As the list of books on my life list grows longer, I’ve decided to stop listing them on that page and instead, make a category for them so that people can filter my posts by books, if so inclined. I won’t actually review all of them, because I’m far too lazy, but I wanted to for this one.
#26 – The Rebel Sell – Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
I’ve been meaning to read the Rebel Sell for years – I saw it at my university bookstore ages ago, and liked the cover art (yup, that’s how I choose books). I thought it sounded interesting – why the culture can’t be jammed, reads the by-line, and I’m a sucker for counter-counter-culture lit.
Unfortunately, it was a pretty disappointing read. It’s not that the authors’ points aren’t valid – democracy and governance are important; what’s cool will quickly become mainstream, pushing cool ever-further – it’s just that I don’t know anyone who fits the mould of the supposed “counter-cultural activist” against whom this book is one long polemic. They rail incessantly against Naomi Klein, deep ecologists, and Marxist-anarchists, as though anyone with a remotely left political lean thinks that we should smash a Starbucks and then high-tail it to our self-sufficient anarcho-commune.
However, having spent 5 years in an environmental studies program, I can assure you that 99% of those supposed crazy hippy students were actually reasonable people, who felt that the best way to foster real change in society was through education, legislation, and market-based measures (plus, yes, the occasional drum circle, obviously).
In short, they created the world’s biggest straw man and then spent several chapters taking it apart with the most self-righteous tone they could muster.
I also felt some uneasiness at some of the particular wording, such as suggesting that criminals should be “put down,” and asserting that pre-feminist social norms were there “for women’s own good.”
The central thesis is mainly that in relentlessly pursuing an “alternative” culture, people (activists? hippies? it’s unclear as to what real-life group, exactly, this book is targeting) are just creating another market and continuing to consume. If one wants to create change (within the system only, thanks) than the best way to go about it is to work on incremental, policy-based change. In ignoring this “boring” work in favour of “fun” things like protests and drugs, people are just acting detrimentally to their own causes.
Like I said, my main problem is that the authors make sweeping statements about who exactly is doing this – including, for example, “environmentalists,” “feminists,” and “human rights activists;” they’re completely ignoring all the members of those groups who are doing exactly the kind of incremental work that they advocate in favour of attacking a very small fringe.
They also have a terrible habit of arguing against outdated and often discredited work in each of these fields, from Edward Abbey’s “the Monkey Wrench Gang” and early Gloria Steinem to Marx and Freud (I mean, even Gloria Steinem’s discredited early Gloria Steinem in some respects already – get with the program, guys!).
At the end of the day, I think that what I really didn’t like about this book is that the authors set out to mock and belittle a bunch of (largely imagined) people who care about the world. They spent 300 pages reveling in how they are so much smarter than people who buy organic vegetables because they know that nothing will change ever, and I really hate that attitude.
I thereby give Rebel Sell a well-deserved Gatsby slobber and zero cookies (a Gatsby hug and 11 oatmeal raisins being the highest attainable score).