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Rebel Sell [Hardcover]

Heath & Potter
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 2 2004

IN SEPTEMBER 2003, Adbusters magazine—the flagship publication of the culture-jamming movement—started selling “Black Spot Sneakers,” its own signature brand of “subversive” running shoes. This act represented a seismic shift in the popular anti-consumer movement. As cultural critics Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter point out, no one could possibly believe there was still any difference between “mainstream” and “alternative” culture. The only possible conclusion: the counterculture is not a threat to the “system”—it is the system.
In a book guaranteed to incense both the followers of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, as well as their right-wing counterparts, Heath and Potter shatter the myth that continues to dominate our political, economic and cultural thinking, underpinning everything from the anti-globalization movement to feminism and environmentalism. They argue that decades of countercultural rebellion have not only been unhelpful, but counterproductive. We have become so used to right-wing attacks against the counterculture that it’s hard to imagine what a left-wing critique would look like. The Rebel Sell offers a startlingly clear picture, claiming that we need to untangle concern over questions of social justice from the countercultural critique—and dump the latter to pursue the former. In a wide-ranging narrative that’s a lively blend of pop culture history, political manifesto and investigative analysis, The Rebel Sell looks at the following:

• the birth of the counterculture—who really killed Kurt Cobain?
• being normal—enforcement of norms and the cardinal sin of the counterculture
• rebellion as a source of distinction and the birth of the rebel consumer
• from status seekers to cool-hunters—the decline of prestige and the rise of “cool” jobs
• making peace with the masses—the inescapable market and how we turn consumers into citizens

The political book of the season—to be published simultaneously with HarperCollins US—The Rebel Sell will be both deified and vilified. Most of all, it will be debated.


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If we all hate consumerism, why can't we stop shopping? This is one of the curious ironies that Canadian philosophers Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter ponder in their provocative book about the counterculture and progressive politics. In The Rebel Sell, they take issue with the misconceptions of the anti-globalization movement and others who purport to resist a corporate-dominated world, like No Logo author Naomi Klein. Heath, a philosopher at the University of Toronto, and Potter, a researcher at the University of Montreal, bemoan the fact that the "counterculture" has replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought since the '60s. They suggest that anti-globalization activists and writers like Klein claim to oppose consumerism and corporate malfeasance while offering solutions that merely reinforce capitalism.

Heath and Potter take the reader on an absorbing tour of Western thought and the philosophical origins of the countercultural movement in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. The authors suggest that these three figures gave rise to the notion that society dupes people into conformity and the belief that, as in the The Matrix movies, we have only to free our minds to start a revolution. Heath and Potter say this non-conformist ideal--which is the basis of today's countercultural movement--is actually at the heart of modern consumerism, too. Capitalism sells people "cool" stuff like SUVs and hip clothes as a way for us to stand out and be different from the crowd. In this way, the counterculture, which advocates such consumeristic "rebellion" as the key to revolution, merely helps capitalism renew itself. At times, The Rebel Sell engages in petty personal attacks against Klein and other anti-corporate activists and, in some cases, misrepresents their viewpoints, but the book is still fascinating, well-argued, and an important contribution to progressive thought. --Alex Roslin

About the Author

JOSEPH HEATH is Associate Professor of Philosophy at theUniversity of Toronto. He is the author of two books: The Efficient Society—anational bestseller and a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2001—and CommunicativeAction and Rational Choice. He lives in Toronto.


