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 Forty-five years ago, French philosopher Guy Debord gave us the idea that, in modern capitalist society, reality has been replaced by "the spectacle," which he opaquely defined as "capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image."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.
But doesn't that contradict the essence of leftism? Isn't that a kind of bourgeois striving?
Heath: I think that's absolutely right. That's one of the reasons why we say, If anything, counterculture articulates the true spirit of capitalism, because the older bourgeois establishment was basically imitating an aristocratic system of values, which emphasizes the orderliness of life and the inherited wealth and the sedentary lifestyle and so forth. But that's not really in tune with what Joseph Schumpeter famously called the "creative destruction" inherent in capitalism. So it's definitely the restless, bourgeois search for individuality and identity that greases the wheels of commerce.
You claim in the book that "bohemian" values "more accurately reflect" modern capitalism than do conservative ones. Do you mean that on a more than superficial level?
Potter: Oh, yeah. We mean that at the deepest level countercultural values reflect the true spirit of capitalism in a way that the old bourgeois values, which praised order and family and hierarchy, did not. Capitalism works best in a decentralized sense in which there is the possibility of overturning or subverting any form of production at any given time. And that's the essence of bohemianism.
Heath: For example, the older bourgeois system of values prizes the antique. Having antique furniture in the house is regarded as the pinnacle of style. And why is that? You're aping an aristocratic system of values whereby wealth is inherited. By having a bunch of antiques in your house, what you suggest is that you've got old money, not new money. The bohemian, on the other hand, is constantly in a restless search for the new. The bohemian wants the latest, sleekest modern furniture, all of which of course goes out of style within a couple of years, creating the need to buy more of it. That kind of value system is much more sympathetic to the needs of the capitalist system than people sitting around on a bunch of antiques that they inherited from their great-grandfather.
You're explaining how bohemian values boost consumption, but do they make for more effective capitalists?
Heath: Well, there's a difference between people who run businesses and people who start businesses. The true entrepreneurs are guys like Steve Fawcett and Richard Branson, who go around the world in airplanes and hot-air balloons. It's these radical figures who embody the essence of capitalism. They're always trying to stick it to their managers—the drones they've hired to run their companies. It's the bankers who are actually sort of slowing things down. And Thomas Frank pointed out in his last book, One Market Under God, that the dot-com revolution made this point really clear—you saw a fascination with countercultural values in the workplace.
There's an almost paradoxical alliance in the counterculture, between the ultra-permissiveness of the sex, drugs, and rock and roll way of life, and the ascetic, buy-nothing, grow-your-own-organic-sprouts and seek out the most difficult, uncomfortable place to vacation kind of puritanism. How do those two attitudes meet?
Potter: That's certainly true. The line we push, especially our chapter on exoticism, is that the counterculture sees technology as a homogenizing force, and is afraid of that. And once you see technology as building up bureaucracies and serving capitalism and the military-industrial complex, you end up being afraid of what Theodore Roszak calls the "technocracy." So the only real way of opting out of the "machine" is to opt out of society as a whole. And that's why you get that affinity between the hippies and the puritan back-to-the-land type stuff in general. Because they really are trying to opt out of the technocracy and regain more supposedly authentic values.
So while being in the counterculture was supposed to mean rejecting the work ethic and just doing your own thing, "dropping out" is actually hard work.
Potter: This is a point we make in the book. Genuinely opting out of society is extremely difficult to do. It imposes huge costs on you, which is why very few people do it properly. They end up engaging in really superficial forms of opting out, which actually have the effect of driving consumer culture.
It ends up being an expensive lifestyle choice.
Heath: Yeah, and I guess part of the problem we try to identify is that there's a difference between the countercultural version of opting out and the kind of opting out where you just quietly slink off and become a hermit in the woods. I mean, Christian hermits have opted out for centuries without promoting consumerism. There's a specific problem that arises with the counterculture when people opt out as a way of rejecting mass society. There's an implicit status move there. People who opt out because they don't want to be members of the brainwashed masses are passing judgment upon all the people who choose not to opt out. You can see the almost unassailable sense of superiority that's associated with the vegan, organic-vegetable-shopping, back-to-the-land, Guatemala-handcraft-wearing, anti-globalization activists. They clearly think that they're better than the people who do not share their system of values. So, because other people don't like being characterized as brainwashed cogs, they wind up promoting competitive consumption. There are markets for people who haven't got the time or the leisure or the wealth to completely opt out, but who want to adopt the opting-out lifestyle. Sure, it's great if you can bake your own bread, but if you're busy, at least you can buy home-made-style bread. And there's that Mountain Equipment Co-op sort of "get away from it all to the wilderness one week a year" lifestyle.
