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anti-capitalism as commodity
Source Charles Darwin
Date 05/06/04/03:21

Branded for life

Is the anti-capitalist movement part of the solution or part of the
problem? Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter make the case for the
prosecution in their thought-provoking The Rebel Sell, says Andy
Beckett

Saturday June 4, 2005
The Guardian

The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture
by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
352pp, Capstone, 16.99

Since Naomi Klein's bestselling anti-capitalist book No Logo was
published five years ago, its success in Britain and North America has
been accompanied by an intriguing political and economic mystery.
While Klein and her imitators have made sweatshops and bullying
corporations and the other costs of global consumerism into much more
mainstream topics for public discussion, this does not seem to have
stopped many people from going shopping. One conclusion you could draw
is that political books are not as life-changing as they were. A more
provocative one would be that where the dominance of modern capitalism
is concerned, Klein's kind of thinking is not part of the solution but
part of the problem.

The Rebel Sell is a brave book. In places it is also unfair, light on
evidence and repetitively polemical. But the argument it makes is
important and original. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, both young
Canadian academics, think that for nearly half a century critics of
capitalism have profoundly misunderstood their enemy. Worse than that,
the authors argue, these critics have - sometimes unintentionally,
sometimes not - provided modern capitalism with the fuel it runs on.

They begin with an eye-catching example. Two years ago, the US
magazine Adbusters, one of the main journals of the anti-capitalist
movement, began selling its own brand of trainers. In one way, the
shoes were a radical gesture: each one was marked with a prominent
spot to advertise the fact that it had not been made in a sweatshop,
by implication shaming less ethical trainer manufacturers. But the
authors see the initiative differently: "After that day, no rational
person could possibly believe that cultural rebellion, of the type
epitomised by Adbusters ... is a threat to the system - it is the
system ... If consumers are willing to pay more for shoes made by
happy workers, then there is money to be made."

To Heath and Potter, the story of capitalism since the 60s is the
story of business absorbing so much from the so-called counterculture
of that decade and after, and vice versa, that the two effectively
merged. By the early 21st century, the counterculture's governing
ideas of rebelliousness and "cool" have become the "central ideology"
of consumerism. Wherever you find capitalism at its most vigorous - as
in the marketing of sportswear and pop music - a "rebel sell"
philosophy is at work.

This analysis is presented with great briskness and confidence. The
authors write in short, conversational paragraphs but their best
sentences can be artfully stinging. The obsession of modern marketing
with coolness and youth is memorably dismissed as "the society-wide
triumph of the logic of high school".

Some of the themes here are not completely new, though. The US
cultural critic Thomas Frank (whom the authors acknowledge as a big
influence) wrote extensively in the 90s about the links between modern
bohemianism and business. But Heath and Potter go further by
suggesting that there has never even been any tension between the two
sides: their interests have always been compatible. To demonstrate
this, they supply an ambitiously brief version of the history of
capitalism. In the beginning, it was a system concerned with selling
people things they needed. But once those needs had been largely
satisfied, in rich countries at least, capitalism became about selling
things that would make people feel distinctive. In the late 19th
century, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase
"conspicuous consumption" to describe the never-ending competition for
prestigious lifestyles and possessions that was set in motion.

Anti-capitalists, in Heath and Potter's view, have long failed to
understand this development. They have mistakenly seen capitalism as a
system that sells conformity rather than individualism. And so they
have failed to spot something important: that the counterculture of
the 60s and its successors have simply been examples of prosperous
westerners seeking social distinctiveness, as Veblen predicted. From
hippies to punks, from organic farmers to ravers, rebellious
subcultures are always entrepreneurial - both in their daily
activities and in their overriding concern to set themselves apart in
the great modern marketplace of tastes and styles. And all the debate
and worry about "selling out" that has attended the growth of such
groups, the authors argue, has been a way of avoiding an uncomfortable
truth: that everyone involved was instinctively capitalist long before
the corporate sponsors came calling.

Anti-capitalism of the attractively packaged No Logo variety, The
Rebel Sell concludes tartly, is just the latest of these worldly
subcultures, outwardly iconoclastic but actually status-seeking and
snobbish. The authors are not above spicing their dense arguments with
some easy point-scoring: "Whenever you look at the list of consumer
goods that [according to critics of capitalism] people don't really
need, what you invariably see is a list of consumer goods that
middle-aged intellectuals don't need ... Hollywood movies bad,
performance art good; Chryslers bad, Volvos good; hamburgers bad,
risotto good."

In the rare moments when Heath and Potter are not in attack mode, they
describe their own political beliefs in orthodox left-leaning terms.
They favour the welfare state and aiding the poor. They dislike
unfettered business. But the relish with which the authors go about
their debunking carries The Rebel Sell into more ambiguous ideological
territory. Heath and Potter's dislike of the capitalist fixation with
youth culture, for example, comes close to a fogeyish distaste for
youth culture itself. Like Thomas Frank, the authors can sound as
nostalgic as any conservative newspaper columnist for the world before
the 60s, when genuine political rebels were more easily identified and
more soberly attired.

In places, too, The Rebel Sell relies too heavily on setting up straw
men. "Starbucks sells the best filter coffee around," write Heath and
Potter; the hostility to the chain, they suggest, is pure posing and
elitism. Yet this ignores the possibility that the chain's prices and
all-consuming expansionism may also be factors - and that Starbucks
coffee, to a French person or an Italian, say, may not be that
special.

The book's assumptions are sometimes too North American. The position
of American-style capitalism as the only possible capitalism; the
importance to capitalism of American youth culture; the political
superficiality of the 60s counterculture - all may be overstated as a
result. Away from the United States, more paternalistic and less
fashion-fixated business cultures also exist, as do rebellious
subcultures - pacifists for example - with roots going back much
further than the 60s and seemingly little interest in "commodifying
their dissent".

At the end of the book, when Heath and Potter propose that capitalism
be tamed by "small, workable proposals" and "collective action" by
governments rather than trendy protests, it as if they have forgotten
the whole history of postwar European social democracy. But the point
of this book is not to be comprehensive or mildly reasonable. It is to
provoke and get you thinking. In that it succeeds: the certainties of
modern anti-capitalism will not feel as watertight again.

* Andy Beckett's Pinochet in Piccadilly is published by Faber

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