You’re doing your best. You are trying to live a life of Radical Simplicity. You boycott companies that are socially and environmentally irresponsible. Like Doc Searls and other progressive thinkers (including me), you like the culture-jamming philosophy of irreverant anti-corporatists like Naomi Klein of nologo and Kelle Lasn of Adbusters, the gang that dreamed up Buy Nothing Day (a week today, BTW).
But, now, two impudent Canadians, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, in their new book The Rebel Sell will tell you to your face that you’ve been coopted by the very consumer culture you thought you’d rejected. Here’s how they put it. I know this is long, but it’s a complex and important argument, so please suspend your disbelief long enough to give them a chance:
September 2003 marked a turning point in the development of Western civilization. It was the month that Adbusters magazine started accepting orders for the Black Spot Sneaker, its own signature brand of “subversive” running shoes. After that day, no rational person could possibly believe that there is any tension between “mainstream” and “alternative” culture. After that day, it became obvious to everyone that cultural rebellion, of the type epitomized by Adbusters magazine, is not a threat to the system — it is the system.
Founded in 1989, Adbusters is the flagship publication of the culture-jamming movement. In their view, society has become so thoroughly permeated with propaganda and lies, largely as a consequence of advertising, that the culture as a whole has become an enormous system of ideology — all designed to reproduce faith in “the system.” The goal of the culture jammers is quite literally to “jam” the culture, by subverting the messages used to reproduce this faith and blocking the channels through which it is propagated. This in turn is thought to have radical political consequences. In 1999, Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn argued that culture jamming “will become to our era what civil rights was to the ’60s, what feminism was to the ’70s, what environmental activism was to the ’80s.” Five years later, he’s using the Adbusters brand to flog his own trademark line of running shoes. What happened? Did Adbusters sell out?
Absolutely not. It is essential that we all see and understand this. Adbusters did not sell out, because there was nothing to sell out in the first place. Adbusters never had a revolutionary doctrine. What they had was simply a warmed-over version of the countercultural thinking that has dominated leftist politics since the ’60s. And this type of countercultural politics, far from being a revolutionary doctrine, has been one of the primary forces driving consumer capitalism for the past forty years. In other words, what we see on display in Adbusters magazine is, and always has been, the true spirit of capitalism. The episode with the running shoes just serves to prove the point.
What countercultural rebels call cooptation is in fact just competitive consumption, instigated and exacerbated by the rebels themselves. This is why rebellion of this sort has become one of the major forces driving consumer capitalism in the past 40 years. The reason the system never changes is that cultural radicalism is not genuinely radical. Mass production does not require conformity, and the capitalist system is fundamentally indifferent to grey flannel suits and biker jackets. Countercultural thinking has created a massive diversion of progressive energies into politically and economically irrelevant pursuits.
Practices such as downshifting, energy conservation, eating organic produce, and engaging in local environmental activities are pretty much useless. Countercultural thinking has reduced much of the political agenda of the left to individual consumer activism. When someone mentions “environmentalism,” most people think of recycling, conserving energy, or riding a bike. Yet these sorts of strategies just promote “the exploitation of the moral by the immoral,” by making it easier for the majority of the population to keep throwing away whatever they like, leaving their air conditioner on all summer, and driving their SUVs. The only real solutions to environmental problems are ones that are compulsory for the entire population. And that necessarily requires using the power of the state to punish those who fail to comply. Yet the left has become unduly cautious of this sort of strategy, precisely because so many feel that there is something suspicious or unhealthy about the use of state power.
Ultimately, the counterculture sees politics as a real-life version of The Matrix: it is a great winner-take-all battle between the totalizing forces of mass conformity and the revolutionary individualism of the enlightened rebels. This individualistic utopianism relies quite heavily on the idea of spontaneous harmony, which holds that social problems will all magically disappear once we achieve the necessary global transformation of consciousness. [heh, like One World, the Unconquerable World and the Support Economy – my editorial comment]. Joe and I think that, in addition to being impossible, this would be entirely unwelcome. We both agree with the argument familiar to readers of Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls that human values are irreducibly diverse, and that this pluralism with respect to conceptions of the good life is, on the whole, a positive thing.
After my initial annoyance wore off (read the full Q&A if yours still hasn’t, so you have a clear understanding of the argument they’re making), this began to resonate somewhat with:
I certainly don’t buy everything the authors say — they have a somewhat romantic view of free trade and globalization that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny — economist Herman Daly dissects their argument by explaining that while the ‘free market’ is great for resource allocation, it is hopeless at both distributive justice and optimal scale of economic production (‘free’ trade supporters assume it is the best at all three). And I also think they’re naive in believing that the inherent failings in the economic and market systems (notably the tendency to oligopoly and the tendency of the rich and powerful to protect their wealth and power by any and all means available) can be overcome by “tough negotiations” to make the market “more perfect” and the voluntary re-imposition of “a great deal of governmental support, oversight, and regulation”. Just ain’t going to happen, guys.
Which is especially discouraging, because the authors proffer no other solutions. I have argued that we need to use a combination of methods and movements — political, legal and economic, social and educational, entrepreneurial, scientific and technological — to bring about the massive cultural change that is needed to stave off social, economic and environmental collapse by the end of this century. But everything I’ve read suggests that the political, legal and economic systems are rigged in favour of the incumbent holders of wealth and power, and are designed precisely to resist change or redistribution of that wealth and power. And now Heath and Potter are arguing, quite convincingly I think, that grassroots social, educational and entrepreneurial methods of bringing about radical change — the visions of Peter Singer’s global consensus government, Jon Schell’s ‘second world power’ (the people), and Shoshana Zuboff’s networked collaborative entrepreneurial meritocracy — are not only hopelessly idealistic and impossible, but perhaps undesirable.
That places the entire burden for pulling us back from the brink of catastrophe, on science and technology. Perhaps we should not be surprised at this. After all, the agricultural revolution that replaced hunter-gatherer culture with civilization culture was entirely achieved by radical, disruptive, unpopular new technologies (monoculture farming and animal domestication) — technologies that got traction only because of the massive hunger and scarcity brought on by the ice age and the extermination of big game. These new technologies were imposed coercively by the introduction of slave labour and ruthless hierarchy. Likewise, the horrendous and dehumanizing drudgery and efficiency of the industrial revolution’s technology — the assembly line — was only made possible by the economic and political subjugation of the vast majority by a wealthy and heartless elite, who answered workers’ political dissent with bullets. In neither case was the new technology socially or politically welcome, but it so undermined the economies of the technologies it replaced that they could no longer survive — in both cases it was ‘adapt or die’.
In the 21st century, then, we may be looking at a third, radical, gut-wrenching, unpopular, technology-driven change that will again utterly transform us from a culture on the verge of collapse to a brave and scary new one. There are a number of types of technologies to choose from — thermonuclear, optical, cybernetic, solar, biological, acoustic to name just a few. Whatever technologies we choose to power this next revolution past unsustainability (or, through inaction, allow others to choose for us) will of necessity produce a world with far fewer people consuming far less resources, which is a good thing. But these technologies will be as wildly unpopular (especially if they’re deployed in the form of weapons, which is not unlikely) as those that powered the agricultural and industrial revolutions. And they will, perforce, be involuntary, which will require either great courage or madness to impose.
Maybe it’s time, for the people’s sake, to give up on the people — the political tyrants, the scheming corporatists, and the social idealists — and find a better way to find a better way. If we can’t jam the old culture, we’ll have to use science (again) to invent and pre-seed a new one, ready to carry on when the old one crumbles under its own weight. Shudder, if you will, and then imagine that.
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