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One of several front covers

The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can't be jammed (U.S. release: Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture) is a popular non-fiction book written by Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in 2004. The central claim of the book 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".

Contents

Explanation

Potter and Heath look to many counter-cultural perspectives such as ecological activists, culture-jammers, thugs, skateboarders, and anti-consumerists and draw similarities between all of them. They all perceive the rest of the world (the mainstream) as oppressed or brainwashed into conforming by a larger social force, and society's rules (formal and otherwise) are thought to be suppressive of human nature for this reason. These parallels lead Potter and Heath to conclude that counter-cultural movements are not as unique as they appear. Hippies and Yuppies, Potter and Heath claim, are of the same origin; there is less irony in the oft-noted transition by many 1960s hippies to a yuppie lifestyle than many claim, because both lifestyles stand for similar core values, expressed in different ways: one deemed 'alternative,' the other deemed 'mainstream'.

"The system" is not something that seeks conformity, but rather the opposite, it seeks individuality and the competition for distinction. To support this claim, Potter and Heath look at American Beauty, Fight Club, The Matrix, and Adbusters, all of which are supposedly counter-cultural, but popular in the mainstream. The capitalist system is not trying to stamp out individuality; rather, a force of social distinction drives the market. Individuals are in constant pursuit to "outcast" each other.

Conformity

Following their claim that conformity isn't something perpetuated by mainstream media, Potter and Heath identify other sources of conformity using work from Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Sigmund 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, and some rulers may be useful.

In the case of consumerism, the book explains 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.

Collective action problems

Critically, explain Heath and Potter, most of society's problems (and rules) are traceable to collective action problems, not traits inherent in cultures as most culture jammers believe, a mistake which leads them to attempt to disrupt the existing social order with very few results. 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 Rebel Sell recommends 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.

Criticism

In his review of the book, Derrick O'Keefe claims the book does not argue for "a more coherent and effective Left politics," but for a "strident defense of markets and capitalism."[1] He accuses the authors of using strawman arguments, and 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."[2] 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."[3] It also claims that the good ideas of the book were "borrowed wholesale from 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."

See also

References

  1. ^ O'Keefe, Derrick. "Not Buying The Rebel Sell - A Critique of a Critique of the Left's Political Practice". Seven Oaks Magazine. June 21, 2005.
  2. ^ Beckett, Andy. "Branded for life". The Guardian. June 4, 2005.
  3. ^ Rabin, Nathan. "Nation Of Rebels". The Onion AV Club. February 1, 2005.
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