Counterculture: The Rebel Commodity

Digital painting by James Curcio based on street art by Trondheim

Digital painting by James Curcio based on street art by Trondheim

An editorial over at Rebel News asks if it’s actually possible to work against the Man if you are also working for him?

Let’s talk about being a rebel.

Everyone seems to want to be one. But it’s not entirely clear what it means. Does it take camo- pants? A Che T-shirt? A guitar? Is it just doing the opposite of whatever your parents did? “Be an individual, a rebel, innovate,” so many advertisements whisper. They’d have us believe that True Revolutionaries think different. They use Apple, or drink Coke. We signal our dissent to one another with the music we listen to and the cars we drive.

There’s something very peculiar going on here, something elusive and deeply contentious.

In the 1997 book, Commodify Your Dissent, Thomas Frank laid out a thesis that may appear common sense to those that have watched or lived in the commodified subcultures of the 90s, 00s, and beyond. A New York Times review comments,

business culture and the counterculture today are essentially one and the same thing. Corporations cleverly employ the slogans and imagery of rebellion to market their products, thereby (a) seizing a language that ever connotes “new” and “different,” two key words in marketing, and (b) coaxing the young effortlessly into the capitalist order, where they will be so content with the stylishly packaged and annually updated goods signifying nonconformity they’ll never so much as consider real dissent — dissent against what Frank sees as the concentrated economic power of the “Culture Trust,” those telecommunications and entertainment giants who, he believes, “fabricate the materials with which the world thinks.” To have suffered the calculated pseudo-transgressions of Madonna or Calvin Klein, to have winced at the Nike commercial in which the Beatles’ “Revolution” serves as a jingle, is to sense Frank is on to something. (After reading Frank, in fact, you’ll have a hard time using words like “revolution” or “rebel” ever again, at least without quotation marks.)

The urge to rebel fuels the same system they ostensibly oppose. Whether it’s in arms trade, or far less ominously, manners of dress and behavior, there are dollars to be made fighting “The Man.” And maybe making money isn’t always an altogether bad thing. But it is certainly a complication, especially for those espousing neo-Marxists ideals.

As Guy Debord observed, “revolutionary theory is now the enemy of all revolutionary ideology and knows it.” Rebel movements are a counterculture, regardless of what they call themselves.

Read the full series.

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