The Rebel Sell at 15

A funny thing about the book that Andrew and I wrote, The Rebel Sell, is that it was a bestseller in Spain. We recently did an interview with Manuel Mañero to mark the 15th year anniversary of the publication of the book: 15 años después, la contracultura gira a la derecha. Here is the English-language, unabridged version of that interview (answers by both of us).


Q. First inevitable question: if you had to remake The Rebel Sell today, from what idea or theory do you start it?

A. It depends on what you mean. If the question is, if we were writing a critique of counterculture and how it influenced the anti-consumerist movement of the early 21st century, then not much would change. The way we see it, The Rebel Sell is first and foremost a work in the history of ideas – it’s a genealogy of the concept of counterculture, how it emerged in the late 50s and 60s, and the influence that it had on left-wing movements and subsequent youth culture. Our discussion sort of brought things up to the present in 2004, and so with the passage of time there are obviously some subsequent developments that could usefully be discussed. But we don’t see a lot in the core of the book that should be different, since it is mainly an historical work. In fact, while we were preparing to write it, the two of us went into a used bookstore and bought a huge stack of 60s paperback books – stuff like Small is Beautiful, Growing up Radical, The Female Eunuch, Black Power, The Sane Society, etc. – and divided them up to read. It was basically us trying to get an explicit theoretical statement of the ideas that our parents’ generation had come to believe, and that we had sort of absorbed by osmosis from the culture. That discussion still has a great deal of value, so we don’t see why any of it would change.

A separate question is how we would approach things if we were to try to write a “Rebel Sell” of the current day, doing for the current cultural moment what The Rebel Sell did for the moment of the early 2000s. And there a great deal has changed. The most obvious is that there is basically zero anti-consumerist rhetoric out there right now. The whole No Logo/Adbusters agenda — against advertising, branding, the co-optation of cool – that animated our original critique has simply evaporated. These ideas were taken very seriously by the left for a long time, and now they’ve disappeared. Why that is the case is a complicated question, but what is clear is that for the left, counterculture politics has been substantially replaced by a form of virtue-signalling/woke/identity politics, largely catalysed by and propagated through social media.

And so if we were to write a Rebel Sell-style book today, it would almost certainly start with the same basic theoretical assumptions: namely, that we seriously underestimate the role of status-seeking, signalling, and positional goods in our political posturing. But the content and structure of that analysis would be somewhat different.


Q. What’s your favorite self-fulfilling prophecy from the original The Rebel Sell?

A. One of the central criticisms we make in the book is that the left spends too much time focusing on cultural issues that are of relatively minor, or symbolic importance, while ignoring big issues that have a huge effect on people’s lives, like who controls the state. After the book was released, we gave a lot of talks across Canada (along with a book tour of Spain!), and got to hear back from many readers. Of all the complaints that we heard, the one that got people most upset were some offhand remarks we made about organic vegetables. In particular, we made a joke about the price of organic mangoes that many people were supremely offended by. It got brought up time and time again. Also, there was a really short discussion of free-range chickens not being all that free-range, that got lots of people upset. One guy wrote an incredibly long refutation of our claims on that point. Anyhow, we would often find ourselves being confronted by these upset people, calling us names, saying “how can you say such horrible things about organic food?” and we’d be like “of all the things we said in the book, the fact that this is what you’re choosing to criticize, doesn’t that kind of illustrate our central thesis? We’re trying to make a point about the status of the Enlightenment project, and you’re talking about mangoes.”

More generally, there was a recurring and fairly amusing reaction where someone would approach us and say something like: “I loved your book, your analysis is dead on, with the exception of X”. And the exception was always some preferred form of rebellion or status-seeking that they indulged in or saw as genuinely political. So someone would say “I agree entirely with your take on tourism, organic produce and shopping, but you’re totally wrong about punk rock” or that sort of thing. And it’s funny because it just shows you how blind people are to their own motivations. It’s easy to see status-seeking in other people’s behaviour, much harder to recognize it in ourselves.


Q. Since the book was released there’s been several changes not only in US but in the whole world and seems like today we’re stuck in a storm of extremists. Why are they taking the word, how have they reached the headlines and what’s the solution -if there is one?

