|Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan|
A writer friend once described the brief history of an advertising campaign she worked on that never got off the ground — and thank God, because it sounded so draconian it could have sprung from the loins of Joseph Goebbels himself. An underarm deodorant for teenage boys would be marketed with a fake chemical that was supposed to be a “chick magnet,” purportedly a mysterious, street-level club drug available only in Europe. My friend was hired to create a buzz for this product by composing an online “travel blog” in the dramatis persona of a young male 20-something hedonistically partying and shagging his way across the EU like Kip Pardue in The Rules of Attraction. A year later, the fiendish product would be unleashed on horny American teens, and, presumably, the corporations and admen could start knitting themselves suits made of Benjamins. My friend was even made to sign a confidentiality agreement denying the hoax ever took place — because, if the truth ever got out, there’d be mass riots, fires, locusts, and chimps occupying higher office.
That last sentiment (not to mention my histrionic Nazi-propaganda reference) is precisely the problem with countercultural thinking as pinpointed by Toronto philosophy professors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their incisive and inciting Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. Yes, they would argue, such deceptive campaigns (referred to as “viral marketing” for their similarity to spreading like colds) may be icky, but they aren’t indicative of any mass-brainwashing conspiracy. Quite the opposite, the marketers are merely doing what they’ve been doing for nearly four decades: profiting off the twitchy, urgent need to be hip, cool, ahead of the pack, and, most importantly, to adhere to the countercultural ideal of “thinking different” (e.g., Apple computer) or “breaking all the rules” (e.g., Vans shoes).
They call this “the paradox of antimaterialism” — namely, that anti-materialist values have become one of the biggest moneymakers of consumer capitalism. “Cool people like to see themselves as radicals, subversives who refuse to conform to accepted ways of doing things,” Heath and Potter write. “And this is exactly what drives capitalism.” Of course, when they say “capitalism,” they mean American capitalism. “As Canadians, we observe American culture quite closely,” says Joseph Heath. “It’s the birthplace of countercultural ideas. European thinkers always tried to graft countercultural ideals onto old theories . . . In the U.S., no one tried to do that. Here, countercultural ideas are more of a pure form.”
Heath is a self-confessed “punk rocker from a small town” whose stepmother once participated in the 1968 student occupation at Columbia University before lamming it to the Great White North. “She always told me, ‘I am not a hippie, I am a political activist,’ ” says Heath, which he maintains is precisely the problem that still haunts progressive thinking. “That the political debate has polarized around countercultural issues,” Heath adds, “this is also unique to the United States.”
The fact that the authors admit that, in their, uh, advanced 30-something age, they were duped by the countercultural rallying cries of their youth leads them to conclude: “The rebellion against aesthetic norms is not actually subversive.” It’s a thesis certain to enrage. In fact, it already has — but not in the U.S. (at least not so far). Reaction to the book in Canada, where it goes under the somewhat more strident title of The Rebel Sell, is described by Potter as “uniformly bad” — and not because they tweak Michael Moore and their fellow Canuck, Culture Jam author Kalle Lasn, for advocating an uncompromising (and unrealistic) “smash the marketplace” attitude over less-sexy changes in institutional laws. Heath and Potter recently appeared at a lecture at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, chiding their countrymen good-naturedly for their organic-vegetable obsession, which they cast as “a remnant of ’60s technophobia” and a misguided attempt at anti-corporate “ethical consumption” — not to mention a bit smug and aristocratic. Heath and Potter maintained that growing them or buying them does not really strike a blow against consumerism; it just creates a market for more expensive vegetables — thus exacerbating competitive consumption rather than reducing it.
Turns out the Vancouverites didn’t like that one bit. “The very idea of organic vegetables as ‘yuppie food’ generated more heat in Vancouver than it did the U.S.,” laughs Andrew Potter, referring to this kind of countercultural obsession with “micro-issues” that take attention away from simpler solutions — namely, separating politics from the counterculture entirely. “We argue that ethical consumption is not a substitute for political action,” he says. “Only legislative action is.”
To say that everyone on the left “gets it” in Nation of Rebels — yuppies, hippies, bobos, Gen-Xers, anarchists, futurists, wind-power romantics, fuel-cell entrepreneurs, competitive escapists, alternative-medicine parrots, urban environmentalists, culture jammers, antiglobalization activists, even people who walk to work — would be to lend the book a bitter, hectoring quality it does not contain. The tone of this “Leftist critique of the Left” (as the authors have dubbed it) is a challenge as much as a tease — equivalent to giving a playful, soothing rub on the left’s shoulder before a stiff “Snap out of it!” Then, the knuckle noogie.
A NATION OF REBELS: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture | By JOSEPH HEATH and ANDREW POTTER | Harper Business | 358 pages | $15 paperback