WHY YOU CAN’T JAM THE CULTURE


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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:

  • some of the things I’ve been saying (like my argument that we’re not going to save the world through social changes, education or IT — we’re going to have to use other means), and
  • some of the things others have been saying (like Tom Hayden’s argument — remember him, fellow geezers? — back in 2000 that “you canít break the cycle of poverty; you canít break the cycle of violence; you canít break the cycle of corporate expansion; you canít break the cycle of the arms race; you canít break the cycle of imprisonment, if you donít break the cycle by which radicals are isolated, idealists are turned into pragmatists, and pragmatists into opportunists”) [thanks to reader bpaton for this quote].

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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15 Responses to WHY YOU CAN’T JAM THE CULTURE

  1. Doug Alder says:

    Well when I browsed through the Q&A I’m left with the feeling that their core argument boils down to if your “culture jamming” ideas involve spending any money then you are really supporting the culture and not accomplishing what you want to do. Gee, talk about stating the obvious. They seem to completely ignore that as consumers you make choices and that regardless of who profits from those choices of where you spend your money those choices can impact the planet, which is the basis of culture jamming. Case in point, I can choose to own a vehicle or not. If I choose to own they I get to choose a type of vehicle. If I choose SUV I have a greater negative impact on the planet, and by extrapolation my society, than if I drive a hybrid. It is completely irrelevant that some capitalist is making a profit off of my “jamming” or that what I’m doing is supporting the society. If enough people choose options that are better for the planet then those capitalists that support those options will benefit and those that don’t won’t. Basic capitalist economic theory 101. They are right if all they are trying to say (sorry they are just too damned eye-glazing verbose to bother reading everything) you will not destroy capitalism by “culture jamming” but they are very wrong if they are trying to say that you can’t change the society/culture to one that is healthier for the planet etc. Capitalism is a good tool for changing the planet either way as it responds to market forces. The trick is to shape those market forces to meet the goal you want and that can go either way.

  2. bart@cwo.com says:

    I’m underwhelmed by Heath and Potter’s argument. Their specialty seems to be erecting giant straw men and knocking them down. Their unique feature is using the knowing jargon of cultural studies. Otherwise it is old hat. Tirades against hippies and the counter culture were standard fare in the mid-1960s. Their “left” politics seem to be that of Tony Blair and the conservative wing of the social democrats (so conservative that they don’t even use the term social democrats). Typically they are fervent defenders of capitalism. In the past such politics were associated with conservative trade unionists and “Dissent” magazine (in the US). Even so, if they had something fresh and insightful to say, I would be interested. Especially if they had some positive suggestions. I love to see good critiques of green consumerism and fashion. But no. The writing isn’t particularly deep or based in research. It’s like a series of columns strung together: light, readable, full of buzz words and cliches dressed up as bold thought. For an example of a better critique, see Ted Trainer on permaculture at http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/D16WhyBotherWPermcul.html? . One can agree or disagree with Trainer, but he is serious.Another source of critiques is from Marxists, such as those who write for Monthly Review or who appear on marxmail (moderated by Louis Proyect).That Heath and Potter can make a splash is evidence of the backward state of our political consciousness. I don’t think it is worth much effort to refute their points. They really aren’t serious (after all, is AdBusters starting a line of running shoes that big a deal one way or the other?).However, I would like to mention one example of a counter-culture project that has made a significant change: organic farming. It is now the fastest growing sector of agriculture. The technology surroundingit has advanced considerably since the 70s. One way that organic agriculture has managed to make headway is that there was an educated market ready and eager to support it. Similarly, today there is a growing consumer movement in favor of local produce and local farming.

