Archives For heath and potter

In "You Know What Hope Is?" and "Upon Further Reflection…," I reacted to the first half of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's The Rebel Sell (I read the American edition which has been retitled Nation of Rebels). In that portion of the book, the authors set out their argument for what is wrong with countercultural rebellion in a capitalistic society: it doesn't work. Instead of subverting "the system," it offers new ways for the markets to, well, capitalize on what is "cool." Far from changing the system, countercultural rebellion often ends up providing more fuel for the capitalist fire.

Heath and Potter find great irony in this. By creating subcultures that attempt to distinguish themselves from mass society, rebels are asserting that they have a positional good (coolness) that everyone else doesn't have. Everyone else then wants this new coolness. Entrepreneurs take note and devise profitable ways to provide everyone with what they want. Then, when everyone has it, it's no longer unique or wanted. Whether it is a house in the country, a condo in the city, a BMW, and advanced degree (yikes!), once it is accessible to the majority its ability to confer status and serve as a marker of individualism is used up, never to return. "Rebellion is not a threat to the system, it is the system" (175).

In the second half of the book, the authors turn toward what they think should be done. People need to come to peace with homogeneity and we need to use the political processes of representative governments to regulate and enforce global solutions to our world's most pressing problems (they spend time talking about environmental problems and solutions at length). Homogeneity, they argue, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it the same as the conformity that individuals fear of mass society.

What's wrong with homogenization in the first place? If people voluntarily choose to live in similar houses and participate in similar activities, then who are we to criticize them? As long as it's what they really want to do, the it's very difficult to make the case against it. . . . Homogeneity is only really a problem when it is the product of coercion rather that choice – when people are either penalized for a failure to comply or tricked and cajoled into doing something they don't really want to do. (pp. 226-227)

And, later, regarding the "tendency toward homogenization" they write, "In many cases it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious that we should do anything about it (p. 248, emphasis theirs).  Regarding the way forward, they write, "What our society needs is more rules, not fewer" (p. 320, emphasis theirs) and that these rules are "in the end, coercively imposed" (p. 323). The quest is for "global capitalism" (p. 333) which can be found by "searching high and low for market failures and, when we find them, thinking creatively about how they can be resolved" (ibid.). But they caution against unregulated markets: "the state will always be the most important player, simply because it is the agency that defines and enforces the basic set of property rights that creates the market in the first place" (p. 334-335, emphasis theirs).

For all their hope in the state's power to solve numerous collective action problems and the market's ability to provide enough things to placate the masses, they close the book by admitting that the individual still has a significant amount of power in how this all shakes out:

All of this will involve further restrictions of individual liberty. Yet so long as individuals are willing to give up their own liberty in return for a guarantee that others will do the same, there is nothing wrong with this. In the end, civilization is built upon our willingness to accept rules and to curtail the pursuit of our individual interest out of deference to the needs and interests of others.

So, on some level it does come back to individuals. And individuals have identities that are both externally and internally defined. So, while I agree in principle that larger entities like the state and the market need to play a role in any societal change, the effectiveness of those entities is determined, in large part, by the cumulative strength of the individual affiliations of their major players. James Davison Hunter refers to these players as "elites." 

I want to focus in on a single paragraph, a fleeting thought, that I think offers more toward a way forward than the authors realize. On page 214, in a discussion on free will and the predictability of any given individual, they write,

Oddly enough, being predictable is the very essence of what it is to have an identity. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls identities "centers of narrative gravity," and it is a perfect description. just as a center of gravity is an abstraction we use for unifying and predicting the behavior of a certain collection of matter, so an identity is an abstraction we us to organize and predict the behavior of individuals.

When Hunter talks about "faithful presence," he's imagining communities of people who are oriented around a shared "center of narrative gravity." Christians often talk of the Biblical story, and some might even drop the term "metanarrative" at a party every now and then. Yet knowing a story, even knowing one's place in a story, isn't the same has having that story as your center of narrative gravity.*

Communities of faithful presence must have Christ's depiction of the Kingdom of God, of shalom, as their center of narrative gravity. Their eschatology should determine their eccleciology (yes, some of you will disagree and want to reorder those or add in other "ologies"). A clear understanding of the end best dictates how life should be lived now. Job didn't know how thing would end for him. He didn't know he'd get it all back and more. Yet he remained a faithful presence in the midst of suffering. We do know how Job's story ended, and the rest of scripture points to the same end for the faithful: we get it all back (ex: Matt. 19:16-30). That is our narrative. Where's our center of gravity?

*For the record, I realize I am misappropriating Dennett's concept of "centers of narrative gravity," which he uses to postulate that our brains create webs of meaning by editing sensory experiences. The result only seems to be a narrative stream. Read more here. I still think that the phrase can be a helpful one in furthering the discussion of how we might form communities of faithful presence.

After reflecting further on my post from earlier today, “You Know What Hope Is?” I decided that I had a little more to say. Rather than revise the orignal post and make it longer, or comment on my own post (which might get missed), I decided to just write a new post. I’m allowed.

I was much more bothered by Heath and Potter than by Hunter’s book To Change the World. It is because, for me, Heath and Potter hit closer to home. I was relatively unruffled by Hunter’s assertions that culture change happens via institutions and elites weilding power. I was unoffended by his deconstruction of the hero myth of American Christian’s individual agency as the means to change. To me, it was all fairly self-evident and made a lot of sense.

Yet I walked away from Part I of this book with a different response. I think it is because it hit closer to home. I am that rebel. I am the one that believes that the small choices that I make are little ways of subverting, and ultimately changing, the system. Not exactly Hunter’s “faithful presence,” but in the ballpark. So, when the authors talked about how only consequences matter, not intent, I was bummed. I buy organic and local because I want to be a part of subverting the corporate food machine. I walk places instead of drive and I suffer summers without A/C in order to reduce my carbon footprint. I engage in all manners of defiant, yet not deviant, behavior in order that I may testify to that which ought to be.

