The Rebel Sell was written by two Canadian academics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, which makes it only the fourth Canadian work for which I have written a marginal commentary on The Marginal Virtues, and the first book written by more than one author. With respect to 'Cancon' (Canadian content), the first was for A Strange Manuscript Written on a Copper Cylinder, by another Canadian academic, James De Mille. The second was for Hitman, by Bret Hart. The third was for Room, by Emma Donoghue (who happens to be an Irish emigré, to boot).
These trivial details aside, the edition which I am using in my marginal commentary, a trade paperback edition, was published in 2005 by Harper Perennial.
To begin my marginal commentary, I will provide a brief introduction, and then dive into some of points of the book that most interested me, given that it would be impossible in a post of reasonable length to parse Potter's and Heath's argument fully.
Speaking of trivial details, perhaps the thing I disliked most about The Rebel Sell was the manner in which the editorial notes were made. Instead of attaching a number in superscript at the end of each citation or reference to some other work, which could be referred to in the endnotes, there were no markings indicating notes and, in the section on 'notes' at the end of the book, references to page numbers in the book proper and a cumbersome process of quoting part of the citation and then going on to give the reference after each page number. This kind of notation is rightly attacked (in my view) in The Devil's Details, by Chuck Zerby, which is an engaging little book.
Unlike the works of fiction I have written marginal commentaries for, in which it has often been profitable (I hope) simply to look at their style, The Rebel Sell makes an argument: its argument is that the 'counter-cultural ideal' ('culture jamming, 'deep ecology', anti-globalization, &c.) is, if I may descend for a moment to cliché, 'part of the problem'. It goes without saying that counter-cultural thinkers would be aghast at the notion that they are (however unwittingly) contributing to the 'evils' of 'mass society'; but perhaps it might be better put that Heath & Potter are arguing that the 'counter-culture' is trying to solve the wrong problem, and, in doing so, is contributing to problems which can only be reasonably solved by methods considered antithetical to the 'counter-culture'. Considerations of style (Heath's & Potter's is readable, if not excellent), then, can't be the focus of my commentary.
Nor, as I pointed out above, am I going to take the opportunity to comment upon Heath's & Potter's argument in-depth, as I did with Ernest Becker's in my series on The Denial of Death.
Mainly I am going to focus on particular points Heath & Potter use to advance, defend, or support their thesis, and comment upon what it is I thought was good or bad about those points. The disadvantage to this method, of course, is that it does not provide a comprehensive survey of The Rebel Sell, but, hopefully, will encourage you to read the book yourselves and make up your own minds about it. The other thing I will do, as I go along, is draw attention to parallels or connections between The Rebel Sell and other works which I have written about on The Marginal Virtues
Heath & Potter At The Movies
One of the notable aspects of The Rebel Sell is its reference to films. The expanded trade paperback edition handily provides a list (reference to the films may also be found in the index), on. p. 15 (of the expanded 'P.S.' material at the end of the book). Among the films which Heath & Potter consider to be manifestations of the 'countercultural critique of mass society' are The Matrix (and its sequels), American Beauty, Pleasantville, Easy Rider, Bowling for Columbine, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It is worth looking at their analysis of one or two of these films, so let's look at how the countercultural critique is made in The Matrix and American Beauty.
[W]hy would anyone think that selling running shoes could be subversive? To understand the answer, it is useful to take a closer look at the first film in the Matrix trilogy. Lots has been written about the "philosophy of the Matrix," most of it wrong. To understand the first film, one must look very carefully at the scene in which Neo sees the white rabbit. He hands a book to his friend, and on the spine of that book we can see the title: Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard.Potter & Heath return to The Matrix much later in their critique of the counterculture:
Many commentators on the film saw the core idea of The Matrix... as simply an updated version of René Descartes's skeptical "How do you know that you're not dreaming?" thought experiment. This is a misrepresentation. The Matrix is not intended as a representation of an epistemological dilemma. It is a metaphor for a political idea, one that traces its origins back to the '60s. It is an idea that found its highest expression in the work of Guy Debord, unofficial leader of the Situationist International, and his later disciple Jean Baudrillard.
... [Debord's] thesis was simple. The world that we live in is not real. Consumer capitalism has taken every authentic human experience, transformed it into a commodity and then sold it back to us through advertising and the mass media. Thus every part of human life has been drawn into "the spectacle," which itself is nothing but a system of symbols and representations, governed by its own internal logic. ...
... In the society of the spectacle, the new revolutionary must seek two things: "consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness." In other words, we must try to discover our own sources of pleasure, independent of the needs that are imposed upon us by the system, and we must try to wake up from the nightmare of "the spectacle." Like Neo, we must choose the red pill.
In other words, when it comes to rebellion and political activism, there is no point trying to change little details in the system. What does it matter who is rich and who is poor? ... These are all just ephemera, illusions. If commodities are just images, who cares if some people have more of them, others less? What we need to do is recognize that the entire culture, the entire society, is a waking dream—one we must reject in its entirety.
For Debord and the Situationists... the veil of illusion could be pierced... easily. All that it takes is some slight cognitive dissonance, a sign that something's not right in the world around us. This can be provoked by a work of art, an act of protest or even an article of clothing. In Debord's view, "disturbances with the lowliest and most ephemeral of origins have eventually disrupted the order of the world."
This is the origin of the idea of culture jamming. Traditional political activism is useless. It's like trying to reform political institutions inside the Matrix. What's the point? What we really need to do is wake people up, unplug them, free them from the grip of the spectacle. And the way to do that is by producing cognitive dissonance, through symbolic acts of resistance that suggest that something is not right in the world.
Like the Black Spot Sneaker.
Since the entire culture is nothing but a system of ideology, the only way to liberate oneself and others is to resist the culture in its entirety. This is where the idea of counterculture comes from. The inhabitants of Zion, in The Matrix, are a concrete embodiment of how countercultural rebels since the '60s have conceived of themselves. They are the ones who have been awakened, the ones who are free from the tyranny of the machines. And the enemy, in this view, is those who refuse to be awakened, those who insist on conforming to the culture. The enemy, in other words, is mainstream society. [pp. 5-7] I am not so sure that Potter & Heath are correct to reject the epistemological angle altogether, although I think that, by and large, their analysis of the meaning of The Matrix is penetrating and accurate. It may be fairer to say that the 'epistemological conceit' of The Matrix - that the world and everything in it is nothing more than the stimulation of our neurons by electrical signals generated by a computer program - provides a fresh angle of approach for the countercultural critique. The fantastic commercial success of The Matrix does pose some questions for its 'counterculture' cred. Surely many of its fans (among whose number I am one) would be categorised as 'conformists', in which case, how can it possibly be countercultural? You might say that the Wachowski brothers were cocking a snook at mainstream society by smuggling countercultural ideas right under our noses, but the last laugh seems to belong to 'conformists', what with the ambivalent ending of The Matrix Revolutions. Another approach to Heath's & Potter's analysis is to say that the resemblance of plot devices, ideas, and concepts in The Matrix to things like Descartes's thought experiment, or Plato's allegory of the cave, are coincidental: facets of the film resemble those things because there are only so many different ways of portraying 'piercing the illusion of reality'. The presence of Baudrillard's book in the white rabbit scene suggests that the countercultural ideals in the film are essential; that is, they are what the film is about. Other writers have made much hay with the 'accidental' (i.e., inessential) resemblances of the film to things like Descartes's philosophical skepticism, the allegory of the cave - evinced, for one by the collection of essays entitled The Matrix and Philosophy. Another example would be the Christian reinterpretation of The Matrix found in The Gospel Reloaded. Of course, this raises the question as to how to determine which interpretations of The Matrix are the best (and whether that question can, in fact, be answered), but that is another matter. We shall see from some later commentary on the films in the Matrix canon that Heath's and Potter's assertion that The Matrix conveys countercultural thought has substance. The reference to 'Black Spot sneakers' has to do with a product marketed by Adbusters. Potter referred to the Black Spot (or Blackspot) shoes again in an article he wrote published by (among other papers) the Ottawa Citizen. The Matrix mirrors Blackspot shoes in that, just as the shoes are a sign of resistance to the unreality of 'the spectacle', however small, Neo's experience of cognitive dissonance, however slight, strengthens him to resist conformity and escape the Matrix.
The illiberal elements in deep ecology are implicit in the homogenizing and leveling logic of the "move to the outside." Once we take the step back and try to envision the functioning of the earth as a whole, threats to the environment are reconceived as either mechanical or biological breakdown: either the spaceship is broken or the planetary organism is diseased. The suspicion quickly takes root that humans are a biological aberration, a parasite or virus on the earth that will not stop until it has destroyed or killed everything it touches. Recall the scene in The Matrix when Agent Smith is interrogating the captured Morpheus, and Smith lays out his fundamental beef with humanity. Unlike other mammals on the planet, Smith claims, humans are incapable of reaching an equilibrium with their environment. They multiply until every natural resource is consumed, then spread to another area, like a virus or a cancer.Next, Heath & Potter show that American Beauty is also a 'countercultural' film:
What is startling about this scene is how much it resonates with popular understandings of our essential displacement from nature, and how much sympathy it encourages for what Agent Smith and the other machines are doing. The suggestion that the real villains in The Matrix are the humans is given a great deal of elaboration in The Animatrix, a set of animated short films that ... [is] part of the expanded Matrix universe. ... [One segment] tells the backstory of how the war actually started between men and machines, why we chose to scorch the sky, and gives the details of our final enslavement in the Matrix.
The rather syncretic narrative is the Fall of Man meets Mass Society. In line with our fundamental vanity and corruption, humans decided to play God. We made machines in our image, cyborgs to serve us, and while the machines were loyal and pure, humans remained these "strange and multiplying mammals." Civil war broke out when we refused to grant civil rights to machines... . Eventually, the machines were banished to a promised land called Zero/One ("Zion," get it?) where they prospered, and eventually petitioned for admittance to the United Nations. Rebuffed once again, the machines finally fought back, and the destruction of the sky is described as humanity's attempt at a "final solution" to the machine problem. Only then were the machines forced to enslave humans in order to survive, and still they acted as kindly as possible, erecting the Matrix in order to keep humans in their preferred psychological environment.
The entire story is a deep ecology parable. The human technocratic system is so unrelentingly fascist that it even oppresses its own machines, treating them just as it has treated blacks, Jews, women, gays and any other nonconforming threat. To maintain its hegemony, it is even willing to make war on nature by destroying the sky and making life on earth impossible. The revolt of the machines, then, is actually counter-fascist [italics original], as they struggle to define their own ecological niche against the incessant encroachment of the human. The way the machines solve the problem is not by killing humans, but by placing them in the Matrix and altering their consciousness so that they are no longer a threat. [pp. 311-2] Well, I have to admit that my agreement with Heath's & Potter's take on The Matrix breaks down somewhat. Granted that their review and interpretation of the plot of the Animatrix shorts is accurate, you have the kind of film exponents of the counterculture would indeed create. But it is hard to credit the idea that Agent Smith's 'humans are a virus' speech is designed to create sympathy for the project of the machines; the plot of The Matrix is far too sympathetic to humankind for that. Although The Matrix does seem to promote such countercultural ideas as 'raising consciousness' and 'fighting against the system' (or 'the spectacle', to use Baudrillard's term), it rather seems to undercut them, given that the machines are the ones who create a 'system' that needs resisting. If Heath's & Potter's take on The Matrix is right, then we have not so much a straightforward countercultural critique of mass society as the suggestion that the counterculture, were it to succeed, would be to human society like the Bolsheviks were to Russia: the new commissars are the old tsars writ large. That said, the Animatrix seems to act as an artistic statement of the kind of 'deep ecology' view that humans are the scourge of the planet. Still, if we follow Heath's & Potter's take on The Matrix canon, there's a lot of ambivalence toward the countercultural project that they fail to account for. Siskel & Ebert, they're apparently not. Obviously their argument against the 'deep ecology' view of the counterculture is longer and more detailed than this, but this is how they make use of The Matrix canon, in order to flesh out a concept implied by 'deep ecology'.
