Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reading: Nation of Rebels (a.k.a. The Rebel Sell) by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Counterculture claims to be revolutionary by its very nature. In fact, it claims to be revolution, especially after the collapse of Communism, which is supposed to have killed Karl Marx dead. However, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter claim in Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (original title: The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can't Be Jammed), not only has counterculture not brought down the system, it has only strengthened it. Even the most furious efforts by the "culture jammers" led by Kalle Lasn and Adbusters magazine can't make a dent against the corporate system, precisely because countercultural "revolutionary" deviance is so profitable. What's the single strongest force driving the explosion of consumer capitalism since that fateful decade, the 1960s? Nothing else but counterculture. As culture jamming is a purely countercultural strategy, it therefore cannot work.

There's a fatal flaw undermining counterculture's effectiveness: it conflates deviance with dissent. The problem is that deviance and dissent are two completely different things. Most deviants, in fact, don't dissent; they're too busy being deviant, and political things bore them. Dissent threatens authoritarian systems, which is why dictators suppress it so ruthlessly (as in the case of the election-stealing theocrats of Iran). Deviance only threatens the accepted morality, or threatens the system only as mere criminality; but if there's little morality left to be accepted, as in the postmodern West, deviance loses its power to shake the system or even shock. And that's why counterculture fails whenever it tries to be revolutionary. Instead, it has become the ultimate consumerist cash cow. Deviance may not be able to bring down oppressive systems, but it sure is interesting enough to sell lots of units. The book's original title is The Rebel Sell for a reason.

Now, I'm no mortal enemy of capitalism. Counterculture, however, claims to be capitalism's worst nightmare. But what the counterculture revolutionaries fail to realize is that capitalism itself is revolution — permanent revolution. Marx himself said so, and added that in a capitalist free market, "all that is solid melts into air." That's why marketers overuse the word "revolution".

Now here's a surprise: I'm sorry to tell you this, counterculturists, but the age of conformity is over. The counterculture itself put an end to it in the '60s. And the system of technocracy that made the 1950s so monochrome, at least in America, is no longer so functional, and it no longer gets into counterculture's way anymore, anyway. The world's most oppressive technocracy, the Stalinist system of the Soviet empire, collapsed under its own weight in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire fell with it.

Counterculture revolutionized capitalism to such a degree that social conservatives no longer actually have to worry about socialism: capitalism has become the deadly enemy of the old moral order. That's why the Islamists are so intent on destroying capitalism through terrorist ultraviolence, and the Christian Right is not far behind them. Without capitalism, there would be no Playboy and Penthouse, and no punk rock, nor any other manifestation of counterculture, even if it opposes capitalism.. You'll never get socialism, or even anarchy (socialist or capitalist) out of counterculture, only highly profitable corporate counterculture purveyors such as Thomas Frank's fictional corporate whipping boy, Consolidated Deviance, Inc. Genuine social revolution comes from the hard and frequently dreary work of mass democracy, mass mobilization, and class struggle. You can't win a revolution merely by chucking all the rules and going deviant. But deviance can make you a celebrity.

Counterculture was created by misfits intent on overthrowing the old conformist bourgeois culture. They succeeded so well that counterculture now pervades every aspect of mainstream culture. When counterculture has become the mainstream culture, it loses its revolutionary force. That revolution's already been won, anyway, to the point that even the world's largest entertainment and media conglomerates are down with the revolution so long as it doesn't threaten the power structure itself. The world's greatest culture jammers today are, it turns out, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes of Fox News; but they use culture jamming as a means of suppressing — or worse, perverting — dissent. They're using the counterculturists' strategy in their crusade to reimpose the old moral order that counterculture destroyed. For there is no more hegemonic monoculture. Except within subcultures, you no longer try to conform; you're supposed to be "more deviant than thou". In fact, there's a hierarchy and a snobbery of deviance, made to order for bourgeois social climbers gone boho. Deviance is the new conformity.

The point of Nation of Rebels/The Rebel Sell: You can make a million bucks off counterculture. But you can't make a revolution with it. Not anymore. Heath and Potter insist that you never could anyway.

I don't deal with the roots of the counterculture as Heath and Potter relate it, nor with many of the other pieces of evidence they use in their case against the culture jammers. There's also many points on which I strongly disagree, including their surprisingly Hobbesian view of collective action problems. But they make their case against counterculture and culture jamming quite effectively, in my opinion. Adbusters' revolutionary quest, therefore, turns out to be futile. Real social reform is hard work that mere deviants can't handle. You can bring down a corporation by exposing its criminal behavior, but you can't destroy corporatism itself if you throw the wrong kind of mind bomb at it.

Back to The Space Helmet Show...

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