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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
The Rebel Sell is the most thought-provoking and enjoyable critique of contemporary social and political myths that I have read in a long while. It is carefully argued and extremely engaging. It's a ruthless critique of many icons of contemporary thought, from Klein to Foucault, from Marx to Freud as well as a fascinating interpretation of North-American culture, from American Beauty to Kurt Cobain, from alternative culture to environmentalists. And this is the exact reason why those involved social critique and political activism should read this.
The central argument of the Rebel Sell is simple: since the 50s and 60s, the problem with left-wing politics is that it misdiagnoses the source of problems in society. While the critique of mass society identifies the source of problems in the inhuman and deeply repressive nature of "the system", Heath and Potter argue that 1) there is no such thing as the system and 2) most problems in our society are "collective action problems". The book is excellent at demonstrating the deeply individualistic and entrepreneurial nature of counter-culture and at showing how it feeds, and not rejects, the 'system'.
I was personally fascinated by the role of 'collective action problems' and the left's failure to address them. For instance, the authors argue that the source of most violence in society is rational. Following Freud, the left has ignored this fact, and focused on emotions and instincts. Similarly, the authors argue that consumerism is very much a product of defensive competition in the struggle to maintain status in society. Hence, SUVs, gun ownership, tuition fees, etc. are 'collective action problems', the solution to which does not rest in individual choices, but rather in collective decision-making.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worthy of your time and consideration Dec 12 2004
Format:Hardcover
This book does say that there is a system. It says that the system exists to regulate the rules and realities around us. It argues that instead of wasting time by fighting the establishment through countercultural behaviour, we should make the effort to reform and improve the structures that exist.
It goes on to further show how counterculture behaviour cannot only arrest development, but that its antisocial ideas and actions can harm us. Instead of behaving like adolescents, pointing fingers at the corporations that only sell us what we demand, we should be building a better society through real political process. This distinguishes thoughts and actions between dissent and deviance.
Perhaps you're like me, having already read "No Logo" & "Fast Food Nation". You were a punk in high school and are still seeking ways to "smash the system". Instead of trying to destroy 2000 years of culture, as Atari Teenage Riot would have us do, we should follow the conclusions that the authors reach. This book actually offers sound advice, rather than simply complain. Their ideas are practical and realistic.
Anyone interested in evolutionary psychology will feel at home with terms like "competitive consumption". The authors recognize that our quest for status affects those around us. What they object to is when your aspirations begin to harm society, when it is threatened by zero-sum games. Your attempts at distinguishing yourself from the masses could not only be pointless, but damaging. See their sections on the prisoner's dilemma, where they expand on that borrowed concept.
The authors rarely self-identify during the book, and I found this single voice to facilitate the reading experience. It was a wise decision. Overall, the writing is excellent, especially considering the critical nature of the topic. They also include the word "smacktard", which should be added to your everyday conversation.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tonic for Thoughtful Progressives Dec 12 2004
Format:Hardcover
Nietzsche once said there is nothing worse for your position than to have someone argue for it poorly. As a progressive, I felt that way for a long time about the counter-culture wing of the leftist movement and their strident railing against "the omnivorous System." Fortunately, this book nicely defangs one of the most wrong-headed and unhelpful political movements in the last 50 years.
Rebel Sell starts by destroying the sociological and moral psychological underpinnings of the counterculter movement which are generally housed upon Marx and Freud respectively. The authors point out (and Chris W seems to have missed this point), that both Marx and Freud have been largely chased out of the world of philosophers and theorists, even though the ghosts of these thinkers still haunt the minds of the amateur intellectuals that make up the ranks of the counterculture.
After that, the rest of the book is a lively and often very amusing discussion of the silliness of the counterculture ideology (thank you, India!) combined with a complete debunking of most of its claims, and a damning critique of any real substantive solutions to legitimate problems. For liberals such as myself who are tired of being embarrassed by the pseudo-rebels in Nike shoes, this book is a welcome relief.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't trust anyone over 30 (ish) June 27 2005
Format:Hardcover
I found the book to be quite an interesting stroll down consumerism lane. The authors do an excellent job of providing examples of consumerist interaction in daily life to bolster their argument that trying to remove oneself from "the system" to be different or to avoid participation in what is viewed as a flawed social contract, further promotes capitalism in the end.
Of course one can argue the degree of generationally contextual analysis they apply is a criticism, attributable to the generation in which they find themselves, I suppose all the more evident if you are an older person who does not hold with their viewpoint. However, I am a gen exer myself, and found much of the themes expressed in the book refreshingly familiar and evocative.
I must confess I have not read Ms. Klein's book, to which the authors make several references as an elucidated opinion worthy of a good intellectual bashing. Then again a good intellectual bashing never hurt anyone...so I think I'll now turn to her book for an amble down anti-globalization avenue & see if its warranted.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Allows for a "No, because..." conversation
In The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter challenge using countercultural or subversive behaviour to establish social justice. Read more
Published on Jan. 16 2012 by A. J. Dickinson
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard To Penetrate Stylistically
I have only read the first few chapters so far.

I don't know if it's the quality of the arguments or the writing, but I have found it difficult to absorb the style of... Read more
Published on Sept. 16 2007 by Tom
2.0 out of 5 stars a huge disapppointment
Heath and Potter propose an important project here: explaining the failure of counter-cultural politics to effect meaningful change. Read more
Published on April 27 2007 by Kent Richard Lewis
2.0 out of 5 stars Great thesis, no argument to back it up
The biggest problem I have with Rebel Sell is that I think the basic thesis is right, but I was terribly disappointed with the argument, or lack thereof, backing it up. Read more
Published on July 17 2006 by Cory
3.0 out of 5 stars Philosophers of Cashflow
If one claims that the counterculture can't possibly succeed because the counterculture does not exist, how can one also argue that it has failed? Read more
Published on May 19 2006 by Patrick L Henderson
3.0 out of 5 stars A rant
This book reads like a rant from a couple of guys who lost an argument at a cocktail party. It has a kind of "So there!" flavour. Read more
Published on Nov. 16 2005 by C. Knowles
3.0 out of 5 stars Counterculture turns the gun onto itself
Kurt Cobain did it. This book demonstrates that counterculture has now chosen to negate itself. It would help if it aimed to overcome itself. Read more
Published on Aug. 10 2005 by jennifer messier
3.0 out of 5 stars An important work, but too heavy-handed
This book is challenging with many excellent points on the shortcomings of counter-cultural thought and I would recommend it for all the lefties that think they know all the... Read more
Published on April 6 2005 by Curtis Vos
2.0 out of 5 stars good idea bad execution
don't get me wrong. the rebel sell has some great ideas in it, ideas about how we each reinforce the social system even at the same time we denounce it. ie. Read more
Published on Oct. 18 2004 by C. Williams
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