One can see quite clearly the power that the countercultural analysis still exerts in the exceptionally positive (and uncritical) response to the movie American Beauty. The film is, in essence, a completely uncompromising recitation of '60s countercultural ideology. It's the hippies versus the fascists, still slugging it out three decades after Woodstock. ...We see, then, that Heath's & Potter's argument, in using as examples movies they identify as 'countercultural', has some gaps. I have not had space to analyse the precise connections they make between key countercultural ideas (the 'move to the outside' in environmentalism; the Freudian vision of civilisation as repression) and the films that represent them, but their analysis of the films themselves could have been more comprehensive.
The characters in American Beauty are essentially divided into two groups. There are the countercultural rebels: the narrator, Lester Burnham; his daughter, Jane; and the neighbor kid, Ricky Fitts. You can tell that they are the good guys because they all smoke dope, behave in nonconformist ways (and are thus ostracized by the community) and have a deep appreciation of the "beauty" that surrounds them. The fascists are also easy to identify: there is Lester's wife, Carolyn; Ricky's father, Colonel Frank Fitts; and the "King of Real Estate," Buddy Kane. You can tell they're fascists because they are all neurotic, sexually repressed, obsessed with what others think of them, and they like to play with handguns. Just to drive the point home, Colonel Fitts is shown beating his son while screaming about his need for order and discipline. ...
... [We discover that there is] a connection between Lester's repressed sexuality and his suburban lifestyle. Fifteen years in the telemarketing industry have left him incapable of experiencing pleasure. He has accepted the compromise at the heart of our civilization. Both his wife and daughter think he's a gigantic loser. He admits that they're right, that he has lost something. He hadn't always felt so "sedated."
The turning point comes when his boss forces him to write up a job description in order to facilitate an impending downsizing. Lester begins to awaken. ... [He] writes up a job description that says he spends most of his day masking his contempt for [those] in charge... while fantasizing about a life that less closely resembles Hell.
His liberation becomes more complete... when he meets the neighbor kid, Ricky Fitts, who is also... a sophisticated drug dealer. Fitts soon offers him some of his best marijuana... . ...
At this point, Lester stages a complete juvenile regression. He becomes the walking, talking id. He blurts out all the things that we are constantly thinking but never have the courage to say. (When his new fitness coach asks him whether he wants to increase his strength or develop his flexibility, he tells him that he wants to look good naked. When his teenaged daughter's best friend catches him looking at her strangely and asks him what he wants, he looks her in the eye and says he wants her.) He quits his job... [and tries to] rediscover his youth. His wife's questions about how he intends to make mortgage payments are dismissed as just more evidence of her alienated existence. Lester strives to free her from this compulsive conformity. At one point, it appears that he may succeed, as she begins to welcome his sexual advances. Yet the moment is lost when she stops him to prevent beer being spilled on the couch. He tells her not to worry about the couch. Agitated, she points out that it is not just a couch but a $4000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk. Lester yells back even louder, "It's just a couch!"
The link between consumerism and sexual renunciation is one of the most constant themes of the movie. ... Carolyn is incapable of true sexual gratification as long as she insists on conforming to society's expectations. She begins an affair with Kane, the king of real estate (whose mantra—in order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times—she repeats to herself again and again to stave off what appears to be an impending nervous breakdown.) The affair is driven primarily by her desire for professional advancement, and... is portrayed in a comical and unflattering light... .
All of the fascists make some effort to bring Lester back into line. Yet when this fails, "the violence inherent in the system" naturally begins to reveal itself. ... Both Carolyn and Colonel Fitts are struggling to retain control of their deepest instinctual desires, and are being driven half mad by the effort that is required. The sight of Lester's liberation is intolerable to them; it threatens them with a loss of control. The question therefore becomes not whether one of them will kill Lester, but rather which one of them will do it.
From the opening minutes of the movie, a great deal is made of Colonel Fitt's [sic] homophobia. He terrorizes his wife, beats his son and hates fags. He also has a crew cut. "I wonder where all that rage comes from?" we ask ourselves. "Why is he such a control freak?" Of course, anyone who doesn't know the answer would have to have been living on a different planet for the past thirty years. It's because he's a repressed homosexual! Thus, in one of the most hackneyed cinematic "climaxes" in recent memory, Colonel Fitts makes advances on Lester, thinking that he is gay. When Lester disappoints him, the Colonel has no choice but to come back and shoot him. Lester dies, however, with a beatific smile on his face. Even though he has been murdered, what matters is that he has died happily, having succeeded in liberating his "inner child."
One of the interesting things about this movie... is that it hangs on to the essential bleakness of the original Freudian vision. In the view of the world articulated by American Beauty, it is simply not possible to be a well-adjusted adult in our society. At the age of thirty, one faces a stark choice. One can maintain one's adolescent rebelliousness (smoking pot, hanging out, ignoring all responsibility, not to mention all moral constraint) and remain free. The alternative is to "sell out," to play by the rules, and thereby to become a neurotic, superficial conformist, incapable of experiencing true pleasure. There is no middle road. [pp. 52-5] After looking the fool for agreeing wholeheartedly with Heath's & Potter's take on The Matrix, and then finding reasons that suggest it was not quite on, I am going to proceed with greater caution here. As they used the Matrix canon to make a point about 'deep ecology', so here American Beauty is used to explore (as Heath & Potter put it) the 'Freudian vision' of human nature which is part of the countercultural critique. I may not have much of a chance to explore this, but then, my marginal commentaries are hardly meant to replace the books about which I comment. So far as it goes, Heath's & Potter's assertion that the film is a manifestation of the countercultural idea seems apt. But there remains the possibility that their argument does not account for everything about the film. If you read my marginal commentary on Genesis, the Movie, you may recall that in it, the author and his wife discuss American Beauty, with Mrs Capon talking about which characters resembled Christ in some way. I omitted all of the examples but one, that of Mrs Fitts. But in his discussion of the film, Robert Farrar Capon draws attention to a plot point which, I think, should have been attended to by Heath & Potter. They refer back to American Beauty a few times later in The Rebel Sell, once (on p. 70) in order to draw a parallel between the film and the moral philosophy (as it were) of Ayn Rand:
One need only compare the rape scenes in Rand's novels to Lester's seduction of his daughter's high school friend in American Beauty to see the parallels that exist between right-wing libertarian ideology and left-wing countercultural theory. In both cases, deeply exploitative sexual acts are rationalized on the grounds that they are a part of the protagonist's emancipation from the socially imposed repression of his sexuality.But, Capon, in Genesis, the Movie, draws our attention to the following event:
"My next candidate [says Valerie Capon] is Lester Burnham himself. If you remember, after he overhears his daughter's girlfriend say she likes men who are in great physical shape, he goes into a middle-age frenzy of push-ups and weight training. But then, in the scene where the girl confesses she's still a virgin, his fantasy life instantly dematerializes, and without laying a hand on her, he gently smiles at her. As far as I'm concerned, that's an image of his restoration to the truth of his being. In that moment, the way forward to his becoming a caring father and loving husband opens up for him. For the first time in the movie, he's truly alive." [p. 20]Obviously I don't imagine Heath & Potter would look at the film with the same kind of idea, but that there is this scene suggests that American Beauty is not wholly 'countercultural'. I believe the scene comes up again in Genesis, the Movie, but I'm not sure how germane other references to it in that book are to its discussion in The Rebel Sell, and anyway, Capon (or his publishers) irritatingly fails to provide an index, so I won't be able to find it in any timely fashion. Heath's & Potter's failure to account for this scene is puzzling, especially in light of the comparison they draw between American Beauty and the heroes of Rand's novels. Lester Burnham, it is true, does attempt to seduce his daughter's friend. But upon learning the truth about her, he immediately stops and adopts a fatherly disposition. One might say that he accepts the 'socially imposed repression' of 'conforming' to the role of 'father.' The ramifications of his coming to himself aren't spelled out, of course, because he is murdered shortly thereafter by Colonel Fitts, but it makes Heath's & Potter's interpretation seem a bit one-sided. Besides which, despite their disparaging take on the film, they later use Buddy Kane, the 'king of real estate,' without ironic reference as an example in order to illustrate a point made by theorist Thorstein Veblen about consumerism as a collective action problem:
In Veblen's view consumerism is essentially a collective action problem—a prisoner's dilemma. To see how this argument works, consider the case of two doctors, each of whom drives to work in a modest Honda sedan. Suppose they both believe the King of Real Estate Buddy Kane's thesis that in order to succeed, "one must project an image of success at all times." They also know that patients are likely to be suspicious of a doctor who doesn't drive at least a BMW. Of course, they also know that they should be saving some of their income for retirement. But that seems a long way away. Furthermore, buying the new car now should improve business, making it easier to save that much more later.Later Heath & Potter claim that there is nothing 'stupid' or 'irrational' about being stuck in a collective action problem, although the example just given suggests otherwise: it is the doctors, not the patients, who are buying into Kane's motto, 'one must project an image of success at all times'. Certainly it seems to me that the example of the two doctors emulating Buddy Kane's words of 'wisdom' suggests that, even if we don't agree with the countercultural critique, we might still find consumerism problematic (as indeed Heath & Potter themselves do). The which, in turn, suggests that American Beauty is more of a multivalent film than Heath & Potter allow - something we also found with their analysis of The Matrix. Still, although their reviews of at least two films show that they did not account for some crucial aspects of those films, one can see that they have a point in suggesting that the films are popular statements of countercultural ideas. (Interestingly, they account for the ambivalence in another countercultural film, Pleasantville, which makes their discussion of its exposition of countercultural ideas all the more damning.)
In this way, it is easy for either doctor to talk himself into buying the BMW. But does this improve business? The strategy only works if not all the doctors do it. If every doctor runs out and buys a BMW, then patients still have no basis for choosing one doctor over another. The situation is the same as it was when they were all driving Hondas, except that now everyone is saving less and spending more on their car payments. Soon enough, the BMW comes to be seen as merely an entry-level car. Of course, in this situation, the only way to improve one's position is to go out and buy a Mercedes or a Jaguar. Yet this just forces the others to make the same expenditure in order to keep up. Again, everyone winds up back where they started, and there is no overall increase in happiness. [pp. 114-5]
To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before
One of the more cogent arguments which Heath & Potter make is in their analysis of the countercultural ideal of 'authenticity' as it applies to travel. This is part of the allure, in countercultural thought, of the Other, the exotic. (Interestingly, this kind of romanticisation of the exotic would be, if held by conservatives, dismissed as 'Orientalism'.)
As we become increasingly alienated from each other and from the practices that are supposed to give weight and meaning to social existence, we are forced to look elsewhere in search of the real. ... [F]or many it is not enough to reject modernity by staying at home. They look to "go inward by going outward." As a result, the quest for authenticity has become a prominent motif in modern tourism.The upshot of exotic travel is that it leads, first of all, to situations where the 'authenticity' of the locale is exploited for the benefit of the tourists:
Authenticity is associated with the unity between self, society and others that gives a sense of wholeness or reality to our lives. ... As an injunction to be true to oneself, to place the cultivation of the self at the forefront of all concerns, authenticity has become the overriding moral imperative of modern life. And since the entire apparatus of consumer capitalism is devoted to inculcating inauthentic or false needs and desires while respressing those that reflect our true selves, we need to look elsewhere for the authentic, which can only be found in relationships that are less modern, bureaucratic, and repressive, more pristine, primitive or "natural." The exotic, in other words.
From this perspective, what makes traveling authentic is simply the existence of difference, and the more different a place is, the better. Because so much traveling is a quest for authenticity through difference, it quickly becomes yet another locus for competitive consumption. Like "cool," the "authentic travel experience" is a positional good. It confers a great deal of what Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital," which loses value the more other people acquire it. The very existence of other travelers undermines the crucial sense of distinction that makes the trip so valuable[.] ...