  3. Cyndy says:

    I won’t dismiss their views completely because they do make a couple good points. Points, I might add which could be useful to collaborative ideas. The example of school uniforms hit home with me. When I was raising my kids I always liked the idea of uniforms, though they never went to a school that employed the concept. I saw the crazy competition to wear the correct sneakers, the correct label and the correct jacket as defying indivdualism and, more importantly, creating a divide between classes. I did perceive it as blatant consumerism. My points were well taken by other parents who were otherwise arguing for the individual statements. The argument of feeding the machine whether spending or saving money is something many people don’t consider and is a great argument for getting away from banking corporations and into local, member-owned, non profit credit unions. (or creating an alternate currency/bartering :) )FUBU (for us by us) the hip-hop brand, is not a bad concept, it seems to have some grounding here, in the black community especially, so the idea and the impact is not dead and goes right back to the community.We saw the impact of a consumer statement with Sinclair. Your (Dave’s) idea of intentional communties is not a pipe-dream. I think science and technology will have a big part in it as needs to be, but the concept and, more than likely the future necessity, is solid. Education, teaching about wastefulness and propaganda do have an impact on consumerism.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    I think there is a case to be made that ever since not long after tv was invented, and this advertising delivered by tv, ironism and rebellious “cool” have been coopted, and everything since the first instance where it worked has been a refinement of the basic concept, and it IS about “consuming” … even consuming the coolness of being a rebel, or the smart expressive outrage of counter-culture initiative “x”.There’s a reason why terrorism and revolutions have occurred in various forms … to suit the age .. .throughout history. People have been rabbiting on about fundamental change being necessary for quite some time now, in the modern era. The large-scale dynamics, and the problems, aren’t really new … they’re more complex because of the layers of population and resource consumption that habve been layered on in the passing forward of time, but essentially they’re the same issues and problems just adapted to fit the stage that the world offers at the moment .. and most of us spectate, we consume them. Terrorism in many cases may the only way left to express a fundamental refusal to submit, a way to try to register the deepest principles of human dignity (althoug clearly there are times when this is manifested in perverse ways … tho’ some would argue the world is as often as not a perverse place these days).It seems to me that history offers us clear lessons here. Major changes occur with cataclysmic events … even country-wide general strikes, such as those periodically observed in France or Germany don’t really change the system … neither did Tiananmen Square, or Argentina going broke, or AIDS destroying several generations in Africa. I guess for me thequestion is when will the next cataclysmic event be, and of what will it be composed. Seemingly, the “awareness” of issues offered by the interconnected ‘Net hasn’t been enough, nor has the outrageous and blatant invasion and occupation of Iraq, nor has been the curtailment of rights in the USA (Dave, remember your post titled “Worst case Scenario” ? care to update it now that the election has been held ?).Two weeks ago or so we were informed that the polar ice cap is melting much much faster than previously thought … and that’s not the first time we’ve been warned about that … except that each time we’ve been warned, the pace of change and prognosis are more worrisome than the last time.And ? gee, that’s old news, that was two weeks ago … what’s on tomorrow ? We live in the human-consciousness equivalent of what they call a “drift dive” in scuba diving – where the current is too strong to swim, stay in place, examine things … you just drift by the coral reef, looking at the pretty colours and moving along with the ciurrent, until you run out of air, and pop up to the surface …

  5. otterhound says:

    The authors seem to be making 3 arguments:The first is that any sort of symbolic consumption supports, rather than subverts, capitalism. As Doug Alder said, above, that seems pretty obvious.The second is more depressing and hasn’t been addressed in the above comments. That is, only state-coerced change is effective. Voluntary individual change is useless.This is pretty much a restatement of Hobbes: life is brutish, nasty, short and poor unless people are subjugated to the will of the state. My problem with Hobbes argument is this: Assume that we accept, for purposes of argument, that the individual, in a state of nature, will be always in a war of all against all. But the state will be run by these same types of individuals, so won’t the state be as brutish as the individual?The third is that local action is useless; only global action makes a difference. Perhaps, but accepting this would cause me, at least, to go into a state of despair and never get out of my pajamas. The only place where I feel I can make a difference is at the local level. I, as an individual, can get some satisfaction from seeing that I made a little local difference. If I, as an individual, set out to “save the world” at the global level, I’ll never see the direct results of my efforts.

  6. Cyndy says:

    After sleeping on this a bit and after reading Jon’s comments, I began to think that the ideas they are putting forth are defeatist. Go ahead and consume, it doesn’t make a lick of difference. On the other hand, the points about working less, earning less, and therefore consuming less are ideas to ponder. Being cool can mean shopping at thrift stores. As an example, my daughter was visiting from Chicago, shopping mecca of the midwest, and one of the first things she wanted to do when she got here was to shop for winter clothes at Value World with funds she had saved. She told some of her local friends about it and they were excited, a whole new world opened up. It is cool not to spend needlessly! As Jon says, education via net connections isn’t working well enough and a cataclysmic event that people are only vaguely aware of is indeed just below the surface. That may/will/have to be the turning point.The avoidance of environmental issuse in the US election gave the appearance that ‘all is well’. Most people are at least vaguely aware that consumption plays a huge part but aren’t going to reduce consumption unless there’s something in it for them. Is being cool what it takes? A friend of mine is playing with solar power. His neighbors are interested. He’s making it seem cool and isn’t spending huge amounts of money to implement it. Did people begin flocking toward organic foods because it was cool? Perhaps. I’d like to think not, but if that is a big part of the reason then perhaps marketing less consumerism, less consumption, (not by creating new x products) can also be a tactic. Cool does not mean elitist.

  7. Jon Husband says:

    Charles Handy, who is arguably very knowledgeable about systems, change and the human condition, once said that “fashion” was much underestimated as a large and always-present force in why people did what they did, and why change occurred or not.

