A review of Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, the Canadian professors of philosophy who wrote Nation of Rebels, are men of the Left. "The reason we're leftists," Heath told the Nation of Rebels, "is that we actually share the core left-wing critique of capitalism…. [When] it comes to the environment, the stability of the banking system and the importance of macro-economic stabilization, labor-market policies, welfare, unemployment, health insurance—the Left has been absolutely right on every single issue."

Their sensibilities, however, are conservative. Nation of Rebels can sound Burkean: "[The] only way we are able to go about our business in society is by trusting other people…. One way in which people establish the requisite trust is by demonstrating their willingness to play by the rules in small symbolic ways. This is the core function of courtesy and good manners." At one point Heath and Potter say to their allies on the Left, "[We] really need to stop worrying so much about fascism. What our society needs is more rules, not fewer." Elsewhere they contend that for adolescents the sexual revolution "was not liberation, it was hell. The absence of settled rules meant that no one knew what to expect from anyone else."

At other times Nation of Rebels will remind its readers of Friedrich Hayek or the early Public Interest:

The amount of intellectual energy that has been dedicated to the task of searching for an alternative to the market in the past century is staggering. And yet no matter how you run the numbers, the answer always comes out the same. There are essentially two ways of organizing a modern economy: either a system of centralized, bureaucratic production (such as was found in the former Soviet Union), or else a decentralized system, in which producers coordinate their efforts through market exchange…. Central planning works fine for the military, or some other organization where members are willing to accept a standardized allotment of clothing, food rations or housing and to be assigned specific jobs to perform. But in a society where individuals hope to pick and choose among a range of lifestyle opportunities, there is no getting around the need for a market.

Above all, though, Heath and Potter are as dismissive of the modern Left's worldview as P.J. O'Rourke is. "You can't even organize a commune, much less an entire society, based upon the assumption that people will behave like saints," they tell us. "Consumerism…always seems to be a critique of what other people buy…. [The] so-called critique of consumerism is just thinly veiled snobbery or, worse, Puritanism." They sum up aptly the countercultural message of the film, American Beauty: "[It] is simply not possible to be a well-adjusted adult in our society…. The alternative [to perpetual adolescence] is to 'sell out,' to play by the rules, and thereby to become a neurotic, superficial conformist, incapable of experiencing true pleasure." To which they respond: "The greatest weakness of countercultural thinking has always been its inability to produce a coherent vision of a free society, much less a practical political program for changing the one we live in."

* * *

How are we to situate Heath and Potter, leftists who scoff at the fatuousness of what the Left says and does? The answer requires distinguishing the ameliorative Left from the transformative Left. Heath and Potter want to build the former as an intellectual and political force. To do so they must show that the latter is not a viable alternative, just a bad joke. Nation of Rebels argues for a Left that improves upon capitalism's results, rather than one that, disdainful of such improvements, "will not settle for anything less than a total transformation of American culture and consciousness."

There have been two attempts to forge a transformative Left. The first, Communism, ended in tragedy. Heath and Potter say the second, the counterculture, is farce. It has "almost completely replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought." Compared to Marx's relatively "modest" critique, the countercultural one "is so vast and all-encompassing that it is difficult to imagine what could possibly count as 'fixing things.'" Because the counterculture offered no goal to reform toward, "the concern for social justice became redirected and absorbed into an increasingly narcissistic preoccupation with personal spiritual growth and well-being." 

Heath and Potter criticize such theorists as Michel Foucault and Theodore Roszak. Under their influence, "Traditional leftist concerns, such as poverty, living standards and access to medical care, came to be seen as 'superficial,'…[compared to] 'the psychic liberation of the oppressed.'" The boring old Left never stood a chance against the new one: "Doing guerilla theater, playing in a band, making avant-garde art, taking drugs and having lots of wild sex certainly beat union organization as a way to spend the weekend."

It's bad enough that the countercultural rebels are wasting their time and energies on "dramatic gestures that are devoid of any progressive political or economic consequences and that detract from the urgent task of building a more just society." What's worse, say Heath and Potter, is that the would-be progressives imagine their posturing is undermining capitalism, and all the while it is just strengthening it. Nation of Rebels argues that "the cultural contradictions of capitalism," described by Daniel Bell in 1975, have all been resolved—in capitalism's favor. Following Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool (1997) and David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise (2000), Heath and Potter claim that the counterculture—bohemianism on steroids—has rendered the practice of capitalism vastly more profitable, without making the results of capitalism even slightly more admirable.

Nation of Rebels treats the desire for distinction as an ineradicable part of human psychology, and the driving force behind every economic choice beyond mere subsistence. In upper-class London neighborhoods in the 1950s people bought televisions but didn't want their vulgar desire for popular entertainment to be known, so they would refuse to erect outdoor antennas, preferring to live with terrible broadcast reception. 

In working-class neighborhoods people couldn't afford TVs but didn't want to be thought poor, so while saving up for an actual television they'd buy the antenna first, and then rush to put it up in the most conspicuous place outside the house. All that's left of the 1960s' countercultural critique of "mass society" is the desire to be cool, an idea whose meaning constantly changes even as its importance constantly grows. Heath told the Atlantic:

Rebellion is a very good way of setting yourself apart from the masses, whether it's by being cooler or morally superior or just better informed than other people. It's a search for prestige in the most basic sense…. You can see the almost unassailable sense of superiority that's associated with the vegan, organic-vegetable-shopping, back-to-the-land, Guatemala-handcraft-wearing, anti-globalization activists. They clearly think that they're better than the people who do not share their system of values. So, because other people don't like being characterized as brainwashed cogs, they wind up promoting competitive consumption.