So the ones who are most concerned with authenticity or with being the most opted-out of the opted-outs end up in a losing battle. If everyone's eating organic then what are you going to do next? If everyone's doing eco-tourism, what are you going to do? Is this another form of the "race to the bottom" that you describe in the book?
Potter: Tourism is the best example. This became crystal clear to us when we were in Vancouver giving a talk this fall. We got into a discussion afterwards with some people about what's going on on Salt Spring Island. I don't know if you've been following this, but Salt Spring Island, which used to be a hippie getaway, is being colonized by Americans. I think Oprah bought a place there. And so the hippies are all bailing on Salt Spring and going to some of the other, more inaccessible gulf islands. And I said to them, "Well, what you're doing by creating that distinction is a form of status competition." They got really upset with us for saying so. But how else do you characterize that?
Heath: That's why we say all the countercultural backpackers poking around the remote beaches of Thailand are the shock troops of mass tourism; what you have to do to be an authentic countercultural traveler is find the place that is uncontaminated by Western influence. The place where they don't take Visa. And pretty soon, what do you know, they do take Visa, because a bunch of other Westerners have followed you there. It's the desire to always find the place where no Westerner has been before that drives people out into these places. In the same way that the missionaries aggressively expanded across the planet in order to bring the word of Christ, the countercultural faith drives people to bring every last little corner of the world into the orbit of consumer capitalism.
Except that, unlike the missionaries, the actual leaders of this movement really don't want to be followed.
Heath: It's intrinsically competitive. The only way to get away from it all is to not have other people follow you.
You write that the Beastie Boys called the counterculture's bluff with their song "You've Got to Fight for the Right (to Party)"—that it was all about having more fun. Has the counterculture rebellion been a success in that regard? Are we having a better time?
Heath: I would tend to say yes, but it's important to recognize that we're not cultural critics. And we're not developing a cultural criticism of the counterculture. We're developing a political criticism of the counterculture. What we're claiming is that it's not that the counterculture failed to enhance the culture; it's that the countercultural rebels made a whole series of promissory notes about how cultural rebellion was going to generate economic and political transformation of society. Social justice and so forth. And people like Charles Reich have claimed that change in the culture is actually the high road to economic and political change—that it's the more effective political strategy. Our complaint about the counterculture is that it has completely failed to deliver on these political promissory notes. Furthermore, it's exacerbated many of the economic problems that it was supposed to solve.
Such as overconsumption?
Heath: Yeah. But Andrew and I are both enthusiastic consumers of cultural products, many of them countercultural. I don't have any problem with the counterculture on a cultural level. What's not to like?
One thing not to like, maybe, is the self-loathing it inspires. You offer a pretty scathing critique of films like American Beauty and Fight Club that use 1960s philosophy to present a fundamentally depressing view of modern American life. And yet these films are hugely popular among the very people that they're criticizing. What does that say about how we feel about ourselves, that we're eating this stuff up?
Heath: Well, I think all it does is validate the quote we take from Thomas Frank: "Business is amassing great sums by charging admission to the ritual simulation of its own lynching." The theory of mass society is like Palmolive. We're soaking in it. And people love it. And so you can just play off dominant tropes like the overbearing mother and the fascist boss and the rebel who rejects it all. Of course this stuff sells. It's our new Hero with a Thousand Faces.
And you trace this mythology back to whom, to Freud?
Heath: Yeah, we pretty much blame Freud for everything.
Do you think our society needs to be de-Freudianized?
Heath: Our popular culture could use a bit less of him, yeah. Freud had a very bleak vision of what goes on within humans and what potential there is for freedom. But he was writing at a time when it was clear that you ultimately had to choose civilization over freedom and reason over your instincts. That seemed obvious to him. But what happens in the twentieth century is that people retain the same bleak view of human nature, but they start to think that, what with the atomic arms race and so forth, perhaps civilization isn't such a great deal after all. What you see in American Beauty is the bleakness of the Freudian vision. The central thesis of American Beauty is that you cannot be a well-adjusted adult. There is no such thing. Either you're a teenager acting completely irresponsibly, or you're a fascist who follows the rules and is slowly going nuts. Those are your options. We think that that's simply false. There are lots of well-adjusted adults. Some kinds of repression are very good and useful. We have to start drawing more careful distinctions when it comes to what we rebel against.
