Thursday, October 7, 2010

'The Rebel Sell' - Bluster That Just About Passes Muster

I’ve spent the better part of the last few days reading a book called ‘The Rebel Sell: How The Counterculture Became The Consumer Culture,’ co-authored by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. It is an unabashed polemic that outlines some of the self-defeating contradictions that lie at the heart of the idea of counterculture, and indicates that the well-entrenched lines drawn between consumerism, capitalism and countercultural rebellion might be surprisingly blurred.

Potter and Heath make a case for incremental change achieved by working within and with institutions, draw an important and compelling distinction between dissent and deviance, credit capitalism with offering consumers choice as opposed to conformity, and reclaim respectability for mass culture, civility, predictability and norms. In doing this, they take apart the well-worn and much-loved narratives and tropes of our times – ‘finding ourselves,’ ‘altering society’s consciousness,’ ‘seeking deep and meaningful solutions,’ ‘being authentic,’ ‘ethical shopping.’

This is useful, especially for those of us who question the myth of a single, overarching system and find it difficult to believe that articulating protest solely through lifestyle-centric gestures is worthwhile. The authors also interrogate the value of a continuous agitation against all forms of society, order and business. What I found most interesting was their description of counterculture as the unwitting engine of consumer culture. According to Heath and Potter, as self-styled rebels continuously redefine the cultural ‘edge,’ ‘cool’ becomes a moving target, and companies churn out products that help individuals compete against one another in the race to be different. As symbols of cool become mass, rebels have to find a new way in which to distinguish themselves, and so a new set of desirable products is created.

Rebel Sell is an intentionally provocative analysis delivered with sometimes scathing snarkiness, and is frequently problematic. Sweeping arguments are constructed on the basis of a handful of pet theories – whether these are Hobbes’ ideas about man in nature, game theory constructs such as the prisoner’s dilemma and races to the bottom, or Veblen’s theories about competitive consumption. The authors also seem to have envisioned contemporary history as a pre-60s, post 60s binary. As other reviewers, most notably in the Guardian have already mentioned, there is an almost complete preoccupation with the counterculture as it has evolved in the West, particularly in Northern America. An attention to fringe and non-mainstream movements in other parts of the world would have leavened their arguments with some nuance.

I find it difficult to dismiss countercultural ideas on the grounds that they haven’t effected tangible change – this depends to a large extent on how one defines change. Countercultural ideas have provided alternative ways for us to look at ourselves and the world, have inspired works of art and creativity, have compelled people to ask significant questions of their governments and institutions. These ideas can have murky origins, and often descend into indulgence, superficiality and violence (summit protests, anyone?) but they have also catalyzed thinking and action committed to change.

Potter and Heath are advocates for a well-regulated market, global trade, and entrepreneurship, which seems reasonable. What is bizarre is their dismissal of the idea that industry and trade lobbies shape global policy, and negotiate from a position of strength with governments in impoverished nations. This assertion is made on the basis that there is little conclusive evidence to prove that governments are buckling to industry on issues such as environmental protection. That sounds suspiciously technical, and the throwaway nature of their claim makes it evident that the authors expect us to take their word for it.

Even if I were to concede that business exerts limited influence over Canadian politics, anyone even glancingly informed about the developing world would have to consider this an instance of breathtaking disingenuousness. Most of us in India consider bullying by big business a given – just opening a broadsheet or tabloid in Mumbai, on any day of the week, offers proof enough.

But in spite of its many flaws, Rebel Sell is an interesting read. It offers a refreshing perspective and is highly recommended for anyone seeking an alternative to the Chomsky-Klein paradigm. Most importantly, it is a timely reminder that deliverance and good karma do not come packaged in fantastic smelling body scrubs, organic groceries, Burning Man festivals and fair-trade lattes – we cannot change the world by simply changing where and how we shop, and it is a stinging indictment of so many of us that that is all we are content to do.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
This work by ToruJ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.