This is a feeling familiar to anyone who has experienced the frustration of dozens of hikers with cell phones, radios and coolers full of beer on a "wilderness hike." It is what motivates... complaints about Mount Everest becoming a highway... . Everest just isn't that special anymore. None of the real mountaineers spend any time on Everest any more. They are off climbing unknown peaks in even more remote areas[.] ... [italics original]
The competition for tourist spots—call it "competitive displacement"—has exactly the same structure as hip consumerism. ... Thanks to their increasing efforts at scouring the earth in search of ever more exotic locales, countercultural rebels have functioned for decades as the "shock troops" of mass tourism. [pp. 269-71] This is the first salvo in Heath's & Potter's argument against 'exoticism' and the 'quest for the authentic' in the counterculture as it applies to tourism. Exotic travel as a means of achieving the 'quest for the authentic' is, they argue, a 'positional good'. This goes back to their central point, which is that the countercultural ideal does not contradict capitalism; rather, it encourages competitive consumption, which is the engine that has driven capitalism at least since the sixties. As an aside, it would be interesting to view the 'quest motif' of archetypal psychology (as spelled out by, e.g., Jung or Joseph Campbell), in which 'going inward by going outward' is part of the point of the folk-tale quest, in light of Heath's & Potter's discussion. Put baldly, what Heath & Potter are asserting is that the 'authentic travel experience' isn't so much about discovering an 'authentic' locale as it is being able to claim a positional good that provides one with increased status. 'Countercultural tourism,' then, undercuts its own claims to 'authenticity' by being a form of competitive consumerism.
Every mildly conscientious tourist eventually has an experience that seems so uncomfortably voyeuristic or exploitative of the locals that it makes them question their motivation for being there at all. Mine [one of the authors is speaking from experience] came one summer in Beijing, China, in an old part of the city renowned for its hutongs. The hutongs are ancient alleys or lanes surrounding the Forbidden City, running through a warren of houses and courtyards... . ... [C]onditions in the hutongs [are bad] as houses designed for a single family [are] occupied by a number of households.Heath's & Potter's critique of 'authentic travel' continues with an example from A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which, they write, author Douglas 'Adams deftly exposes the essential narcissism at the heart of the ideal of the authentic traveler. ... [They have] no trouble with the idea that the entire [world] exists just to serve as fodder for [their] spiritual yearnings.' [p. 275; see pp. 274-5] They continue:
As one might expect, the hutongs are a tourist attraction, and while they still provide housing for almost half the population of Beijing, many are being torn down and replaced by modern buildings. The modernization of the Chinese underclass is lamented by most travel boos, which urge visitors to see the hutongs before this ancient form of social organization disappears for good. ...
While it is possible to simply walk into the alleys and stroll around, the locals would prefer if you didn't. They prefer that you hire them to take you around in a rickshaw. So as my companions and I strolled into the alleys to see how the natives live, we were followed and harassed by a particularly irate rickshaw driver. ... He simply would not give up, until one of us finally had to turn and yell back at him... . It wasn't the honest meeting of cultures that I had anticipated.
I realized, a bit too late, just how exploitative the situation really was. After all, this was where these people lived, and we were treating it as cheap, exotic entertainment. The driver had every reason to be incensed, since the least we could do was let him set the terms of his own commodification.
Yet I really didn't want to pay for the rickshaw ride. The idea of paying someone to take me around the hutongs struck me as somehow less "real," less authentic. ... [O]ne of the principal marks of authenticity is the absence of commodification. The minute an object or experience becomes implicated in the cash nexus, it becomes a part of modernity. To pay for the ride would have been to admit that I was experiencing not the reality of life in the hutongs, but a staged or commodified version. And that was simply unacceptable, because even the slightest hint that what we were getting was a form of "staged authenticity" would undermine the purpose of going there in the first place.
In his book The Tourist, Dean MacCannell explores a distinction between what he calls the "front" and the "back" of social establishments such as restaurants and theaters. ... Customers have access only to the front, while performers and waitstaff have access to both the front and the back.
The existence of the back implies... a place where there are secrets, props or activities that might undermine the "reality" of what is going on out front. Inevitably, the mere possibility that there might be a "back" gives rise to the sense that the "front" is manufactured and artificial, and that the back is where the real or authentic is to be found. ...
Jean Baudrillard has notoriously claimed that our culture is, effectively, all front. There is no "back room" of reality, just layer upon layer of spectacle and simulacrum... . Everything has become commodified, and hence, nothing is real.
The prime motivation of the traveler in foreign lands is to penetrate the simulacrum of the front into the reality of the back. If our society is all "front," the attraction of non-Western societies is that they appear to be all "back"... .
It is certainly true that in many parts of the world, especially the supposedly "exotic" parts of Asia and Africa, that people have much different standards of public and private than we do. ... Most of the interesting sightseeing that occurs in these places involves accidentally intruding on eating areas or other private spaces—intrusions that in North America would result in the police being called. That was certainly the main reason we had for going to see the hutongs, and, once we had ditched our pursuer, we were not disappointed. ...
The locals are not always as guileless as they appear to be. They know that most tourists are looking to "get off the beaten track," to experience the "real" Cuba, or Thailand, or India. And, for a fee, they are willing to provide such experiences—Nepalese treks, longhouse overnights in Borneo, Scottish distillery tours. But this is just more "front," more artifice, for the committed traveler to puncture. [pp. 271-4] My folks once went on a scotch distillery tour, although not for any 'countercultural' reasons, so far as I can tell. MacCannell's distinction, as explained by Heath & Potter, would certainly promote the use of the word 'front' as a way of indicating artifice or dishonesty ('inauthenticity,' as countercultural critics would put it): 'he's just putting up a front,' we say, and so on. Whether we owe the use of the word 'front' in this way to MacCannell's book is another question. The idea of being led by a paid guide to see the 'real' wherever is is used well in Shantaram (in a scene which I did not discuss in my marginal commentary on the book), when Lin's guide and friend Prabaker decides to take him to see the 'really city' of Bombay: in the event, they go through a maze of lanes and alleys - not unlike Heath's & Potter's hutongs - into darkness and silence, and at last to a slave market. Lin, of course, does get to be a part of the 'really city', living in a slum and working for a crime boss, and so on; but he is reflective enough to know that he doesn't fit in the way others, even other outsiders, do. Returning to The Rebel Sell, the exploitative nature of 'exotic travel' in the sense of trying to get to the 'back' of things is made evident by the fact that it is the tourists, not the locals (as in the example of one of the authors and his companions brushing off the rickshaw driver in the hutongs), who set the 'price' of making a commodity out of the private lives of the residents. Or, as the authors point out, it is 'sightseeing' in other people's private lives 'that in North America would result in the police being called.' Looking at this from a perspective closer to home, if you invite me to dinner, would it make sense for me to claim that you are being 'inauthentic' if you serve dinner at table properly, in a spic and span dining room, instead of us all sitting around on a couch in a dirty room in a basement, eating pizza and watching TV? Heath & Potter are criticising the definition of 'authenticity' as a kind of life-style, as it is spelled out in the book Sincerity and Authenticity, by Lionel Trilling (which they mention on p. 269, but for which they provide no bibliographical information in the notes). 'Authenticity,' they suggest, is not necessarily the absence of commodification; indeed, as the anecdote about the hutongs suggests, the 'quest for authenticity' may itself commodify the 'authentic experience' the tourists are trying to have. If, of course, Heath & Potter had left this discussion to one example from their own experience, it would not have been very strong, but, as we shall see, they develop it further. Another way of looking at this is to say that it does not follow from a division of aspects of social life into 'front' and 'back' that only the latter is 'authentic' and the former always 'inauthentic'.
Critics of tourism, including many of those who see themselves as "travelers," frequently invoke sexual metaphors, sometimes sinister or violent, to describe what is going on. Travel to exotic places is frequently voyeuristic—sometimes subtly so, but often not. This voyeurism can easily turn violent, if only symbolically. As Julia Harrison has argued, in Being a Tourist, "little innocence inheres in the gaze of the travel enthusiasts," since every impression, every judgment, will be colored and shaped to the extent to which it meets the traveler's standard of what counts as "authentic." And as we have seen, this is not an objective standard, but one that is shaped by the traveler's own need to adopt a pose of "seeing for innocence."'Exotic travel' thus, for Heath & Potter, results a dilemma:
It is precisely because they intrude on the traveler's need for innocence that the very existence of locals is often seen as an obstacle, something to be avoided if possible. Travelers, especially those who are most in search of the exotic, notoriously spend a great deal of time with each other, not interacting with the locals. Travel is the perfect opportunity to make sincere and open attachments with other Westerners, because the ephemeral, temporary nature of the relationship permits each party to idealize the other and to treat the relationship as free of power, bondage and expectation. Youth hostels in particular are perfect locations for this sort of bonding, and it is the absence of social repression that makes casual sex so common among tourists.
The 2000 movie The Beach is an excellent exploration of the idea that the ideal exotic travel experience occurs in the complete absense of locals. ...
[It] is a feature-length exploration of the counterculture's attitudes toward the exotic. A bunch of alienated Westerners go to Asia in search of "reality," but just find more alienation in contact with the locals. So they find an uninhabitated island, where they form a matriarchal commune dedicated to the usual ideals of drug use, free love and the relative absence of rules. ... These travelers finally recover their lost innocence in Asia, but only by going somewhere where there aren't any Asians. [italics original]
The mindless exoticism that is at work in this film leads to some unintentionally hilarious scenes. Paradise is lost after one member of the commune is killed by a shark... and later that night they improvise a funeral ceremony around the campfire. One young man, in white dreadlocks and strumming a guitar, breaks into the classic introduction to Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." The condescension involved in having a white man in dreads singing a song about emancipation from slavery makes Alanis's thanking of India [the chapter began regarding Alanis's song 'Thank You' serving as a culminating symbol of the exoticism of the counterculture] look sensitive in comparison. Yet this is just business as usual for the counterculture. After all, the central assumption is that these people were [italics original] as oppressed as slaves back home. The discovery of this island paradise, free of annoying Thai people trying to sell them stuff, is a miracle on par with the long-held desire by Rastafarians to escape from "Babylon" and return to their homeland in Ethiopia. [pp. 275-6] This passage could go up into the 'movie reviews' section, above. I am not clear on the origins of Rastafarianism, but you could probably demonstrate that Bob Marley is a countercultural figure of the sort Heath & Potter are attacking in The Rebel Sell, too, or at least show that he incorporated several countercultural elements in his thinking and music. Still, the bathos of the scene to which Heath & Potter refer is clear: the experience of the folks in the commune in The Beach (or of proponents of the counterculture generally) really has no resemblance to that of Africans sold into slavery and shipped to the West Indies or the American South, no matter how much they may believe otherwise. This could also be the first passage in an analysis of 'The Music of The Rebel Sell', what with 'Redemption Song' and 'Thank You' being referred to. (The expanded edition I am quoting from includes a list of some of the songs referred to, in fact.) Anyway, one of the chief problems with this section of Heath's & Potter's argument against countercultural exoticism is that it lacks depth. It amounts to a quotation from Being a Tourist, a paragraph introducing the idea of 'moving beyond the locals', and an example from The Beach. It can also be seen that in this section the logical connection between elements is not clear: it is difficult to see the connection between voyeuristic tourism (of which the visit to the hutongs is an apt example) with 'disenchantment with the locals', or of both to the 'essential narcissism' of 'authentic tourism'. However, the connection could be put thus: the effect of 'authentic tourism' in commodifying the lives of locals and the endless transformation of 'back' to 'front', couple with the attempt by the locals to take back control of the price of their own commodificaton, has the ironic result that the would-be authentic tourist has to eventually eschew contact with the locals because they insist on making the relationship between tourist and local an exchange. Another difficulty is that Heath & Potter don't cite any studies evincing the kind of behaviour they describe in the paragraph discussing the clannishness of the seekers of authenticity, although it may be supposed that we have no reason to believe that they are making things up. It may be said in their defense that that kind of tourism is criticised on other grounds by authors of a vastly different stripe (C. S. Lewis, for one, in an essay ' "De Audiendis Poetis" ', criticises such a kind of travel as an analogy to a bad way of reading mediaeval literature; here is a blog post quoting most of the relevant passage). Then again, this would suggest that the kind of tourism Heath & Potter are criticising is not unique to countercultural 'rebels'; then again, perhaps what this does is explode the notion that the countercultural 'quest for authenticity' is the 'real deal', if the kind of behaviour exhibited by travelers looking for 'authenticity' after all has so much in common with the clannishness of crasser tourists. Still, one feels that their argument could have been better developed. Actually, my impression is that this is true of the book as a whole: it is a general criticism of the counterculture, and, as such, sometimes lacks in depth, thereby undermining its overall effectiveness. Meanwhile, it is interesting that, having critiqued the Freudian theory of the unconscious and of repression at the very start of the book (we shall look at some of what they have to say about Freud later), Heath & Potter use Freudian concepts in this passage without, it seems, any sense of irony, as if those concepts were just what they needed to describe the phenomena under consideration: they refer to the 'essential narcissism... of the ideal of the authentic traveler', and to the 'absence of social repression'. Finally, in the paragraph in which Heath & Potter discuss the lack of innocence in the motives of 'countercultural tourists' (with the reference to Being a Tourist), we see something in common with an idea, expressed by (for example) C. S. Lewis, in a number of his works, that the attempt to recreate the emotional effect of an experience leads to a kind of deadening of that experience. Put another way, if you have an experience which felt or seemed 'authentic', if you try to recreate that 'authenticity', you will miss out of the actual value of the experience: the qualities that were what made it 'authentic' in the first place. At least for me there seemed to be a kinship between the kind of misguided search for 'authenticity' by countercultural tourists and the baleful quest for the recapturing of feelings about an experience about which Lewis has written with such conviction.
