You care about the environment, so you buy organic foods at your locally owned, upscale market. You take a stand against consumer branding, so no-logo clothes fill your closet, and Abdusters magazine sits on a coffee table made in a union shop out of recycled wood. And when globalization really bums you out, you’ll have your qi rebalanced rather than allow Big Pharma to drug you senseless. But if you think these acts of cultural rebellion have any meaningful political consequences, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter say you should think again. Their new book, The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed, takes aim at the strategy of using shopping to effect political change, which they say has only reinforced society’s materialistic cravings, not dampened them. Worse, they told The Tyee when they were in Vancouver last week, it’s also privatized political action, by taking it out of the voting booth and into the supermarket.
A credo of cool—which privileges individualism and non-conformity--has driven the counterculture from the 60s to the present, according to Potter and Heath. This longing to stand out from the grey masses has led partisans of cool to use consumer products as a way of defining themselves apart from, and superior to the drab grey masses.
“If in fact we were all conformists, culture jamming might work. But the fact is that right now, because it’s all about distinction, culture jamming is a good way for setting yourself apart from the masses—so that’s why it tends to feed into competitive consumption rather than fixing the problem,” Heath said in an interview with The Tyee.
The counterculture assigns high value to novelty, which in turn creates a demand for ever newer, ever-hipper products. It’s “the same kind of competitive logic as what people in the 50s were doing,” Heath said. The motivations of a 50s suburbanite lusting after the flaring fins of a 57 Plymouth Fury and a culture-jammer longing for a Prius hybrid, are indistinguishable: social cachet and moral superiority.
Potter and Heath said the so-called no-logo sneakers embody the counterculture’s competitive consumption habits. Advertising copy plays to consumers’ self-definition: hip, aware, ahead of the pack. “Join us in this quest to create an authentic, non-corporate cool,” reads Adbusters’ advertising copy. “Designed by John Fluevog, known for his cutting edge innovativeness and flair,” the Blackspot sneaker is yours for $56 (plus taxes, including shipping).
But to get the very latest weapon in the footwear wars, then you’ll have to fork out $57 US to Mother Jones for its No Sweat Sneaker, the latest no-logo shoe. It costs more, but you’ll “be the first on your block to walk the walk on fair trade,” according to its advertising.
Both Adbusters and Mother Jones use messages that reinforce a specific sense of self. And in this, it’s indistinguishable from advertisements for products that are designed for millionaires who shop for Manolo Blahniks on 5th Avenue: it’s just that the messages are crafted to snare the allegiance of a different market.
“To be the first on your block is a straight-out inducement to competitive consumption,” Heath said. “It’s to show how enlightened you are, not like the masses buying converse whose logo was sold to them by Nike. Show how individual you are by buying the no sweat sneaker: that’s consumerism.”
“Well that’s just bullshit. They haven’t done their research,” retorted Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters. “We’re not actually selling a sneaker, what we’re trying to do is to un-cool Nike, to come up with a new activist tool that gives us some leverage over corporations like Nike that are mind-fucking us and doing dirty deeds in the third world.”
Indeed, Lasn said, “If they’re going to write that sort of stuff, and especially if they’re going to put it in a prominent position, and actually use the Blackspot sneaker as a way of selling their own book, then they should actually get their fucking facts together and actually do some research.”
Collective vs. consumer
Blackspot advertisements might say that “1 pair = 1 vote,” but this vote isn’t counted when laws are made. Instead, Potter and Heath said it’s collective action—through the machinery of representative politics—leads to positive social changes. It might be ennobling to purchase a shoe with “vegetarian leather,” but individual consumer habits can’t effectively cope with large-scale environmental problems. They noted these are solved through such broad government initiatives, such as using tradable pollution permits.
“They’ve got it totally wrong. The way I see it, is that they are old lefties,” Lasn said. “They’re still running on ideas that made some sense from before the Soviet Union fell, like having more government regulation.”
However, Potter said that by reducing political action to buying Black Spot sneakers—or observing Buy Nothing Day—a politically impotent generation has emerged. “It’s had huge pernicious effects: it’s reduced faith across the board in the ability of government to effect positive social changes. There’s this entire generation of kids now who think that government’s a waste of time, thanks to [Naomi Klein’s] No Logo.”
Although the counterculture was once aligned with the left, Potter and Heath pointed out that it now shares some of the same political territory as the libertarian right. Both believe in the primacy of individual freedom and in small government, although neocons still believe in flexing their political muscles at the ballot box.
Where Klein meets Harper?
“Naomi Klein’s call for ‘deep decentralized democracy’ is in a lot ways indistinguishable from what Stephen Harper says about radical decentralization of political power in Canada,” Potter said. “They just disagree about what that power should be used for—which is actually evidence that you shouldn’t decentralize—because if Stephen Harper wants to do fundamentally different things than what Naomi Klein wants to do in her enclave, you’re going to have problems.”
Heath sees parallels between Klein and American neoconservatives on how ‘true’ democracies come into being, especially in the case of Iraq. “One of the reasons why the Bush administration did not do much post-war planning in Iraq was because neocons believe that real democracy is just the expression of individual freedom. Rumsfeld and Bush believed that if you set people free and get rid of coercive, tyrannical dictatorships, then all of a sudden “poof!” democracy will emerge as the expression of individual liberty.”
Soon after Saddam was toppled and looting was in full swing, Klein was arguing that if the Iraqis were left to their own devices, a grass roots democracy would emerge. “It’s this spontaneous harmony idea, that’s shared by the American right and by the countercultural left. If you set people free, they’ll just get along,” Heath said.
If personal freedom is central to the counterculture’s political agenda, so too is having fun. Heath pointed to a passage in No Logo, where Klein extols the fun to be had in the anti-globalization trenches, where “alternative models of globalization spill onto the streets during the day, and the Reclaim the Streets parties go on all night.”
Social change is ‘square’
But Potter and Heath said confusing the politics of partying with party politics cannot bring about social justice. They point to the history of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King lobbied politicians, organized voters, and attended meetings—an effective strategy, it turns out, but not anyone’s idea of cool. Bobby Seale might have had more fun, but Martin Luther King had more success.
Potter and Heath prescribe what they say is “very square” social change strategies. Vote. Pressure politicians. Look for near-term, practical solutions to social problems. They give the example of advertising. If you’re sick of seeing it plastered everywhere, work on persuading politicians to tax advertising budgets. Such a broad plan would create clear financial incentives for all advertisers to shrink their budgets, and effectively commercial messages from the environment.
The counterculture, however, has resisted such prosaic solutions, Potter and Heath said. But by clinging to the potential of a consumer-based revolt, the counterculture has made little progress on its social justice agenda. “After 40 years of counter-cultural thinking, the idea that all the dominoes are going to start falling down has become unbelievable,” Heath said.
Judith Ince is on staff at The Tyee.