Nation of Rebels and the United States of Uniformity


A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture
by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
Harper Business
January 2005, 368 pages, $14.95

The New Left is composed of radicals, anarchists, pacifists, crusaders, socialists, Communists, idealists, and malcontents. This movement, best typified by SDS, has an almost passionate desire to destroy the traditional values of our democratic society and the existing social order.
— J. Edgar Hoover

The dissenter is every human being at those moments in his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.
— Archibald MacLeish

These days the notion of individualism, as a traditional liberal value, is usually associated with dubious “libertarian” principles — the language of Emerson and Thoreau having been stolen by Republicans like so much lunch money. In case anyone’s noticed, though, Republicans are anything but “rugged individualists.” They’ve become an army of “on-message” Bolshevik drones, who’ve sacrificed individuality for collective state power. Is this what Hegel meant by finding one’s identity in the state? Anyhow, look out, ’cause this is just the sort of self-abnegating wretch that left-leaning ideologues Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter want you, dear liberal, to become. In Nation of Rebels, their plan for re-uniting America can be reduced to beer-ad brevity: More uniformity, less liberty. More run-of-the-mill, less John Stuart Mill.

The post-election exaltation of “mass” taste and moral values was ludicrous enough coming from pampered right-wing media elites. In Nation of Rebels, it’s the privileged academic left parroting the same crybaby pleas for nationwide cultural and political consensus. For punks-turned-pedants Heath and Potter, the rock ‘n’ roll dream is over. Now only pilgrimages to Home Depot and dreams of installing the great Hobbesian Leviathan separate them from darkness and the Final Judgment. In short, they’ve become the sort of miserable people who write books like The Efficient Society. Now these authoritarian schoolmarms are determined to ruin the historically imperative, rite-of-passage fantasies of youth rebellion.

Heath/Potter begin by teaching us that “fun is not subversive,” and “anyone can get a piercing.” Wow, you mean punk attitude is a market commodity? Yes, this sort of “hip vs. square” cultural battle has only been fought for as long as cultural products have been produced under mercantile systems: Aesthetes have always complained about “authentic” forms of artistic expression being stripped of meaning upon entering the mass-market vortex. Heath/Potter feel that any anti-establishment forms of expression absorbed by the market must be “pseudo-rebellion.” We’re all simply walking billboards, and representatives of some corporate “coolhunter” target market. But is it still true that one generation’s “alternative” is the next generation’s mainstream? With the ’80s revival in the 2000s, today’s “alternative” is yesterday’s mainstream.

However, our co-authors’ intentions are much more multiform than rebellion = market value. As political theorists, Heath and Potter are strict 17th century Hobbesian monists, waving their utopian social contracts at every societal ill. They are extremely well adjusted to American-style consumerism, but they also worship authoritarian top-down organizational structures. They place blind faith in amoral regulation and “arms-race” style treaties; they’re frightened of trans-generational change and the potentialities of individual free will. They believe that all “collective action” is better than individual action, and despise “participatory democracy.” In fact, to prove their commitment to “collective action” Heath and Potter co-wrote this kooky book. How cute.

No surprise, then, that our co-authors worship Thorstein Veblen’s amusing 19th Century economic theory, since its “competitive consumption” premise is derived from Hobbes’s deeply pessimistic philosophy: Man’s actions are not driven by individual instinct, but by his natural fear and envy of other men. For this tribe, all of life’s dilemmas are the result of “collective action problems,” and man is perpetually locked in an acquisitive “race to the bottom” with his fellow men. Thus, man doesn’t instinctively play to win. He plays to tie. Just like soccer.

Convinced they’re living in late-period Tsarist Russia, the hysterical Heath/Potter swear that, for the past 30 years, nihilistic “rebels” have been ruining the left’s chances to grab “state power.” The youth counterculture, they claim, has always confused cultural rebellion with political statement — and they’re responsible for exacerbating consumerism and alienating the masses. Hippies are also faulted for inspiring the ’90s New Economy, with its free-love markets and financial guru love-ins. In fact, Heath/Potter recycle the same cut-rate counter-cultural/liberal stereotypes often pimped by far-Right “values” salesmen like Newt Gingrich and Michael Medved. Compared with Heath/Potter, even ultra-conservative historian William O’Neill, writing in 1971, had a more even-handed take on the late ’60s socio-cultural divide: “…adults were vain and ignorant, too, and what’s more, they had power where the young did not. When they erred, as in Vietnam, millions suffered.”