On the one hand, the exotic urge that creates travel as a positional good and causes serious travelers to constantly strive to keep ahead of the waves of mass tourism is something that is shot through with self-deception, power imbalances and exploitation. On the other hand, as the tourist wave passes through a previously untouched area, the local economy is reshaped in anticipation of the visitors to come. The very antimaterialist attitude that leads people to seek out exotic places in the first place draws more and more regions into the global economy.The discussion of 'exotic travel' in The Rebel Sell, then, typifies many of the weaknesses of the book, as I think I have shown. However, it should be noted that it is part of a larger chapter on the 'exoticism' of the counterculture, and many more successful arguments are made as part of it. Nor, for that matter, does Heath's & Potter's argument break down; it is just that it could have been stronger.
It might seem that there is no way to avoid either of the horns of this dilemma. Mass tourism is disgusting, shallow and exploitative. The pleasures of apparently exotic travel are sullied by the realization that the ongoing search for authentic connection by escaping modernity is not a solution to the problem, but its cause. Even just staying at home reneges on an implicit intercultural economic bargain. Whatever is the well-intentioned traveler to do?
One form of travel that is rarely, if ever, mentioned by sociologists and other students of tourism is the business trip. Yet there is something to be said for the business trip as the only truly authentic and nonexploitative form of travel. For many travelers, especially those concerned (even unwittingly) with the exotic, the problem is that they are too focused on the social psychology of the travel experience, and not on the experience itself. That is, instead of choosing a destination based on relatively objective criteria such as comforts, amenities, cost, friendliness of the locals and so on, they choose their destinations based on how "authentic" or "exotic" they are and on how much social capital will be conferred in the ongoing quest for distinction. The value of a destination hinges on how many "moderns" have been there already and on how unprepared the locals are for their arrival. This concern for the symbolic aspect of tourism transforms potential destinations into positional goods.
None of these problems apply to business travel. Unlike the exotic traveler, who spends as little money as possible while commodifying the natives' difference, the business traveler is there at the express invitation of the locals. The business traveler's trip represents a declination from the symbolic to the material. He or she goes not in search of spiritual meaning, or positional goods, not even to "see the sights," but in search of trade—trade that, in principle, need not be exploitative or voyeuristic. There may be competition involved... [b]ut unlike the leapfrogging waves of tourists generated by those who travel to earn social capital, this is the sort of competition that works in favor of the locals, since they will then be able to negotiate for a better deal. In the end, it may be that the only "authentic" form of travel is business travel. Everyone else is just a tourist. [pp. 277-8] I should first point out that my final point in the section of marginal commentary above applies more aptly to this passage (especially with respect to the point Heath & Potter make about the focus on the 'social psychology of the travel experience') than it did to the passage about which I made it. Second, I think Heath & Potter make an excellent point, although I shall momentarily assess what I see as its many problems. It is still a good point. The business traveller (one may, I imagine, say the same of those on temporary worker's visas or student visas) is on business at the behest of local interests; she is there because someone from the region wants her to be. The distinction or social capital which the business traveler may gain from the trip will not accrue at the expense, exploitation, or commodification of the locals (however, this is to state that Heath & Potter overstate their case when they say that business travelers do not seek positional goods; it is, rather, that their distinction is gained relative to their co-workers, rather than to other travelers whose 'experience' they see as 'inauthentic'; this would be one problem with Heath's & Potter's analysis of business travel in The Rebel Sell). Heath & Potter also make the point that the problems inherent in 'exotic travel' are not present in business travel. But it must be said that while 'in principle' the trade a business traveler is trying to make 'need not be exploitative or voyeuristic', there is often little, other than 'principle', preventing many forms of business travel from resulting in the exploitation of the locals; as when investors set up business concerns in China to export goods which are poorly made and which involve unsafe and exploitative working conditions for the local labourers. Moreover, it is wrong to contrast 'symbolic' with 'material', as Heath & Potter do. For money, as philosopher John Searle discusses in Mind, Language and Society, is the result of a massive symbolic complex, as are the concepts of 'capital', 'trade', and 'market' which underpin 'business travel' as Heath & Potter discuss it. Human speech (and, so, one may say, human thought) - not to say human nature - is also irreducibly symbolic, as thinkers as diverse as Louis-Marie Chauvet and Ernest Becker have argued. Business travelers are not any less concerned with symbols than exotic travelers, you might say; the question is which symbolic complex is being supported by each kind of travel, and what place do locals or 'natives' have in one or the other complex. While I understand that by 'symbolic tourism' Heath & Potter mean a kind of travel which ultimately focusses not at all on the people and the locale being visited, but on the emotional experience of the person doing the visiting, I think that they are unnecessarily confusing the issue and needlessly debasing the word 'symbolic' by giving it a connotation it does not necessarily deserve. In any case, Heath & Potter ignore or pass over the potential problems of business travel, weakening their case. I think they could have pointed out - and rightly so - that while business travel may raise many problems, these are not inherent to business travel per se, whereas self-absorption and rapacious competition for distinction are inherent - essential to - 'exotic travel' of the kind they have been looking at in The Rebel Sell.
Heath & Potter Put Freud on the Couch
The final part of my marginal commentary will be on Heath's & Potter's various statements about psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. They discuss Freud a few times during the course of The Rebel Sell. The second chapter, 'Freud Goes to California' (pp. 36-64; it is in this chapter that the analysis of American Beauty takes place), deals with the influence of Freudian ideas on the countercultural critique of mass society. It would not be too much to say, based on how Heath & Potter define the countercultural critique, that, without Freud, there would be no countercultural critique of mass society, which is, of course, why Heath & Potter have to treat with the famous father of psychoanalysis. The other major discussion of Freud occurs when they contrast Freud's theory of repressed aggressive instincts with philosopher Thomas Hobbes's 'state of nature'.
I will be able to comment marginally in full (more or less) upon the latter discussion, but only in part upon the former (it occupying a whole chapter of the book). Let's look, then, at some of what Heath & Potter have to say about Freud.
If you asked the fishes to describe what it's like to live at the bottom of the sea, they would probably neglect to mention that it's extremely wet. Sometimes the most important features of our environment escape our attention simply because they are so ubiquitous. [The word 'so' is, strictly speaking, redundant here.] Our mental environment is much the same. Some theories are so universal, so taken-for-granted, that we fail to notice that they are even theories.Heath & Potter go on to spell out Freud's influence on the counterculture:
The work of Sigmund Freud has become, for us, like water to the fishes. It is barely regarded as a theory—something that could be proved right or wrong. It has become the lens through which we perceive all reality. ... The vocabulary of popular psychology... "self-esteem," "denial," "closure," dependency," "inner child" and so on—can all be traced back, in one way or another to the work of Freud. His influence can be found not only in how we talk about ourselves, but also in who we think we are. To take just one example, most people assume that they have something called a "subconscious" mind. When they have a strange dream or mix up their words or find themselves acting inexplicably, they blame it all on their subconscious. If you tell them that this is all a theory, and that there may be no such thing, they react with a mixture of incredulity and scorn. Obviously we have a subconscious. [italics original] Anyone who denies it must just be in denial.
But if your subconscious mind is truly subconscious, how do you know it's there? If you were directly aware of it, it would no longer be subconscious. So obviously it's just a theory. [ditto] As a matter of fact, before 1900, when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, people didn't generally think of themselves as walking around with both a conscious and an unconscious mind. The fact that we do now is part of Freud's legacy. [pp. 36-7] I'm not quite sure what Heath & Potter expected this section would accomplish. Pointing out that Freud's theory of the unconscious is 'just' a theory is analogous to saying the same thing of Darwin's theory of evolution, although, to be fair, the latter is an observeable phenomenon. Heath & Potter seem to suggest that the former, the unconscious, is not necessarily a phenomenon susceptible of observation, but merely a theoretical construct, an invention by Freud. Making the observation that Freud's theory of the unconscious is 'just' a theory doesn't disprove it, as theory, either. Awareness that one has an unconscious (I am not wholly conversant with Freudian psychoanalysis, but I am certain that neither he nor his followers said we have two minds - a conscious mind and an unconscious mind) does not necessarily translate into plumbing its depths; indeed, my understanding is that the unconscious (allowing its existence for the sake of argument) is not capable of being grasped directly with the intellect. However, Heath's & Potter's reference to 'pop psychology' is suggestive; I take it that that is what they take the countercultural appropriation of Freud to be. From these opening paragraphs of the chapter, however, part of their main line of attack is against Freud directly, but, so far, it is not very convincing. In addition, as we saw above, Heath & Potter themselves occasionaly lapse and employ Freudian concepts.
The idea of counterculture would probably never have taken hold had it not been for Freud. The Marxian critique of mass society, all by itself, never had much influence in American society. But when combined with Freud's theory of repression, it became wildly popular. At first, Marx and Freud might seem like odd bedfellows. Unlike Marxism, which is fundamentally optimistic and utopian, Freud's view of society is extremely bleak. According to Freud, civilization is essentially the antithesis of freedom. Culture is built upon the subjugation of human instincts. The progress of civilization, therefore, is achieved through a steady increase in the repression of our fundamental instinctual nature and a corresponding decrease in our ability to choose happiness.Heath & Potter go into some detail on Freud's theory of repression:
Freud himself never doubted that, when forced to choose between civilization and freedom, it would be unreasonable to choose anything other than civilization. His basic ambition was simply to draw attention to the tragic character of this choice. In the 1960s, on the other hand, many people began to draw the opposite conclusion. Given a choice between freedom and civilization, they considered freedom to be the more desirable of the two. The lesson they learned from Freud was that in order to escape from the repression of our instinctual nature, it would be necessary to reject our culture in its entirety. It would be necessary to form a counterculture. [p. 37] What I found problematic about Heath's & Potter's direct analysis of Freud was that, on the whole, it was too simplistic, as what we saw from the passage immediately above this one shows. But this passage shows unrealised promise: Heath & Potter could have, and successfully, attacked the countercultural critique of mass society on the grounds that it fundamentally misinterprets Freudian instinctual theory, but so far as I am aware, they do not. Freud's instinctual theory has come under heavy criticism (summarised in Freud: A Very Short Introduction), but, curiously, Heath & Potter (as we shall see), make little use of such critiques. Ernest Becker, as I showed in one of my posts on his book, The Denial of Death, argued that Freud's concepts were sound when placed in an existential framework, but unsound in Freud's own sexual framework. (However, Becker's psychoanalytic theory presents its own problems.) Becker also agreed with Freud that the purpose of psychoanalysis was to unburden man from the false misery of neurosis, only so that he could carry the burden of the actual misery of reality, an idea which is glaringly absent in countercultural thought (although you could say that The Matrix is a dramatic representation of it). Another valuable attack on Freudian and Marxian critiques (and, it may be said, on countercultural theory) is the incomplete essay, 'Bulverism', by C. S. Lewis, in which he forcefully argues that explaining the origins of an idea (economic or ideological, as in Marx, or psychological as in Freud) is an insufficient ground for refuting the idea. In other words, the use of Freudian theory in countercultural thought as an argument for 'refuting' the 'constructs' of mass society is invariably a form of the genetic fallacy. Meanwhile, a more fruitful critique (although only of one point) of Freud's book, The Interpretation of Dreams, may be found in the Lectures and Conversations of Wittgenstein; in one place he notes that one problem with Freud's analysis of dreams is that it does not admit of translation. That is, based on Freud's presuppositions, that dream symbolism can be 'decoded' into ordinary language, it ought to be possible for it to work the other way around, but in fact we find that it doesn't. Thus 'we cannot suppose that there is a content that can be indifferently expressed in ordinary and in oneiric language as "two ways of saying".' (From 'The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer', by Rowan Williams, in Wrestling with Angels, p. 188; it is to Williams that I owe the discovery of Wittgenstein's critique of Freud). These are but a small sample of the wealth of material criticising or modifying Freudian ideas. Much of it is not germane to Heath's & Potter's point, but you have to wonder whether they would have benefitted from drawing on a wider range of critical arguments to make it.
