Last year, my friend Nathen suggested that I read The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (published 2004; also sold under the title “Nation of Rebels”). He wondered how the book’s arguments related to unschooling. Below is my review of the book, plus a response to Nathen’s question.
The idea of a counterculture — a world outside of the consumer-dominated world that encompasses us — pervades everything from the antiglobalization movement to feminism and environmentalism. And the idea that mocking or simply hoping the ‘system’ will collapse, the authors argue, is not only counterproductive but has helped to create the very consumer society radicals oppose.
Above is what Amazon has to say about Rebel Sell, and it’s an accurate summary. The main thrust of this book is toward deflating the pie-in-the-sky notions that counterculturists hold about the effectiveness of their “rebellion” against society. Heath and Potter are old-school liberals who believe in community organizing, increased government regulation, election campaigning, and other forms of slow, incremental political change. They make a strong case against those who want fast, total change—a complete overthrow of “the system,” for example. But in doing this, they also defend the social customs that we commonly associate with conservatism or libertarianism. That’s what makes this book interesting.
It all starts with the Nazis.
The Nazis were the ultimate conformists, Heath and Potter argue, and the horrors they committed turned conformity into a thing to be feared. The Korean War brought the idea of “brainwashing” and “subliminal messaging,” and Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment suggested that everyone was a potential Nazi. When the post-war boom provided every family in the U.S. with an identical-looking house, car, and family, the counterculture arose, starting with the beats in the ’50s and the hippies and mass rebellions of the ’60s.
The basic idea of the counterculture was: We won’t conform. If you wear a suit and keep short hair, I’ll wear a sari and grow long hair. If you wear a bra, I’ll burn mine. If you drive a Cadillac, I’ll drive a Bug. Whatever you can do, I can do differently. And in my non-conformity, I’m fighting the system of brainwashing that wants to turn me—in essence—into a conforming fascist.
Heath and Potter then dive into a discussion of Freud and his idea of repression, which irrevocably ingrained itself into our thinking around the turn of the century. Humans have instinctual, wild desires, but we repress them in order to function in civil society. Therefore, as civilization spreads and develops, everyone becomes a neurotic.
The movies Pleasantville and American Beauty get lots of time in the book as examples of conformity and repression versus wild, creative, innate human desires. I won’t dive into those movies’ details, but if you’ve seen them, you know what I mean.
You can’t escape this conformity and repression, the counterculture argues, because they aren’t perpetuated by a single political party or organization. They’re part of our culture, and they’re perpetuated by every institution that we have. That’s why the only solution is to…
Throw Out the System!
Thus was born the notion of true revolution as not “reforming the system,” as a classic leftist might do, but rejecting the culture altogether.
The ’60s icon Abbie Hoffman contemptuously dismissed “political revolution” on the grounds that politics merely “breeds organizers.” Cultural revolution, on the other hand, “creates outlaws.”
Here’s where Heath and Potter get into their main argument: that the countercultural idea of “throwing out the system” is not only unrealistic—it hinders reasonable political aspirations and creates disregard for valid social norms that promote law, order, and prosperity.
“Being an outlaw is in many ways parasitic upon the existence of an organized society,” the authors write. “What if everyone became an outlaw? What does a society with no institutions, no rules and no regulations look like?”
Throughout its pages, Rebel Sell tears apart the many lofty visions and experiments of the counterculture: communes, anarchism, hipsters, Ayn Rand, Voluntary Simplicity, Adbusters and its Buy Nothing Day, Naomi Klein’s No Logo, the WTO protests, organic food, deep ecology, and more. Each fails to effectively address with a set of inherent problems in human social organizing, most notably:
- the collective action problem, a.k.a. the tragedy of the commons: a problem in which everyone would like to see a particular outcome but no one has the incentive to do what is necessary in order to bring it about, represented by the Prisoner’s Dilemma thought experiment. This is why rules and social norms are important.
- the positional good problem, a.k.a. keeping up with the Joneses: the idea that humans have a deep need to know “where they stand” in society—to distinguish themselves from others as part of their identity. In a materially abundant society, for better or worse, everyone does this through “conspicious consumption”—including the hipsters, anarchists, and Voluntary Simplicity types.
