Selling the rebellion

ANDY HANSFORD enjoys an attack on the counterculture and its absorption into consumer capitalism

In The Rebel Sell, two Canadian academics pick apart the way the counterculture has morphed into the height – and the pathfinder – of consumer capitalism at its most distasteful. And that’s it really.

The canvas is broad, and the insights are sharp. The text is well written, human and jolly but also intellectually solid and from a left-of-centre perspective. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter expose woolly thinking about markets, freedom, rebellion, and identity in modern western civilisations. They’ll be making a lot of enemies right now.


As they go on – from an outrageously cinematic opening – to look at madness, car fashion, clothes, ecology, medicine, uniforms, the exotic and the very roots of the anti-globalisation movement, among others, they find new places to pick a fight. You’ve got to read a book whose first chapter opens with a tradesman arriving at the house of an unquestionably cool rock star from the rebellious frontline, to find his client, Kurt Cobain, dead of a heroin overdose and a shotgun blast to the head.

So they take Cobain, icon of angry (and sincere and intelligent) young USA, lead singer of Nirvana, and link his suicide to the idea of a band ‘selling out’ when it becomes successful (Cobain’s preoccupation). They take this thinking apart, but argue for a better view of what ‘selling out’ might be, rather than attack his music or stance. References to pop music run throughout, as they rip into a song by middle-of-the-road angst caricature Alanis Morrissette, and Céline Dion pops up frequently. So do references to films, leftie or eco-campaigns, gurus and, of course, the history of capitalism and ideas about freedom.

So you’re absolutely with them as they push Herbert Marcuse’s critique of one-dimensional man together with his more fashionable successors – such as Michel Foucault, the pope of French social philosophy, RD Laing, who questioned whether madness was rebellion, and a host of others – and the people behind the Adbusters eco-warrior magazine, whose proprietary no-brand ‘Black Spot sneaker’ opens the text. It is heart-warming to watch them line up the enemies like a teenage fantasy of a revolutionary firing squad: over here the people who accuse their craft bakers or organic potato farmers of selling out to the system; over there Naomi Klein and anyone who thought there was a valid meaning in the hit film about dropping out, ‘American Beauty’, directed by Briton Sam Mendes.

In the middle ground are various commentators on the massification of society and the economy, on the homogenisation of our lives, towns, cities and culture. Prolific French social philosopher and wise socialist, Pierre Bourdieu; US novelist Norman Mailer with his 1950s delineation of the hip and the square; and many contributors to the mass society myth take their places, and the development of ideas between them is brought to the fore.
In the background are people and ideas that really matter but aren’t so sexy: democratic progressive social movements, trade unions, intelligent campaigns against the exploitation of child labour, world poverty, the role of women, poverty at home. In the foreground is the landscape of brands, the ‘brandscape’, and the people who want to live outside it – or, at least, earn a healthy crust by saying they do.

There are really two points made in this book. First, rebelling is costing someone some trouble somewhere along the line, and you should pay for it. Secondly, consumer culture is driven by people who demand more and different.

Pay for it
For these reasons, the high priests of the anti-globalisation movement and the Unabomber manifesto are shown (in almost the same breath) as engaged in a confused, self-defeating ‘race to the bottom’ because they’ve disrespected the basic rules of society and progressive social movements, choosing instead a more or less individualist solution. That’s when Heath and Potter are kindly ascribing decent motives; more often they rip Naomi Klein or Kalle Lasn to pieces for bourgeois hedonism and self-absorbed hypocrisy.

Their complaint goes like this: ‘Fine if you want to say that sort of daft stuff, but what if everyone behaved like you? You want organic bread slowly baked by craftspeople every day? Then pay for it, but don’t criticise the bulk of people who can’t afford those prices (or the time queuing), and don’t make out you’re saving the world. You’re buying into a bourgeois bohemian (‘bobo’) lifestyle that gives you precisely no extra right to pass judgement on others. If everyone did as you do, chic downtown Toronto bakeries would close as customers form a gridlock of four-wheel-drive discerning bread-eaters.’

Want to slam Starbucks and McDonalds? At least do us all the favour of understanding the difference between a chain and a franchise, before you rush to the help of local business communities who care about their neighbourhoods. (For clarity, Macdonalds is a franchise so your local one is probably owned and run by a near-neighbour; Starbucks is a global chain who want to close down your local coffee shop by competing aggressively including, if required, making losses for a year.)

Think the ‘cult’ trilogy of Matrix films is really cool? Reflect a little on what the writer/producer team, the Wachowski brothers, say about our world. It’s mass society as seen by Foucault, but the machines (the enemies) are the good guys from Heath and Potter’s perspective. Okay, I hear you, but read this before you take the pill.

Tempted by deep ecology, loft conversions, cycling as protest, alternative medicine? Prepare for an uncomfortably challenging read. And by the way, if good potatoes are good potatoes, why shouldn’t everyone eat them? Biodiversity starts at home – eat your own sumpweed before you whinge.