Q. American Beauty turns 20 in 2019. Whats the “drug” through which the governments control us?

A. This isn’t a direct answer to these two questions, but perhaps it gets at the spirit of them. Here’s the thing: What we have seen since 2001 is a steady ratcheting up of the generalized anti-institutionalism which is one of the core motivations of the countercultural project, and which has metastasized into a full-blown rejection of authority, expertise and even truth, across the political spectrum but predominantly on the right. Early signs were the 9/11 truthers and the Obama-era birthers, but today you can add to the mix the growing anti-vaccine movement, the rampant climate change denialism, and the more general embrace of “alternative facts” and so-called “fake news”. What used to be called the “mainstream” has collapsed, with people fleeing into their own epistemological corners. It’s like everyone thinks everyone else is living in the Matrix, but there is no Matrix.

“The internet” of course plays an explanatory role here, but what that involves precisely is too complicated to get into here. There’s a joke about the television show Black Mirror, where the operating assumption of every plot is something like “what if cellphones, but moreso?”  And so a lot of explanations about the zeitgeist end up being variations on “like before, but just add social media,” as unhelpful as that is.


Q. Which % of sincere and genuine support and which of fake and trendy do you think MeToo movement enjoyed?

A. This is not a useful question to try to answer. A more productive line of inquiry might me to try to answer the question of why did #metoo take off when it did, and why do so many people feel inclined to support it or endorse it? After all, none of the allegations, either specifically (about say Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey) or generally (about powerful men as a group) are terribly novel. So why is it suddenly an issue now? It is common to fall back on a class of folk-sociological explanations based on tipping-point models: The triggering event — i.e. the reporting about Harvey Weinstein — was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”; or it was what caused the dam to finally burst; or people finally said enough was enough. But these sorts of explanations are unhelpful because they are just question-begging: What is different about this time? In both #MeToo and #NeverAgain (the related anti-gun movement coming out of the Parkland shooting) a big part of what is going on is that there has been a sudden shift in certain social norms. In the case of #MeToo, the norm that compelled women to keep silent in the face of predatory male behaviour has rapidly dissolved.

Why did it dissolve? In his paper Unleashed, Cass Sunstein tells the story this way: A small number of “norm entrepreneurs” who opposed the prevailing norm that protected men like Weinstein decided to actively work to change them. This generated a “norm cascade” that, within a very short period of time, first undermined and then utterly dismantled the existing norm. But again, why now? As Sunstein argues, what determines whether a norm entrepreneur is successful or not depends a lot on the initial conditions: who they are, how they communicate, and who they are able to influence. It’s like starting a campfire: You need to start with something very light and flammable like paper or birch bark and some small pieces of very dry kindling before moving on to the big logs, some of which might be wet or rotten.

When the NYT and New Yorker went to press, the long-standing allegations against Weinstein suddenly had two things going for them. First, they had the prestige of the publications behind them. And second, through social media, the accusers were able to reach everyone in the relevant community at the same time. Instead of whispering in secret, they could shout in public. Those with low thresholds for norm violation could respond with their own stories, which led others with slightly higher thresholds to see just how big the silent majority really was and to add their own voices to the mix, and so on. A spark became a roaring bonfire in a very short period of time. After years of acting with impunity, Harvey Weinstein found himself friendless and defenceless (though he still may escape conviction). Social media, especially the hashtagged free-for-all of Twitter, played an enormous role in this.


Q. Bring us the daily fear was one of the main purposes that Al Qaeda wanted to plant in 1st world; how responsible is this fear of everything we’re living today?

A. There was a New Yorker cartoon that went around shortly after 9/11 that showed a man at a bar saying to his companion something like: “The way I see it, if I don’t have a second martini, the terrorists have already won.” That way of thinking was part of a post-9/11 attitude of widespread skepticism about security theatre and other official narratives. That healthy attitude has largely vanished, probably because 9/11 was a long time ago and people have forgotten what it was like to travel without taking your shoes off. And of course it has become wrapped up in the very un-ironic right-wing populism that has targeted muslims as, if not actual terrorists, then at least threats.


Q. Why do you think Islam or even lone wolf terrorists in its name still have some deference from Occident?

A. For the same reason such figures have always drawn sympathy from the far left: they are seen as fighting the same enemies, namely capitalist oppression, western imperialism, and — more generally — the alienated individualism of western consumerism. As even Francis Fukuyama conceded, the End of History could be a very lonely place.  And so it was very common, after 9/11 to see prominent figures on the left express a great deal of sympathy for the arguments, if not the actual behaviour, of islamist terrorists. It wasn’t much of a leap to see the members of al-Qaeda and fellow travelers as just very committed culture jammers.


