I Am What I Buy


Why Counterculture

Became Consumer Culture

By Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

HarperBusiness; 358pp; $14.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good An incisive indictment of consumer and social trends.

The Bad A slow beginning, and at times the argument is abstruse.

The Bottom Line Best for readers seeking social criticism, not tips on marketing.

When the flower children of the 1960s chose the nonconformist road, many of them traveled in unassuming Volkswagen bugs. Years later, after hippies became yuppies, they made gas-swilling sport-utility vehicles their wheels of choice. A big change? Not really, say Canadian philosophy professors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.

The kids of the '60s bought into VW's sales pitch: Show everyone you're a rebel by rejecting Detroit's tail fins and yearly model changes. In so doing, say the authors, young people weren't really rebelling: Instead, like previous generations, they were defining themselves through their purchases. It was only a short jog to the Cadillac Escalade.

That counterculture is still around, and its influence can be seen on the political left and among alternative-lifestyle advocates, say the authors. But far from challenging the system, they believe, its tenets instead serve to reinvigorate consumer capitalism.

Heath and Potter are hardly the first to observe the role that an avant garde plays in setting styles. And they echo the work of early-20th century social critic Thorstein Veblen with the reflection that all purchases beyond the basics serve as "markers of social status." Moreover, this book is slow to get going, taking 60-plus pages to detail the evolution of the countercultural movement from its roots in France 200 years ago. All the same, Nation of Rebels provides an incisive and witty indictment of consumer trends, from the fad for exotic travel to "holistic" medicine.

Self-defined social progressives Heath and Potter also offer some political observations. In addition to favoring certain products, they note, the counterculture advocates rejection of the "system" as a whole. But this, say the authors, has simply made it politically irrelevant. For example, many activists seek the total elimination of the global trading system. Instead, say the authors, militants should focus on reformable imbalances, such as agricultural subsidies. People should work to restrict capitalism's "antisocial" aspects, such as monopoly pricing. And, of course, they should place less emphasis on what they buy.

By Kate Hazelwood

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