ESSAYS & REVIEWS
Not buying The Rebel Sell: A critique of a critique of the Left's political practice
June 21, 2005
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can't Be Jammed. HarperCollins, 2004.
Since The Rebel Sell came out last year, I had been eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s book, which, at first glance, looked as though it might provide a necessary corrective to some of the more obnoxious forms of ‘culture jamming’ that some have posited as a superior alternative to other methods of progressive political organizing.
Alas, despite the authors’ claim to be arguing for a more coherent and effective Left politics, the book ends up in strident defence of markets and capitalism. And, rather than being constructively critical, the tone is mocking towards any and all who offer up resistance outside of the narrow confines of Heath and Potter’s recommendations. Indeed, the ‘counter-culture’ framework that the authors rail against is a rather eclectic straw-man, into which they lump everyone from Grasmci to environmentalists, Naomi Klein and Malcolm X.
The book opens with a well-deserved salvo at the Blackspot sneaker initiative of Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn, who claims to offer this subversive running shoe in order to ‘un-cool’ the likes of Nike. Lasn asserts the primacy of this sort of symbolic act of resistance to today’s corporate-driven society, while disparaging government regulation and political organization as outmoded, ‘Old Left’ thinking. This narrow, rather self-important form of 'culture jamming' deserves to be sharply rebuked. What is unfair is the way that Heath and Potter graft onto this criticism their slings and arrows against a wide range of other thinkers and movements.
Indeed, The Rebel Sell meanders in a somewhat random fashion, and includes a lot of frankly self-indulgent asides that distract from the main arguments. Most glaring is their apparent fixation with fellow Canadian author Klein and her best-selling No Logo, to which, among other things, they assign the blame for the lack of youth participation in electoral politics. Absurdly summarizing No Logo as a “how-to-manual for the virtuously hip shopper,” they assert:
One could certainly argue that No Logo is short on analysis of the relations of production, but it would be unfair to say that the resistance of working people is totally ignored. Perhaps the most compelling segment of Klein’s book is her examination of grassroots workers education and organizing in the Philippines’ Free Trade Zones, and so Heath and Potter’s sweeping dismissal is disingenuous, and smacks rather of professional jealousy.
The Rebel Sell authors seem to be themselves unconcerned about workplace resistance, and tend to assert the primacy of government lobbying and electoral politics. Much of the Left today – reeling from decades of defeats and rollbacks and the collapse of so-called ‘actually existing socialism’ in the bureaucratic Soviet bloc -- does tend to discount or reject entirely the importance of the struggle for state power and of efforts to concretely influence government policy through legislation. Klein herself is not immune to such autonomous flourishes that discount the importance of this realm of the struggle. But far more damaging is Heath and Potter’s cynicism and rejection of extra-parliamentary forms of resistance. The most successful movements, historically, have been ‘working on all levels,’ and often it has been defiance of existing institutions and laws that has proven to be fundamental to achieving real change.
The authors also take their swipes at more established figures and analytical tools of the Left, often in a similarly superficial manner. Thus, Antonio Gramsci is described as:
Now, I realize that admission to the social sciences in academia requires one to be able to pontificate about Gramsci, preferably without mentioning that he was a communist revolutionary languishing in a fascist jail. But Heath and Potter have really distinguished themselves with this crude bastardization of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.
In fact, Gramsci’s writing emphasizes that the ruling class maintains its dominance through a combination of consent from, and repression of, the oppressed. While the latter method is more obvious and blatant, the role of consent is equally critical, and it is established by all the institutions of society, such as the courts, the media, the educational system, and so on.
A Gramscian approach to confronting this hegemony, however, has nothing in common with infantile culture jamming. Rather, it advocates that a strategic long-term ‘war of position’ be waged by the working classes and their allies. Heath and Potter, it seems, do not share this perspective. Their own ‘counter-hegemonic’ position is mostly posturing – it's a convenient position from which to attack the Left.