In many ways, the countercultural idea follows almost immediately from Freud's psychological theory. Given the way that Freud analyzes the constitution of the human mind, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that culture as a whole is a system of repression. And if the problem with society—the reason that we are all so unhappy—is society itself, then the only way to emancipate ourselves is to reject all of culture, all of society. We must "drop out" of the whole system.Having summarised Freud's work in Civilization and Its Discontents and showing that it allows for the inferral that the more civilised we become, the more neurotic, too, Heath & Potter go on to explicate how the Freudian theory of repression appears to be credible, which is why it is so great an influence on countercultural thought:
But how does Freud's analysis lend itself to this extraordinary conclusion? It actually follows from elements of Freud's theory we are all quite familiar with, and that are widely accepted in our society. The centerpiece of it all is his theory of repression. Whenever we describe uptight people as "repressed" or "anal," whenever we claim that those who are being unrealistic are "in denial," whenever we suggest that difficult people have a lot of "pent-up anger" or "issues," we are implicitly relying on this theory.
Freud argued that the mind is divided into three components: the id, the ego and the superego. The id, or unconscious, is the site of our instinctual drives and impulses. ... The id is governed by the pleasure principle—it has no sense of reality and no self-restraint. It is simply an uncoordinated bundle of wild and uncontrolled desires. It is like a small child lying down in the aisle of a toy store screaming, "I want, I want, I want." Furthermore, the id respects no values and is subject to no moral constraint. While some of our most basic impulses are altruistic and loving, others are almost unspeakably cruel and violent. This is revealed in the fact that we have not only the inclination to hurt others, but the capacity to take pleasure [italics original] in doing so.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud described our basic instincts in the following way:
Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?The task of imposing some sort of order and restraint upon the id falls to the ego, or the self—our conscious mind. It must persuade the id to... accept deferred instead of immediate gratification... . Unfortunately, we are not, in Freud's view, terribly rational creatures. The ego, acting alone, simply does not have the strength or the resources needed to keep the id under control. When our feelings are aroused... we are not usually able to "talk ourselves out of it" at will. As a result, human society is impossible based entirely upon our native psychological resources. We are simply too volatile and uncooperative. We are not like the bees, who react immediately to certain chemical triggers and perform the actions most needed by the hive. One need only look at chimpanzees, who murder and rape one another for pleasure... to see how humans are "wired up" biologically.
Thus, social order among humans is initially achieved in much the same way that is is in a wolf pack or in a tribe of chimpanzees. In order to function cooperatively, our ancestors required an "alpha male," who would institute a dominance hierarchy by beating the "primal horde" into submission. This alpha male provides the template of the father figure. The appearance of the father gives the ego a new ally in the battle for control of the id. Fear of the punitive, threatening father, when internalized by the child, creates a new psychic structure the superego. Like the id, the superego is unconscious. ... The superego censors our desires and associates feelings of shame and guilt with the satisfaction of our most basic instincts.
The really key idea in Freud's theory is that, with the development of the superego, none of the underlying instinctual conflicts are ever decisively resolved. Our most primitive desires do not go away; they are simply repressed. ...
The mind of an adult thus preserves all of the primitive desires of the child intact. It simply learns to control them. There are two primary strategies that are available for this purpose. Instincts can be either repressed or sublimated. Repression means that the superego simply denies the id the opportunity to satisfy some particular desire. ... This creates frustration, anxiety and unhappiness. ...
In Freud's view, the human mind in society is like a pressure cooker after the lid has been clamped on. The steam doesn't go away; it simply builds up (like the frustration that we experience living in society). Sublimation is the safety valve that allows us to blow off some excess steam once in a while. If the heat is not set too high, an equilibrium may be reached and the lid may hold. If not, the whole thing will blow. Neuroses arise when a person is struggling to keep things together and so finds eccentric ways of sublimating desires. ...
Few would doubt that individuals sometimes suffer from neuroses. But if an individual can become neurotic, could not an entire society become so as well? This is the radical question that Freud poses in Civilization and Its Discontents. If our civilization is, as he puts it, "founded on the suppression of our instincts," is it possible that the growth of civilization is a process that makes everyone increasingly neurotic? [pp. 37-41] Before I can go into a more substantial commentary on Heath's & Potter's look at the countercultural appropriation of Freudian psychological theory, it is worth pausing here to take stock. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about Freudian theory to comment on the value of this summary of his tripartite structure of the mind (two parts unconscious - the id and superego - to one part conscious - the ego). But it seems to summarise, more or less accurately, if in the most general terms, Freud's view of humankind. Again, it is worth noting that, for Freud (if not for some of his immediate disciples such as Jung, who, I believe, took a more positive view of human nature than his master), we're pretty much 'damned if we do, damned if we don't'. 'Uncivilised' humanity would behave like chimpanzees, with the strong terrorising the weak, making life a living hell for others, and having their own lives made in turn a living hell when age, sickness, or infirmity enfeebles them. (By 'uncivilised' I do not mean 'primitive', what Freud would have used to refer to pre-agrarian forms of social organisation. These are already quite 'civilised' in psychological terms.) 'Civilised' humans, on the other hand, have their lives made a living hell by neurosis caused by the breakdown of their tragically and necessarily ineffectual psychological mechanisms of control. All this is not to say, of course, that Freud was right. Nearly all of Freud's earliest disciples (among them Jung, Rank, and Adler) revised or criticised Freud's theory - perhaps ironically confirming Freud's insight about 'cutting Father down to size' as an aspect of the Oedipal complex - and even thinkers whose place is in the psychoanalytic school descended from Freud have critiqued much of the great man's thought (as we have seen on The Marginal Virtues with Ernest Becker, and as we shall see in this marginal commentary with the work of Herbert Marcuse). Probably the idea that has deservedly attracted the most critical attention is Freud's 'primal horde' theory of the genesis of human social organisation. Even the most rudimentary forms of human social organisation are gentler than the domineering alpha male depicted by Freud, and the incredulity the idea invites is probably confirmed by the much greater knowledge we now have about early social organisation. However, what are of more critical importance (both for the discipline of psychology generally and for the appropriation of Freudian psychological theory by the counterculture) than Freud's theory of the 'primal horde' are his psychic structure and instinctual theory, and whether they have stood the test of time. (Even if most of what Freud taught is eventually discredited, he will probably stand in relation to psychology as Aristotle does to science generally.)
Freud's instinct theory is now generally regarded as having been discredited. ... Yet even those who reject Freud's specific instinct theory generally accept his "pressure-cooker" model of the mind. According to this theory, the desires that we must renounce in order to make ourselves acceptable to society do not go away; they are simply pushed down below the surface, beneath the threshold of our conscious mind. There they lurk about, waiting to resurface whenever they are given the opportunity.After a lengthy discussion of the increasingly strict standards of politeness, demonstrated by manuals of etiquette down the centuries (with reference to a work by Norbert Elias), Heath & Potter continue their examination of the Freudian theory of repression as it pertains to the countercultural critique:
Part of the evidence for this thesis is that whenever people become disinhibited—like when they are drunk or very angry—they begin to act in an antisocial manner. This suggests that socialization does not fundamentally transform human nature; it simply gives us the ability to control our fundamental impulses.
Consider, for example, the case of swearing. The first thing to notice is that, when you're angry, swearing feels good. [italics original] Yet the words often have no relationship to the situation. ... So why swear? The Freudian theory holds that when a person becomes sufficiently frustrated, the superego is no longer able to exercise effective control. The anger "boils over," giving the id momentary license to do as it pleases. Thus the person unleashes a stream of invectives and derives pleasure from the expression of these—normally repressed—instinctual drives.
The point is that even though Freud's theory seems rather exotic, it is not all that implausible. For another example of the Freudian theory at work, consider his analysis of humor. In Freud's view, humor is all about evading the censorship of the superego. By misdirecting our conscious mind, then springing the punch line upon us, a joke allows the id to slip one past the superego—so that we experience a sudden burst of pleasure associated with a taboo thought before the conscious mind is able to catch up with it and close down the reaction.
... [C]omedy, in Freud's view, is all about sneaking things past the superego. This is why we enjoy laughter. It is also why timing is so important to comedy. It explains why humor often shares with swearing a focus on taboo subjects, or else draws our attention to sources of frustration in daily life (so-called observational humor). Freud's theory, whatever its ultimate merits, is therefore not devoid of explanatory value. Has anyone got a better theory of humor?
If we accept Freud's theory of humor, however, we are effectively granting that his theory of repression also has something to it. We often observe that children can be incredibly cruel. Yet if Freud is right, adults are, at bottom, no different. Socialization does not stamp out cruelty, it just teaches us to control ourselves. ...
What makes this theory of repression so troubling, at the level of our analysis of society, is that it treats individual self-control as no different in essence from external coercive control. Both represent limitations on our freedom. Either we are subject to the tyranny of the "primal father" or we internalize it and become subject to a punitive, censorious superego. Either way, our opportunities for achieving happiness are severely curtailed. All of the rules and regulations that we are forced to obey in order to get along in society are like an ill-fitting suit that constrains our vital movements.
Of course, the idea that civilization involves a loss of freedom is as old as the hills. ... The peculiar twist that Freud gave to the idea comes from his suggestion that none of these ancient longings are ever lost; they are simply repressed. And as this repression builds, unhappiness and frustration also build.
... [Giving up natural freedom for the security of social organisation] is, in Freud's view, a Faustian bargain. We are able to achieve greater security in society, but at the expense of giving up not just our freedom, but our capacity to experience happiness. [italics original] So while we may strive to improve society in various ways, we must also recognize that "there are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform."
The repressive nature of our society is often overlooked because there appears to have been a gradual decrease in the punitiveness of our social institutions. When we compare modern prisons, for example, to 18th-century prisons, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that our society is less repressive. It is certainly much less violent now than it was three centuries ago. In most hunter-gatherer societies, the number-one cause of death is murder. In Canada, it [murder] is fourteenth (at a rate half that of accidental falls.)
... Yet from a Freudian perspective, even though civilization does involve a decrease in overt violence, this does not mean that our society has become less repressive. The violence has not gone away; it has simply become internalized. ...
