Sunday, 14 March 2010

6: Heath & Potter: The Rebel Sell

I am currently digesting Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (and will blog about it next week) and in the process having to work through my ambivalence towards cultural theory. I also plucking up the courage to read Luc Boltanski and Eve Chaipello's The New Spirit of Capitalism that explores how Post-Fordist capitalism appropriated the left's critique of the alienation of everyday life and, by celebrating work as spheres of individual freedom, simultaneously undermined left social critique. With both of these books in mind I return to Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2005).

The Rebel Sell is not a sociology book but worth reflecting on. Implicit in it is I think an argument for detailed sociological study of consumption, power and inequality as an antidote to generalising cultural critique.

As the subtitle suggests, Heath and Potter's book is a challenge of those who champion transformative potential of counterculture and, in particular, all forms of supposedly alternative consumerism and 'culture jamming'. Their argument is both a re-reading of contemporary capitalism and forms of contemporary radicalism that cop out from the dull business of day to day politics, reform and the pursuit of social justice in favour of an ostensibly revolutionary (but ultimately self-defeating) all-encompassing critique of mass society. Take, for example, their discussion of Roszak's 1960s call for 'the psychic liberation of the oppressed':
" Thus the hipster, cooling his heals in a jazz club, came to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than the civil rights activist working to enlist voters, or the feminist politician politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment." (p32)
The most compelling aspect of Heath and Potter's argument is that far from bring oppositional, the radical individualism of the counter-culture is a perfect fit with contemporary consumer capitalism. 'Alternative' cultural forms are turned into goods to be marketed. Far from undermining the system, cultural innovation, individualism and non-conformity is now a key driver of it.
" The idea of a counterculture is ultimately based on a mistake. At best counter cultural rebellion is pseudo-rebellion: a set of dramatic gestures that are devoid of any progressive political or economic consequences and that detract from the urgent task of building a more just society. In other words, it is rebellion that provides entertainment for the rebels , and nothing much else. At worst, countercultural rebellion actively promotes unhappiness, by undermining or discrediting social norms and institutions that actually serve a valuable function. In particular, the idea of counterculture has produced a level of contempt for democratic politics that has consistently handicapped the progressive left (not least, by refusing to acknowledge the distinction between compromising and 'selling out')."
The critique of all forms of group conformity found in counterculture ignore the positive or unavoidable features of social norms, the importance of trust in social relationships and deny the reality that progressive social change requires organisation, compromise and the balancing of individual autonomy and group rules.
" Over the past half-century, we have seen the complete triumph of the consumer economy at the same time that we have seen the absolute dominance of countercultural thinking in the 'marketplace of ideas'. Is this a coincidence? Countercultural theorists would like to think that their rebellion is merely a reaction to the evils of the consumer society. But what if countercultural rebellion, rather than being a consequence of intensified consumerism , were actually a contributing factor?" (p102)
Heath and Potter's book takes on too many targets (boy are they sick of the alternative Left) ranging from no-shopping days, the celebration of indigenous cultures to Apple computers. In doing so they conflate two distinct trends I think. The first of these is the consumption of alternative goods as a supposed antidote to the evils of consumer capitalism - as they suggest what purports to be anti-consumerism is actually an attempt to reform through market pressure (no plastic bags, let's get Tescos to pay tea growers a better price, no to battery hens etc) and often a driver of the novelty and status competition at the heart of consumerism. A separate trend is the dominance of political theories of Matrix-like total cultural domination. Here the problem is the rejection of real world politics, class solidarity and social reform in favour of gestures against 'the system'.

As Heath and Potter point out:
" In a society that prizes individualism and despises conformity, being 'a rebel' becomes a new aspirational category." (p130)
Many of today's most pressing problems may require a degree of conformity or social solidarity (tackling inequality, climate change etc) and tempering of individualism and the values of bohemianism. They quote from Thomas Frank The Conquest of Cool:

"The counterculture may be more accurately understood as a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class, a colourful instalment in the twentieth drama of consumer subjectivity."

Certainly something to bear in mind in Britain where it is likely that the Right will soon return to political power with an agenda to shrink public spending: Thatcherism Mark 2 will be enacted by Clash loving, organic food growing, sexually tolerant, free range meat-eating, 'green' liberals but will be no less painful or destructive for this.

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