The Rebel Sellout

After reading a catchy essay last fall excerpted from the book The Rebel Sell, my curiosity was piqued and I placed a hold on my local library’s copy. I finally picked it up a week ago with high hopes, but ultimately, I would have to say I was disappointed.

Like it or not, we of course live in a capitalist society where the production of goods is primarily determined by their marketability. In such a system, the citizen/consumer wields more influence over the terms of their society at the cash register than in the voting booth. Yet the tenets of laissez-faire ideology notwithstanding, we see inequality and injustice at every turn, within and especially between nations. Systems of production are in place that exploit workers and the environment for short-term financial gain. So what is the conscientious person to do?

Marx advocated revolution to place control of the means of production in the hands of labour. The counter-culture movement of the Sixties advocated personal actualization (be it by psychotropic chemicals or co-option of Eastern religions) as a means to disrupt the conformity required by the prevailing system. More recently, leftists such as Naomi Klein have advocated informed purchasing favouring products known to have been produced under more sustainable conditions. We are expected to research the labour practices of garment manufacturers before choosing a pair of shoes and inquire into the effects the pesticides used to produce our coffee have had on its cultivators. On a larger scale, by lobbying for controls on international trade which ensure humane conditions of employment for all, Klein and others like her envision a gradual development of decentralized democracy by way of solidarity between consumers and producers applying pressure to both governments and capitalists.

Among the manifestations of this resistance to the forces of global capitalism is the phenomenon of culture jamming, which attempts to subvert existing mass media to portray the hidden truth of a situation. This has gained its popularity from the degree to which our culture’s shared mental landscape is invaded by advertising (do you recognize more species of flowers, or more brand logos?), and attempts to use the power of these symbols to communicate a message other than that intended by the capitalist. The culture jammer asks us not to conform to the wishes of the advertiser by purchasing their product, but instead see their corporation in a different light, and with this new-found insight shop elsewhere.

Into this morass wade Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, philosophers at the University of Toronto and l’Université de Montréal respectively, with The Rebel Sell, which advances the thesis that culture jamming is both the predominant expression of the contemporary left and the primary driving force behind capitalist expansion. Heath & Potter see something ridiculous in counter-culture proponents such as Adbusters, which envision a rebel consumer too cool to fall prey to a Nike ad, and instead buys overpriced sneakers from Kalle Lasn for $65 plus taxes & shipping. In their view, brand outlaws in fact drive consumerism; by innovating and thus implicitly endorsing products not yet available on the mass market, they start trends and encourage imitation by retailers. They say that frequent claims to the contrary notwithstanding, capitalism as a system is clearly not threatened by diversity in and of itself, and in fact thrives on a demand for non-conformist goods, in that by definition they rapidly become obsolete and require constant replacement from the marketplace.

In their view people primarily consume fair-trade, hand-crafted, or organic goods to express their individuality, and since this is still consumption within a capitalist system, it only differs from shopping at Walmart to the extent that it’s much more expensive and therefore a more desirable positional good and symbol of class. They rightly point out that only by reducing your income will you personally decrease the amount of money exchanged on the market, but seem to consider all consumption equivalent. It doesn’t matter if Walmart hires undocumented migrant labourers and then calls the INS to have them deported before payday; anyone who pays more to shop at an ethical, locally run store is merely posturing, and encouraging others to do so is meaningless because ethical shopping also functions as a positional good, conferring “coolness”, which by definition is a scarce quantity that not everyone can have.

Ironically, the book criticizes activists who view capitalism as a hegemonic empire which can be overturned by any act of noncompliance, but itself describes “the system” as a hegemony in the sense that a person who chooses to shop in a different store is still shopping, and thus not in actuality effecting any change. But capitalism is not homogeneous and undifferentiated. An equitable worker’s co-operative using sustainable environmental practices is in fact less exploitative in many important ways than any number of multinationals. It seems that Heath & Potter see all market transactions as equal, a concept discredited amongst the left at least since Marilyn Waring.

One is left to wonder why the authors, self-described apostles of Thomas Frank and his critique of how business has subsumed the discourse of rebellion in order to sell soft drinks, felt it necessary to write an entire book applying this theory to the contemporary progressive movement. At the very least, it could have done without the numerous exegeses tracing the history of various ideas from Plato’s cave through Freud and the usual French cultural theorists. Is this all philosophers have to do with their time?

Heath & Potter take great delight in pointing out how modern capitalism is highly flexible, and rather than insisting that we all buy whatever is most convenient for it, is in fact able to respond to the consumer’s shifting whimsy with great speed and agility. This is true, and (as they point out) gives great hope for the future. If consumers start choosing more products made in factories that don’t, say, pollute egregiously, or bust their workers’ unions, then those goods will be produced in greater number. But it is precisely this need for an informed consumer base which requires the activist to loudly proclaim their preference for sustainably produced goods in a compelling way. These trendsetters are fundamentally different from those seeking only to maximize returns for the shareholders of Nike. And until the authors figure that out, they will have little useful to contribute to the on-going resistance to corporate control which is the global culture jam.