Hegel and Marx felt that human life couldn’t flourish without the conflict between “thesis” and “antithesis.” Once a kind of synthesis is achieved, this plateau only serves as a natural basis for more antithesis, and so on. Not a bad model for explaining the ongoing process of cultural production under 20th Century Western capitalism. However, Hobbesian nuts like Heath and Potter (and the late philosopher John Rawls) not-so-secretly pine for an all-powerful social contract that would create permanent cultural and political synthesis. So you see, kids, it’s your inborn duty to rebel. Otherwise the future development of human history will be a thing of the past.

Building an Archetype

Heath/Potter accomplish what author Douglas Rushkoff explains is the key to effective propaganda: “The less specific the details, the more iconic and universal the reference.” Thus, you have Heath and Potter’s non-specific “countercultural rebel” archetype constructed here: an easily attacked universal symbol pieced together mostly from late ’60s Life magazines, and the theories of Charles Reich, Theodore Roszak, and Herbert Marcuse. But our co-authors can’t make up their minds whether these rebels are simply entrepreneurs posing as rebels, or serious radicals out to overthrow the free market system, yet wholly unconscious of their vulnerability to capitalist exploitation. Is it unfair to demand some kind of detailed sociological study on this? On a street-level, who were these violent, anarchic “countercultural rebels”? Tom Hayden and SDS? The Yippies? The Black Panthers? The anti-war protestors? The Monkees? The Leary acid freaks? Wavy Gravy?

Before this warmed-over question of how counterculture went capitalist can be addressed in any mature fashion, Heath/Potter begin constructing the contemporary “cultural elitist” archetype. Instead of the Vanderbilts showing off at the top of Veblen’s 19th century hierarchical model, now it’s the anti-corporate “cultural elite” flaunting their alternative “positional goods” in the face of humble Mass Man, who merely wants to digest his Egg McMuffin in peace. Heath/Potter claim it’s these urban cultural elites, not the corporate economic elites, who are driving the country into a cultural and economic apartheid state. That’s right, it’s Organic Bread vs. Wonder Bread, “slow” food vs. fast food. Mohawks vs. flat-tops. Our co-authors suggest there’s no way to opt out of mass consumerism without becoming a fancy pants elitist. But before you jump on this anti-elite hayride, remember: there’s a historical precedent for contemporary critics of the “cultural elite,” and an ignominious one at that. See: Joseph McCarthy’s hatred of Hollywood “elites” and the Ku Klux Klan’s rants against “metropolitan morality.”

Heath/Potter adhere to classic cultural-conservative scripts: namely, that the 60’s countercultural movement sprung from purely psychological roots, not historical-generational change or any specific social context — yep, it was strictly the influence of Freud and residual psychological effects of Nazism. They insist that post-WW II rebellious youth developed an unnatural paranoia of fascism, brought on by an overreaction to the Holocaust. Well, hey, if the extermination of six million Jews can’t make you a little paranoid, certainly nothing can.

Fun with Freud

Heath and Potter have a hard-on for Hobbes, which means they hate Freud. But Freud’s elastic theories have so many fun applications, if you’re into that dialectical reasoning thing. Wasn’t Freud at the height of his popularity in the 1920s and ’30s? And wouldn’t he have had a greater influence on the party-hardy Jazz Age’s “Lost Generation”? Heath/Potter mock Freudian readings of the “mass psychology” of Nazi Germany, and simply dismiss the rise of Hitler as an “aberration.” Adorno, of course, thought Freud predicted the “mass psychology” of the “good” German: Under Nazism, the German public rebelled, all right — against their natural instincts for free-thinking. Heath/Potter also condemn the counterculture’s “mass society” critique that accuses advertisers of “brainwashing” the general public into buying things. They reluctantly admit that advertising is “seductive,” and although they refuse to believe advertising “works,” they do lament that advertisers often target young adults. But if ads are seductive, then advertising “works” via the “pleasure principle.” Thus, Heath and Potter must be Freudians after all.

Heath and Potter vs. The Anti-Corporate Movement

Caught in an ideological straitjacket, Heath/Potter come unhinged when confronting certain “cultural elitist” thinkers. They engage in deceptive rhetorical maneuvers to try and discredit anti-corporate and “anti-consumerism” theorists. The text is lousy with the same “blind quotes” that Fox News employs: “Many people say…”, “Many critics think…”, “Most people think…”, Our co-authors either avoid empirically sound studies like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (in favor of crackpot George Ritzer!), or they use Swift Boat Veteran smear tactics — as in their handling of fellow Veblen acolyte Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American, and Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Klein’s anti-corporate stance is misrepresented as “anti-market” and “anti-consumerism.” By the Heath/Potter standard, Upton Sinclair would be “anti-meatpacker.”

