The Rebel Sell

Joseph Heath

The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can’t be jammed’ (published in the US as ‘Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture’) is a non-fiction book written by University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath and Canadian journalist Andrew Potter in 2004. Their central claim is that counter-cultural movements have failed, and that they all share a common fatal error in the way they understand society; thus counter-culture is not a threat to ‘the system.’

Following their claim that conformity isn’t something perpetuated by mainstream media, Potter and Heath identify other sources of conformity using work from Hobbes, Rousseau, and Freud. They describe conformity as often the byproduct of simple market preferences or, alternatively, as an attempt to resolve a collective action problem. For instance, they claim that school uniforms curb the fashion ‘arms race’ created between students when no restrictions are in place, and that they are not intended merely to stamp out individualism, as many counter-cultural figures have suggested.

According to Potter and Heath, this is why counter-culture is met with resistance: not because the mainstream is brainwashed into loving social customs, but because social customs provide a safety net saving us from a constant need to recalculate the significance of our surroundings. For example, thanks to rules of traffic, a pedestrian can generally safely stand on a sidewalk, without needing to reevaluate at each instance whether an oncoming bus might stay within its lane or whether it might hit the pedestrian. Thus, rules are by no means inherently oppressive: the undesirability of many facets of society (such as consumerism) are, if anything, caused from the ‘bottom up.’ To Potter and Heath, then, some rules may be beneficial.

In the case of consumerism, the book argues that the phenomenon comes largely from competitive consumption in an effort for distinction, and ‘rebellion’ is an excellent path to distinction. Since most goods depend on exclusivity for their value, especially goods which are said to decry mainstream life, a purchasing ‘arms race’ is created whenever others begin to follow the same tendencies: if you lag, you become mainstream. Not surprisingly, then, the image of rebelliousness or non-conformity has long been a selling point for many products, especially those that begin as ‘alternative’ products. Far from being ‘subversive,’ encouraging the purchase of such products (such as Adbusters’ line of running shoes) does nothing more than turn them into ‘mainstream’ ones. This tendency is very easy to observe in music, for example.

According to the authors, most of society’s problems (and rules) are traceable to collective action problems (situations where multiple individuals would all benefit from a certain action, but it has an associated cost making it implausible that any one individual can or will undertake and solve it alone), not traits inherent in cultures as most culture jammers believe, a mistake which leads them to attempt to disrupt the existing social order with limited success. It also allows people to wrongly claim a political element to their lifestyle preferences, or glorify criminality as a form of dissent. The book claims there are a few solutions to these collective action problems. The authors recommend a simple legislative solution to problems such as consumerism, for example, through eliminating tax deductions for advertising. (The notion that top-down solutions are far more effective than the ‘think globally act locally’ grassroots movement of the 1960s is a running theme). The authors also point, however, to the counterculture’s tendency to reject institutional solutions, a mistake which merely invites the problem to remain.

In his review of the book, Canadian social activist Derrick O’Keefe claims the ‘The Rebel Sell’ does not argue for ‘a more coherent and effective Left politics,’ but for a ‘strident defense of markets and capitalism.’ He accuses the authors of misrepresenting some of the people they criticize (in particular, he accuses them of oversimplifying Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ and misrepresenting Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony). O’Keefe also accuses the book of being racist, as it claims that Detroit’s black population’s participation in the 12th Street riot was the cause of the neighborhood’s problems while omitting the many root causes of the riots entirely. He also cites the book’s ‘lumping political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal in with the likes of Lorena Bobbitt and the Columbine shooters.’ O’Keefe claims that the authors’ defense of white rapper Eminem (while criticizing contemporary black hip-hop) shows their ignorance of the subject and ignores politically conscious black hip-hop artists.

A review of the book in ‘The Guardian claims’ ‘the argument it makes is important and original’ but says that ‘in places it is also unfair, light on evidence and repetitively polemical.’ It also claims the book “relies too heavily on setting up straw men,’ and finds that while the authors are pro-welfare and anti-unfettered business, their ‘dislike of the capitalist fixation with youth culture… comes close to a fogeyish distaste for youth culture itself’ and they ‘can sound as nostalgic as any conservative newspaper columnist for the world before the 60s.’ Additionally, the review claims that the authors focus too much on North America, ignoring the ‘more paternalistic and less fashion-fixated’ capitalism and non-commodified dissent in other parts of the world.

A review of the book from ‘The Onion AV Club’ claims that the ‘prose… betrays a deep social conservatism,’ and that the authors ‘frustratingly treat the concepts of gradual reform and a total revolution in human consciousness as an either/or proposition.’ It also claims that the good ideas of the book were ‘borrowed wholesale from [Thomas] Frank and from ‘Bobos in Paradise’ author David Brooks,” but the book fails to have equal quality due to ‘the unsavory combo of faulty reasoning and weak arguments.’ In later interviews, lectures, and in an epilogue added to later editions of the book, the authors responded to their critics. They give their personal and political biographies to establish their left-wing credentials, of which some reviewers, such as the ‘The AV Club’ were apparently unaware. They also acknowledge flaws in the explanation of some of their arguments. However they also criticize their reviewers for confusing their attack on the ideals of counterculture as an attack on art or the Left in general.

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