that system thing, and a dead German
In Last Hours issue 17 Chris Lever wrote an article exploring the commodification of countercultures, here Ashlee Christoffersen writes a response pointing out some flaws in using commodities as a way to attack capitalism.
Props to Chris Lever for his thought-provoking article ‘From Rebel Yell! To Rebel Sell: Countercultural commodification and the dissenter’s new clothes‘. Always intriguing in these “postmodern times”, the subject of counter/sub culture(s)1 and its relationship to both social change and what commentators call variously consumerism/ commodification/ consumer culture/ “the system” etc. It seems particularly timely in light of Douglas Haddow’s popular cover story in a recent issue of Adbusters (#79), about one particular hegemonic subculture: hipsterdom. One that has given up on a pretense of caring about “the system”, however undefined that often is by subculturalists. Interestingly, Adbusters itself figures largely in the criticism of countercultural appropriation and commodification offered by Lever, yet in the following I will argue that both authors (and they are definitely not alone) make some mistakes commonly made by critics of counterculture.
The following article is written in the spirit of the ‘active community debate’ called for by Lever, on the ‘provenance…and effectiveness of the weapons we [leftists] employ’. In my discussion I’d like to re-insert that old-fashioned Marxist concept of production into a debate that focuses heavily on consumption, to get away from the fetishisation, of (countercultural) commodities evident in critiques of counterculture, even as they seek to critique that very fetishisation itself. I’d further like to query the idea of an “authentic” counterculture, which the arguments by both Lever and Haddow rely on when they critique contemporary counterculture . Most importantly I’d like to end with some ideas about left strategy and tactics, or ‘weapons’ as Lever calls them.
In his article, Lever seeks to understand how it can be that ‘[e]veryone is a rebel, yet nothing has changed.’ In short, he is troubled by what he sees as the misappropriation of and infiltration into authentic counterculture by what I will call capital (but what he calls ‘pervasive marketing practices’ and the like). To summarise, it seems that styles and lifestyle choices that were at one time imagined as being in and for a spirit of political rebellion by their protagonists can easily be mass-marketed and emptied of their political meaning.
Haddow provides us with the troubling example of the kheffiyeh, once worn by white people to show solidarity with struggling Palestinians, now available in whatever colour matches your outfit in a high street shop near you. Lever wonders how we can keep true subculture safe from misappropriation and working in the pursuit of defeating the system. He draws heavily on the book The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can’t be jammed by Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, yet seems to miss its key point: that counterculture and its opposition to conformity have never been threatening to the essence of “the system”: capitalism.2
Capitalists are primarily concerned with making money, not enforcing sameness.
Lever on one hand accepts the following: the popular idea that rebellion is necessarily against conformity mistakenly assumes that conformity is what capitalism tries to sell to consumers. Heath and Potter insightfully point out that precisely the opposite is true. Capitalists are primarily concerned with making money, not enforcing sameness. And people’s desire to be different from (cooler than) everyone else has been capitalised on for a long time now. The origins of this desire to be cool and different are not separable from capitalism itself (i.e. one could argue that capitalism produces this desire), nevertheless anti-capitalists are often just as guilty as everyone else (if not more so) of wanting to be different (cool), of really not wanting to be just another one of “the masses”.
Rebellion vs conformity?
While on the one hand Lever claims to accept Heath & Potter’s argument, on the other he remains wedded to the notion that ‘[r]ebellion inherently opposes conformity’. His article is therefore an attempt to reconcile what are actually contradictory ideas.
Let’s take a moment to consider ‘rebellion’. A quick survey of dictionary.com indicates that in fact, standard sources don’t define rebellion as having anything to do with conformity, but as the act of rebelling against established systems of government, power and authority. The conflation of the latter with conformity buys into the same myth that Heath and Potter dispel. For Lever rebellion is not just against conformity however, but against “the system”. “The system”, while generally undefined, is presumably understood to be capitalist, but a more Marxist understanding of capitalism may help us understand why, as Lever points out, everyone is a rebel, yet nothing has changed. And it may interrupt the seemingly never ending debates, which Lever dips into, about whether or not Adbusters has sold out. Or in other words if it is ’sincere in…[its] enterprise, or merely seeking to profit from countercultural rebellion.’
