Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Nation of Rebels I

The classic counterculture critique of consumer society posits not only that the mass of people must be socialized to be cogs in a machine for the production of goods, but also as consumers for the purchase of those goods. This interpretation has largely dictated the countercultural response to the mass market even as the counterculture has risen to ascendancy in the culture as a whole. From Beats to Hippies, Punk to Grunge, the answer to this mass consumer conformist society has been non-conformism in style, and in the purchasing of goods. Departing from the herd and making a wild, non-mainstream gesture not only serves to fully realize oneself, we're told, it also serves as a protest against the machine that, repeated often enough, threatens to rock the machine (and the machine people) to its foundation.

Two Canadian professors, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, have written a book, "Nation of Rebels", that offers a tightly reasoned and well-researched argument that explains why after forty years of cultural success, the counterculture has failed to show the slightest evidence of undermining mass consumer culture. In fact, the values of the counterculture, they argue, have abetted the growth of the consumer culture, which would explain why the last few decades have simultaneously witnessed the explosion of counterculture values and the mass marketplace.

"The critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for the past forty years.... It is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace."

The authors point out that studies have indeed shown there to be a correlation between wealth and happiness. People in rich countries are happier, in general, than people in poor countries. But this has only been found to be true up to a certain level of development, after which there is a leveling off. "The rule of thumb among economists who study the subject is that once GDP reaches about U.S. $10,000 per capita, further economic growth generates no gains in average happiness." Up to this point of development, gains in wealth generally are put toward addressing deficiencies in basics such as food, hygiene, shelter and clothing. After that, something else is going on:

"We constantly hear about how, as a society, we can no longer 'afford' health care or public education. But if we can't afford them now, how could we afford them thirty years ago, when the country produced only half as much wealth? Where did all the money go? The answer to this question is, in fact, quite straightforward: the money is being spent on private consumption goods. Yet, if this pattern of expenditure is not making us happier, why are we doing it?"