Entries in rebel sell (4)


Welcome to the Occupation


In many ways, the most remarkable thing about the global Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protests is that they haven’t happened sooner. It has been a full decade since the anti-globalization movement imploded in a mess of its own internal contradictions, and I am honestly surprised that left has taken so long to self-organize into another mass protest movement. I would have expected that the knee-capping of the world economy three years ago and the subsequent decision to make everyone except those primarily responsible bear the brunt of the pain would have catalyzed some sort of march on the plutocracy. 

Perhaps the left was biding its time waiting to see what Obama might bring to the table.  Perhaps it was wrong-footed by the Tea Party, which stole a march on the whole idea by taking to the streets from from the other side. Maybe it was still too busy with the wrong-headed troops-out campaign against the war in Afghanistan. And maybe this is exactly the sort of unrest that lots of smart people have predicting would be the consequence of unchecked growth in inequality. At any rate, no one should be too surprised at what is going on: by the mere swing of the pendulum, we were due for a gathering of the left-wing tribes.

Overall,  my views on the usefulness of this sort of protest have not changed much since The Rebel Sell. But my general disdain is leavened in this case by three thoughts. The first is that inequality is a growing problem that all of us need to pay more attention to. And second: to the extent that inequality is magnified by a financial elite that has effectively discovered a way to game the American banking system, then Wall Street is the right and proper target of mass protest.

But finally, and maybe primarily, I'm increasingly inclined to think that regular mass public gatherings are useful for their own sake. Since Canadian prime ministers both Liberal (Jean Chretien: APEC Vancouver 1997) and Conservative (Stephen Harper: G20 Toronto, 2010) have no problem spitting on the constitution and unleashing the full and illegal power of the state against protesters when it suits them, it is probably valuable to assert the right to freedom of assembly pretty much whenever it pleases, for whatever reason at all. 

With that throat-clearing out of the way, here are some pieces  -- some by me, some by people a lot smarter than me – that I think help put the protests in a wider intellectual frame.

An essay by Joe Heath on why the banks didn’t actually go crazy.

An article I wrote last year for Canadian Business on the hard problem of inequality, and a follow up blog post exploring why it’s even harder than I thought.

Trent history prof Robert Wright situates the #OWS movement within the longer traditions of left-wing popular protest.

A column by me for the Ottawa Citizen on what it will take for the protests to be successful.

An excellent analysis by the economics professor Mike Moffat on why the 99 percent don’t really want to fix inequality.

 A thinkier sort of column I wrote on why governments are suddenly so keen to talk about happiness instead of economic growth.

Finally, I'm quoted in this story for the Canadian Press about the intellectual origins of #OWS. And Joe Heath gets a look-in at the end of this story about how Mark Carney called the protests constructive.



Where Shock Art is Still Dangerous

One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is our inability to be shocked by art...

That's the opening to my column in last week's Maclean's magazine, which is largely about the clampdown on artists in China. One thing I wanted to work in was an anecdote about Wham!'s famous tour of China in 1985, when they became the first Western pop act to tour the Middle Kingdom. I'll never forget reading in the papers stories about security guards beating kids who were trying to dance at the concerts. At the time, it seemed to fit in with my teenaged Footloose worldview -- that The Man was the same everywhere.

But the crucial lesson is that, while the countercultural rebellion pretty much is Western culture, there are parts of the world where anti-conformist iconoclasm is seen as a genuine threat. China is one such society, and it is disheartening to see that the Canadian government has no apparent views on the kidnapping of Ai Weiwei by Chinese authorities. 



Mad Men and Englishmen

The fourth season of Mad Men is well underway now, and last night's episode saw 1964 topple into 1965. After showing us occasional hints of the cultural earthquake to come (esp Midge's beatnik friends in the first season), the big show is finally starting. Last night's show flagged just about everything to come -- Joan's abortions, her husband getting ready to ship out to Vietnam, and the Berkely sit-ins of 1964-65. The last days of the old regime went out in style though, with Lane and Don spending their New Year's Eve getting drunk on scotch at the office, watching Godzilla, putting steaks on their genitals, and picking up hookers. You think that's bad behaviour? Wait till we see what the kids get up to this year.

What will it mean for the ad agency? As always, Natasha Vargas-Cooper's footnotes to the episode are excellent, and this point is bang-on:

In the 60s, the symbolic role that youth played in American culture—honesty to self, renewal, rejection of ancient values—became a driving market force. This notion was really that becoming an adult meant participating in consumer culture. This is perhaps the most loathsome legacy of the Boomer's ascent to cultural dominance: the perpetual teenage mentality of rebellion through buying things.

We know where this ends up.



When Memes Collide

The Consumerist reports on a story from Details by Adam Sachs arguing that "artisanal" manufacture has replaced "organic" as the label of choice for the socially conscious consumer. He argues that it stems from a combination of "anti-bling" attitudes, economic uncertainty, and a simple desire for higher quality. I would say that it is more like just another crank in the ratchet (organic --> local --> artisinal) of conspicuous authenticity. 

Speaking of: the NYTimes heds a blog post on the arrival of new Jeffery-West shoes with the phrase "Rebel Sell", and in the last graph draws the obvious connection between The Rebel Sell and The Authenticity Hoax:

“Our shoes are for hell-raisers and the fiercely individual,” West says. “New York guys are typically very traditional, but that’s changing — people really want genuine quality and something authentic.”