Thus, the history of civilization is essentially the history of the gradual internalization of the repressive apparatus of society. As the social world becomes increasingly complex and increasingly well-ordered, it requires increasingly strict self-control on the part of individuals, along with increasingly greater renunciation of our fundamental instinctual desires. This is why we have become a society of wimps and complainers; it is because we are genuinely unhappy. The fact that our external conditions of life have improved immeasurably is irrelevant. Unhappiness is produced by internal, not external, conditions. Because the substitute gratifications that are available simply fail to satisfy our primitive erotic and destructive instincts, modern society demands a greater level of renunciation and repression from the individual than ever before. ... The Freudian analysis has become so commonplace that it no longer even registers with us as a theory. [pp. 41-6] Another lengthy analysis of Freudian theory. So far Heath & Potter have mostly described aspects of Freudian theory that suit countercultural thinkers. Indeed, there have been no arguments against any aspects of Freud's theory except for a few generalised statements: 'Freud's instinct theory is now generally regarded as having been discredited', for example. This statement may be true, but Heath & Potter provide no citations to back it up; even a brief note referring us to some authority in psychology or biology would have sufficed. Along the same lines is a reference (which I have omitted) to the film Fight Club in which we are all generally depicted as complacently agreeing with a statement by Tyler Durden that ties into the Freudian critique of societal repression. I have also omitted lengthy examples demonstrating the kind of things Freud was saying (including an analysis of a particular joke to show why it makes Freud's theory of humour believeable); were I to have included them it would have only made Heath's & Potter's analysis of Freudian theory even more supportive. It would be interesting to see if, for example, Steven Pinker (who has recently written what I understand is a noteworthy book on the historical decline of violence called The Better Angels of Our Nature) would make of, a) the Freudian theory of repression, and, b) the founding principle of countercultural theory, which (as we shall see) is that the neurotic behaviour which seemed to encompass Germany under the National Socialists demonstrates the 'violence inherent in the system'. It might be pointed out that Freud's account of human instinct may be discredited, at least in part, on its own grounds: there is reason to believe that primitive altruistic behaviours are instinctive. The 'id', then, should not be viewed as the source of destructive impulses only. To turn to more niggling details: 1) the high rate of murder in most hunter-gatherer societies is notable (in fact, I'm surprised Heath & Potter didn't return to it in their chapter arguing against the appeal by the countercultural critique to 'alternative' - that is, non-Western - societies), given that many countercultural critics seem to contrast violent Western societies with pacific 'primitive' ones. Of course, when we consider the attraction to violent action (often with an appeal against the 'emasculating' effect of repression promoted by mainstream culture, as in the omitted complaint of Tyler Durden's from Fight Club) by some countercultural critics, it rather looks as though the countercultural critique is trying to have it both ways. (G. K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, makes the point that the critics of Christianity of his day did much the same thing.) 2) I thought Heath & Potter were stylistically weak in this passage (I told you the details were 'niggling'). 'Has anyone got a better theory of humor?' ought to be 'Has anyone else, &c.'; I don't know why they included a hyphen in 'number one' when comparing murder rates in hunter-gatherer societies and contemporary Canada, and they should have said of murder in Canada that it was 'the fourteenth highest'. These aren't the only errors, but, to be fair, this passage seems to be unrepresentative in the number of stylistic or grammatical errors it includes. 3) The statement that '[u]nhappiness is produced by internal, not external, conditions' may be (and I believe is) true, at least in part, whether it is demonstrated by Freudian theory or countercultural critique, or not. For if anyone has hoped that increased material wealth would lead to an increase in happiness, he is contradicted by the fact that there are so many unhappy people, of whatever means. (I take as a 'romantic' [in the pejorative sense] fancy of the counterculture the idea that those who are 'exotic', or who cultivate a certain 'primitivism', are demonstrably happier on the whole than mainstream Westerners.) Indeed, one of the reasons the counterculture has sprung up is to account for this phenomenon. Although he offers no data to support the claim, Ernest Becker (no ally of the counterculture) states in The Denial of Death that 'modern man' is 'increasingly slumping onto analysts' couches, making pilgrimages to psychological guru-centers and joining therapy groups, and filling larger and larger numbers of mental hospital beds. [p. 177]' In a word, more and more people are unhappy. Granting that this is so (if only for the sake of argument), it demolishes the idea that only material considerations determine happiness. Happiness is not merely an emotional state, stimulated or depressed (in the strict sense) in response to discrete external factors: it is affected by learned behaviours and psychological responses, as well by the cultivation of virtues, habits, and practices relating to happiness, by historical circumstance, and by cultural mores. In the first case, there are people who, it seems, are never happy, because they learned dissatisfaction from one or both of their parents; in the second, we may broaden the range of things that we enjoy by learning about them, trying them, and discovering what is pleasurable about them (surely 'internal conditions' for happiness); in the third, it is possible for someone to live a happy life earning, say, sixty thousand dollars a year, and then become unhappy upon coming into an inheritance for ten million dollars when the money causes a lifelong rift in the family and attracts leeches of all kinds; in the fourth, different cultures encourage us to find happiness in different things. These are all, in effect, 'internal conditions' of happiness.
[T]he civilizing process seems aimed at denying our bodily nature. In many cases, the norms of politeness become completely antagonistic to the possibility of enjoying oneself or of satisfying one's desires. We tend not to notice this, simply because we are so well socialized that we no longer experience the rules as an imposition. Most children in our society have, by the age of ten, acquired more control over their behaviour, and have internalized more rules, than a full-grown adult would have done five centuries ago. This is the price that we pay for civilization.At this point, we have shifted from Freud's own analysis to that of the Freudians. Given the reference to Herbert Marcuse in The Denial of Death (the link to my marginal commentary on the chapter in which Becker's criticisms of Marcuse appear is just above), it will be interesting to conclude this section of The Rebel Sell with a look at what Heath & Potter have to say about Marcuse and see how it compares to what Becker had to say about him:
... [I]t is difficult to avoid the impression that we are all incredibly repressed. In our day, advice columnists regularly counsel a woman to eat before going on a dinner date, so that she will be able to nibble delicately on her food at the restaurant and not look like a pig. It's not hard to see how dieting, vegetarianism and bulimia can develop as neurotic extensions of the same structure of psychic repression—as women become increasingly alienated from their own bodily desires and begin to fetishize control for the sake of control. Is it such a leap, then, to imagine that our entire society might suffer from a similar type of neurosis?
Again, it was the experience of Nazism that made these sorts of bleak assessments of civilization seem persuasive. One of the most remarkable things about Nazism is just how mad it all was. [italics original] The fixation on exterminating Jews was so extreme, so obsessive, that it was allowed to compromise the German war effort in numerous ways. Furthermore, the anti-Semitic propaganda drew heavily upon images of pestilence, disease and filth in order to promote the objective of making the country "Judenrein." This, combined with the rather self-evidently anal character of German culture, made it easy to characterise Nazism as a kind of obsessional neurosis.
Many '60s radicals began their careers providing psychoanalytic critiques of fascism. Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism is perhaps the classic work of this genre. ... [T]he experience of European fascism provides the background to all of Herbert Marcuse's work, most importantly Eros and Civilization. By the end of the decade, this psychoanalytic interpretation of fascism had become commonplace[.] ...
What is noteworthy about all of these Freudian readings of fascism is that they do not treat the movement as an aberration or as a lapse into barbarism. ... Germany... was widely regarded as the most culturally sophisticated nation in Europe, not to mention the most rational in temperament. (It was, after all, the nation that gave us... Immanuel Kant... .) Thus, many critics refused to treat Nazism as a deviation from the path of the European Enlightenment. In their view, Nazism represented the natural evolution [italics original] of modern society. It may have been crazy, but it was no accident. The particular type of craziness on display among the Nazis was the expression of an inherent contradiction in the nature of civilization.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Nazism was therefore widely regarded as the tragic culmination of Western civilization. The [subsequent] launch of the nuclear arms race... did nothing but reinforce that impression. The Cold War was understood as a form of sublimated aggression, caused by the level of instinctual renunciation imposed upon us by mass society. Thus, Marcuse claimed that "concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars and atom bombs are no 'relapse into barbarism,' but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology and domination."
What is striking about this phrase is the continuity that Marcuse sees between fascist Germany and contemporary American society. For him, concentration camps and nuclear weapons are simply two different manifestations of precisely the same underlying psychological phenomenon. Humans are innately aggressive. We have a death instinct, a desire to kill. Society forces us to repress this instinct. When this control is successful, the instinct will be effectively sublimated and the superego will retain control of the individual. We can thus see the development of the classic military industrial complex as a form of substitute gratification. When it fails, we get dictatorship, war and genocide.
... While the comparison between totalitarian states and capitalist democracies might seem like a bit of a stretch, from the Freudian perspective it is easy to see how the two could be points on a continuum. All the institutions of "freedom" are, according to this analysis, actually just forms of substitute gratification. [pp. 48-51] Along the same lines is the continuation of this argument, on pp. 51-2, in which Heath & Potter discuss the 'de-eroticisation' required by mass society in order for production to continue, which leads some psychoanaltyic thinkers, such as Theodore Roszak, to partake in 'extraordinary moral equivalency', in which (to use the example given by Heath & Potter), 'a pool party at Hugh Hefner's mansion and the "joy division" at Ravensbrück are just variations on the same system of repressive control. [p. 52]' Based on what Heath & Potter have written, the psychoanalytic critque of mass society, from the perspective of those writing after the war, is that in capitalist democracies the societal mechanisms of repression have not broken down, whereas in fascist dictatorships (above all in Hitler's Germany), the selfsame mechanisms have done so, resulting in an extraordinarily broad outbreak of neurotic behaviour. (On a related note, despite his criticism of 'unrepression' - a darling of the counterculture - Ernest Becker would not, I think, disagree with this element of the psychoanalytic critique of mass society.) Of course, even if we deny absolute moral equivalency between National Socialist Germany and, say, the United States of America (as, I, for one, would; I abhor the false equivalency implied, for example, by those who set quotes by top American officials under the second Bush administration next to quotes by leading National Socialists as if that somehow demonstrates that the former are like the latter), it does not seem incredible to believe that morally bad acts of which a society may be culpable (and which can only be perpetrated by a society) may be said to exist along a spectrum, so to speak. After all, unless you subscribe to the view that certain kinds of humans are moral, and others not (a view, which, I might add, is precisely that of the National Socialists), then you have to acknowledge that moral badness does not obtain from an essential or necessary difference between one set of humans and another, but from a complex set of contingent historical circumstances. As a society, America, for example, is morally superior to National Socialist Germany not because Americans are by nature (strictly speaking), or substantially (in the ontological sense), better than Germans, but because a vast and complex set of contingencies has led to such a set of circumstances; namely, the entire respective histories of the two societies. A few things to note about this: first, it most emphatically does not follow from moral continuity (the fact that American society and National Socialist society can be placed, at different points, along the same continuum of moral behaviour) that there is absolute moral equivalency between these two societies. To assert thus is, I say, to indulge in idiocy. The real issue with arguments of the kind made by Marcuse is that 'continuity' is what is said, but 'equivalency' is what is implied. And this seems to be the case any and every time someone posits 'continuity' between the policies and actions of the United States of America and those of some other, more wicked, regime. In other words, there is a dgeree of equivocation. As wicked as America may or may not be, it is not absolutely equivalent to National Socialist Germany (this is not to say that there are not some equivalencies, but you might as well say, for example, that all voluntary clubs are equivalent to National Socialist groups just because they have equivalent forms of organisation). Second, holding the view that moral behaviour exists (in a sense) along a continuum, and that there is not a magical break between 'good guys' and 'bad guys', does not necessarily mean adherence either to countercultural ideas, or to Freudian psychoanalytic theory. (The cardinal difficulty with much countercultural and even mainstream psychological thought is that they eliminate a distinction which, you would think, they ought to be making, which is that, even though [in their terms] we are all aggressive, some of us are better at repressing our aggressiveness, without lapsing into neurosis, than others.)That said, moral continuity does suggest that acts of aggression are, to a certain extent, of a piece: the only reason the possession and construction of atomic bombs is only potentially (rather than actually) worse than the wickedness of the National Socialist state is because human and other forms of terrestrial life have not, yet, been annihilated by nuclear war and its consequent fall-out (both literal and figurative). That distinction between potentiality and actuality is critical; of course. As it happens, we have not been annihilated by nuclear war, and so the maintenance of nuclear arsenals is not, yet, worse than anything the National Socialists ever did. (Let us pray that this remains the case.) Third, even if we accept for the sake of argument that 'concentration camps and nuclear weapons are simply two different manifestations of precisely the same underlying psychological phenomenon', in other words, that Freud's theory of innate human aggressiveness (and the neurosis caused by failures of repression) is an accurate account of phenomena, the countercultural critique does not necessarily follow from this. As I pointed out above, the countercultural appropriation of Freudian psychoanalytic theory is really a misappropriation, because of the naïve assumption that removal of repression will result in a better world - after all, Freud's crucial point is that we repress our instincts with good reason. An unrepressed society (or a neurotic one in which the mechanisms of repression are failing but which responds by overcompensating) is not going to be morally better, but worse, than a repressed society. (This is one of the chief points of The Denial of Death, and it is why Becker spends a lot of time criticising 'prophets of unrepression' such as Herbert Marcuse in the last chapter of his work.) Finally, the paragraph on Nazism being the 'tragic culmination' of Western civilisation and its reference to the Cold War and arms race reminds me of the concept of 'missile envy', which is, undoubtedly, a play on the psychoanalytic concept of 'penis envy'. (However, whereas penis envy, so Freudian psychoanalysis holds, is a stage of psychological development in girls, 'missile envy' is obviously meant to be an adult masculine neurosis) Actually, my only familiarity with the term comes from a card from a board game called Twilight Struggle, but it appears to have originated in the work of one Dr Helen Caldicott in a book entitled Missile Envy, written in the eighties about the arms race. I am not familiar with the concept to address it, but it sure sounds like a countercultural catchphrase. The concept of 'missile envy' may have been elucidated earlier, but it would appear not (based on very cursory research; i.e., I couldn't find an independent article on Wikipedia about the term).
