Nation of Rebels

I just came across this early Joseph Heath/Andrew Potter article based on their excellent book Nation of Rebels. It’s called The Rebel Sell. They argue that consumerism, more than capitalism, is the reigning political-economy of our times, and that we are being sold our insurrections:

Take, for example, Volkswagen and Volvo advertising from the early 1960s. Both automakers used the critique of “planned obsolescence” quite prominently in their advertising campaigns. The message was clear: buy from the big Detroit automakers and show everyone that you’re a dupe, a victim of consumerism; buy our car and show people that you’re too smart to be duped by advertising, that you’re wise to the game. This sort of “anti-advertising” was enormously successful in the 1960s, transforming the VW bug from a Nazi car into the symbol of the hippie counterculture and making the Volvo the car of choice for an entire generation of leftist academics.

The article makes the case that most of our counter-culture actually fuels the economy of waste and obsolescence that drives it. Distaste for conformity is actually an acquired taste, a mark of distinction, and ‘rebelling’ against consumerism by avoiding brand names, for instance, is precisely the measure of a person’s consumption: they must have something new and different, and demand that the economy provide that novelty. These rebels actually -get- their novelty because they occupy positions of power or possess some form of advantage. They can afford the loft apartment; they have the right connections to discover the latest underground band; they have enough vacation time and the cultivated taste to prefer unspoiled wilderness.

What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. To show that they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (the latest nightclub), better informed (single-malt Scotch), morally superior (Guatemalan handcrafts), or just plain richer (bmws).

This is actually fairly well trod ground among media academics and cultural critics of a certain variety, going back to Adorno’s theory of the culture industry and its ‘pseudo-individualization.’ What makes the Heath/Potter book so good are their recommendations. Instead of beating the culture of consumerism with newer, trendier fashions or lifestyle changes that only bring their own set of competitive waste, they articulate banal, practical changes to things like the tax code:

At this stage of late consumerism, our best bet is legislative action. If we were really worried about advertising, for example, it would be easy to strike a devastating blow against the “brand bullies” with a simple change in the tax code. The government could stop treating advertising expenditures as a fully tax-deductible business expense (much as it did with entertainment expenses several years ago).

Yet the very practicality and unsexiness of this proposal is why it’s also the right kind of move. Seductive strategies that promise coolness and glamour are what’s gotten us into this mess. Good stuff.






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