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.