Our co-authors also make the extraordinary claim that the anti-corporate movement’s beef with mass-produced goods and fast-food franchises (like McDonald’s) stems from elitist taste, and concerned with homogeneity, not health issues. And just try to believe they say this: “we sometimes forget that even McDonald’s sells fries that are superior to what you can find at half the bistros in Paris.” Heath/Potter must also admire McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, for his anti-individual authoritarian principles: “The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization.”

Heath/Potter have a rip-roaring blast bashing anti-corporate pied piper Klein. They make fun of her because she supposedly can’t understand why franchises like Subway and Starbucks became popular without much advertising. But, in No Logo, Klein tells you exactly how this happened: mainly through brand tie-ins and promotions. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation tells us that corporate franchises like Subway get government subsidies usually reserved for independent proprietorships. Also, Starbucks opens about four stores a day, and often deliberately targets independent merchants. And although Heath/Potter insist that anti-corporate critics always reject institutional channels of reform in favor of individual “consciousness changing,” Juliet Schor and Naomi Klein both push for specific legal reforms. Klein not only reports on how effective individual direct protests and consumer boycotts have been against Nike, but she also includes an entire section in No Logo, called “Lessons of the Big Three: Using the Courts as a Tool,” which tells of labor activists fighting corporations through the legal system! How does Klein think corporate malfeasance can be curtailed internationally? Through the “enforcement of existing International Trade Organization treaties.”

In The Overspent American Juliet Schor expresses the need for “a central coordinating entity — like the government,” in the fight against national gluttony. She even devotes a few paragraphs to proposing new luxury taxes. Much like Heath/Potter, she wants to revoke certain tax write-off privileges for the advertising industry. So why do our testy co-authors get their panties in a bunch over these obviously pro-regulatory, pro-institutional writers? Are they so desperate to grab a “market share” of the counterculture critique that they’ll resort to deliberately distorting the views of like-minded reformists?

Corporations: Friends of Mass Man, Bringers of Orwellian “Uniform Diversity”

Heath and Potter’s defense of the advertising industry and corporate America sounds oddly like the work of corporate PR flacks. To them, the Enron debacle was simply a “market failure.” Corporate branding is simply about “identity” and “consumer protection.” Because Heath/Potter reject the Freudian notion that humans are instinctively power-hungry, they also don’t believe that companies advertise to open new markets — only to keep a “market share” and to “create awareness” about a product. Corporate franchises, they suggest, are more efficient than independently owned proprietorships. And international corporate franchises are emissaries spreading global “uniform diversity.” Heath and Potter praise anti-union, pro-censorship, pro-sweatshop labor Wal Mart. They insist anti-globalization protestors are against trade, not corrupt trade practices. They even suggest that it’s elitist abhorrence for Western medicine that’s to blame for the abysmal US health care system! Did the counterculture prevent the Clinton national heath plan from passing, too?

Heath and Potter Go to the Movies

Like most conservative culture critics, Heath/Potter love ignoring simple mimetic devices in film. They attack films like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, for making martyrs of the rebellious main characters, who die at the repressive hands of The Freedom-Hating Man. In the case of Easy Rider, hippies often were the victims of random redneck violence. And how do you account for the last words of the film?: “We blew it…” By Heath/Potter standards, The Passion of the (hippie rebel) Christ would be guilty of pushing a ’60s-style countercultural message.

If popular movies can accurately reflect the views of a particular segment of society, then check out the early ’70s conservative “backlash” films — Walking Tall, Dirty Harry, and Death Wish. Hippies are always the crazed killers, brought to justice by individualist vigilante means. Considering the huge box office success of these vigilante epics, it seems Grain-Belt America had no more faith in institutional justice than the countercultural rebels did.

Heath and Potter’s “Big Brother” Moments

“Individual liberty creates more, not less disagreement”
“We need more government, not less.”
“All of this will involve further restrictions on individual liberty.”
“What our society needs is more rules.”
“Isn’t individualism becoming more and more of a luxury?”
“…we really need to stop worrying so much about fascism.”

Heath and Potter vs. “Urban” America>

Heath/Potter, like most conservatives, have a big problem with “root cause” theories of crime. To our militant contractarian co-authors, inner city kids killing each other for Michael Jordan footwear is a “superficial” problem. Rather than waste valuable time investigating deep causality, just slap a uniform on ’em — that way, no more deadly clothes-based competition. Instead of conducting their sissy anthropological research at a girls’ school in Toronto, maybe Heath/Potter should go to the Tremont Avenue section of the Bronx, and lecture inner city high school kids about the need for school uniforms. If these pontificating nerds get jacked, at least we know it won’t be for their Wal Mart sneakers. In these low-income ethnic neighborhoods, self-expression through pop fashion may be dangerous sometimes, but for many kids it’s also a matter of survival.

