Andy Beckett, "Branded For Life"

"Branded For Life"

Andy Beckett, The Guradian


The Rebel Sell:
How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture

by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

352pp, Capstone, £16.99

Since Naomi Klein's bestselling anti-capitalist book No Logo was published
five years ago, its success in Britain and North America has been
accompanied by an intriguing political and economic mystery. While Klein and
her imitators have made sweatshops and bullying corporations and the other
costs of global consumerism into much more mainstream topics for public
discussion, this does not seem to have stopped many people from going
shopping. One conclusion you could draw is that political books are not as
life-changing as they were. A more provocative one would be that where the
dominance of modern capitalism is concerned, Klein's kind of thinking is not
part of the solution but part of the problem.

The Rebel Sell is a brave book. In places it is also unfair, light on
evidence and repetitively polemical. But the argument it makes is important
and original. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, both young Canadian academics,
think that for nearly half a century critics of capitalism have profoundly
misunderstood their enemy. Worse than that, the authors argue, these critics
have — sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not — provided modern capitalism
with the fuel it runs on.They begin with an eye-catching example. Two years ago, the Canadian magazine
Adbusters, one of the main journals of the anti-capitalist movement, began
selling its own brand of trainers. In one way, the shoes were a radical
gesture: each one was marked with a prominent spot to advertise the fact
that it had not been made in a sweatshop, by implication shaming less
ethical trainer manufacturers. But the authors see the initiative
differently: "After that day, no rational person could possibly believe that
cultural rebellion, of the type epitomised by Adbusters ... is a threat to
the system — it is the system ... If consumers are willing to pay more for
shoes made by happy workers, then there is money to be made."

To Heath and Potter, the story of capitalism since the 60s is the story of
business absorbing so much from the so-called counterculture of that decade
and after, and vice versa, that the two effectively merged. By the early
21st century, the counterculture's governing ideas of rebelliousness and
"cool" have become the "central ideology" of consumerism. Wherever you find
capitalism at its most vigorous — as in the marketing of sportswear and pop
music — a "rebel sell" philosophy is at work.

This analysis is presented with great briskness and confidence. The authors
write in short, conversational paragraphs but their best sentences can be
artfully stinging. The obsession of modern marketing with coolness and youth
is memorably dismissed as "the society-wide triumph of the logic of high

Some of the themes here are not completely new, though. The US cultural
critic Thomas Frank (whom the authors acknowledge as a big influence) wrote
extensively in the 90s about the links between modern bohemianism and
business. But Heath and Potter go further by suggesting that there has never
even been any tension between the two sides: their interests have always
been compatible. To demonstrate this, they supply an ambitiously brief
version of the history of capitalism. In the beginning, it was a system
concerned with selling people things they needed. But once those needs had
been largely satisfied, in rich countries at least, capitalism became about
selling things that would make people feel distinctive. In the late 19th
century, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous
consumption" to describe the never-ending competition for prestigious
lifestyles and possessions that was set in motion.

Anti-capitalists, in Heath and Potter's view, have long failed to understand
this development. They have mistakenly seen capitalism as a system that
sells conformity rather than individualism. And so they have failed to spot
something important: that the counterculture of the 60s and its successors
have simply been examples of prosperous westerners seeking social
distinctiveness, as Veblen predicted. From hippies to punks, from organic
farmers to ravers, rebellious subcultures are always entrepreneurial — both
in their daily activities and in their overriding concern to set themselves
apart in the great modern marketplace of tastes and styles. And all the
debate and worry about "selling out" that has attended the growth of such
groups, the authors argue, has been a way of avoiding an uncomfortable
truth: that everyone involved was instinctively capitalist long before the
corporate sponsors came calling.

Anti-capitalism of the attractively packaged No Logo variety, The Rebel Sell
concludes tartly, is just the latest of these worldly subcultures, outwardly
iconoclastic but actually status-seeking and snobbish. The authors are not
above spicing their dense arguments with some easy point-scoring: "Whenever
you look at the list of consumer goods that [according to critics of
capitalism] people don't really need, what you invariably see is a list of
consumer goods that middle-aged intellectuals don't need ... Hollywood
movies bad, performance art good; Chryslers bad, Volvos good; hamburgers
bad, risotto good."

In the rare moments when Heath and Potter are not in attack mode, they
describe their own political beliefs in orthodox left-leaning terms. They
favour the welfare state and aiding the poor. They dislike unfettered
business. But the relish with which the authors go about their debunking
carries The Rebel Sell into more ambiguous ideological territory. Heath and
Potter's dislike of the capitalist fixation with youth culture, for example,
comes close to a fogeyish distaste for youth culture itself. Like Thomas
Frank, the authors can sound as nostalgic as any conservative newspaper
columnist for the world before the 60s, when genuine political rebels were
more easily identified and more soberly attired.

In places, too, The Rebel Sell relies too heavily on setting up straw men.
"Starbucks sells the best filter coffee around," write Heath and Potter; the
hostility to the chain, they suggest, is pure posing and elitism. Yet this
ignores the possibility that the chain's prices and all-consuming
expansionism may also be factors — and that Starbucks coffee, to a French
person or an Italian, say, may not be that special.

The book's assumptions are sometimes too North American. The position of
American-style capitalism as the only possible capitalism; the importance to
capitalism of American youth culture; the political superficiality of the
60s counterculture — all may be overstated as a result. Away from the United
States, more paternalistic and less fashion-fixated business cultures also
exist, as do rebellious subcultures — pacifists for example — with roots
going back much further than the 60s and seemingly little interest in
"commodifying their dissent".

At the end of the book, when Heath and Potter propose that capitalism be
tamed by "small, workable proposals" and "collective action" by governments
rather than trendy protests, it as if they have forgotten the whole history
of postwar European social democracy. But the point of this book is not to
be comprehensive or mildly reasonable. It is to provoke and get you
thinking. In that it succeeds: the certainties of modern anti-capitalism
will not feel as watertight again.

[Andy Beckett's Pinochet in Piccadilly is published by Faber.]