Count your culture before it hatches: Book Review Friday

24 February 2012: DC Exile Day 31

Book Review

[All book reviews include title of work, author(s), publisher and publication date.]

Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

HarperBusiness, 2004

What is meaningful political action? From the Boston Tea Party, to marches on the nation’s Capitol, sit-ins to the recent Occupy Movement, organizers must ask this perpetual question. In a society in which hate crimes, domestic violence and various forms of discrimination exist, what can we do to make our country a better place for all citizens?

In Nation of Rebels, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter focus on one group that has tried to provide an answer to the question of political efficacy: the counterculture.

It is clear early on in the book that the authors disagree strongly with the counterculture. Most of the book focuses on the mostly superficial actions of the counterculture (especially hippies and hipsters).  They claim, “[T]he hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, comes to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than the civil rights activist working to enlist voters or the feminist politicians campaigning for a constitutional amendment.” (p. 32)

Heath and Potter take great pains to deconstruct the history of the US counterculture (which includes antiglobalization activists, environmentalists, hippies, hipsters, punks, social deviants, feminists and other “rebels”). They criticize the view that all repression (internal and external) is aggressive, coercive conformity. They take issue with Marx, The Matrix, Norman Mailer and all pieces of culture and cultural critics believing in a systemic theory of oppression:

We argue that decades of countercultural rebellion have failed to change anything because the theory of society on which the countercultural idea rests is false. We do not live in the Matrix, nor do we live in the spectacle. The world that we live in is in fact much more prosaic. It consists of billions of human beings, each pursuing some more or less plausible conception of the good, trying to cooperate with one another, and doing so with varying degrees of success. (p. 8)

They believe this mistaken view of oppression leads to a misguided approach to rectifying our country—an approach that not only fails to alleviate the problem, but also feeds directly into the system it claims to challenge:

Countercultural politics…has been one of the primary forces driving consumer capitalism for the past forty years…But ‘fair trade’ and ‘ethical marketing’ are hardly revolutionary ideas, and they certainly represent no threat to the capitalist system. If consumers are willing to pay more for shoes made by happy workers—or for eggs laid by happy chickens—then there is money to be made in bringing these goods to market. (p. 2)

The book ultimately contends that countercultural politics feeds into capitalism and is a feckless and purely superficial approach to politics. As the authors remind us, “[R]ebellion against aesthetic and sartorial norms is not actually subversive.” (p. 150) Heath and Potter believe the countercultural desire to overthrow the system and take down “the Man” by listening to abstruse music, practicing yoga, becoming Buddhist, buying organic goods and becoming a “rebel consumer” is a remarkable waste of time and energy. Although it takes a while to get to it, the authors present a seemingly simple solution to societal oppression and inequality: “[W]e need more government, not less.” (p. 334)

While I found most arguments against the counterculture and the rebel consumer convincing, I had two big issues in reading the book. First, the authors’ tone seems overly antagonistic at times. Their utter frustration with the counterculture comes through clearly. Although I ultimately agreed with many of their premises, I was nearly unconvinced by the way they mocked other theories and theorists.

My second difficulty with the book is the basis of the solution the authors posit. I agree that more government regulation of business (mandated childcare, mandated insurance and healthcare coverage, mandated living wage, mandated 35-hour work weeks, etc.) is welcome and necessary to prevent businesses from escalating a competitive “arms race” that leads to a no-win situation for companies, workers and consumers. However, the argument seems to elide the fact that many current US Congressional officials are conservative lawmakers hell bent on rejecting any sort of regulation, instead focusing almost exclusively on removing regulations of businesses and corporations. Even uttering the word “regulation” with the hint of positive connotation seems anathema to most right-leaning leaders in the US.

My issue with the political imprecision of the book may stem from the fact that the critique is eight years old. An updated version with a new focus on the Occupy Movement and the 2010 Republican takeover in Congress and state houses across the country would build usefully on this sharp piece of cultural criticism. Ultimately, I believe this book can help us begin to resolve the countercultural view’s greatest dilemma: “The goal of improving conditions in society at large, or of promoting social justice, receded from view [for the counterculture]. In this way, the concern for social justice became redirected and absorbed into an increasingly narcissistic preoccupation with personal spiritual growth and well-being.” (p. 57)

-Joseph Patrick Richards, @mentalmacguyver