Predictably, Heath/Potter think hip-hop’s social significance is bogus: “So called urban music, in particular, has become little more than a cult of social deviance,” and “an enormous amount of hip-hop, for example, is a celebration of frankly antisocial behavior and attitudes.” And to them, Malcolm X’s individualist anti-establishment stance isn’t that far removed from the Unabomber’s. Do Heath/Potter disapprove of Malcolm X because he believed in self-defense and urged black voters to register as independents?

Our co-authors cite the 1967 Detroit riots as proof of how silly “root cause” theories are. Why, they ask, would blacks in Detroit want to destroy their own city, when, as a whole, their economic situation wasn’t much worse than that of whites? Luckily, I keep the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders handy at all times. This nonpartisan statistical reference shows that, leading up to the Detroit riots, there were several cases of unprovoked and unpunished incidents of white-on-black violence in the city, and, moreover, overt police brutality toward innocent black citizens. Heath and Potter would be correct, then, in saying that crime is not always caused by poverty.

The Heath/Potter “Plan” for America

Heath and Potter seem completely ignorant of how cutthroat American factional politics really work. They ignore the damaging role that corporate “soft money” plays in our political process. They have no coherent plan on how to install the great justice-dispensing Leviathan, other than effete pleas for more laws and political organizing. Their energy conservation plan is to raise the cost of utilities, the brilliant logic being that if we have to pay more for electricity we’ll use less. They stamp their feet for more global trade treaties, a shorter workweek, elaborate gun laws, and a tax credit for businesses that curb marketing campaigns directed at kids.

Sounds way cool doesn’t it? But how is all this to slip by lobbyists and CEOs? Hey, guys, corporations resist regulation! Who needs tax incentives when you have tax shelters. Individual efforts and grass roots community activism are sometimes necessary when institutional reform fails. Try anything to expose corporate mischief — author a book, write an op/ed letter, key an SUV, or sue McDonalds for super-sizing your gut. Along with existing regulations, maybe our country’s greedy-fuck MBAs should be taught more humanitarian ethics (perhaps by a 6’2′ she-male dominatrix). Amazingly, though, Heath and Potter say no to “individual responsibility through moral education, and individual action through enlightened lifestyle choices.”

Contractarians Gone Wild

And while “arms-race” style treaties can be a comforting formality, let’s take a quick look at the sordid 20th century history of global treaties, shall we? In 1919, the iniquitous Versailles Treaty, drafted by the League of Nations was the initial spark that enflamed German Nationalism, and prompted the rise of Aryan fanaticism. Meanwhile America was shackled by the Neutrality Act, and dependent on the concurrent global Kellogg-Briand pact, which outlawed military aggression worldwide (ironic snicker here). Hostile axis powers Japan and Germany simply ignored the Kellogg-Briand pact, while the US’s own Neutrality Act discouraged Roosevelt from confronting the early stages of Nazi aggression. After WW II, we entered into the NATO pact, which led to “security through deterrence,” bringing mindless, bloody military interventions in Korea and Vietnam.


Meanwhile, outside Heath/Potter’s Ivory Tower magic kingdom, CEOs make 531 times more than the average worker. The Gilded Age-style elitists still run amok, and still buy Gilded Age-style positional goods like $16,000.00 umbrella stands and $3,000 coat hangers. The Old School Aristocrats, with help from New Economy CEO’s, are still stewarding the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Richard Rorty aptly refers to these elites as the “global overclass,” which “makes all economic decisions, and makes them in entire independence of legislatures, and a fortiori of the will of the voters, of any given country.”

What’s the closing argument in this ridiculous book? Elitists, you must be willing to “pay the price” for your free-trade coffee, the artsy tattoos, the eco-friendly soap.

What does this mean exactly? If you “make peace with the masses” and shop at Wal-Mart or Niketown, you support a corporate system that thrives on child labor and unfair hiring practices. Well, say Heath/Potter, it’s these “virtuous” consumer choices that lead to the purchase of “cultural elitist” specialty goods — and this jeopardizes our country’s unity. You must not let any judgments of elitist taste influence your purchasing decisions. So, health-conscious Lefties, the next time you opt for that lentil burger, remember — your elitist gastronomical needs could cost you the next election.

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