While Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter tell an entertaining tale of the emergence and ultimate reverse-effect of the Counterculture and anti-mass society movements of the 1960’s thru today, it seems many a cheap shot was taken at those who have actually been on the playing field, addressing and attempting great social change, by a couple of pop-culture philosophers in their armchairs making safe assertions from the sideline. In there book, “Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture,” Heath and Potter give a creative account of a movement of idealism that backfired on every front adding fuel to the actual institutional, industrial, mass, consumerism fire that a Western Capitalism needs, creates, and perfects. Whether it was Freud in California1, the I Hate Myself and Want to Buy2, or the Coca-Colonizaton3, Heath and Potter found all the flaws with all of the actual attempts and responses of the capitalist machine of consumerism having its way with Western humanity.
The most interesting issue to me with the book was after some 300 pages of intellectual ridicule, play and crafty academic impression (which was impressive) teasing the rebels, Heath and Potter conclude
In order to escape from it (a consumer culture and mass society), we need to accept the fact that social order is necessarily achieved through a system of rules that is, in the end coercively imposed. Naturally, the rules require legitimacy, and the system as a whole cannot hang together unless there is a great deal of voluntary compliance … Fighting these rules, therefore is not dissent, but rather social deviance. It may be fun, but it is not the stuff out of which progressive social movements are built.4
Basically, Heath and Potter make a call to conformity. No alternative options are given. No greater paths for change. No other moves for a new way forward. Additionally not only do Heath and Potter douse the rebellious fire with the water, but they throw an additional wet blanket on the bon-fire by diminishing any serious hope placed in any efforts working against the cultural machine of consumer driven capitalism and the free market.
Every social problem is thought to be caused by a fundamental feature of mass society, whether it be mass production, mass media, the technological domination of nature or even just repression and the need for conformity. Yet what is so problematic about these explanations is that, apart from being empirically false, they have the effect of tying each one of these concrete social problems into a feature of modern society that none of us could ever reasonably hope (or desire) to change.4
While I know it was not Heath and Potter’s intent to come up with some alternative revolutionary ideas, to simply conclude at the end that there is pretty much nothing we can do about the consumer culture that is devouring us alive and that we just need to simply conform and look for incremental improvements that we can make on the journey of our demise just seemed a little bit like someone speaking from an armchair while the real game is being played on the field.
1Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. The Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. New York: HarperCollins, Inc, 2004. 36.