Or, as Nation of Rebels says, "[The] hippies did not sell out. Hippie ideology and yuppie ideology are one and the same."

The reason the transformative Left is politically ineffectual is not that it leads people to devote time to performance art rather than voter registration. The real problem is that it rejects attainable reforms that would deliver tangible benefits, in favor of either inconsequential countercultural gestures or vast, sweeping projects no one can possibly enact, or even explain. Protecting the environment, for example, is not easy but Heath and Potter argue that it is simple. Pollution is a negative externality, a cost created by factory owners and car drivers but borne by air breathers. The solution is that "all externalities should be internalized" through taxes and tradeable pollution permits. Earth-friendly self-restraint will be promoted far more effectively by taxes that "compensate the farmer whose groundwater gets contaminated thanks to run-off from your garbage in the local dump" than it will by a hundred lectures about the lofty virtues of conservation and recycling.

Environmentalists' reactions to this effective solution, however, range from grudging acquiescence to strident opposition: 


[Pollution] permits don't force CEOs to reevaluate their attitude toward nature, or to abandon their single-minded pursuit of profit. They represent, in the eyes of many environmentalists, 'the commodification of nature….'[People] should conserve energy out of virtue [these environmentalists think], rather than because of the size of their electricity bill.

This position, Heath and Potter write, is "just warmed-over countercultural mythology—the critique of mass society in ecological disguise." Thus


the preferred solution to environmental problems is pretty much the same as the countercultural proposals to correct consumerism: individual responsibility through moral education, and individual action through enlightened lifestyle choices. Plant a tree, ride a bike, compost your kitchen waste and save the earth.


Sensible and attainable solutions are dismissed—they can be carried out by people who aren't cool, devaluing the psychic premium now enjoyed by the practitioners of conspicuously correct consumption.

* * *

As an agenda for governance, the program of Heath and Potter's ameliorative Left hangs together, though conservatives won't sign up for many of their proposals, which include emulating France's 35-hour workweek and placing regulatory limits on the amount of cosmetic surgery people can have. (Don't ask.) It's the politics of the ameliorative Left that are the hard part—and the politics have to be sorted out before the ameliorative Left is in a position to do any governance. The tiresome, prosaic Bob Dole question—"Have you got the votes?"—turns out to be pretty important. 

The transformative Left can't govern, or even say what it would do if it did govern, but its gauzy vision of a world remade does win adherents. Can Heath and Potter compete with that? Are there leftists out there, moved by the "vision" of a 6% improvement here or an encouraging trend there, who will go ring doorbells and drive vans to the polling booths?

The authors are aware of the problem. "[S]tate action is subject to diminishing returns and therefore political action gets more difficult and less rewarding," Potter told the Atlantic. Consider, again, the environment. We solved the easy problems first, according to Potter, such as banning lead in gasoline: the benefits were both clear and considerable while the costs were modest. This means the environmental problems that remain are hard. The costs and benefits of dealing with them "are more evenly balanced," so "you have to start crunching numbers and doing some economics and it gets very complicated." So, on the one hand, "it gets more difficult to mobilize people politically when you're trying to argue for complex things like tradable pollution permits." But the very fact that the Left has to work and think harder to secure these marginal improvements through better policies means, on the other, that "we need to galvanize ourselves to get more engaged politically, precisely because the problems are more difficult."

To express this hope, however, is to extinguish it. If, back when the problems were easy, the transformative Left's constituents disdained the dull, necessary efforts needed to secure dull, necessary improvements, is it plausible they'll get serious now, when everything is more complicated and less rewarding? Complex problems are apt to make greater political engagement both more necessary and less likely.

The 2004 election results triggered dismay and incredulity across the Left. Liberals have begun saying, "We've got to get serious." A 2004 article in the radical journal LiP, for instance, echoed the Nation of Rebels thesis: the Left has been undone by its own "activistism," an ideology combining "moral zeal" with "political illiteracy." The antiwar movement, for example, understands "success" to mean that "actions take place, conferences are planned, new people become activists," even though "it's no longer clear what war we're protesting." Details, details. "[It] turned out to be important to have something to say to skeptics who asked: 'What's your alternative?'"

Is an ameliorative Left possible? Heath and Potter are participants in an interesting experiment. If liberals' self-marginalizing narcissism is an accidental quality, one that can be cut away to leave behind a stronger determination to enact a better reform agenda, their efforts might succeed. If it's an essential attribute that can't be removed without killing the patient, then the task is hopeless. 

For conservatives, the easy part is to agree with the book's devastating critique of countercultural inanities. The hard part is to know what to think of its authors' political project. A serious Left could be: a welcome change from the gassy self-righteousness of the transformative Left; a newly formidable adversary; or people one can do business with, to borrow Margaret Thatcher's remark about Mikhail Gorbachev. Of course, a serious Left may turn out, instead, to be simply impossible—a contradiction in terms.