It seems like the catchiest concept the counterculture has come up with has been the dehumanization of humankind and the personification of systems and machines. Technology is not our tool so much as it controls us; advertising, rather than catering to us, is brainwashing us. Why do you think this idea is so seductive, that things are controlling us rather than the other way around?
Heath: Well, I would say that our society does seem like a system that's out of control. It does generate the impression of being machine-like. Capitalism does that. But the counterculture draws the wrong conclusions from that. In the extreme, conspiracy theorists argue that there's somebody behind it all, pulling all the strings. Our analysis is just the opposite. The reason that capitalism has this machine-like quality is that capitalism is the most decentralized system of social integration in human history. That is, a market economy generates order out of highly decentralized individual decisions made by people in the market. We can sit around talking until we're blue in the face about what we don't like about it, but that will have absolutely no impact. As a result, the system appears to be controlling us. It's an illusion that comes from not really understanding how a market economy functions. But it's a natural illusion that arises almost automatically.
How do you think the countercultural Left compares intellectually to previous generations of leftists?
Potter: Certainly, when you hear about leftists of the forties, fifties, and earlier, it seems they were reading and thinking in a more intellectually serious way than what you see now.
Heath: I don't know. I don't think it's a case of higher or lower qualities of debate. I mean, the Left has spent a lot of the twentieth century worshipping false gods. Consider the amount of time that was wasted trying to find ways of making communism work: it was a massive diversion of energies away from reformist projects into revolutionary projects that ultimately were fruitless. The contemporary counterculture is similarly, in our view, a massive diversion of political and intellectual energy into pointless cultural issues. It is a false god on par with communism. Just look at the culture wars in the universities and the amount of political capital that the Left has burned debating what kind of literature undergraduates should be reading. The kind of post-modern, deconstructive stuff that is consistently made fun of—there's a reason that stuff gets made fun of, because it is actually quite goofy. Has Western civilization fundamentally been shaken by the fact that the canon of Western literature has been modified in some courses at some of the colleges?
You also make the point in your book that by bringing these cultural issues to the fore, the Left has provided a platform for the likes of Ann Coulter. Do you think the Left has succeeded in dragging the Right down with them into what you consider foolish cultural debate?
Potter: Yeah, except that the Right is winning. In the United States, academics spouting postmodern theories translates into votes in Kansas for the Republican Party. The Republicans have won the culture war by making it into a fight for the soul of America. They can now brand their countercultural opposition as anti-American. I mean, Ann Coulter wrote a book called Treason. That's been incredibly damaging to the Democrats, that they've allowed themselves to be branded as traitors.
Heath: That's why the Republicans have no intention of doing anything to impose their view on these various cultural fronts; they're getting such great mileage out of the culture wars themselves. So while the Left may be dragging the Right down to its level, overall it's not helping the cause of social justice and progressive politics.
The fact is, the critique of mass society is inherently anti-democratic. Not only does it exhibit contempt for the masses by suggesting that they're brainwashed conformists, it's also motivated by the implicit view that the masses are dangerous. It suggests that these are the people who supplied the concentration-camp guards—the conformists just following orders. And so it's in conflict with trying to build a mass political party, because underlying it all is a belief system that's deeply insulting to the majority of the population.
So the critique of mass society has caused the countercultural Left to basically give up on the idea of political persuasion?
Potter: There's a myth of powerlessness on the Left. Last fall, Lewis Lapham wrote a piece in Harper's about the forty-year process the Republicans had gone through to take over the American political system. It was about how thirty or forty years ago they set out a plan to invest all kinds of money in think tanks and endow university chairs and so on, to produce generations of cohorts imbued with this rightist view of things. Lapham made it sound like a state propaganda project, which it was. But at no point did he ask the question, where's the Left been in all this? The implicit idea on the Left is always, "Oh, the Right's got the money; they're the ones who can afford to do this." That's a load of crap. Look at the amount of money that's been spent on marijuana alone by the Left over the past forty years. If we'd just put a tax of one percent on that and put it into endowments, you'd have something bigger than Harvard.
Do you think progressive political candidates do enough to try to persuade the countercultural Left to participate in politics? Do they pander too much to countercultural ideas?
