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The Rebel Sell
26/05/2005

In my review last week of Freakonomics, I mentioned that I had also purchased and was reading The Rebel Sell -- Why the Culture Can't be Jammed by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. I finished it over the long weekend and thought that, on the whole, it was very good.

(In the USA the book has a different title: Nation of Rebels : Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.)

The book has been refered to as a left-wing critique of countercultural thinking. However, I'd say it is about more than this. On one hand, it is about more because the critique applies equally well whether you come from the left or the right -- indeed without knowing Heath's other book it would be easy to forget that he's of the left, or at least the centre -- and, on the other hand, it's about more because it (like The Efficient Society) seems to me to really be about the prisoner's dilemma as a model for explaining a lot about how the world works.

I'd like to discuss some aspects of the book, but first ought to give you a sense of what it's about. Here's my very short summary:

  1. The idea that capitalism demands conformity is bunk, along with the idea that we are psychologically repressed and/or conditioned to buy things we don't really want.
  2. The prisoner's dilemma explains a great deal about the problems we had before society introduced rules to help solve (many) collective action problems. These types of rules serve a good purpose.
  3. Rebellion through non-conformity is irrelevant to the capitalist system, which reacts quite well to give us whatever sorts of products we desire. Supposed statements like "refusing to wear a suit, growing your hair long, getting a few piercings, listening to loud music, or doing some recreational drugs" don't matter at all. There is a very important difference between dissent and deviance.
  4. The pursuit of cool is driven by the human need for distinction. "It is best to think of cool as the central status hierarchy in contemporary urban society. And like traditional forms of status such as class, cool is an intrinsically positional good." The pursuit of cool and distinction actually is a major driver for consumerism and consumption.
  5. Market economies operating within the framework of civilization and law actually work pretty well for us, with some notable exceptions. These exceptions can usually be framed through the context of the prisoner's dilemma / collective action problems. Good solutions can be found through adjustments to the system, rather than tearing the whole system down.
  6. The Left, which is supposed to want to address the problems mentioned in the point above, are too often getting in the way. This is because they've diverged from their history of supporting the "bedrock of civilization", i.e., "our willingness to accept rules and to curtail the pursuit of our individual interest out of deference to the needs and interests of others" in favour of a "misguided commitment to the ideals of the counterculture".

Short of buying the book, you can also refer to a Q&A with the authors on their website, which touches on each of these ideas in somewhat more detail. As well, Declan's review makes a good attempt at summarizing.

I thought the book was great, though far from perfect. I felt the same way about The Efficient Society, and this is by no means a coincidence. Both books were at that appealing intersection of "in tune with my own thinking" and "offering insightful new concepts". I think I've been so enthusiastic because, like Heath and Potter, I'm quite impressed with the power of the prisoner's dilemma to explain an awful lot... from morality, the roots of civilization & the economic market, and how we structure society today through to more practical questions about what sorts of actions our governments ought to be taking.

The most relevant questions addressed by both books have to do with the balancing act we face between the public and private spheres, and, more specifically, how we can avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to fixing some of the problems that stem from the role of global corporate activity today.

Frankly, the books make a strong argument for Canadian-style government by taking a rational approach to knocking down both the less-government libertarian right, and old (Marxist) and new (countercultural) left. This is done better by The Efficient Society, however The Rebel Sell addresses important issues that were touched only lightly in the earlier book.

One of the criticisms of The Rebel Sell -- such as in this Amazon.com review, or this blog criticism -- is that it offers little by way of prescription for how to move forward and solve the problems that are raised. That's not true at all. They are hinted at here and there and are mentioned explicitly in the final section of the Conclusion. However, I think it is best to read The Rebel Sell as a companion to The Efficient Society, because it is in ES that Heath lays out his solutions thoroughly.

It is also true that without the support of The Efficient Society, The Rebel Sell can come across as a blind conservative defense of the status quo and the establishment as is. In part, this is because Heath and Potter don't go out of their way to sympathize with any of the root problems that have driven counterculturalists, although my sense is that they do care about social inequality, the pressing ubiquity of advertising and commerce, and environmental degradation. Additionally it is because they seem to go too far in criticizing every deviation from conservative norms while failing to mention that there could be reasons beyond counterculturalism to, for example, change your religion, travel to exotic places, go to an alternative health practitioner or buy organic food. I would take these concerns more seriously if I wasn't giving the authors the benefit of the doubt based on Heath's previous work.

It should be obvious by now that I'm a big fan of the book and the authors. (Well, okay, I don't know much about Andrew Potter yet.) There's no need for me to say much more, although there are a couple thoughts I have on The Rebel Sell that I hope to spin off into separate posts. Until then, I obviously would recommend reading this book and The Efficient Society as a pair.


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