The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter is interesting. I offer that ambivalently. It’s interesting in some intriguing, thought-provoking ways and unfortunately it’s also interesting in some Orwellian, Huxleyan Brave New World kind of ways.
One begins reading The Rebel Sell expecting some critique of failed countercultural engagement, but overall expecting a critique of systemic, structural oppression(s). However, one actually gets a significant case of elitist apology. I do agree with some of the suggestions that the authors make, but they make them in such a way as a person can’t help but be rather suspicious of their intentions even in my agreement.
There is a sense that this text argues we should just accept the medicine Big Brother offers because it is in our best interest. Counterculture, the authors write, hasn’t produced substantive positive, societal change so we should simply toss it in the trash-bin of history. For instance a few pages into their text the authors already having in truncated fashion (pun – in relation to the text; the authors use the idea of fashion as their inroad to critique beginning the book) dismissed all of essentially sixty years of differentiated movements – here all subsumed under the rubric of counterculture – within the space of a few magic paragraphs.
“There simply never was any tension between the countercultural ideas that informed the 60’s rebellion and the ideological requirements of the capitalist system. While there is no doubt that cultural conflict developed between the members of the counter-culture and the defenders of the establishment, there never was any tension between the values of the counterculture and the functional requirements of the capitalist economic system. The counterculture was, from its very inception, intensely entrepreneurial.”
Umm…well, apparently they got a publishing deal so this makes them right, right? Let’s hope not. They seriously suggest that there’s no – even stronger, “never was any” – tension between “countercultural ideas” and capitalist system “ideological requirements?” I recognize what they are doing, but they are doing it woefully inadequately and mucking it up as they go. The major problem here is not that they’re completely wrong; the major problem is that they are primarily wrong with a bit of relevancy thrown in making it seem to some that there might be something to be gleaned. Sure, the short journey for many Boomers from hippiedom to yuppiedom has been noted ad nauseum. In fact, let’s take it up a notch, the journey for many didn’t stop at yuppiedom, there was a quick move for many to plutocracy. Pew and other society research organizations have noted that the gap between the wealthiest few and poorest many is greater and broader than at any time since WWII and there is significant skepticism to the idea of an actual “democratic experiment” anymore. However, to note a cultural path taken by some (even many) and use it to suggest a wholesale dismissal of a multiplicity of vibrant movements (placed under the rubric of counterculture) hopefully rings suspect to most people. Ah, but the authors also choose to confound and compound two vastly nuanced movements with extensive permutations of perspective and engagement into one entity in essence by suggesting they’re the same thing at core because they’re both “entrepreneurial.” So, ostensibly, people starting their own communes are the same at core as those starting their own corporations – apparently we should disregard variations in governance structures, handling of finances, types of products/goods made, grown, bought, sold and the rationale for doing so, choices of housing/clothing and why, etc.
Unfortunately, there’s a book full of such examples.
Overall, one small way in which I am allowing myself to come alongside the authors is by taking what they have written and suggesting that I agree the goal is not primarily to be against something, but for something. The authors did not take the following route, but I am extrapolating from their writing to bring my post to a place that I think is important while trying to find some affinity with them. Nietzsche warned in Beyond Good and Evil in Aphorism 146 that “[One] who fights with monsters should look to it that [they do] not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” If you want a deeper rebellion then live more, love more, care more. MLK suggests this, “One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” Jesus suggests this in the fifth chapter of the Gospel as recorded by Matthew, “Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”
Perhaps the authors would suggest that the above is all entrepreneurial and therefore lacks any ideological differentiation from capitalism because some churches sell things? If so, once again we would be back at the oddly deficient understanding as is present at the beginning of this book sprinkled with a bit of poignancy to make it all seem like it just might bear relevance. Thankfully, we don’t have to agree with everything we read. Wait…now I’m confused…is that me being countercultural or capitalist? 😉
 Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, Capstone ed. (West Sussex: UK: Capstone Publishing, 2006), 5.