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August 25, 2010


Paul Sagar

Really good post, I just have one non consequential point; that as Tony Judt himself noted [somewhere in Reappraisals, can't remember exactly where] it was actually the period c.1968-75 that caused all the trouble, and thus talk of "the 1960s" is curiously historically ignorant - albeit extremely widespread and now standard shorthand - in this respect.

Dick Pountain

Excellent post, marvellous summary of the problem, which I prefer to think of as "crypto-moralism": an attitude that pretends to be transgressive of all taboos, but actually contaminates everything with judgements of taste. David Robins and I tackled this from a different angle in our book
"Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude" in 2000.

Will Davies

Thanks, both. I'll try to investigate these references. As far as Paul's point is concerned, clearly the key year in the US is that of Roe v Wade (1973).


"The word 'values' always leaves me with the impression that what purports to be a moral concept is in fact an aesthetic one, namely taste, or perhaps even an economic one, namely preference."

Exactly. What's so depressing is that I find people are unable to escape this way of viewing both economics and politics...

Chris Williams

Good post. I have a 500-word review of Heath and Potter's _Rebel Sell_ which I did for Red Pepper knocking around - can I post it in the comments here?

Will Davies

Chris - by all means, post away

Chris Williams

Jospeh Heath and Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell: why the culture can't be jammed (Capstone Chichester 2005) 351 pp.

review by Chris Williams

"Do you hate everybody in a suit?" Nicky Wire once asked the crowd, halfway through a Manic Street Preachers Gig. "Yes!" came the answering roar. "Well Nye Bevan wore a suit – and he founded the National Health Service" replied Wire.

Heath and Potter's book essentially reprises and expands this point. They trace the way that, beginning in the 1960s, a strain of 'leftist' thought arose which became a fully fledged counter-culture. Despite sharing the left's concern about many social issues, its response to these was inevitably to refrain from engaging with them, on the basis that the only possible solution was a total transformation of society. From there, it was only a short step to the abandonment of any politics save those of identity: only the personal was ever political, and 'mass society' was the enemy. Deviance in any form was seen as dissent, the exotic was uncritically embraced, and nobody noticed that 'rebellion against aesthetic and sartorial norms is not actually subversive'.

Many exponents of the counter-culture claimed that its message would have struck home had it not been continually co-opted by 'The Man'. But Heath and Potter turn this theory upside down. In a world where consumer spending is increasingly driven by desire to buy positional goods, and cool is the new status, the desire to be an individual and stand out from the (square) crowd is one of consumer capitalism's most powerful motors.

The main problem with Heath and Potter's work (other than their complete misreading of the film American Beauty) is that their welcome rejection of change through dressing like a clown is accompanied by a rejection of the possibility of any change at all beyond social democratic reformism applied to a fundamentally benign market. They have brought into the fallacy exposed by Paul Omerod: that because a perfect market would be efficient, therefore the closer we get to a perfect market, the greater the efficiency. They've also failed to notice that the 'cyberlibertarians' they despise are currently fighting effectively against a new resource-grab in the shape of digital intellectual property laws.

The correct riposte to the consumerist delusions of No Logo and Adbusters has yet to be written, but it's worth buying Rebel Sell anyway, to read lines like: 'countercultural rebels have functioned for decades as the 'shock troops' of mass tourism', 'the hippies didn't need to sell out in order to become yuppies. It's not 'the system' that co-opted their dissent, it's that they were never really dissenting', and my favourite: 'consumerism always seems to be a critique of what _other people buy_.'

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