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.