This can be most clearly seen in the way pharmaceutical companies have artificially maintained high prices for drugs, such as retrovirals, and suppressed the production of cheap generic versions, making them unaffordable to those who need them most, in sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, the lack of interest and investment by pharmaceutical companies in the development of a cure for malaria – a disease of the poor.
So contemporary Capitalism finds itself in a difficult position: it has to continue to produce and sell goods and services to make money, but those with wealth need only spend a small proportion of their wealth to satisfy their real needs whilst those with real needs don’t have the wealth necessary for their satisfaction.
The danger for Capitalism is that the wealthy, whose core needs are easily catered for, become dissatisfied with working 40+ hours a week to earn the disposable income necessary for buying products that they have no real need for, and that they instead choose to spend that disposable income on time i.e. choose to work less, spend less, lead simpler lives more focused on those things that really matter: loved ones, friends, their community and environment, their talents and passions.
Capitalism’s solution to this problem has been, over the past 60 years, to switch from manufacturing goods and providing services to answer real needs to concentrating on the manufacture of needs. People have to be persuaded to stay on the treadmill, to work hard, earn a surplus, and spend that surplus on goods they don’t need and to a large extent don’t even want (does a smoker worried for his health really ‘want’ a cigarette? does someone really ‘want’ a car when all they use it is for driving to work and getting stuck in traffic jams..?).
This is why the chief industry of contemporary capitalism, the industry that defines it, is Marketing and Advertising – the selling of goods that can’t be considered necessary or, in many ways, even wanted: one doesn’t need marketing to sell essentials: food to the hungry, water to a thirsty man in a desert, clothes to the cold.
However to sell the consumer living in a first-world nation a bottle of water which costs two-thousand times more than the clean, readily available, free-at-source tap-water; or to sell hi-tech running shoes to someone whose only participation in sport is watching it on a screen, or to create a situation where the poorest people are the ones who suffer from obesity all represent triumphs of manipulation of the citizen by the Marketing industry.
So Capitalism is on a race to sell more and more stuff to people who need such stuff less and less. To achieve this end the Market combines creativity and resources with a multiplicity of strategies to reconfigure, with remarkable effectiveness, the way we think, feel, desire and act.
The contemporary Weltanschauung is largely a creation of this industry: we live in a culture in which those activities that do not involve acts of gratuitous consumption are labelled ‘uncool’ (wearing non-designer-label clothes), ‘geeky’ (bird-watching), ‘insufferably middle class’ (not having a television), ‘preachy’ or ‘smug’ (vegetarianism); where the status of ‘Teenagers’ and ‘Tweens’ is defined according to their role as consumers; where we can feel loyalty towards a brand, or where it is considered normal that when one buys branded clothing one is paying significantly extra for the privilege of acting as an advert for that clothing.
And if last year business spent 600 billion dollars on marketing and advertising it is because marketing works – it makes us spend money which we would not have spent otherwise, it shapes the way we feel and think.
the ubiquity of the consumer ethos
Consumer Capitalism needs people to be able to consume and be subject to consumer messages all the time. It seeks to infiltrate everyday life and be present in all virtual and real spaces.
This is not only in order to market specific products such as Diet Pepsi, but also to create a pervasive consumer mental space where the predominant terms by which we conceive of ourselves and the world are those of materialism and consumption. This can be seen in the way ‘shopping’ is now considered as a pass-time, a form of ‘therapy’ even, in how ideas of ‘cool’ have become dominant in our evaluation of products, behaviours and services, in how people identify with, and are loyal to, brands and in how interpersonal relationships are increasingly defined in terms of consumption.
Imagine a place where every wall had a poster on it saying ‘Love allah!’ and everywhere you went, including schools, you saw the star and crescent and quotations from the quran? If every quarter of an hour the programme you were watching was interrupted by short, highly entertaining bursts of religious dogma urging you to ever greater religious devotion? Wouldn’t you say this was a theocracy? Or a similar situation where every message, overtly or covertly, communicated the message ‘Support Your Leader’? As in North Korea?
When president George Bush, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, wanted Americans to do their patriotic duty he did not ask them to pray, or to tighten their belts, as usually happens when a country goes to war. Instead he urged Americans to:
“Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
And in 2006, when faced with a recession caused by the cost of prosecuting the Iraq war, he told the American people:
“I encourage you all to go shopping more”
Hand-held computing devices mean that we are never more than a glance and a click away from advertising and the chance to consume. Packaging; advertising on television, on billboards, in magazines; branding; advertorials (an advert disguised as editorial content); product placement in films, books, music &c; the use of sponsorship and the buying of naming rights for public facilities and high-profile events (e.g. ‘Bank of America Stadium’, North Carolina), the supply of free teaching materials to schools, which promote a company and/or their products or which deliver advertising to children (as does the USA’s Channel One News); Viral marketing campaigns &c &c all these and many more strategies make use of all and every opportunity to access the consumer’s mind.
The UK and USA may not be dictatorships or theocracies, but the message ‘Consume!’ is as ubiquitous as the marketing industries can make it.
Can we doubt that if they were capable of doing it marketing companies would insert adverts and product placements into our dreams?
Up until the middle of the last century there were ‘babies’, ‘children’ and ‘adults’. Till then children were bit-players in the consumer world, purchasers of cheap toys and sweets. The marketing industry considered parents as ‘gatekeepers’: standing guard between the child and the Market. Products for children were marketed in such a way as to convince parents that the product would be good for their children.
In the 1950s, as industrial capitalism started to take on more and more elements of consumer capitalism, the ‘teenager’ as we know it made its appearance. The teenager is the marketing industry’s great strategy to get the ‘gatekeepers’ out of the way – they recognised that a child can exert much more pressure on a parent than any advert ever could.