There are real grounds to criticize many activists and social justice movements for having insufficiently worked out long-terms strategies, or even short-term concrete goals for campaigns. The global justice movement (a.k.a. anti-globalization movement), for instance, was certainly a rather unfocussed phenomenon, at least as it emerged in the North, as a reaction to the impact of APEC, the WTO, NAFTA and other trade bodies and agreements. But the movement did provide an outlet for expression of opposition to the anti-worker, anti-environmental impacts of these ‘trade’ agreements made in the interest of corporations and the elites. And some of the depth of today’s anti-war movement – for its part arising to confront a very specific act of aggression, the U.S. attack on Iraq – can be attributed to the global justice movement’s focus on corporate power and the imposition of neo-liberalism worldwide.
Again, here, the anti-globalization movement is crudely dismissed by Heath and Potter as being ‘anti-trade’ and in contradiction with Third World demands for fair trade, debt reduction, and an end to protectionism and subsidies in the developed capitalist countries of the North. While there were elements of this -- epitomized by the (albeit marginal) participation of ultra-rightist Pat Buchanan’s followers in the 1999 Seattle protests and some of the trade union officials’ vulgar nationalism -- on the whole the movement against neo-liberal globalization has been both led by and informed by the demands of movements for social justice in the global South.
At points, The Rebel Sell is downright racist; their discussion of the Black liberation struggle in the United States is especially insidious. In a remarkable passage, the authors attribute inner city poverty in Detroit to the behaviour of its victims:
No mention is made of the segregation within the auto factories, the dangerous and more backbreaking work assigned to workers of colour, nor to the prevalent police brutality, housing crisis, and other root causes of the 1967 riots in which 43 people died. Then, absurdly, they would also have us believe that today’s urban squalor is the fault of the rioters! It is truly shocking that a book purporting to critique ‘fuzzy thinking’ leftists would fail to note the economic, structural causes of U.S. urban poverty, namely de-industrialization and the erosion of, or utter lack of a social safety net. It would seem that Heath and Potter have not read Detroit I Do Mind Dying…or anything else about the Black industrial working class.
In the same segment, the authors further demonstrate their approach to the race question in the U.S., lumping political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal in with the likes of Lorena Bobbitt and the Columbine shooters as evidence of the so-called counterculture advocates’ tendency to “romanticize criminality” (P. 138). And speaking of criminal behaviour, Heath and Potter even feel the need to come to the defence of the notoriously misogynistic rapper Eminem (who has lyrics about ‘anthrax on your tampax,’ among other homicidal, anti-women verses), with a statement that demonstrates their ignorance of the hip hop genre and the racialized debate surrounding it in the United States:
The rebellious roots of hip hop, and the role of corporate America in co-opting and depoliticizing the genre, are largely ignored or at least obscured in most mainstream commentary, and the late-on-the-scene Eminem dwarfs in prominence and wealth his Black and often politically conscious trailblazers.
The Rebel Sell, it turns out, is more about arguing that capitalism can’t be jammed than it is about the impotence of culture jamming. In a column in the Policy Options journal (March 2004), Heath vents his spleen at the “incoherence” of the Canadian Left, chastising the documentary film The Corporation and its theme that the profit motive inherent in corporations is at the root of society’s problems. Heath advocates a process of “learning to love the psychopath,” urging the Left to accept market efficiency and give up the failed ghost of nationalization.
This sentiment indicates perfectly a total accommodation to the prevailing political climate – at least in Canada and North America. It fails to consider, of course, one of the world’s most explosive social movements in Bolivia, where millions are demanding nationalization of the country’s natural gas resources, let alone the rampant privatization by cruise missiles and invasion forces, as epitomised by the war and occupation in Iraq and beyond.
In fact, the authors’ rather parochial outlook colours The Rebel Sell. A separate edition with a different title has been published specifically for the United States, ironic considering their pervasive accusations against others of posing and style over substance. Perhaps their fondness of markets has helped them to identify their primary one.
I would be keen to join Heath and Potter’s rebellion against culture jamming, but I’m not at all sure that we’re on the same side of the barricades. They are, it seems, off to the side of the battle, enjoying an intellectualized mockery of the Left as much as an analysis and criticism of those in power. There are plenty of activists and intellectuals (the two categories need not, and should not, be mutually exclusive) out there arguing from within social justice movements for more effective and multi-faceted political practice. I don’t think that’s where The Rebel Sell is coming from, and so I’m not buying.