Saturday, January 22, 2005

Book Review - The Rebel Sell

The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, HarperCollins, 336p.

This is easily one of the most exciting books of the year and is certain to become a touchstone in future discussions about consumer culture. Heath and Potter bring a sharp intellectual clarity and a rare audacity in this tome – making it a poignant one volume attack on the current popular “counter-culture” ethos.

An easy read, filled with popular culture references, this paradigm-shifting analysis leaves no sacred cow ungored. So if you love your anti-globalization activism, organic food, fair trade coffee, extreme sports and authentic hand made goods from third world paysans, consider yourself forewarned.

Their central thesis is that if you feel like a rebel with out a cause, it is probably because you don’t really have one. Or worse, you have been duped into believing you are rebelling, when in fact, you are just engaging in traditional consumerism and status seeking. Developing on the arguments laid out by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool, they argue that the counter culture has not only been co-opted by corporate North America, but that Corporate North America and the counter-culture movement is basically the same beast.

In trying to “jam” the culture of consumerism, they argue that jammers are in effect counterproductive. The jammers are in effect just creating different looking version of the very consumerism they so stridently oppose.

Heath and Potter argue that in the 40 odd years since the wide-spread adoption of the counter-culture in the 1960’s, this rebel ethos has in effect just served to sustain vigorous consumer driven capitalism. The unsettling (for some) political implications of this political paradigm shift are best summed up in this excerpt:

“Counterculture has almost completely replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought. So if counterculture is a myth, then it is one that has misled an enormous number of people, with untold political consequences.”

Even more interesting for the PAAC member is that the authors are Canadian. Many of the reference points used in the book are Canadian as well – right down to their gratuitous slagging of our very own feminist wunderkind Naomi Klein for her ostentatious pursuit of the “authentic” loft experience in downtown Toronto.

With so much criticism in the book it seems the authors feel compelled to fill the gap with positive propositions for change. This is where the book makes some weak arguments in favour of initiatives like a tax on advertising, pollution credits and for incrementalism as a political philosophy. While they may excel as culture critics, as political analysts they are – well – like well meaning university professors. These few awkward notes do little to diminsh the overall strength and clarity of the work.