At age thirteen I was pretty obsessed with being and looking ‘cool’. Going from the top of the food chain in grade school to being part of the new younger group of kids in middle school who were coming from several feeder schools, made me want to both fit in and stand out. I wanted status as a kid others could be friends with and in my opinion that looked like being pretty, popular, witty and a bit edgy. I remember my parents were in the middle of building a house and the five of us were living in our two-bedroom rental. My dad drove us to school in his 1964 Chevy Impala, which was embarrassing to me as it was huge and old unlike the coups and SUVs that were newly on the market.  Did I care about being a consumer? No. I wanted friendships and assumed what people saw of me would be their first impression and stuff was just a way to attach to the relationships that mattered so much to me.
It wasn’t until I connected my life in a meaningful way with Jesus in early high school that my perspective on status changed. I remember preparing to go on one of my first mission trips with the requirement of memorizing Philippians 2:1-13. Verses three through seven were striking, new, and countercultural to me: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” The concept of humility, conforming myself to the pattern of Jesus by putting others before me, being willing to serve them before myself was one of the greatest transformations I sought for God to instill in me. I did not fully conceptualize at the time how this might change my relationship to consumerism for my own sake. Yet, it was having a lasting effect on my soul, as I began to look outward to care for others rather than inward to care for me.
Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter explains the need to be cool and the hope of people to both fit in and stand out. They argue that the rebellion against the culture or system, popularized by the hippies in the 60s and then again in the 90s with movies such as the Matrix and Fight Club, was merely a ruse, redirecting people in an anti-cultural way to be against capitalist society while continuing to consume products, just different ones. In this way the counter cultural rebellion failed to change culture, as it bought into the illusion that it was escaping the culture when the reality was it never stepped outside of itself to create anything new or different.  To do so would need to be much more radical, such as in the Industrial Revolution where, as Polanyi in his Great Transformation recalls, the change came from within the society by the economy’s move away from traditional means of trade and into a market based on commodity. As Ian Reilly notes, “What the countercultural critics overlooked in their rejection of the dominant culture, and more importantly here, in their critique of consumerism, is the idea that distinction rather than conformity drives the consumer economy.”
While critics of Rebel Sell view aspects of the text as generalized even bland, lacking the perspective of diversity of the countercultural movement, Heath and Potter have authored a work challenging popular culture, and in particular, the countercultural movement in a way that cannot be denied. Though they do not provide possible solutions for the left to support future ‘engagement with countercultural politics’ as Ian Reilly would like, they do raise questions as to how we live and consume within our society.
In Heath and Potter’s fourth chapter, titled “I hate myself and I want to buy”, they mention Thorstein Veblen and his critique of consumer culture from the 19th century. Veblen believed “the fundamental problem with the consumer society is not that our needs are artificial, but that the goods produced are valued less for their intrinsic properties than for their role as markers of relative success.” Once a society is beyond needing to provide staple goods, material goods take on another quality as indicators of social status. The more material items each person has the more status they are able to gain. However, when one person gains, another loses. Veblen’s perspective connects with Cavanaugh in that the ‘miracle of the market’ in consuming more does not truly care for anyone else but me. Even those who are not particularly interested in status or social climbing feel the need to keep up by ‘defensive consumption’ simply to avoid humiliation. As Heath and Potter put it, it becomes an arms race affecting the entire social hierarchy.
Veblen’s theory is exactly what reminded me of the opening story of this post. I simply wanted to participate with my peers and did not realize the implications of my actions until confronted with an entirely different Truth. I had not considered the question I asked at the beginning of last week’s post, “will we consider the intentionality of our decisions in the midst of the economic system in which we live?” Truly, I did not think any of my actions really affected anyone else. I was a free agent. Yet, I was not free. I did not understand both the cultural and biblical implications of how my life was and could affect others.
After reading Rebel Sell I am faced once again with Philippians and the question of how I and we as followers of Jesus will live within our culture? Will we climb social status ladders or attempt to rebel for our own good? Or will we lay down our rights and risk humiliation by consciously consuming in order to care for others? The answers feel in some ways more difficult and nuanced than my middle school mind could have accepted.
 Years later I did realize how cool my dad’s car actually was.
 Philippians 2:3-7, Bible, NASB
 Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter. Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consume Culture. Chichester: Capstone Publishing, 2006, 10.
 Reilly, Ian. “Rebel Sell: Why Culture Can’t Be Jammed.” The Journal of Popular Culture. (2007), 187.
 Openshaw, Andrew. “No Logo, No Change? Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consume Culture.” Cultural Politics. vol 2, 3 (2006), 397.
 Reilly, 187.
 Heath and Potter, 115.