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. Their claim is that the ideals of the counterculture are the same things that drive capitalism and purchasing. Rebellious purchasing, whether that be organic food, extreme sports, grunge fashion, or something else, is sold on the same idea as a Lexus or Rolex - the desire to be different. In essence, the counterculture cannot be co-opted because it does not exist.
The Rebel Sell does not take cheap shots at the left or advocates for social justice. Heath and Potter write about the need for progressive change. At least one is a former punk who participated in varied subversive actions. They write to progressives and the left to attempt to show that blocking or rejecting culture in order to bring about change is counterproductive. Such a rejection may also result in odd situations. A female MP campaigning for equal rights may be considered oppressive because she is on the inside. A Caucasian male from an affluent background who rails against the world in a coffee shop (independent shop, of course) becomes more credible and is somehow even a victim.
Heath and Potter conclude that compromise is necessary. Compromise is not selling out and it does mean that everything you believe is up for grabs. Instead, compromise is identifying where negotiation is possible and asking what will most likely bring about a desired outcome. Without understanding compromise in this way, we will have a world where there is very little opportunity for any change while smug, self-righteous people yell at "The Man." The market is the only means for such compromise. Pluralism and choosing the best bits from a variety of ideas allows for social change if choices are made intelligently. The market accepts that the utopian ideal of having everyone believe in the same cause is mutually exclusive with pluralism. Pluralism forces us to learn how to disagree well and disagreeing well requires society and norms. This does not mean that the market is universally good. We can acknowledge failures in the market without completely rejecting it. We should strive to fix these failures. Absolute freedom is impossible and civilization is needed for progressive change.
Potter and Heath use two methods to demonstrate that subversion is not able to reform culture for the better. Part one shows that countercultural rebellion is ineffective. They rhetorically ask, "How many times can the system be subverted without noticeable effect before we begin to question the means of subversion?" The mainstream, it seems, is happy to chug along and see subversion as inconsequential or entertaining. Subversive groups may even be a target market. Part two explains a countercultural idea and then demonstrates it as ultimately untenable and counterproductive. The "hacker ethic," for example, ensures that information is free for everyone. The hacker ethic uses netiquette rather than rules to govern discourse. Sometimes, however, people use "free expression" as an excuse for harassment, coercion, or flaming. Such activities are as effective at repressing free speech as state sponsored censorship.
I genuinely believe that government can bring about social justice. (I also believe that doing so is their God-given responsibility.) This book made a good case that subversion is not effective or coherent. I like that Heath and Potter suggest plugging holes instead of simply giving the finger to the world. I also like their suggestion that it is as likely (maybe even more likely) that an oppressor other than government or "the system" will stifle freedom. When culture jammers fail to offer an alternative to the culture that they are trying to bring down, they propose a vacuum by default. Without the restraints that a civilization provides, there is nothing to prevent the biggest guy from winning.
Coming from a "social-justice Christian" perspective, I find this book useful. I find myself often in situations where I am with other social justice proponents. Many of my conversation partners are proponents of being countercultural and some endorse culture jamming. I disagree with them, but have rarely been able to move beyond a "Yes, but" conversation. The Rebel Sell allows me to now say, "No, because." The book isn't perfect (some of their arguments about counterculture using cliché could easily be used against the authors as well; their take on the basic beliefs of Christianity are drastically different than mine) but it still makes a significant contribution to the social justice conversation.