SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 121 - September 2008

The market for anti-consumerism

The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture became Consumer Culture

By Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Capstone Publishing Ltd, 2006, £11.99

Reviewed by

Sean Figg

"THE OVERWHELMING majority of what gets called radical, revolutionary, subversive or transgressive is nothing of the sort… This is the rebel sell". This is Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s criticism of ‘counterculture’. The authors set out to debunk the ‘myth’ that counterculture is anything other than ‘pseudo-rebellion’, something entirely compatible with capitalism.

Counterculture is a broad term. For the authors it encompasses those movements, sub-cultures and lifestyles that reject ‘mainstream society’ in its entirety. They poke fun at hippies, generation X-ers, and many strands of the environmental and anti-globalisation movement. The polemical tone of the book and popular style in which it is written makes for entertaining reading. There are frequent references to popular movies and songs making it highly accessible. One of the most amusing aspects of the book is how the authors turn upside down many of the most cherished beliefs of countercultural rebellion, arguing that many acts of ‘rebellion’ have the opposite effect to those intended.

Rather than attacking from the left or the right, the authors would have us think that they are criticising from the position of common sense. They say that "what we are presenting is not a cultural critique of the countercultural idea, but rather a political one". They argue that the type of ‘cultural politics’ counterculture represents "may be fun, but it is not the stuff out of which progressive social movements are built". It is hard to disagree with many of their practical criticisms of countercultural rebellion. However, their foray into the theory that informs countercultural rebellion is a little less clear-cut.

The authors trace the idea of an outright rejection of ‘mainstream society’ back to intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord, who used concepts such as ‘total ideology’ to describe capitalist society. They saw ‘consumerism’ as lacking any authenticity or anything genuine, as essentially controlling the minds of the masses through advertising. A new counterculture was needed, ‘the system’ had to be completely rejected.

This idea is traced back to the disillusion created by the horrors of Nazism and the influence of Freudian ideas. The idea of a ‘pathological society’ began to be put forward. ‘Mass society’ (industrial society) was taken to be problematic in and of itself, rather than because the capitalist class was at the helm. "The people – that is ‘mainstream society’ – came to be seen as the problem not the solution". The trajectory from this analysis, it is argued, descends into contempt for the working class (they ‘sold out’), incremental reforms (they are ‘merely institutional’), individualistic solutions, and isolated ‘alternative’ lifestyles.

But the authors’ attempt to debunk countercultural theory is lacking. None of the ideas or movements they criticise are placed in any sort of historical context. The fundamental error in countercultural theory is located as seeing society with a "hierarchical dependence between social institutions, the culture and, finally, individual psychology. The latter two are thought to determine the first. So if you want to change the economy, you need to change the culture, and if you want to change the culture, fundamentally you have to change people’s consciousness". Marxists would call this idealism – the primacy of ideas over all else.

Counterculture takes an abstract approach, such as ‘culture jamming’ (subverting advertising by subtly changing the meaning), rather than linking the need for change directly to people’s experiences. Countercultural activism often takes the approach of trying to shock, which almost always alienates most people, even if it often is highly imaginative.

Many ‘left’ intellectuals did take fright at the horrors of Nazism (and Stalinism). But they went too far in abandoning a Marxist analysis of society. They were demoralised by the defeats of the working class in the 1920s and 1930s, and by the hold of reformism on much of the labour movement post-second world war. These had material causes and were not the product of some brainwashing ‘total ideology’.

The same period that saw the birth of the counterculture saw the massive growth of the social democratic parties, such as Labour in Britain, and trade unionism. The 1970s and 1980s saw massive class struggles. Yet it is portrayed by Heath and Potter that all social criticism and struggle took the form of ‘countercultural rebellion’ throughout this period.

Most of the chapters mock many of the practical attempts at countercultural rebellion and the ideas that underpin them. First up is the idea that ‘nothing justifies the rules’ imposed by ‘the system’. The authors’ way of testing this approach is the age-old refrain: what if everyone did it? For example, not abiding by social norms such as queuing and traffic rules. The authors point out that countercultural rebellion in many cases collapses the distinction between dissent and deviance, saying that "dissent is like civil disobedience. It occurs when people… have a genuine… objection to the specific content of the prevailing set of rules. They disobey despite the consequences that these actions may incur. Deviance, on the other hand, occurs when people disobey the rules for self-interested reasons". Counterculture is accused of rejecting a whole number of practical solutions to real problems because these solutions would entail new rules, and rules are bad in and of themselves.

Even more amusing is the attack on the anti-consumerism of counterculture and the rejection of ‘mainstream’ styles, music, food, etc. The authors point out that "the counterculture was, from its very inception, intensely entrepreneurial. It reflected… the most authentic spirit of capitalism". In other words, if you reject Nike footwear you create a market for ‘alternative footwear’. Brands such as Vans and Airwalk are mentioned as multimillion-dollar examples. The authors point out that it is the quest for distinction not conformity that drives consumer capitalism, with new desires constantly emerging and the need for a rapid turnover of styles and fads. What is counterculture about if not seeking such distinction? It turns out that it is specific consumer tastes rather than consumerism per se that countercultural rebels object to. Or as it is described elsewhere in the book "a critique of what other people buy".

At other points countercultural rebels are described as "the shock troops of mass tourism" in their quest for the exotic, ‘narcissistic’ in trying to find their ‘true self’ through Eastern religions, and ‘self-indulgent’ when it comes to the wealth and time required to live ‘in harmony with nature’. At times the tone is maybe too condescending towards counterculture, although when some countercultural ‘theorists’ are quoted about the ‘brainwashed masses’ you can forgive them a great deal.

The authors are keen to stress that living a lifestyle of your own choosing and being as distinctive as you like is not what they are attacking: it is the idea that this somehow challenges the system that they object to. But what alternative do the authors propose? Unfortunately, the theoretical weaknesses of counterculture – its superficial analysis of society, philosophical idealism and utopianism – are mirrored in the authors’ conclusions. Their alternative is the market! "We should strive to perfect the market, not abolish it. One need only glance at an introductory economics textbook to see what an ideal market would look like".

Amusingly, at the start of the book, the authors state that "decades of countercultural rebellion have failed to change anything", but later comment that "it is the failure of the market, not the market itself, that is responsible for most of the problems… of the past two centuries". So, while they are only willing to give counterculture decades to prove itself, the market gets centuries! Contradictorily, the authors come out with a variation of interventionism a mere paragraph later. After imploring us to construct the perfect market, we are told that "obviously, many corporations engage in bad practices… [and] will continue to do so until someone forces them to stop… the primary objective of the progressive left should be to control the state".

The confused ideas of counterculture and equal confusion of Heath and Potter make you cry out for the penetrating clarity of a Marxist analysis. The authors have the counterculture’s failings pretty well sussed. In this sense, the book is fun and useful. But, while it is critical throughout, it is vital to keep your own critical faculties on hot standby.

Their attempt to debunk Marxist economics isolates and ignores all but the concept of overproduction. Karl Marx once wrote that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas". A critique of counterculture from the point of view of ‘common sense’ inevitably leads to support for the status quo. Hence, the dull reformist conclusions in an otherwise entertaining book.


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