[T]he countercultural idea might have been in serious trouble had it not been for a singular stroke of genius: the theory of "co-optation." According to this idea, the "repression" imposed by the system turns out to be... subtle... . At first, the system tries merely to assimilate resistance [italics original] by appropriating its symbols, evacuating their "revolutionary" content and then selling them back to the masses as commodities. ...I have already quoted Heath's & Potter's reference to Marcuse on pp. 49-50 a couple of sections ago, but it is worth keeping in mind that in it the authors note that his work Eros and Civilization was a seminal work of the countercultural movement, and featured what they called the 'striking... continuity... between fascist Germany and... American society.'
With this theory of co-optation in place, the counterculture itself becomes a "total ideology," a completely closed system of thought, immune to falsification, in which every apparent exception simply confirms the rule. For generations now, countercultural rebels... [and] universities... packed full of [radical] professors... [have been engaging in 'subversive' activity]. So much subversion, and yet the system seems to tolerate it quite well. Does this suggest that the system is perhaps not so repressive after all? "On the contrary," says the countercultural rebel. "It shows that the system is even more repressive than we thought—look at how skillfully it co-opts all of this subversion!"
Back in 1965, Herbert Marcuse coined a term to describe this peculiar sort of repression. He called it "repressive tolerance." It's an idea that makes about as much sense now as it did then. [pp. 34-5] This section concludes Heath's & Potter's opening chapter, and from it you can see just how little they think of countercultural ideology. The paragraph on 'subversion', much of which I omitted, is stuffed with the word subversive, each time used ironically with quotation marks (this raises the question of whether, stylistically, the quotation marks were necessary, since irony ought to be able to be communicated without them, but we'll let it slide). Describing the counterculture as a 'total ideology', a 'completely closed system of thought' - implying that it is identical in this respect with the 'system' it purports to subvert - and as 'immune to falsfication' shows the extent to which Heath & Potter regard countercultural thought as unhelpful (to put it mildly). Any ideological system that paints itself as immune to falsification is indulging in idiocy. To be fair, the counterculture is not, and has not been, the only ideological system that claims immunity from falsification. I think it also noteworthy that making one's own ideological system is immune to falsification renders those of one's opponents likewise immune, for if your own theory cannot be disproved (if only potentially) by logical argument, neither can those you oppose. The logical conclusion is, of course, that those who hold an ideology in opposition to yours must be destroyed, because it is impossible that they 'see reason' (because argument necessarily cannot persuade them to change their minds). As for Herbert Marcuse, so little do Heath & Potter regard his idea (of 'repressive tolerance') that they find no need to examine it in detail; they end with a statement implying the idea's woolliness: 'It's an idea that makes about as much sense now as it did then.' Now, if 'repressive tolerance' were used in a strictly psychological sense, referring only to a psychological mechanism of the superego to repress instinctive reactions of the id, it would make some kind of sense (presumably it would refer to the fact that we grudgingly allow others to hold ideas antithetical to our own, instead of indulging in our id's desires to lash out at them). But notice from the section of The Rebel Sell quoted above that the term 'repression' is used by the counterculture in a sense alien from its psychoanalytic roots. The 'system' appears to be a 'superego' outside one's own mind, capable objectively 'repressing' people, whereas 'repression' as initially conceived was a strictly interior, individual, and subjective phenomenon. This move gives the countercultural concept of the 'system' something like mind (if only figuratively), and hence, something like a will of its own. 'Repression', generally, and 'repressive tolerance', in particular, are, or are said to be, actions or modes of action which the 'system' takes with respect to people. But strictly speaking repression is not something one person can do to another. Repression is something we do to ourselves. Others may harm us in ways that are so traumatising we may repress the memories (as victims of incest in childhood often repress the memories of their abuse), but they do not act repressively. As for 'repressive tolerance', one would have to read the passage of Marcuse's book from which it was taken to get any idea of what he meant by it. The endnote indicates that the term is taken from an essay by Marcuse of the same name, as part of a work called A Critique of Pure Tolerance, originally published in 1965; this would require a lot of extra reading to get an idea of what Marcuse is talking about. It must be said that at first glance (which is all I can spare presently), the term 'repressive tolerance' is a bit odd. Just how can you repress others by tolerating them? Much depends on how much connotative weight the word 'tolerance' is made to carry; it is easy to give it a pejorative sense. After all, the word 'tolerance' and its relatives have now passed out of common discourse as a term for how we ought to treat others in favour of 'inclusiveness' (and the damnable word 'inclusivity', which damn well could be replaced with 'inclusion' with no loss of damn meaning, not that I dislike it, or anything). Anyway, this reference to Marcuse from the first chapter of the book is the first reference to him by Heath & Potter, and already they are giving him a bit of a hard time.
Marcuse comes back in later in the chapter on Freud, in the discussion on the 'countercultural future' (i.e., what society is supposed to look like when the counterculture succeeds).
What does a society with no institutions, no rules and no regulations look like?Marcuse doesn't come up again until late in The Rebel Sell, when Heath & Potter are discussing (in their chapter on the exoticism of the counterculture) 'alternative medicine':
Countercultural theorists have traditionally been quite evasive when it comes to answering this question. The standard dodge was to say that there is "no blueprint for a free society," or that because freeing ourselves from the culture requires completely transforming our consciousness, we are unable to predict what the future society will look like. Michel Foucault was the master of such evasions. Another option was simply to romanticize rebellion and resistance for its [sic] own sake. ... The goal of improving conditions in society at large, or of promoting social justice, receded from view. In this way, the concern for social justice became redirected and absorbed into an increasingly narcissistic preoccupation with personal spiritual growth and well-being.
Yet there were some countercultural theorists who managed to keep their eye on the ball and who made an honest effort to explain what an emancipated society would look like. Marcuse is the most important of these.He realised that the core obstacle to the development of a coherent countercultural project lay in Freud's instinct theory. As long as the id was divided between positive and negative instincts (love and death, Eros and Thanatos), then there would be no way to avoid Freud's pessimistic conclusion. There would be no avoiding the repression that one finds in civilization, simply because the only way out would be a return to violent barbarism. Genuine emancipation would be possible only if one could find a way to give Eros the upper hand in the battle for control of the id.
Naturally, anyone influenced by a particular type of vague Christian spiritualism could easily be led to believe that the powers of love were great enough to conquer all. Certainly, if love could rule the id and drive out our aggressive and destructive urges, then there would be no reason for superego repression, and thus no reason for social control of any form. We would be free to "let love rule." Yet Marcuse was wise enough to realize that Christians had been working the "love your neighbor" angle for two thousand years without much success at creating a utopian society. And, as people soon learned, you can't even organize a commune, much less an entire society, based upon the assumption that people will behave like saints.
What Marcuse proposed instead was an influential hybrid of Marx and Freud. He argued that the level of instinctual renunciation required throughout the history of civilization is due not to the inherent strength of the destructive impulses of the id, and thus the requirement that they be kept under contrrol, so much as to the burdens placed upon us by the prevailing conditions of material scarcity. In other words, it is the "curse of Adam"—the requirement that man must provide for himself by the sweat of his own brow that makes our society so repressive. With increased automation and factory production, however, we are at the point of lifting this curse. Under "post scarcity" conditions, machines will do all the work and people will be left free to laugh, play, love and create.
Thus Marcuse succeeded in hooking the critique of counterculture into the same type of political analysis that had motivated traditional Marxism. Marx himself, after all, believed that capitalism would lay the groundwork for a future communist society by eliminating scarcity, leaving the worker free to "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner." In Marcuse's vision, not only would this eliminate class conflict, it would also eliminate the repressive superego. Work would become like artistic production, unleashing the creativity of each individual. Society would no longer have to compel individuals to the "one-dimensional" model of human life, and all of the rules and regulations that dominate our daily life would melt away. [pp. 57-8] An easy rebuttal of Marcuse's argument that the elimination of want would improve moral life is at hand: we live in a society in which the elimination of scarcity is potentially achievable (although not actualised), yet (surprise, surprise), the 'utopian' conditions envisioned by Marcuse have not appeared. Now I think of it, I don't think Heath & Potter raise this objection to Marcuse's argument, which is surprising. Anyway, in this passage Heath & Potter give Marcuse a fair shake, although Foucault comes in for some scorn (they characterise him as 'evasive'), as does Christianity generally ('two thousand years, &c.') and 'vague Christian spirituality'. It must be said that 'love your neighbour' has nothing to do with creating a utopian society; it is meant to be something we do in any social setting, whether it issues in a better world or not. Moreover, if I may harp on the topic for a moment, 'utopian' refers - or ought to refer - not to the beneficent nature of a society to which it is applied, but to its non-existence; as Paul Turner, the translator of Thomas More's Utopia (Penguin Classics edition), has noted, the word 'utopia' means 'no place'. (I grant, however, that this seems to be in the back of people's minds when they use 'utopian' pejoratively, since they are implying that the society the potential existence of which they are criticising cannot be anything but a fiction.) The Christian practice of loving one's neighbour (not to mention one's enemy) has to do with one's present social setting, and is not a policy statement for some idealised society. Interestingly, to refer back to The Denial of Death, it is just this aspect of Marcuse's vision that Becker most hotly criticises. Even if we do not agree with Becker's position (i.e., that repression is necessary for human existence per se), we can see some problems with Marcuse's position, at least as Heath & Potter have summarised it. First, Marcuse seems to be reifying psychoanalytic concepts (although he is probably just being faithful to Freud when he does so; I rather suspect that Freud thought that the id, ego, and superego were real, instead of just a model for accounting for psychological phenomena). Positing a 'contest of wills' between 'erotic' and 'thanatic' instincts is anthropomorphism; it is essentially psychological allegory of the same kind as the ancient allegorical poem Psychomachia, by Prudentius. If we act out of instinct, our instincts are not going to struggle with each other beforehand in order to determine which shall prevail. It almost seems that Marcuse is giving the capacity for intent to psychological phenomena that, as instincts, are by definition sub-intentional. Moreover, in fact our 'erotic' and 'thanatic' desires are intermingled. Sadism and masochism demonstrate this, as does the inevitable entangling of sex and violence in even the most humdrum settings. (The word 'vagina', for example, is a Latinate euphemism, and means 'a sheath for a sword'.) To be fair to Marcuse, it may be that the difficulty with his account of the emancipated society lies in how it has been summarised by Heath & Potter. Finally, it is interesting to note the different 'countercultural' approaches. Marcuse praises automation and factories as the means by which scarcity will finally be eliminated; many other countercultural thinkers abhor them (as a later chapter in The Rebel Sell attests). Finally, it is interesting to see that, yet again, Heath & Potter use commonplace psychoanalytic (thus Freudian) terms without, it would appear, any sense of irony, given their criticism of 'the clichés of popular psychology' in their chapter on Freud: they refer to the increasing focus of the countercultural movement on 'personal spiritual growth and well-being' as 'narcissistic'. Of course, to be fair, there is hardly a better word for what they are trying to convey. Incidentally, I believe that it is fair to say that in their view, 'narcissism' is a characteristic psychological flaw of the counterculture, given that, or so it seems to me, it is a term they frequently use to describe aspects of countercultural practice.
