Ever since there have been capitalists, there have been anti-capitalists. But it wasn’t until after the boom of 1950’s post-war America, where a potent mix of economic growth and a cornucopia of brand new consumer products fused with huge advertising budgets, that a consumerism was born – one that few could have predicted.
Left in the wake of suburbs, white picket fences, and color TVs were the rebels. The rebels saw the in-your-face capitalism and balked at its lifestyle of measuring status by brands and products. They quickly identified with ideals that veered away from consumerism. Hippies, punks, socialists each embraced different countercultures in their own ways as havens from the uniformization of the mainstream. But then a funny thing started to happen.
Regular people started poaching elements of the counterculture. Symbols, fashion, and music all started to leak out of their corners as mainstream consumers bought Che Guavera t-shirts or Bob Marley wallets. Sensing the potential popularity, brands started finding and using counterculture ideals to seduce new customers. How is it possible to buy a cheap Che Guevara t-shirt from a large, multi-national company that exploits laborers overseas and makes money to pay dividends to investors, in a chain retail store on 5th Avenue? What would Che Guevara think about that?
Whether or not you agree with their politics, what’s important in Nation of Rebels: Why counterculture became consumer culture by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath is how counterculture ideas get co-opted and then integrated into the mainstream. For entrepreneurs who spend much of their time telling people how their product is different, studying this sort of sociology can provide insights into how products get into the mainstream as a function of their differentiation.
The odd thing about counterculture is that no one wants to identify themselves as mainstream. The mainstream doesn’t really exist outside of demographic-wide surveys that study brand penetration. Even a product like the iPhone has many different variations and versions like the blue iPhone 5C or the rose iPhone 6. Those differences are key to the success of the iPhone. If there was just one version, everyone would have the same one, and it would lose a significant portion of its appeal. A dozen different versions ensures that you have a different one than your close friends. Yes, it’s the same phone, but it’s not the same model. You are not copying.
The products that we use to identify ourselves are things like clothing and what we take with us on a day to day basis. They are the outward signs that we send to the world about who we are. What we want to be is different enough but still identifiable with the ideals we support and the group of which we are a part.
We also want to be cool. Countercultures are cool. They represent the idea of breaking away from everyone else and adopting different lifestyles. The seem free from the bondage of consumerism that plagues our everyday lives. But mainstream people only take the convenient parts of a counterculture they like, they don’t descend all the way into the counterculture.
To do that, to become a fully-identifying member of a counterculture, actually requires a much higher degree of homogenization to fit specifically with that group. This almost always necessitates a large amount of purchases to alter someone’s outward signs. In short, you have to buy the clothes, get the tattoos, use a certain sort of vehicle.
Then, as the mainstream adopts the trends of the counterculture, the counterculture must continue to adapt in order to stay ahead of it. This never-ending cycle drives an enormous part of worldwide consumerism.
The truth is, we want the Che Guevara t-shirt because a part of us likes the idea of a revolutionary leader fighting for his people. We also like that not everyone likes him, and by showing that we do, we give an outward sign of our position on political issues. It differentiates us. We don’t believe in the lifestyle enough to want to wear camo fatigues and live in the jungle while trying to mount socialist revolutions. The appearances of differentiation is the foundation of nearly every purchasing decision we make.
Heath and Potter’s logic can be frustrating to activists of social change. But the objective mind cannot deny the rationale behind why we make certain purchase decisions and where that motivation comes from. At the very least, Nation of Rebels will give you a deep, counter-intuitive view into the modern world of consumerism.