To Heath and Potter, however, my efforts are nothing more than a distraction. They amount to no net change in any of the things I’m protesting against. Other than obvious differences in their views on God and religion, I think that Hunter and Heath/Potter are essentially saying the same thing: if what we want is change, protest and rebellion aren’t the way to go about it. I’m sure Part II of this book will get to the heart of what they think will institute change.

I just finished part 1 of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell (released in the USA as Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture). This is the first of two posts engaging that text.

The book begins by taking a sweeping look at the relationship between “mainstream” culture and “counterculture.” Starting in the 18th century and rapidly coursing through to the late 20th century, the authors attempt to paint a picture of a world relentlessly moving toward mass society and the voices that attempted to waken the satiated along the way. Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, Freud, Marcuse, and Hobbes (to name a few), all tried to point out how “the system” operated to oppress and repress the masses in order to benefit the ruling class. Usually their message fell upon deaf (or deafened) ears. Yet, every now and then, some small group would see “the Matrix” and craft a disruptive response in an attempt to change the system.

Countercultural rebels, seeing the dominant means of change (political systems) as broken, and therefore unnavigable, chose to engage in visible acts of rebellions to created dissonance and call attention to the brokenness inherent in the system. Unfortunately all these movements have fallen flat. That is because, according to the authors, “the countercultural rebels managed to convince themselves . . . that all of these fun activities [violating conventional social norms] were in fact more subversive than traditional left-wing politics because they attacked the sources of oppression and injustice at a ‘deeper’ level. . . . The countercultural rebels have therefore invested tremendous energy over the years trying to persuade themselves that their acts of cultural resistance have important political implications” (p. 62-63).

The authors suggest that the actions of the rebels actually have the opposite effect, creating new symbols, brands and products for an ever-present market of “alternative” culture. One need only look at Nirvana or Vans to see how (even against their will, in some cases) that which was once rebellious becomes fashionable. The system absorbs, rather than changes. In fact, participation in rebellion of almost any sort is seen by the authors as adding fuel to the fire. For them the problem is not one of consumerism and conformity, but of individualism. We have “failed to understand the true nature of consumer society. . . . it is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace” (p. 99).

In expanding upon this idea Heath and Potter offer some of their more helpful ideas. They assert that consumerism is driven by a desire for individuality, not conformity. The desire to “keep up with the Joneses” is not because we want to be like the Jonses, but because we want to either be better than them, or at least as well off as them. We want to be the Smiths, and want the Joneses to want to keep up with us. Why? Because that will give us status and prestige. Why would we want that? Because feeling a little bit superior to those around us will make us happy. Unfortunately, when everyone has what everyone wants, no one wants it anymore. If everyone wants a BMW and everyone gets a BMW, no one wants it anymore. They all want a Mercedes.

Much of what drives the downward spiral of competitive consumerism (and its resulting unhappiness) is the desire to acquire more and more of what the authors call “positional goods” (a term borrowed from Fred Hirsch). These are goods whose scarcity is not based on the availability of the materials to produce them, but upon the fact that there is an inherent limitation on their supply in the first place. Real estate is the most easily recognized positional good. Where a house is located determines its value far more than the materials or craftsmanship of the house itself. Why? Because location cannot be created. It simply is. The more people that want to live in a location, the more expensive that location becomes. Therefore, the ability to live in that location becomes a symbol of ones status in society. “It is not the desire to conform that is driving the consumption process, but rather the quest for distinction. The value of a good comes from the sense of superiority associated with membership in the club, along with recognition accorded by fellow members” (p. 126). Businesses, then, are just responding to the shifting definition of distinction and superiority. They adapt and change based on what consumers are willing to spend to try and make their lives stand out from those of their neighbors. This could be luxury cars and jewelry or organic vegetables and fair trade coffee. If it offers distinction, it is part of competitive consumerism.

Implied in all of this is a secular humanism that sees as its chief end the dual happiness of the individual and mass society. That goal is never questioned. The book is simply attempting to critique whether or not different iterations of countercultural rebellions move toward that goal or away from it. As a result, their treatment of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is brief and dismissive. Any attempt to engage Christian theology is done in light of Platonic politics (pp. 6-7), Freudian superego (pp. 57-58), or pietistic anti-consumerism (pp. 105-06).

In setting up these strawmen, the authors can dismiss ideas like Hunter’s “faithful presence” as either another in a long line of misguided calls to countercultural rebellion, or as new opportunities for the religious to engage in competitive consumerism. They reject outright the notion that intentions matter: “When it comes to consumerism, intentions are irrelevant. It is the consequences that count” (p. 119). For Christians to seek shalom is a fruitless effort, in their eyes. What matter is not what ought to be, but what is.

The first part of the book closes with a pretty fatalistic set of choices if you don’t like the way things are. Either become like the Unabomber and completely drop out of society, or rebel to the point of antisocial behavior. Anything in between is participation in the system, regardless of any overtures of change. Hope of anything different is absent in the mid-point of the book. It reminds me of the lyrics from Ben Folds song, “Picture Window”

You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease
Hope comes near you, kick its backside
Got no place in days like these

I admit that I’m teetering on the edge of being melodramatic. Yet as I walked away from the part 1 of this book, I couldn’t stop asking myself the question, “So what now?” If rebelling against consumerism is really just adding fuel to the fire, and participating in consumerism is just reinforcing the system, how can change occur? I have some ideas, but want to hear what Heath and Potter say in the second half of their book.

Picture Window by Ben Folds/Nick Hornby
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