The Teenager is particularly vulnerable to the strategies of Marketing and Advertising and this has placed them at the epicentre of consumer culture – their tastes drive market trends, and millions are spent marketing to them and researching their lives and tastes.
The marketing industry has devised strategies to market to Teenagers and children behind their parents’ backs, and made of them ’empowered’ (a word much loved by the marketing industry which conceals a multitude of sins) consumers, using ‘pester power’ and children’s influence over their parents.
The Teenage Identity makes for the ideal consumer because it privileges impulse over deliberation; instant gratification over long-term satisfaction; narcissism over sociability; entitlement over responsibility, the Present over the Past and the Future.
The teenage identity is hedonistic, focused on satisfying first-order desires (‘I want a cigarette’, ‘I want an SUV’, ‘I want that doughnut’) rather than second-order desires (‘I want to give up smoking’, ‘I want a clean environment’, ‘I want my family to be healthy’).
Because teenagers and children have less experience in handling money they have a less developed perspective than the adult on spending, debt and the value of goods. Their ‘wants’ are potentially infinite: they tend to accumulate ephemeral, superfluous and useless goods, seeking to complete collections of toys, such as ‘my little pony’, buying their favourite football team’s latest kit or the latest iteration of a video game…
In addition to this, adult cultures tend to be pluralist and distinctive, exclusive, and ‘elitist’ even, whereas youth culture is universal. Wealthy children and adolescents, whether they be American, Spanish, Japanese or Brazilian or Indian, live in a kind of shared parallel universe of manga, McDonalds, blockbuster movies, Harry Potter books, Nike footwear and pop music.
“in general, it appears that before there is a geographic culture, there is a children’s culture; that children are very much alike around the industrialized world. They love to play […] they love to snack and they love being children with other children. The result is that they very much want the same things, that they generally translate their needs into similar wants that tend to transcend culture. Therefore, it appears that fairly standardized multinational marketing strategies to children around the globe are viable.”
James U. McNeal. – “Kids as Consumers: a Handbook of Marketing to Children”
Teenagers are also very subject to defining their identity in relation to groups and subcultures that are defined by possessions and, therefore, acts of consumption: clothing, make-up, music, cultural tastes &c (hence the prevalence amongst teenagers of ‘clans’ such as Goth, Emo, Cosplayer, Cyberpunk…). It is also a phase of life characterised by risk-taking, experimentation, impulsiveness, rebellion against constraints and authority, but which is also especially vulnerable to low self-esteem – which the market can purport to address through consumption (‘consumer therapy’, the anxiogenic fashion industry).
The what extent these characteristics are innate to teenagers, or are a result of social conditions – sexually mature, but obliged to remain dependent, in education, and discouraged from assuming adult roles – or to what extent they are a construct of the marketing industries is an interesting question but, unfortunately, one which I can’t address here.
the infantilisation of adulthood
But why does the market seem to so ruthlessly promote the teenage identity? Why is just about all publicity and marketing nowadays (even for products that are exclusively meant for adults – see the Budweiser ad below) pitched at the emotional and intellectual level of the early teen and tween?
After all teenagers generally do not earn a wage and have a low disposable income compared to adults. Moreover, children and adolescents constitute and ever shrinking proportion of the population in WEIRD countries, with birth-rates decreasing and people living longer ( in 1950 a third of their population was under the age of 15, today it is nearer a fifth).
The answer is that the marketing industry’s holy grail is that of endowing adults with the teenage mindset.
Youth is no longer dependent on chronology but is a life-style choice that is promoted with the utmost intensity. This process is about fostering an idea of ‘the adult’ that is dumbed-down, has childish tastes and is impetuous in its spending, an adult that will have tastes and habits of teenagers and children so that they can be sold the relatively useless cornucopia of games, gadgets and myriad consumer goods for which there is no discernible ‘need market’ other than the once created by capitalism’s own frantic imperative to sell.
The infantilised consumer-adult tends to:
“childishness without pleasure, to indolence without innocence, dresses without formality, has sex without reproducing, works without discipline, plays without spontaneity, buys without a purpose, lives without responsibility, wisdom or humility.”
Jacopo Bernardini – ‘The Role of Marketing in the Infantilization of the Postmodern Adult‘
Likewise with other cultural products: the three top- grossing films of 2015 were ‘Star Wars VII’, ‘Jurassic World’ and ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’. All are ‘blockbusters’ (which simply means a film designed to appeal to all tastes and all demographics), all are sequels (as if we were asking, like a small child, for the same story to be told over and over again), cartoonish, and cgi- and action-heavy, devoid of real-life dilemmas or emotions…
Similarly designed for teens but marketed to adults are fast food, popular music, leisure clothing such as trainers, video games, kidult fiction and comics, and gadgets.
Then the field of cosmetic surgery and beauty products, which continues to grow, despite recent recessions, which promote the adolescent, and even the child’s, body as the ideal for both men and women – no body-hair, effortless skinniness, no wrinkles or blemishes or stretch-marks.
One last thought: the above advert promotes an ideal of attractiveness for women to aspire to. Given that attractiveness is only meaningful when it is exercised upon an other person, doesn’t such an advert also send out the message that this kind of beauty is one that men should find attractive too?
Which raises the question of the extent to which our own desires and feelings as paedophiles might be a result of the promotion and idealisation of youth by the marketing and advertising industries.
Could Paedophilia just be the infantilisation of adult tastes taken to its logical conclusion..?
In the second part of this essay I will address the issue of the ‘adultification of the preteen child’ and why this is so important for the marketing industry and consumer capitalism. I’ll look at the role sexuality plays in this, and the nature of the ‘consumer child’ archetype.