Few Marxists believe that change can come from ideas (or images, or styles) alone
Marxist understandings of the relationship between ideology and economics are a subject of huge debate, but for the purposes of this article let’s say that from a Marxist perspective, our ideas are informed by our place in economic relations, more so than the other way around. So for example, most people who’ve been part of real-life struggles against capitalism and imperialism have concluded that those are institutions to be struggled against in large part based on their own shitty experiences of them. Their ideas have come from their place in economic relations. On the flip side, there aren’t many factory owners who’ve woken up one day with the idea that it would be fairer if the workers in their factory shared equally in the profits that come from the products of their labour. At the same time and related, few Marxists believe that change can come from ideas (or images, or styles) alone.
So everyone can be a “rebel” in terms of their ideas and (life)styles, and little will come of it without concomitant pursuit of concrete changes in social and economic relations—and dedication to that pursuit does not necessarily follow from identification as an anti-system rebel. Adbusters might have some appealing ideas, but these are shaped by its place in economics. Far from being against “the system” (which presumably would be unproblematic if it weren’t for that imagined conformity enforced via advertising), at the end of the day Adbusters folks are themselves in the business of soliciting the production of, marketing, and selling consumer goods. For example the Blackspot sneaker (which have the incredibly cool slogan: Rethink the cool). It’s ironically through this product campaign that Adbusters encourages us to ‘rethink capitalism’. Lever is no big fan of the Blackspot sneaker, and rightly so.
Feel-good countercultural products
The Blackspot sneaker, like a lot of feel-good countercultural products, is “ethically produced.” One of Marx’s major contributions to critiques of capitalism is to point out how commodities become fetishised, i.e. how we look at goods and assign them values above and beyond what they’re actually useful for, and without seeing or thinking about the human labour that went into them. In criticising modern advertising, counterculturalists in the Adbusters tradition use and are aware of this insight. Yet they participate in the fetishisation of commodities with their own use of the particularly effective (and super cool) slogan ‘ethically produced.’ The hope is that someone sees that on a label and can instantly stop considering any possible ethical dilemmas about buying a particular product, and just feel good about it. They’re doing a good thing buying it, even. Yet in a pervasively capitalist system ethically sourced, or produced, goods can only ever be a relative measure of the exploitation required to make that product.
Yet in a pervasively capitalist system ethically sourced, or produced, goods can only ever be a relative measure of the exploitation required to make that product.
So something ‘ethically produced’ is not made in a sweatshop. So workers who produce ethically produced shoes are presumably paid a relatively higher wage than workers producing shoes that are not ‘ethically produced.’ But they are still wage workers, i.e. people who have no other choice than to sell their labour power in order to meet their needs (and thereby to sell their whole lives and those of the people who look after them, as that includes all the time and work that goes into a person being able to show up at the factory every day). As wage workers, they’re not self-determining agents in control of the conditions under which they labour. Basically, not a huge difference from workers producing stuff that’s not marketed as ‘ethically produced’; the workers are a little bit less exploited, but not too much. Being producers of ‘ethically produced’ goods (i.e. being a bit less exploited) is not much of a goal for the majority of people in the world, who are working class, either.
And this all without considering how far down the production line “ethically produced” even applies. Do workers engaged in the extraction of the raw materials the goods are made out of figure in? What about the people displaced in the ongoing primitive accumulation practices3 that ensure the continued supply of those raw materials?
In a word: no.
Misunderstanding “the system”
To sum up, Lever’s being disturbed by the co-option of non-commodified countercultural artifacts (he give us the example of DIY-style zines used to market big blockbuster films) is understandable. In the case of “hipster” subculture, Haddow puts it this way: ‘Hipsters are sold what they think they invent and are spoon-fed their pre-packaged cultural livelihood’. Yet discomfort with the commodification of subculture misunderstands “the system” (aka: for Haddow, ‘every aspect of music, art, government and civil society’ (note the lack of economics there) that members of a counterculture are supposed to be against). When I say ’supposed to be against’, I mean from the perspective of commentators like both Haddow and Lever, who rely on an idea that there was a time when countercultures were actually threatening to the status quo.
