Monday, April 17, 2006

The Rebel Sell: A Mini-Review

Over the long weekend, a friend gave me Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's 2004 book The Rebel Sell.

Basically, I agreed with the authors' points, laughed as they ridiculed the ridiculous and nodded throughout. But it still left me a bit unsatisfied.

I can't argue with the main points the book makes. All societies require rules of conduct, and being anti-social is not the same as being a political dissident. Counter-culture is not anti-capitalist, since capitalism is just as happy to sell authentic experiences and cultural change as pork bellies. Cool is indeed just a post-sixties word for status (within a certain class: more people continue to seek status the old-fashioned way, by having successful children and numerous grandchildren).

The problem is the genre of The Rebel Sell, the dialectical polemic. Dialectical polemics are big on tracing out the logic of the Idea the polemicist is against, from précis of Big Theorist to pop cultural avatar. Heath and Potter take on a Zeitgeist of counter-culture, of anti-consumerist consumption, which somehow stretches from Rousseau, Freud and Gramsci to the most annoying rock snob and ditsiest hippie chick you ever met at an E party. The Pithlord is not entirely against this genre. It is often the case that the fundamental reason to reject the Frankfurt School professor is the shame you feel for pretending to take the hippy chick's contention that the Body Shop will save the world or the rage that the superior record store clerk inspires. So the Pithlord isn't against the genre altogether.

The problem is that a dialectical polemic doesn't take the time to distinguish between ideas worth doing a sociological analysis of, and those really worth arguing with. Heath and Potter can be quite annoying when they throw off policy ideas (35 hour week, school uniforms, elimination of full deductibility of advertising expenses) without bothering to seriously motivate them. At one point, they introduce quite an interesting issue: is there an aggressive instinct in humans, as Freud thought, or is aggression simply the meeting of pure instrumental rationality with a prisoner's dilemma, as Hobbes said? Heath and Potter assure us that there is nothing in human nature that well-regulated markets can't fix. Personally, I suspect they miss that it is our genes that are rational maximizers, not us, and they certainly don't discuss the recent work to show how "irrational" aggression might have evolved. In effect, they dismiss the idea that civilization must repress dangerous human energies with the lightness of touch more appropriately used when discussing Adbusters' new shoe brand.

Sometimes this tendency opens them up to ethical criticism. At one point, they criticize Theodore Roszak for describing Playboy as on a continuum with Auschwitz, but later they treat those who buy free-range eggs as siblings in spirit with the Unabomber. The critics of "moral equivalence" describe the difference between violent and non-violent environmentalists as "more tactical than substantive" (p. 136).

If the counter-culture was really libertarian-capitalist all along -- if the hippies were always yuppies -- then the question still arises whether it was good or bad. Tyler Cowen or Virginia Postrel happily point out the delusion of leftist avant-garde types, but they celebrate what the competitive process Heath and Potter describes has wrought. And they are on to something: maybe the hippies that brought North America better bread were misguided political analysts, but we do now have better bread. Sure, the bobos abandon openly racist expression in part because it reeks of commonness, but don't we end up a little more civilized, a little more restrained? Heath and Potter's analysis of the counter-culture's essential libertarianness doesn't answer the evaluative question of whether and to what extent it has been good for us. They are entitled not to be interested in this question, but would the polemical force remain if they confronted it?

Even Naomi Klein could be seen simply as someone trying to make development and trade union politics cool, to rebrand it. This might not be as foolish a political move as Heath and Potter say.

Fundamentally, the boys are right that the impulse to turn away from "the system" is not a political impulse. No practical politics can afford to oppose the system as such -- it must always have a concrete object of change: a war, segregation, daycare. The impulse of disgust at the system is, at bottom, a religious impulse. It is the impulse to ask the question posed by our free finitude. Ridiculing the impulse doesn't really make it go away. And the boys don't seem to get religion, even though religious journeys of various sorts (Buddhist, Gnostic, Kabbalistic) are a big part of their story. The boys tell us that "The primary functions of Western religions are to teach morality, sanctify marriage and family, and anchor social stability through shared beliefs, rituals and institutions." An odd thing to say about Christianity, for example, whose founder had little time for bourgeois morality, family or social stability.

Ultimately, the boys refuse to understand why anyone would efficiency and instrumental rationality lacking. They invoke Rawls to say that they don't need to embark on the deeper questions -- that liberalism requires only shallow agreement -- but then they are never going to really understand either the counter-culture, which strained for a deeper-than-bourgeois way of living, nor the limits of it.

Update: The literatus wonders whether "ditsiest" should be "ditziest." My spell checker knows neither, but it has the vocabulary of a six-year-old with a reading disability. Five minutes of exhaustive Internet research reveals that both usages are acceptable.

The literatus also complains that I failed in the basic task of the reviewer, which is to tell people whether they should buy the damn book. I was about to invoke the authority of Northrop Frye, and get all snooty about "mere evaluation", when I remembered some pundit (whose name I have forgot/forgotten) who suggested Frye's aversion to evaluating reflected the general unwillingness of the Canadian literary community to piss off somebody who might be in the position to a rule on a Canada Council grant someday. Whether this is fair or not, it stuck with me, and I feel guilty for not pointing my thumbs solidly in a particular direction.

The Rebel Sell is indeed a good book, summarizing complicated ideas effectively and ridiculing stupid ones mercilessly. For a North American born between 1965 and 1980, with some intellectual or leftist pretensions, it is as good an introduction to the Hobbes/Locke/Hume/Smith vs. Rousseau/Hegel/Marx/Freud debate about human nature as you are likely to find, although highly biased to the former side.

My only caveat would be that I would not give it to a brash marketing type or a dweeby economics geek, since it would confirm them in all their prejudices, and that would not be good for their souls. But if you know anybody who ever marched in an anti-globalization parade, or convinced themselves that keeping Wal-Mart out of their backyard was good for the working class, then I wouldn't let another gift season go by without picking one up.

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