The positional good problem is especially useful for businesses who want to sell the idea of “cool”, “hip”, “alternative”, or “counterculture” through clothing, cars, media, etc. Companies have been doing that since the birth of counterculture (Birkenstocks and skateboards, anyone?), the authors argue, and that’s why counterculture can never achieve its (leftist) goals.
Perhaps without realizing it, Heath and Potter make an excellent case for the classic liberal vision of free markets combined with social justice. They explain why markets and trade benefit everyone involved, except in the case of clear negative externalities that deserve regulations. They argue against rent control schemes and the Marxist idea of “overproduction,” anti-technology sentiments, and elitist anti-consumer sentiments. Illustrating the latter, the authors write:
Whenever you look at the list of consumer goods that (according to the critic) people don’t really need, what you invariably see is a list of consumer goods that middle-aged intellectuals don’t need. Budweiser bad, single-malt Scotch good; Hollywood movies bad, performance art good; Chryslers bad, Volvos good; hamburgers bad, risotto good . . .
Heath and Potter are the kind of liberals that I love to engage in lengthy discussion. They acknowledge the incredible benefits and underlying reason for markets, freedom, and democracy, while staying true to their goal of social justice. Discussing exactly what “social justice” is and how to best bring it about is where reasonable people can disagree, and it leads to good debate. Arguing with someone who genuinely believes that buying organic grapes, going to underground music shows, or homesteading will lead to a total overthrow of the political system—and believes that’s a worthwhile goal—is much less productive and enjoyable.
Rebel Sell doesn’t mention many practical alternatives to the counterculture lifestyle—instead, the book just tears down its philosophical foundations. If you can’t escape consumer culture anyways, then this approach is valid. I think this is a very useful book for anyone who believes deeply in the political implications of their seemingly small actions, revealing those implications for exactly what they are: miniscule.
Does their conclusion mean that buying organic grapes, going to underground music shows, or homesteading is worthless? Of course not. But it suggests that you should be doing these things entirely for your own fulfillment instead of putting stock in their affecting some worldwide revolution. In this way, Rebel Sell might reduce the anxiety we feel as consumers today, leaving us with the time and headspace to do some actual work on our political goals, whatever they may be.
Implications for Unschooling and Alternative Education
There is certainly an “alternative lifestyle” sphere that overlaps with the unschooling and alternative education spheres; look no further than The Secret, the anti-immunization movement, and the Rethinking Everything (formerly: Rethinking Education) conference. Within this sphere we find a number of people convinced that their countercultural actions will lead to the overthrow of “the system”, replacing it with one-world governance, universal love, Ecotopia, anarchist syndicalism, or who knows what.
But in ten years of immersion in this culture, I’ve observed a much larger community of level-headed and politically centric parents and educators. These parents are not the crazy-eyed countercultural lunatics that public schoolers or conservative homeschoolers envision them to be. They’re former teachers, accomplished businesspeople, working artists, and other “normal” people who share a streak of entrepreneurism and self-reliance and want the best for their kids.
Their kids—the unschoolers and alternative schoolers—do tend to hold more countercultural ideals than other young people, but I pin that on the demographics of cities, educated parents, and middle-/middle-upper-class culture more than anything else. Many unschoolers go to college (or can go to college if they so desire), which is also correlated with joining the countercultural left.
Finally, what about the home/unschoolers of ’70s and ’80s who were truly countercultural and paved the way for modern alternative education? Does Rebel Sell dismiss these people and those who pursue similar paths in the face of great resistance today? I don’t think so. First, I don’t think any such pioneers were homeschooling their kids with the primary purpose of “throwing out the system”—instead, they were just doing what seemed best for their kids, no matter the challenge. Second, many of these pioneers were engaging in the type of political change that Heath and Potter advocate: the gradual altering of laws (e.g. homeschooling laws) and rights (e.g. youth rights) that create a lasting impact on the generations ahead.
How different is home educating from buying organic food or building your own tiny house? It’s hard to say. Certainly not every home/unschooler today is politically organizing for educational freedom. So it’s a mixed bag. But I continue to believe that pursuing alternative education is a smart path to choose, because it provides an immediate tangible result: the happiness and superior education of your children.