Potter: I think leftist politicians are having trouble getting people to pay attention to them because of the counterculture. Four years ago in Canada there was a New Left conference, with Naomi Klein involved, to attempt to reshape the New Democratic Party. What they concluded was that the NDP was no good, which meant they'd have to start a New Left party. It was ridiculous—here was this left-wing party that had been around for ages and the new, new left decided that it was no good. The biggest disaster was what happened to Howard Dean. Here's a guy who sweeps to prominence almost entirely on the basis of having the countercultural vote, and they abandon him.
Was it a mistake on his part even to try to reach that demographic?
Potter: It was a mistake to see it as anything more than an Internet phenomenon. It was a mistake to think that things happening on e-mail lists were going to translate into votes. I hate to say it, but the countercultural Left can't be trusted. They can't be trusted to turn out to vote, and they can't be trusted to continue to support their candidates.
Do you think that perhaps Thorstein Veblen's theory of wealth—that there are diminishing returns in satisfaction with each rung one climbs on the economic ladder—applies to politics? That the better society gets, the less satisfaction we get out of political reform? Might the Left's embrace of the counterculture be a symptom of that?
Potter: It's certainly true that state action is subject to diminishing returns and therefore political action gets more difficult and less rewarding. There are very clear examples of this with environmental legislation. When governments first started regulating things like air quality in the late sixties, you could pass regulations that would generate massive improvements in urban air quality. Banning leaded gasoline, for example, was a very, very simple piece of legislation to pass, and it resulted in dramatic improvement in urban air quality. In the early seventies, there were enormous benefits to be gained at relatively low cost and problems were relatively simple to resolve. There's a simple reason for that: people tackle the easiest problems first. The problems we're left with are ones that are increasingly difficult to legislate against and ones where the costs are more evenly balanced with the benefits. And then you have to start crunching numbers and doing some economics and it gets very complicated. Of course it gets more difficult to mobilize people politically when you're trying to argue for complex things like tradable pollution permits. So I think it's true that the kind of state action that we call for as the core agenda of the Progressive Left has diminishing returns. Which is why we need to galvanize ourselves to get more engaged politically, precisely because the problems are more difficult.
Can you imagine what America would be like had the Left not become dominated by the counterculture?
Heath: America is diverging from the mainstream trajectory of development of other Western industrial democracies. You can see it, both institutionally in terms of the dismantling of the welfare state and culturally in the individualistic concept of personal fulfillment in the United States. The United States is in that respect very, very much out of sync with the development of values in both Europe and Canada. I think that without the enormous influence of the counterculture, the United States would be much more in tune with the rest of the world.
So you blame the counterculture for rampant individualism and for the turn toward free-market policy?
Heath: Not exclusively, of course. But the dominance of countercultural thinking and the massive trauma of the Vietnam era to the American psyche have caused American politics to be reconfigured along culture-war lines instead of along traditional Left-Right lines. That's had a massively distorting impact on the development of the state, the economy, and the culture of the United States.
Potter: There's a common theory that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, the entire history of the U.S. since the sixties would have turned out a lot differently. I don't know how true that is, but I do believe that the sixties was a major trauma that has launched America on a forty-year trajectory out of the orbit of the rest of Western civilization.
Heath: You only have to look at the last election campaign. It was all about Vietnam. If you look at what fundamentally divides a Republican from a Democrat, it's how they feel about the 1960s and the counterculture and the anti-war movement.
Do you think that over the last sixty years, progressives have been slower than conservatives to realize when strategies are failing? First communism, then sixties radicalism—is it a failing particular to the Left to cling to false gods?
Heath: Well, I think free-market ideology and laissez-faire have taken just as long to fade away. Dogmatism is fundamental to the human condition, it's not just political. But it is true that people on the Left tend to feel morally obliged not to change their minds. They feel obliged to be in support of rent control, for example, because it helps the poor and the disadvantaged. And they won't change their minds even when economic reasoning shows that rent control hurts the poor more than it helps them. So I do sometimes think you get a characteristic type of ideological rigidity on the Left, where people are unwilling to even explore certain arguments because it might lead them to a conclusion that they find morally unattractive.
Were you both raised in countercultural families?
Heath: Very much so. My parents were back-to-the-landers, hard-core. My mom was American. She left the United States in the sixties. They were a bit old to be hippies, but they were heavily, heavily influenced by countercultural ideas.
Potter: My mom was countercultural. My dad was in the military, so it was kind of hard for him to grow his hair long. But he later grew an afro and got a beard and the whole deal. We have a lot of macramé at my house and my mom made granola for years.
How have they reacted to the book?
Potter: I don't know if they get it.
