Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s book A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture is one of the best, most provocative, and most challenging books I’ve read in a long time.
With that kind of lead, where does one go? Well, to support the premise, of course.
In this book of cultural criticism, Heath and Potter—two Canadian philosophy professors—meticulously dissect contemporary culture and reach what might be to many a startling conclusion: that “the counterculture is not just a failure, but a harmful illusion.” The basic premise is this: that so much of contemporary culture is based upon the paradigm that there is a “system” which desires—if not demands—conformity and uniformity among its citizens. This belief in turn dictates that those who recognize the perversity of the “system” should step outside of it—that they should, in essence, become part of a “counterculture” which stands apart from the “consumer-dominated” world and is able to critique it, reject it, and transform it.
Heath and Potter contend that this notion of a legitimate “counterculture” which can challenge the system simply by mocking it or ignoring it is actually nothing more than counterproductive. To them, it is actually the counterculture itself which has produced the supercharged consumer society; it is the pursuit of difference and the notion of “rebellion” which has largely fueled the explosion in consumerism. They write that the counterculture was, “from its inception, intensely entrepreneurial” and reflects the “authentic spirit of capitalism.”
Consider this observation:
Hippies bought VW Beetles for one primary reason—to show that they rejected mass society. The big three Detroit automakers had been the target of withering social criticism for well over a decade, accused of promoting “planned obsolescence” in their vehicles. They were chastised above all for changing their models and designs so that consumers would be forced to buy a new car every few years in order to keep up with the Joneses. The tail fin was held up by many as an object of special scorn—as both an embodiment and symbol of the wastefulness of American consumer culture. Against this backdrop, Volkswagen entered the U.S. consumer market with a very simple pitch: Wanna show people that you’re not just a cog in the machine? Buy our car!
Time and again, this is what we see. The rebels of the counterculture are not co-opted by the system and they don’t sell-out to the system because they’re all really part of the system, if one exists at all—namely, society itself. Heath and Potter convincingly argue that much of what the counterculture offers is not legitimate dissent but rather simply deviance. The “question authority” mantras of so much of the counterculture essentially jettison all rules and the counterculture ends up in a place where it cannot coherently argue for much in the way of societal change because most actual real-world change ends up being considered “merely institutional.” The idea of freeing one’s mind as being the key to changing society is elevated above practical considerations or alterations; as one writer put it, the development of the counterculture meant that “revolution will be primarily therapeutic in character.”
The distinction between dissent and deviance is critical in understanding Heath and Potter’s critique of the counterculture. They write:
Dissent is like civil disobedience. It occurs when people are willing in principle to play by the rules but have a genuine, good-faith objection to the specific content of the prevailing set of rules. They disobey despite the consequences that these actions may incur. Deviance, on the other hand, occurs when people disobey the rules for self-interested reasons. The two can be very difficult to tell apart, partly because people will often try to justify deviant conduct as a form of dissent, but also because of the powers of self-delusion. Many people who are engaged in deviant conduct genuinely believe that what they are doing is a form of dissent.
To the authors, the counterculture “courted” the confusion between dissent and deviance, and actively collapsed the distinction between the two.
How else can one explain the parallel that so many people saw between, on the one hand, Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement and freedom riders and, on the other hand, Harley-Davidson choppers, cocaine smuggling and easy riders? The freedom to resist tyranny, to fight against unjust domination, is not equivalent to the freedom to do whatever you want, to have your own interests prevail. Yet the counterculture assiduously eroded this distinction.
The counterculture’s fascination with rebels is part and parcel of the problem. Indeed, the whole notion that simply challenging the mainstream is “dissent” rather than mere deviance is, they charge, actually precluding the sort of cultural changes the counterculture purports to desire. They mention the “politics” of the Yippies in the ’60s and their proposals to nominate a pig for president, to spike the Chicago water supply with LSD and to have squads of Yippie men and women seduce delegates and their families while giving them all doses of acid.
Is this deviance or dissent? There is one very simple test that we can apply in order to tell the two apart. It may sound old-fashioned, but it is still helpful to ask the simple question, “What if everyone did that? Would it make the world a better place to live?” If the answer is no, then we have grounds to be suspicious. A lot of counter-cultural rebellion, as we shall see, fails to pass this simple test.
Their engaging, conversational text charts the development of the counterculture from its roots in Marxism and the “repression” theories of Sigmund Freud to its frequent presentation in modern mass media. Rebellion, of course, is big business—especially when it isn’t really focused on societal change but is more interested in self-gratification (a charge they lay, rather strongly, at the feet of today’s “rebel consumers”). As they explore the countercultural presentations found in music and films such as The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club, and many others, you cannot help recognizing the absurdity of some of the arguments made by serious-minded counterculturalists. Consider American Beauty. The film’s characters are divided into two groups: the countercultural rebels and the fascist conformists. The heroic rebels all behave in identifiable ways: they smoke dope, behave in “nonconformist” ways, and have a deep, abiding appreciation for the “beauty” around them. The fascists, of course, lack these traits; instead, they are neurotic, sexually repressed, obsessed with what others think of them, like to play with handguns, and are probably secretly gay. Indeed, Colonel Fitts, the personification of the system, beats his son while screaming that the boy needs order and discipline—and of course the good Colonel collects Nazi memorabilia as well.
As the protagonist becomes dissatisfied with “the system,” his deviance produces problems. The fascists try to get him to stick with the party line, but fail. Guns start popping up left and right. His “liberation” from the crushing cultural conformity somehow threatens everyone else – and is, in the end, the reason for his death. Got that? He “had” to die because he smoked dope, didn’t care about his mortgage payment, and thought his wife shouldn’t worry about spilling beer on the $4000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk. Freedom isn’t equated with participating in society in any well-adjusted fashion; instead, it is displayed only in connection with freeing one’s “inner child” from any moral or ethical constraints “imposed” by society. Society—the “system”—is evil, and there is no escape save the final one.
Given the wide-ranging critique offered by Heath and Potter, it is really difficult to summarize everything they attack. Suffice it to say that they identify some of the fundamental flaws which lurk below the surface of the “counterculture.” They point out that far from representing a form of social dissent, “rebel consumerism” only feeds more of the same; there is nothing better for a capitalistic society than a group of consumers obsessed with differentiating themselves from the mainstream. As the authors note, “Most people spend the big money not on things that help them fit in, but on things that allow them to stand out from the crowd. They spend their money on goods that confer distinction.” They argue that much of the countercultural rhetoric is simply a justification for people to do what they want, rather on actively working to change society.
From topics such as uniforms, rules, tourism, alternative medicine, and more, Heath and Potter manage to mount a damning argument that the “counterculture” has done more harm than good, that it is based upon fallacious reasoning and causes many people (especially those on the far left) to reject reasonable proposals to resolve the “collective action problems” which face society simply because such solutions aren’t “deep” enough for them. It isn’t to say that this is a book written by someone on the political right; far from it. Both of the authors appear to embrace some (if not many) of the social and economic perspectives of the left. Rather, they perceive the myth of the “counterculture” as actually working to paralyze the left—to render it impotent, as it were. In their minds, far too many countercultural rebels are wasting their time on deviance rather than dissent, and challenging everything about society rather than working to make the world a “better place.”
I didn’t necessarily agree with everything Heath and Potter wrote. But ultimately that’s not the point. Nation of Rebels is one of those rare books that challenges many of your assumptions in an engaging, thoughtful way and makes you reconsider many of the notions you may have held about how society works. It is, in my opinion, highly recommended reading.