More, different
The market follows rather than leads. Fashions and distinctiveness are set by people, but thankfully there’s a symbiosis between the leaders of fashion – the cool – and the early brands, or providers of products. The section on Naomi Klein’s view of loft conversions is one of several passages which had me fuming and laughing out loud at the same time.

The SUV stuff (Why do all bourgeois Yankees in the films seem to have big four-wheel-drive cars? Why are Britain’s suburbs clogging up with these monsters?) is traced back to the VW camper vans of the hippies. The tourism paradox is wheeled out to serve the same purpose – if one person goes to an unknown exotic location, it’s an adventure. If 20,000 go a year later, there will soon be internet cafes and backpacker beer bars in the most remote Tibetan or Amazonian village. Whose fault is that? Is it even a bad thing?

There is no fool like an idle rich fool, and the authors of this book are keen on pointing out when the left-wing intelligentsia’s current emperors have no clothes. British readers could have a lot of fun pointing out that George Monbiot, for instance, is a better example of one of their nude rulers than Naomi Klein, or that Kalle Lasn has nothing on our own Tory, hedgerow-loving, eco-warrior, Zach Goldsmith.

Basically, the book reads like a hundred fun, witty, sassy and hip newspaper columns or features, backed up by a serious array of academic sources and real-life examples from business or popular culture. Come to think of it, I’ve already seen these ideas recycled in newspaper columns and features since I first read the book. The authors want to prick every pompous do-as-I-say rebel trend they can. They don’t make their angle of attack very explicit but I think every democratic socialist might find lots of common ground with them – unless you want to bomb Boots the chemist on the way back from the Chinese chiropractor with your jute sandals on, so as to have something ‘radical’ or ‘transgressive’ to say to your mates at the locally-produced sushi bar.

I have just two difficulties with this book. Firstly I am not convinced that the convenient source of the counterculture was the Holocaust, as they argue. I think you can spot the trends in Europe (though they are acutely aware of a European context and British readers will not find this foreign) 10 or 15 years earlier, at least, in the work of Karl Mannheim or other 1930s observers. French novels like Journey to the End of Night (by later pro-fascist Louis-Ferdinand Céline), several German and British novels, and even American ones, like John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, fret about the culture of mass society.

Secondly, I am a little embarrassed that it takes two former punks (or equivalent) in Toronto and Montreal to point out the bleedin’ obvious in such an entertaining way. Bourdieu (good French thinker, not trendy, see above) reckoned there probably was such a thing as good taste and bad taste, good art and bad art, but he couldn’t help noticing how, in every society, in any epoch, many of the rich and powerful were into good art, and that it was common for the people in general to be into the bad art. There are plenty of ideas in this tour de force that have been lying about in Europe for years, but I for one have never seen them in one place before. From its depiction of the tragedy of the sincere rock star’s suicide, to its facts from medical science and economics, it’s a book to remember.

Lastly, it looks great. Is it ironic or just fitting that it should be a beautiful commodity as well as a broadside?

The Rebel Sell: how the counterculture became consumer culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, is published by Capstone

Some notes on names, and stuff

Kurt Cobain’s suicide was an important event for a lot of people now in their 30s. He was lead singer of Nirvana, the leaders of ‘grunge’ music whose classic tune was, arguably, ‘Smells like teen spirit’.

Herbert Marcuse was part of the ‘Frankfurt School’ who brought Marxism together with Freudian thinking and other sorts of cultural analysis.

Michel Foucault was a 1970s/1980s French writer who is held in great regard in British and US universities. His best-known work, Discipline and Punish, suggests there is a link between prison and capitalism’s invasion of the human subject.

RD Laing is still regarded as the original countercultural thinker on madness and normality, who questioned whether sanity is merely conformity and madness merely transgressive. Some of his ideas are in practice in community mental health.

Pierre Bourdieu is cited in UK government documents on social capital but began as a social anthropologist. His work starts from the basis that people have voluntary codes which rule their lives. His most famous work, about distinction and taste, suggests that art and even table manners are not neutral as regards social class.

Norman Mailer wrote many novels which were popular and critical successes, was on the left, but argued with feminists and feminism.

Starbucks runs coffee shops. Ask how much the ‘barista’ (worker) is paid relative to the price of your nice cup of coffee.Macdonald’s is a global franchise of hamburger ‘restaurants’ famous for its balance between nutrition, health, price and comfort; and workers rights and skills. Read Fast Food Nation.

George Monbiot is a writer on ecological issues who likes appearing in the media; Kalle Lasn was editor of Adbusters magazine and is author of Culture Jam; Zach Goldsmith is publisher of the Ecologist. His father was leader of the UK Independence Party and left his children many millions.

Sam Mendes is a young British theatre director who won a Best Director Oscar for his first feature film, ‘American Beauty’.

The Unabomber was the United States’ first and only left-wing serial killer.

Alanis Morrissette and Celine Dion are singers, if you like.