Nation of Rebels
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by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
It's one of the hottest concepts of the last half century, the theme of countless Hollywood blockbusters, Top 40 songs, magazine covers, and bestselling books: industrial capitalism has turned the masses into mindless cogs in a great corporate machine. Brainwashed by ads to absorb the ever-swelling glut of useless products on the market, we consume ourselves into a state of numb complacency. The driving force behind this cycle? Conformism. The obvious solution? Rebel! Pierce your eyebrow; ride a motorcycle; eat organic; listen to hip-hop. To undermine corporate power, all we must do is refuse to conform.
Not so fast, say Canadian philosophers Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their new book, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (reviewed by Marc Cooper in the April Atlantic). Whoever came up with the critique of mass society should get a fat kickback from corporate America. The concept of countercultural rebellion and its elusive twin—cool—have resulted in a status competition that has driven consumption to unprecedented heights. It's not conformism that leads us to spend, spend, spend on the unnecessary and the ephemeral, but its opposite: the quest to distinguish ourselves from the masses through our enlightened, hip, or just plain rebellious consumer preferences. And marketers of products ranging from cars (the Volkswagen Bug) to computers (the Mac) to shoes (Doc Martens) have been reaping huge harvests from the countercultural seeds that were sown in the 1960s. The point was never underlined more heavily than when Kalle Lassen, editor of the ragingly anti-capitalist Adbusters magazine, came out with the Black Spot sneaker: a "subversive" running shoe that Lassen hoped would "uncool Nike" and "set a precedent that [would] revolutionize capitalism." As Heath and Potter point out, there is nothing "subversive" about trying to beat Nike. "That's called marketplace competition. It's the whole point of capitalism.
As far as Heath and Potter are concerned, driving consumerism is the counterculture's only real raison-d'être these days. The movement hasn't had a fresh thought in decades—ever since its heyday in the 1960s, it has merely been recycling and repackaging the same mythology. Forty-five years ago, French philosopher Guy Debord gave us the idea that, in modern capitalist society, reality has been replaced by "the spectacle," which he opaquely defined as "capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image." And since 1999, Andy and Larry Wachowski have generated over a billion dollars in worldwide sales by spinning Debord's concept into a cult film series called The Matrix. For another prominent example, take Naomi Klein and Alissa Quart, two young journalists whose bestsellers, No Logo (Klein) and Branded (Quart), made the claim that "brand bullies" and the modern luxury economy have turned teenagers into overspending fashion victims. Nothing new there, Heath and Potter point out. The idea of the brainwashing powers of advertising is at least as old as Vance Packard's 1957 classic, The Hidden Persuaders, and the consumer-as-victim was a well-known paradigm in France by the 1960s. As for Klein's and Quart's prescriptions to these afflicted youths—respectively, to engage in protests against global capitalism and to dress differently from their peers—they would not have turned many heads in 1969.
The image of unthinking masses consuming in order to fill the vacuum of their otherwise empty lives comes, according to the authors, from the naive elitism of intellectuals. They offer some comical examples. When Jean Baudrillard wrote in his 1970 book, Consumer Society, about the useless goods that the system convinces the masses to perceive as "needs," he offered as an example the two-speed windshield wiper. As Heath and Potter point out, while multi-speed wipers might seem a silly gadget to a Parisian intellectual, a lot of people find them rather handy. They go on:
Whenever you look at the list of consumer goods that (according to the critic) people don't really need, what you invariably see is a list of consumer goods that middle aged intellectuals don't need. Budweiser bad, single-malt Scotch good; Hollywood movies bad, performance art good; Chryslers bad, Volvos good; hamburgers bad, risotto good and so on... Consumerism, in other words, always seems to be a critique of what other people buy. This makes it difficult to avoid the impression that the so-called critique of consumerism is just thinly veiled snobbery, or worse, Puritanism.
The authors take particularly gleeful aim at the puritans of the counterculture, who attempt to opt out of capitalist society by consuming only "good" products: organic, natural, second-hand, hand-made, "fair trade," and such. Like their Black Spot sneaker-wearing brethren, what these consumers are mainly doing is engaging in "status competition" and creating markets for expensive new goods.
But Heath and Potter are not just irritated by the vanity of the counterculture. They are angry at a deception that they feel has all but destroyed the Left. The critique of mass society and the myth of corporate world domination, they argue, have led to a loss of faith among progressives in the very idea of political reform. In No Logo, Naomi Klein grumbles that the replacement of free-market fundamentalists like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s with social democrats like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the 1990s made no real difference: "What good was an open and accountable Parliament or Congress if opaque corporations were setting so much of the global political agenda in the back rooms?" And in his Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine, after a poignant illustration of the horrors of gun violence, Michael Moore draws the conclusion that gun control is not the answer. The problem, in Moore's view, is a "culture of fear" in the U.S.—a problem so deeply rooted in American culture and history that, Moore implies, nothing short of wholesale revolution could solve it. This insistence on tossing out the baby with the bathwater has turned the American Left into an increasingly impotent political fringe, even as it seems to gain cultural status. Heath and Potter challenge the followers of Moore, Klein, et al. to abandon their militant fantasies and "make peace with the masses"—turning their energies to the often tedious but far more effective process of political reform in an imperfect world.
Andrew Potter lives in Montreal, where he is a fellow at the University of Montreal's Center for Research in Ethics. Joseph Heath is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. I spoke to them by phone on February 24.
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
One of the central ideas of your book stems from a remark by the renowned cultural critic Thomas Frank that countercultural rebellion is basically a modern quest for social prestige. Was the idea of counterculture as a liberating, democratizing force always mere vanity?
Heath: The unquestioned assumption that's at the core of the critique of mass society is that the capitalist system imposes conformity. Everybody's trying to fit in—it's somehow required by The System that people behave themselves, not ask too many questions, and do what they're told. That's what leads to this theory that rebellion—against clothing styles, for example, or any other elements of the culture—is going to throw a wrench into the works and generate systemic dysfunction. The central observation that Frank makes and that we pick up on is that, in fact, rebellion just exacerbates consumer capitalism. We simply invert the analysis. We say, Look, most consumers are not trying to conform. They're trying to establish some kind of distinction. And rebellion is a very good way of setting yourself apart from the masses, whether it's by being cooler or morally superior or just better informed than other people. It's a search for prestige in the most basic sense.