Countercultures, however, have been around for a long time, and it’s difficult to trace many concrete changes they’ve made.
Countercultures, however, have been around for a long time, and it’s difficult to trace many concrete changes they’ve made. And “the system” isn’t actually trying to sell conformity, so being part of an underground or non-mainstream culture does not, in and of itself, challenge anything. Moreover and more importantly, this same “system” is driven primarily not by the consumption of individuals, but by production on a mass scale. Changes in production (think for example a massive shift to worker-owned and operated cooperatives) are far more challenging to the system than buying organic hats made in the slightly less problematic factory a bit closer to home.
The idea of ethical production is nice, but in a pervasively capitalist system it’s only a little bit less bad than the alternative. In short: while it troubles those who identify as cutting edge subculturalists to see ‘poseurs’ wearing their stuff, in the end what people buy and what people wear doesn’t really matter very much to making meaningful social change.
Maybe what’s really at stake here are the identities of those who count themselves among the countercultural
When Lever wonders, ‘[h]ow long will it be before Starbucks starts selling Zapatista coffee?’, I wonder who exactly would be so bothered if they did. Would it be poor farmers aligned to the Zapatistas, who’d be making more much-needed money to feed their families? Or would it be the Western rebel whose identity is troubled when ‘mainstream’ people engage in what they thought made them unique? After all there can’t be a ‘counterculture’ without the existence of a ‘dominant culture’ that the counterculture looks on with contempt. Maybe what’s really at stake here are the identities of those who count themselves among the countercultural, those whose strategies of rebellion are not appropriated, but rather shown to be inappropriate when they are demonstrably deployed by that which can’t be imagined into the business of system-smashing: capital.
Culture’s not irrelevant
I’m not trying to argue that culture is irrelevant to politics: far from it. But I am raising a question about what leftists’ struggles are against. If we argue that struggles are / ought to be against conformity or consumption, we risk alienating people who don’t have the privilege to be able to afford or to have the time to prioritise buying goods that are ‘ethical’, ‘non-mainstream’, and the like. Or, worse, we risk appropriating peoples’ real economic hardship by claiming it as our own, like Adbusters does in saying that recent drops in consumption are because of their having called a General Consumption Strike. The arrogance of the latter astounds even longtime mistrusters of the entire Adbusters project.
In the final analysis, perhaps we should focus our energies not on the impossible mission of preventing countercultural/ “against the system” artifacts from being commodified – impossible because in a capitalist system there just is no ‘outside’ the market – but on building practices that won’t be co-opted because they can’t fit into a capitalist logic. To return to a previous point: actions are far more threatening than ideas, or images alone. Similarly, encouraging people to view advertising critically, as Adbusters tries to do, can’t be seen as an end in itself either. Any ‘weapons’ that create and maintain resistance as the pastime of a territorial privileged few can easily be appropriated because they provide no challenge to the similarly hierarchical relations of power and production that govern our societies. On the other hand, there’s never going to be much capital interest in organising an anticapitalist demonstration or an industrial action: is there?
- The iconic early follower of subculture, Dick Hebdige, drew a distinction between the latter and counterculture. For him subculture was a more “authentic” and ironic expression emanating from the working class, while counterculture was a bit more pedantic, educated, in-your-face. Check out Subculture: The meaning of style (1979). [↩]
- ‘No matter what the style, there will always be merchants lined up to sell it…Because there is no genuine subversion involved, there is nothing to stop everyone from adopting the same style.’ (2004: 150). For Heath & Potter, counterculture in fact embodies the spirit of capitalism: entrepreneurialism. [↩]
- The process by which the large part of a population is violently divorced from its traditional means of self-sufficiency so that capital can come in and take over. Think: the enclosure of the commons. Think: ongoing genocidal practices against indigenous people in the settler states of North America et al. [↩]