book review: the rebel sell

The Rebel Sell (the book has a different title in the U.S. for some reason), by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, is a book about why countercultural politics are stupid. They aim directly at Naomi Klein and Adbusters and the like for not realizing how the capitalist system works.

The basic thesis is that these countercultural warriors have made a fundamental mistake: they see capitalism as requiring conformity, so in their eyes the best way to fight it is to rebel against “the system.” But capitalism doesn’t require conformity. It loves it when people to want to stand out from each other so they can get into arms races of fashion and anti-fashion, because that creates markets and everyone makes money.

Heath and Potter talk about prisoner dilemmas and why there’s no such thing as “the system” co-opting the tools of rebellion and positional goods in a rich society. Having never taken an economics course, I found that stuff of interest. There were bits about how Buy Nothing Day doesn’t work because if you’re putting your money in the bank it’s just being used elsewhere in the system, which I’d felt, but hadn’t ever articulated clearly.

The main problem I had with the book was its recommendation of just sitting back and not worrying about your consumption habits and how marketers target you. At one point they explicitly say something like “Once you’re past 30 who has the energy to figure out what you like anymore? Pump your data into Amazon and let it recommend music for you.” It only addressed countercultural movements as consumer movements designed to enact political change. I think there’s a lot more to be said for actually creating stuff of your own, and to do that requires the independence that the authors seem to discount.

Part of my “Hey! That’s not true!” gut reactions to the book came about because it was published in 2004. If it was written today the examples that’d be given would all be hipsters on their fixies and I would have been able to laugh at those stupid little kids. But the examples they used were all from when I was in that prime early twenties age for this kind of stuff. It’s better for me that it was like that because then I was fighting the text more instead of nodding sagely.

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