Heath: My step-mom, who was a hard-core sixties radical, actually read it before it went to print and basically thought we got it right. And from the reaction that I've gotten from most older people who were heavily invested in sixties ideas, I've come to recognize that to a large extent, it was the god that failed for them.
On the whole, have you had a better response to the book from older generations than from the young?
Potter: For the most part, the reactions have been quite positive across the board. What seems to be emerging is that the older generation recognizes, as Joe said, that the counterculture is the god that failed, while the younger generation understands implicitly that alternative culture is, more than anything, an information asymmetry. Whereas you once had enclaves of cool that very gradually percolated out, now, because of TV and particularly the Internet, the latest cool thing can become a mass phenomenon within twenty minutes. They see the bogusness of the whole notion of alternative culture as something subversive. The exception, of course, is the people who are vested in that idea. Kalle Lassen, the editor of Adbusters magazine, called us "fuckheads."
That's pretty unequivocal.
Potter: He red-baited us, too. He said our call for state-imposed regulation as opposed to individual consumer activism sounds like something that made sense back in the days of the Soviet Union.
Heath: This is the point that we make, about the extent to which the countercultural Left shares ideas with the Right. He literally said, "Oh, these guys are calling for state regulation of environmental externalities. That's communist."
Potter: It sounds like something Mao would have said.
Is this an example of the extremes meeting? Do you find that a lot of countercultural ideas are shared by the Right, and particularly the religious Right in North America?
Heath: Christians in the States have actually quite aggressively appropriated the countercultural vocabulary. The critique of mass society is not intrinsically anti-right-wing. What we see now in the United States is a lot of evangelical Christians embracing the critique of mass society, because they think we live in a world of sin and that they're the oppressed minority—the enlightened rebels—and until the rapture comes, they're basically going to be the counterculture.
Potter: Or take someone like Naomi Klein. Set aside her economic beliefs and look at her political program: it's deep, decentralized democracy—faith in the grass roots and individual action. It's straight-ahead Republicanism.
You seem to be leftists in the tradition of George Orwell. Leftists who are deeply put-off by the reality of the Left. Do you identify yourselves with that end of the spectrum?
Heath: The reason we're leftists is that we actually share the core left-wing critique of capitalism. In other words, we think that all of the major problems that the Left has identified as unattractive byproducts of the market economy are in fact genuine and serious problems. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Left has been right on all the big issues. I mean, when it comes to the environment, the stability of the banking system and the importance of macro-economic stabilization, labor-market policies, welfare, unemployment, health insurance—the Left has been absolutely right on every single issue. But they've systematically given wrong explanations for why capitalism produces these problems. And as a result, they've often proposed mistaken solutions.
But who is this "Left" that you're talking about? All of the good ideas that you've mentioned have been adopted, in varying degrees, by nearly all Western governments. Do you think that maybe the good Left has been co-opted by the state?
Potter: I don't know if it's a matter of co-opting so much as reform. Valuable reforms are often seen by both sides as valuable. Even those on the Right recognize the value in having a welfare state, unemployment insurance, various forms of regulation. And as we point out in the book, there are a lot of forms of regulation that capitalists have no reason to oppose, as long as they allow a fair competitive playing field.
Heath: Clearly, we don't view the Left-Right polarity as being exclusive, or as inherently antagonistic. There's more common ground than a lot of people think. Part of the reason the Left thinks that it has no common ground at all with the Right is a consequence of the mistaken explanations they provide for these negative byproducts of capitalism.
Your book is not just a critique of countercultural protest; it seems to be an appeal to people engaged in that kind of protest to work toward political reform instead. But what makes you see the followers of Naomi Klein and Kalle Lassen as potential allies? What makes you think that if they weren't culture jamming or marching against globalization, they would be doing something politically useful?
Potter: We've been accused by a few people of concocting this thing called "the counterculture" and lumping everybody into it. That's a misunderstanding of the message of the book. We're not claiming that everyone who calls himself a leftist wants to destroy the system or overthrow capitalism. What we're trying to show is the way countercultural thinking permeates and insinuates itself into all kinds of leftist views of the world.
Heath: Also, there's a lot of do-goodism that informs countercultural activities. People will eat organic vegetables, partly because they think they're helping the world. They think they're doing something good for nature and for other people. And we're trying to point out that that's a misguided way of doing things for nature and for other people. You should be targeting bad practices in agriculture on a political level. The desire to do good is an important motivating factor in a lot of what goes on in counterculture. But it's being misdirected. I think what we need to do is to harness some of that do-goodism and divert it into useful political activities.
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