Q. Trump seems the major example of how a political leader can be worst recognised in foreign countries than in his own: what message did Trump’s election send to the world?

A. I think there is a lot that the rest of the world does not understand about the American political system, that it relevant to understanding Trump’s election. So I think a lot of people outside the U.S. had a fairly facile reading of the situation, basically “Americans are idiots, Trump is both an idiot and a con-man, and so they elected him.” Of course, there is some truth to this characterization. I’ve gotten pretty tired of American liberals acting as though Trump was an alien who landed from outer space, as opposed to a deeply American figure, someone who in many way exemplifies important aspects of the American character – of both his supporters and his detractors. Trump is in many ways the most distinctively American president that America has ever had.

At the same time, it is important for Europeans to recognize how deeply flawed and frustrating the American political system is. First of all, the system is essentially unreformable, because of the “constitutional straightjacket.” No European state is like that – major aspects of the political system can be reformed (just look at Spain). European democracies are also far more dynamic, with new political parties showing up, old ones declining, etc. The United States has been under a hammerlock of two parties, who have essentially closed down the system to new entrants. So for over a century, elections have been the same old contest, between the same old rivals. And finally, the U.S. has almost uniquely poor quality public administration, with government that is both legalistic and overly coercive. It very easy to love government when you live in a happy European welfare state. It’s much harder to love your government when you’re an American. And so there are a huge number of frustrations with the political system. As a voter, the idea that you might want to send a bull into the proverbial china shop, or someone who’s going to be just incredibly disruptive, is not an entirely crazy idea. In this case it probably wasn’t a good idea, but there are lots of perfectly rational people who thought that it was. None of this has any particular “message” for the rest of the world, or for the fate of democracy. Most politics is local politics, and Trump’s election was very much a response to domestic issues.

Also, let me just say, that if Europeans had anywhere near as many illegal immigrants as the United States has, all of Europe would have been taken over by radical isolationist parties long ago.


Q. What’s the main hypocritical scenario of the 1st world today?

A. Probably climate change. But it’s important to remember that it was expressly NOT part of our agenda in The Rebel Sell to call out leftists as hypocrites. That is an interpretation of our argument that we always resisted. What we tried to show is that the countercultural left was just in the grip of a false theory of society, which caused them to misunderstand the way the logic of collective action leads to behaviour that is collectively self-defeating. And while there is no question that we are pretty hypocritical about climate change, that’s not the cause of the problem. The problem is the self-defeating logic of collective action problems.


Q. The Rebel Sell was an iconic book on imposture and how people pretend to be committed with minorities and inclusive policies. What could you say about today?

A. It is interesting to look at the evolution of identity politics and realize that so much of the behaviour that the countercultural left engaged in until quite recently is no longer permitted. In particular the fetishization of the exotic, the adoption of indigenous practices, and the romanticization of oppression by privileged white people has become seen as completely out of bounds. There was a popular blog in the late 2000s called “Stuff White People Like,” which was in many ways just a catalog of the rebel consumerism, countercultural practices, and authenticity-seeking poses that characterized the countercultural left circa 2000-2010. It would be interesting to go back and look at that blog and see just how much of it would today be denounced as cultural appropriation, or simply racist.


Q. Last and more specify political one: do you think the real fascism come from left-parties today?

A. I don’t think either of us spends a great deal of time worrying about left fascism. Which isn’t to say that we aren’t deeply troubled by the general censoriousness of the left, or the various social-media-induced psychoses that the left seems peculiarly vulnerable to. But there’s a long way to go between that and actual fascism. On the other hand, along with age has come a better understanding of why some people find the left, and  certain left-wing ideas, to be dangerous, and why people on the left are so incapable of understanding this. It is incredibly seductive to imagine that because one’s intentions are good, or because one is trying to achieve social justice, that one is incapable of doing anything harmful. And yet history – especially recent history – is full of examples of people committing terrible deeds despite have had, at some level, good intentions.

