Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Rebel Sell and counter-cultural myths

Earlier this year, Adbusters’ founder Kalle Lasn lost his court battle with Canadian TV conglomerate CanWest Global to make them sell advertising time to Adbusters. The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that private TV broadcasters are not obligated under the Canadian Broadcasting Act to sell television advertising time to Lasn’s magazine Adbusters. Lasn wanted to buy air time to advertise his “Buy Nothing Day” on the day after Thanksgiving. Lasn said the court case “goes right to the very heart of democracy”. It was about “who has a voice and who doesn't," he said.

Through Adbusters, the Estonian-born Lasn has been one of the most strident critics of capitalism in the last decade. Though his books, he is most closely associated with the concept of “culture jamming” which uses the resources of capitalism itself to subvert it. The goal of culture jamming is to expose the propaganda and lies of advertising by “jamming” it with anti-consumerist ideas. The idea comes from radio jamming: where public frequencies are pirated and subverted to either enable independent communication, or disrupt dominant frequencies.

Lasn’s work has made him a darling of the counter-culture. However two fellow Canadian writers don’t share this view of him as a hero. In their 2005 book “The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture”, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter attempt to expose a myth of counter-cultural thinking. It is their thesis that counter-culture is actually counter-productive and instead of destroying consumer society it is the key ingredient in creating it.

Heath and Potter begin their book with a discussion of Lasn’s 2003 decision to market Black Spot Sneakers, Adbuster’s own signature brand of ‘subversive’ running shoes. Known as the “unswoosher” Lasn marketed the shoes as a “ground-breaking” scheme to un-cool Nike. Although Lasn says his product will not be made by sweat shop labour, Heath and Potter says the enterprise does not represent a threat to the capitalist system. They say it is a business model that has already been successfully exploited by the likes of Starbucks and The Body Shop.

According to Heath and Potter, culture jammers are the latest in a long line of countercultural rebels who have been unsuccessfully trying to foment consumer revolt for over forty years. The hippies of the sixties became the yuppies of the eighties and the VW Beetle was replaced by the SUV (aptly described as “a gated community on wheels”). Heath and Potter say this is not a sell out but a natural progression. The counter-culture was always intensely entrepreneurial, which the authors say “is the most authentic spirit of capitalism”. When the hippies got older, they turned to the adventurism inherent in the SUV to continue to express their desire for ‘rebel chic’. By the early 21st century, the counterculture's ideas of rebelliousness and "cool" have been co-opted as the central tenet of consumerism, hence “the rebel sell”.

For its first 150 pages, The Rebel Sell makes a very compelling argument that the counter-culture has got it completely wrong. Drawing strands from diverse sources such as Hobbes, Marx, Freud, Rousseau, “The Matrix”, Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, and the experiments of Stanley Milgram, Heath and Potter point out that the system not only tolerates subversive ideas, it actually co-opts them. They say that counter-culture provides entertainment for the rebels, but not much else. Rebels reject good solutions to social problems because they are not radical enough. They undermine social norms that serve a valuable function and also undermine democratic politics by refusing to acknowledge the difference between compromise and ‘selling out’. The bottom line for the authors is that bad rules are better than no rules at all.

The other key point they make is that counter-culture is the cause of rampant consumerism not conformity. If everyone went out and bought the same stuff, not only would everyone be happy, but there would no desire to buy anything new. The problem is not caused by those who try to keep up with the Joneses but by the Joneses themselves. The Joneses are the non-conformists who try to stand out from the crowd. This is reflected in brand identity which is all about product differentiation. People identify with brands because of the distinction they confer. But status is a zero sum game. For every winner there must be a loser. As society grows wealthier, consumer behaviour takes on the guise of an arms race each competing against the other but with no increase in the collective happiness.

These are persuasive and compelling arguments. But at some point in the book, Heath and Potter’s arguments become monotonous and repetitive. While apparently sympathetic to the problems that many counter-culturalists are trying to address, they are consistently critical but offer little by way of alternative solutions. As the Guardian critic Andy Beckett observes “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.” Nonetheless a brave book that destroys many a globalisation myth, and one well worthy of study and critical engagement.


Marc Magisana said...

I must be naive, I never thought I would see piercing and tattooing become mainstream back in the day when it was "underground". But I never thought Iggy Pop's "lust for life" would be the jingle for a cruise line either.

It is remarkable how the outre is assimilated by the collective seeking individuality.

The time is right for a hip Savonarola

Derek Barry said...

Thats precisely the point: the outre is always assimilated.

Savonarola was hip in his day.

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