Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter. The Rebel Sell: Why the culture can’t be jammed. 2004. HarperCollins, Toronto, ON.

I have long had my doubts about the idea of “culture jamming” as promoted by some magazines and recent acclaimed books. It often seems like shallow theatre to me. Thinking it may be an age related ideological problem of my own, I was pleased to see this book by two obviously young writers.

Their thesis is that a preoccupation with “jamming” the consumer culture – what Warnock calls market capitalism in his very different book, Saskatchewan – is really a form of consumerism. I think of that whenever I see a “Che” T-shirt. We commodify everything from polite dissent to revolution with little thought of the production itself. The most colourful and striking Che garment I have ever seen was made in a Korean sweatshop.

The authors explain how we buy a brand and buy a lifestyle; we become what we consume. Most people in the majority world will never own cars and two-car garaged homes, but most can drink a Coke or Pepsi or smoke a Marlboro. Thus boycotts of these products have a difficult time, a puff and a sip are fleeting moments of participation in our wealthy society. And we here are willing to pay more for water in a bottle than for the gasoline we use to get to where we can write about car free streets.

The authors also expose the culture of spirituality where we embrace foolish generalities, such as that goodness and spirituality are found in other cultures and we are the least spiritual. This is handily packaged at an ashram I visited in India with a complete line of books, CDs, incense, candles and other spiritual aids, inside a compound that excluded the poor of India.

To many people in our society, living simply and devoting one’s energies to the building of a just and equitable society, is far more spiritual an experience than sitting a guru’s feet listening to platitudes. Political problems, which the authors concede are many, can not be solved by only local decentralized democratic actions and colourful dissent.

In their conclusions, the authors believe that governments still have power, that they do not have to be the tools of corporations, and that it will take more and stronger governments to control the consumption-based neoliberalism that is the object of “culture jamming”. We need more government to institute green taxes, taxes on advertising and stock sales. Maybe old fashioned political organizing can and will have to take politics back from the elites and into the control of people with a common goal of sustainable, equitable and just policies. We need to trust ourselves and others more, not less.

“There are good reasons then, to think that in an increasingly globalized economy, we need more government, not less”, they say. Collective action, based in real political power is the most useful way to solve our problems. They concede that, “All of this will involve further restriction of individual liberty… In the end, civilization is built on our willingness to accept rules and to curtail the pursuit of our individual interest out of deference to the needs and interests of others.” Resistance includes the positive, not just the negative of dissent. Resistance means understanding power and it means understanding the discipline of collective decision-making, responsibilty and action.

They believe the political left must re-embrace government for this purpose – not move away from it …” just at a point in history when it has become more important than ever.” So maybe my ideological tendencies are not so age-related after all.

Filed under Andrew Potter, Book Reviews, Joseph Heath