Many of the projects that the left is enamored of involve fairly radical transformations of what we now conceive of as “human nature.” Much of this is justified by the claim that “human nature” is not fixed and immutable, but is actually a social construct – and so, if it can be constructed in one way, then it can be deconstructed and reconstructed in some other ways. Social construction, however, is an intrinsically coercive process. As any sociologist can tell you, social norms are enforced. Thus the project of transformation is not merely an exercise in persuasion, it involves various forms of punishment, both formal and informal, for those who do not want to go along. The concern is that we don’t really know how “immutable” or how “constructed” various aspects of human nature are. The claims made regarding social construction are basically dogmatic – when someone says that gender is nothing but “performance,” for instance, that’s just an assertion, perhaps backed by a few anecdotes, it’s not based on evidence. So there is a concern that as we go about trying to change these social constructs, we start to encounter resistance, or perhaps even hit a wall, that is a consequence of underlying biological limits. And yet the left generally interprets this resistance, not as evidence that “human nature” is more immutable than previously imagined, but as a consequence of traitors and enemies, bad actors out there who are resisting social change. This is often coupled with a call for a more aggressive attempts to seek out and punish those responsible. This is a dangerous misunderstanding of what it going on, and it explains why the left has a tendency to go on witch hunts.

So I don’t think it’s difficult to find dangerous ideas on the left. But it takes a lot more to go from this to a violent or oppressive political movement – other planets need to be aligned. So far, the increasing sanctimoniousness and intolerance of the left that we have seen in recent years has been directly mainly toward self-sabotage. The Democratic party in the United States, for instance, seems to have an internal dynamic that results in them positioning themselves precisely where they need to be to get around 47% of the vote. As soon as they are in danger of getting more than 50%, forces within the party set to work that results in them losing a couple of percent – just enough to be defeated narrowly by the Republicans. And then they blame it on gerrymandering (because how could it be their fault, that they are being consistently outplayed and outmaneuvered by nutjobs?)


Q. Please feel free to add anything you want: commentaries, stories or anecdotes around The Rebel Sell, corrections, reflections on world of today…

A. Perhaps the most surprising development since the publication of The Rebel Sell has been the migration of countercultural ideas from the left to the right. This was made really explicit by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and chief of staff. His analysis of the political situation, and the strategies pursued by the left and the right in America, was basically identical to our own. The major difference is that he thought that, in choosing to pursue cultural politics, the left had in fact adopted the better strategy. “While we were taking over Washington,” he said, “the liberals were busy taking over Hollywood.” So the right controlled the state, but the left controlled the instruments of cultural production.

The major difference between us was that while we argued that this was a bad bargain for the left, Bannon thought that the left had in fact adopted the better strategy. “Politics is downstream from culture” was his preferred slogan. The problem, Bannon argued, was that the culture was so hostile to right-wing ideas that it seriously limited their room to manoeuver politically. So he thought the right needed to adopt a new cultural politics, in order to reclaim the territory that had been lost to the left. (A lot of this analysis, incidentally, was a consequence of having “lost the battle” over gay marriage, which came as a shock to many conservatives – they were quite surprised by how quickly the tide of public opinion turned on this question, and then how much it constrained them politically.)

So where is this new “cultural politics” of the right to come from? This is where the rise of the alt-right becomes important. Angela Nagle has written a great book on this (Kill All Normies), pointing out that what most people don’t get about the alt-right is that it is essentially a countercultural movement. Perhaps the most important point we tried to make in The Rebel Sell is that countercultural politics, along with its central feature, which was the celebration of rule-breaking as inherently emancipatory, does not have an intrinsically left-wing valence. If the rules being violated are oppressive, then breaking them is progressive. But if the rules being violated are ones the protect people from harm, then breaking them is quite the opposite of progressive. This analysis has, I think, been fully vindicated by recent political realignments. The return of political correctness on the left has meant that, increasingly, the left is obsessed with imposing more and more rules on people’s (public) behavior. Meanwhile, and partly in reaction to this, it is the right that has begun to celebrate rule-breaking (particularly online, where it is impossible to enforce any of the rules that the left wants to install). This is what Nagle realizes — lots of the racially offensive language that you see online (and it is astonishing how ubiquitous it has become) is not a reflection of kids actually being racist, it is just rule-breaking. For instance, the more schools try to control how children talk to one another, the more they are inclined to cut loose after school when they hop on xbox live.

Anyhow, all of this is a completely unexpected development, as far as the way we were looking at things back in 2004 is concerned. I think that it is completely consistent with the basic analysis that we were offering of counterculture. Indeed, if anything it proves our point. But we saw “right-wing counterculture” as more of a conceptual possibility, neither of us expected it to materialize. You could write a whole other book about what has happened in the past 10 years. We’re too old to do it though, not down with the kids anymore. Each generation must fight its own struggles.

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