  8. Kevin says:

    “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”I have imagined that, and I am convinced that that is the most likely scenario.It scares me because I know that if it happened in my lifetime, I do not have the financial means to make the cut. If I have children, and it happened in their life, they will most likely no have he financial means either.The only thing we can really hope for is that the pre-seeded societies are utilized before the complete collapse of the current system. When things get bad enough, perhaps people will start looking for and embrace alternatives before the total collapse.One thing is certain. Trying to change peoples minds of convince them with clever marketing schemes wont work (at least not in great enough numbers to make a difference) The only thing that will create an impetus for change in people is the suffering that will come. At that time, we have to be ready with working examples of how life can be better. We have to have real stories that we can show people when they come looking for a better way. The goal should not be to convince everyone that there is a better way now, but rather to make that better way work on a small scale, so that when people come looking, there is something to show them.

  9. Leah says:

    Don’t get me wrong, Dave–I enjoy your website, the things you say, and the way you say them. The first time I ever saw your blog title, though, I was reminded of this little paragraph I came across once when I googled “the meaning of life.” See (near the bottom of the page): http://users.aristotle.net/~diogenes/insane.htm

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Dear readers, another amazing and delightful comment thread. I want to digest what you’ve said further before I wade back into this wonderful conversation. If I had a million dollars I’d send you all tickets to come up and spend a weekend together with me, inventing the next culture, walking in the forest, and drinking a great deal of wine. Thank you!

  11. phil jones says:

    Leah, the world may not want to be saved. But unfortunately I depend on the world. Sometimes to save myself I need to talk it into talking care of itself.

  12. Julia says:

    What I think about eating organic, riding a bike or recycling is that one should do it bacause it is best for oneself. Really, indeed, best, giving you more pleasure, health and whatever else you yearn for. Not because you would just l-o-v-e to be drinking a coke, but you are afraid you grandchildren will never know cokes existed if you go on doing it recklessly. That is not good for oneself and therefore not good for anybody else. I do feel angry sometimes when I think of first-worlders eating the way they do. But my consolation is that I am pretty much sure that had we got the money you do we would probably be even more consumist and destructive.

  13. bart@cwo.com says:

    More thoughts about Heath and Potter, and Dave’s reaction.I think Dave was originally right: “…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.”Don’t be deflected by defeatists like Heath and Potter! Their function is to confuse and demoralize and their claim to be “of the left” is hogwash. And as you point out, their proposals are naive and unrealistic.It’s true that political-economic systems are rigged in favor of the powerful, but that has been true for the last 10,000 years.The proposal you tentatively put forward, of relying on technology to lead us to the next stage is Technological Determinism. Yes, the new technologies will lead us somewhere, but unless we are active and vocal, that somewhere may not be where we want to end up. It is not given to us to know whether we will succeed in making a more humane world; all that is given to us is whether to act honorably.

  14. Rob Butz says:

    Came across this cause I’m writing a review of the Rebel Sell for our activist library.Well, shocking discovery – art all by itself doesn’t change the world. However, done well, it does express the unspeakable, what sort of worlds we want, and breaks the boundaries of everyday politics. There is no evidence that Potter and Heath, however, are inclined to think in any other terms than what you could accomplish by slightly tweaking a bylaw, so cultural activity is dismissed a priori. I think there’s a need to go on record as defending cultural critique and “jamming,” but this is the problem with *their* argument — you are baited into these sweeping generalizations for which you can’t make distinctions; it becomes impossible to debate “good” jamming versus “bad” jamming. “Good” jamming and what’s “bad” jamming is so context-bound, and you can’t even talk about that; nor, say, if you think jamming is postive activity but Adbusters doesn’t speak for you. Sorry to say boys, while I think there’s a need to not get pretentious about adbusting’s effects (since it always only has potential effects), I find any kind of civil disobedience and creative illegality inspiring. It comes down to needing vision to change the system. I hadn’t noticed their references to Rawls and Berlin before, but now their absurd claim that you can’t consume in any other way than to be in an individualist competition “against” your neighbour at least has a philosophcal basis. What I think is said much more eloquently by Richard JF Day is that if you’re anticapitalist (I like using “antisystemic”), make interventions that simply do not “lend energy” to the overall system

  15. Thomas Watson says:

    I wonder, with all this talk about economic insitutions, if you have heard about a proposed alternative to capitalism and communism economic insitutions, called Parecon, short for participatory economy.If you haven’t read Micheal Albert’s book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, published by Verso, then I really suggest you do. It starts a little slow but I have found it to be a thought provoking book, detailing the only economic structure that I think would be able to equitably and fairly manage economic affairs of grand and complex economic systems, whether at national or international levels.Its use for us today is that of a goal, an economic vision, a direction. It is one that I think is achievable, in the sense that it would operate roughly as defined. Getting to a parecon will be a matter of future history!Nevertheless, even if you are not converted to the movement towards this particular of’participatory society’ (like I admitely am) then the book still has several interesting ideas that you might feel inclined to add to your own conception of a improved economy.

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