Harper Perennial, 2005 updated edition of 2004 original, 374 pages, C$19.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-00-639491-4
Shortly after reading Naomi Klein’s virulent No Logo, I ended up buying myself a copy of Adbusters magazine despite Klein’s own misgivings about the publication. It was the first time I purchased the magazine since high school: I wanted to see what I had been missing in the years since then, and gauge the current state of the anti-consumerism movement. I wasn’t impressed: In-between spastic graphic design, incoherent articles and a message that didn’t seem to have evolved since the early nineties (and which may, in fact, have regressed into further insularity), Adbusters seems more self-satisfied than relevant, a charge that also broadly applies to a number of activists on the left end of the political spectrum.
So imagine my pleasure in finding kindred spirits in Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell. –also known as Nation of Rebels in the US market. The book’s subtitle promise to tell us “why the culture can’t be jammed” and the demonstration is more than a discussion of co-optation. Indeed, the authors demonstrate, there was never a need to co-opt, since counter-culture does nothing better than reinforce culture itself. Their argument is complex and I’m not up to the task of summarizing their dense tapestry of ideas, but it generally breaks down in the realization that the mainstream doesn’t really exist. Mass culture is made of many sub-cultures, including the counter-culture. Nothing really stops anyone from adopting counter-cultural ideas as part of their individual identity, and there is a lot of money to be made selling ideas of rebellion.
So far so good; but what really sold me on the book were Heath and Potter’s demonstration that the current (Canadian) system, albeit imperfect in countless ways, actually works better than anything else tried so far. Whereas the far left thinks it will settle for nothing less than revolution, the author point out that small incremental changes have, historically, been the surest way to chip away at social inequity… not to mention the losing gamble that is the complete replacement of an established system. It seems like a common-sense point, and yet one that’s not often taken seriously. Of course, small incremental changes are boring. They require work, tenacity and, at the very least, some involvement in the messy real-world conflict of interest that is organised politics. The Rebel Sell may be a triumph of conventional thinking, but it’s also far more reasonable than anything it criticizes.
Not always reasonable, though: The Rebel Sell is, in many ways, a sneering dismissal of left-wing power fantasies and at times it can’t avoid the trap of acting like the smartest kid in the class. While most of the book is solid, it sometimes becomes wobbly in specific criticism. They authors point and laugh at Naomi Klein’s musings about the gentrification of her neighbourhood in a way that almost makes me suspect that they must have had an argument with her at a Toronto social event or something. (Not to mention their dislike of Alanis Morrissette!) They also, regrettably, sketch a bit hastily over the point that not all No Logo-inspired left-wing activism is posturing: criticizing third-world sweat shops is about improving lives, not simply selling counter-culture merchandise. (Maybe that point seemed obvious to the authors who, despite their targets, actually hail firmly from the left side of the political spectrum.)
But none of this changes the fresh thinking in this book. It’s articulate, a bit smart-alecky, almost daring in its embrace of middle-of-the-road progressivism. It’s very Canadian in how it speaks from the middle against forms of excess, and uses the ideals of the left to police its own worst excesses. (In a formula I’m adopting from now on, they point out that the left has trouble differentiating dissent from deviance.) This review barely scratches at the fizzy intellectual fireworks of the book, but it’s a joy to read and great way to complete the picture painted by Klein and company. It’s perhaps most useful as an antidote and vaccine against some of the most inflamed rhetoric that starts to sound so good after eight years of the Bush administration. Most people are, after all, reasonable people. They don’t all subscribe to Adbusters magazine and would rather live well than climb to the barricades.
(Bonus Trivia: You can scour early-nineties Adbusters magazine and spot my name once in their letter columns. If my memory of what I wrote there is correct, you will find out that I haven’t changed much since then.)