Many critics of mass society found the institutional style of the medical system so sinister that they began to question the reality of disease. ... In many ways the success of modern medicine contributed to this simply by eliminating or curing the most deadly diseases. This makes it much easier to doubt their seriousness, because they are no longer part of our daily life. ...Marcuse's final appearance in The Rebel Sell returns to his idea of 'post-scarcity' being the factor that allows the end of repression and the emancipation of society in Heath's & Potter's exploration of countercultural thought regarding technology. (He is also referred to as 'ubiquitous' in a brief reference.)
In this context, it is easy to imagine that there is something suspicious about the way medicine is practiced. "Why should I get my child vaccinated against polio?" people say. "When was the last time you heard of anyone getting polio? It's probably just pharmaceutical companies trying to make a profit." ...
This sort of reasoning can be even more fun if one adopts a Freudian perspective. The obsession with cleanliness, disinfection and the elimination of invisible germs is easy to dismiss as simply the expression of an anal personality disorder, a mistrust of everything that is natural, sensuous, pleasureful. Herbert Marcuse, speaking in all seriousness, described the practice of surgery as "sublimated aggression." In other words, Marcuse thought that the surgeon's real desire was to kill and dismember the patient. Unfortunately, that's against the rules, so the surgeon settles for the more "clinical" solution of cutting the patient up, rearranging the pieces, then putting him back together again. [pp. 279-80] Heath's & Potter's critique of the promotion of 'alternative medicine' by countercultural thought is one of their most effective sections, as well as one of their most enjoyably crankiest. The dry jab of 'This sort of reasoning' is pointed and funny, for example. Marcuse gets savaged again: even if we grant that some surgeons may find the power they have over the patients upon whom they operate intoxicating, the suggestion that what every surgeon without exception wants to do is to 'kill and dismember' her patients is risible. As the rhetorical example of the person questioning vaccination shows (along with the reference to dismissing sterility as 'anal' instead of acknowledging its necessity in the treatment and prevention of infection), the countercultural critique of aspects of 'mass society' (such as medicine) often resorts to varieties of the genetic fallacy (which I showed above).
The theoretical heart of [countercultural] utopianism was the development of what was called "postscarcity economics." Proposed by writers such as Herbert Marcuse... the belief was that technological improvements had made it possible to produce enough to meet the basic needs of everyone at essentially no expense. Once machines were able to take care of all our material needs and wants, we would be free to cultivate our spiritual side, to indulge in creative play and to form a society based not around the the demands of economic production, but around fellowship and love. ...Freud & Hobbes
What eventually led to the undoing of these views was the failure to appreciate the competitive nature of our consumption and the significance of positional goods. Houses in good neighborhoods, tasteful furniture, fast cars, stylish restaurants and cool clothes are all intrinsically scarce. [italics original] We cannot manufacture more of them because their value is based on the distinction that they provide to consumers. Thus the idea of overcoming scarcity through increased producton is incoherent; in our society, scarcity is a social, not a material, phenomenon. ... Marcuse missed the significance of this problem. What troubled [him] more was the sense that [he was] relying on the very instrument of repression—technology—for the emancipation of society. Marcuse wondered how we could possibly convert the "processes of mechanization and standardization" to emancipatory ends. Yet he could not see any practical alternative to the enormously complex and capital-intensive technological systems that characterized industrial capitalism. As a consequence... he... had difficulty seeing any way out of mass society. [pp. 293-4] I should mention that the concepts of 'positional goods', distinction, and 'competitive consumption' are crucial for Heath's & Potter's argument against the countercultural critique of mass society. We have seen some of their discussion, but the fourth through the seventh chapters seem to spell out these aspects of their argument most fully, with some outlying uses in their chapter on exoticism (as this passage just quoted, and the passages on 'exotic tourism' which we looked at above show). I won't go into much detail, but from Heath's & Potter's perspective, the main difficulty with countercultural arguments is that they fail to take into account how competitive consumption functions with regard to gaining positional goods. To return to this passage, it must first be noted that Heath's & Potter's point about '[h]ouses in good neighborhoods, tasteful furniture, &c.' could be better made, I think, by pointing out that these things are not scarce per se. Indeed, a cursory glance at the YellowPages would show lots of places for fine dining; what makes them 'scarce' is the extent to which they are regarded as 'exclusive'. Heath & Potter do point out that scarcity (at least in North American society) is not materially but socially real. Producing more Ferraris, say, won't make everyone happy because he is driving one: they problem is that everyone is driving one. Arguably part of Marcuse's vision is correct: we no longer organise society around 'the demands of economic production'. However, the end to which our economic production is directed is not 'fellowship and love', but around distinction and positional goods. Indeed, it would (I think) be more accurate to say, against Marcuse (and, one presumes, Marx), that societies have never directly organised themselves around the means of economic production, but around the ends to which those means have been directed (with the caveat that the means determine to a certain extent what ends can be pursued). Although Heath & Potter elsewhere in The Rebel Sell survey countercultural thinkers who thought that they had found 'a way out of mass society', Marcuse's dilemma (which is a dilemma only if you accept as true his assertions about human nature, the repressive character of mass society, &c.) is inescapable, at least from the countercultural perspective. The development of techniques of mechanisation and standardisation (to more or less quote Marcuse) is what has made the elimination of want possible, which, for Marcuse, is the key factor in the emancipation of society. Let us now turn to a brief appraisal of Marcuse's place in The Rebel Sell. Given that Heath & Potter are arguing that the countercultural critique of mass society is fatally flawed, they are, as we have seen, obviously critical of Marcuse's ideas. They acknowledge that it was he who produced the influential synthesis of Marx and Freud - which is what made the countercultural critique possible and endurable - but are dismissive of some of his concepts ('repressive tolerance' - makes no more sense now than it did then), and outright mocking of others (surgery is the desire to kill and dismember people, only sublimated). Their best rebuttal of Marcuse's position comes when they relate his failure to account for the importance of positional goods, and this is because of the amount of work they have done to establish concepts such as distinction, positional goods, and competitive consumption (not well reflected, it is fair to say, in my marginal commentary - but then I have to leave something for you to read!) as crucial for understanding why the counterculture doesn't work. As Marcuse is (so Heath & Potter) a countercultural thinker, his ideas, like those of the rest, are unsound because they fail to account for such crucial factors as those listed above. On the whole I think their critique of Marcuse is better than that of Freud because they provide direct reasoning showing what is wrong with Marcuse's arguments (at least those with which they engage), and because they make fewer errors in analysing Marcuse than they do when looking at Freud: or so it seems to me; I am reasonably conversant in Freudian psychoanalysis, even though all I know of Freud - and of Marcuse, for that matter, about whose work I know even less - is what I have read about him in other books.
The last thing I want to do in this marginal commentary is look at the passage of The Rebel Sell in which Heath & Potter contrast the 'state of nature' elucidated by Thomas Hobbes to the Freudian 'state of nature'. After discussing the distinction between deviance and dissent, and showing how the countercultural critique has confused the two, Heath & Potter argue that Freud's psychoanalytic theory of the repression of instinctual behaviour in the interests of civilisation is mistaken, precisely because it allows such a confusion of deviance and dissent.
This analysis [of deviance, dissent, and the purpose of most rules; namely, to solve collective action problems] allows us to see quite clearly Freud's great mistake in his diagnosis of the dynamic between civilization and barbarism. The problem can be drawn out by contrasting Freud's analysis of the "natural condition" of humanity with that of Thomas Hobbes. Freud agreed whole-heartedly with Hobbes's assessment that without the rules and regulations that govern civilized man, life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Although primitive man had greater instinctual freedom, Freud argued, "his prospects of enjoying this happiness for any length of time were very slender." In contrast to Hobbes, however, Freud claimed that the insecurity of man's natural condition reflects a deep fact about the human psyche. Given that there are such obvious gains to be had from cooperation, Freud argued, the insecurity of the natural conditions reveals how powerful the instinct for aggressive or violent behavior must be.This ends my marginal commentary on The Rebel Sell. Although I have, I think, pointed out a number of weaknesses (some stylistic, some with respect to consistent use of terms, some in terms of argumentation), I have examined a number of strengths, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the counterculture. You will be surprised what can be characterised as 'countercultural' (although Heath & Potter on occasion paint with strokes too wide). Despite some critical difficulties with some of their arguments which weakens their overall case against the counterculture, Heath & Potter still clinch many of their arguments, and I would say that with revision, a second edition of the book could drive a nail into the coffin of the counterculture.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes that "in consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests." The argument here is flawed, but flawed in a highly instructive way. Freud observes that we have an enormous amount to gain from "work in common." Thus "reason" tells us that we should behave in a civilized fashion and do our part to participate in cooperative projects. The fact that we so often fail to cooperate, [italics original] and that we have difficulty working together, shows that our more antisocial tendencies—our aggressive instincts—are extremely powerful. If these "instinctual passions" were not so powerful, they would be unable to overcome our interest in the enormous gains that come from cooperation. The task involved in building a civilization must be a very great one indeed, since we must seek to repress these extremely powerful instincts.
Freud's overall view, therefore, is one in which all of the violence that exists in the state of nature is a direct expression of our aggressive and destructive instincts. These instincts cannot be eliminated; they can only be sublimated and repressed. So the level of violence never changes. It is simply redirected—given an inward, rather than an outward, expression. Instead of attacking other people, we develop more and more sophisticated forms of self-torture. In keeping with Freud's "pressure-cooker" model of the mind, the violence that is internalized never goes away. When we look at a contemporary civilized person, we know that behind the calm facade there is a seething cauldron of anger and resentment just waiting to boil over. This is why, in Freud's view, the state of nature can be said to reveal a deep fact about humanity—the overt violence tells us something about our underlying instinctual nature.
For Hobbes, on the other hand, the crucial feature of the violence that exists in the state of nature is that it does not [italics original] reveal anything deep about human nature. In Hobbes's view, the violence is produced by superficial features of our social interactions. Freud assumes that because we have a common interest in cooperating with one another, "reason" must tell us to do so. Hobbes, however, sees that in the absence of rules, the fact that we have a common interest in cooperating does not necessarily translate into an individual incentive to do so. Reason often tells us to steal the neighbor's vegetables rather than grow our own; to lie rather than to tell the truth; to shirk rather than toil. Reason, in other words, leads us into collective action problems. Furthermore, in the absence of rules and regulations, we often have no guarantee that others will live up to their end of agreements. We have no guarantee that they will not attack us while we sleep or steal the fruits of our labor. This tends to make everyone very jumpy. Thus, people who themselves have no hostile intent will often engage in preemptive strikes against their neighbors in order to stave off anticipated attacks. In Hobbes's terms, people invade one another not only for gain, but also for safety.
There is therefore no need to assume, in Hobbes's view, that men are governed by any deep-seated love of violence or aggression. Hobbes insists that even though the state of nature is violent, this is not because human beings are fundamentally aggressive. The problem in the state of nature is simply that we cannot trust one another. [italics original] Thus we adopt an aggressive stance toward one another, and we adopt exploitative strategies—but not because of some fundamental need to exploit other people. We do so primarily as a way of protecting ourselves against exploitation by others. If you suspect, in a prisoner's dilemma, that your partner is going to testify against you, then you would be crazy not to testify against him. So you both screw each other, not because of any deep desire to do so, but simply to avoid being screwed yourselves. This isn't evidence of some unruly "death instinct" trumping our rational faculties; it is simply a rational response to a situation of mutual distrust.
As a result, Hobbes regards the task involved in the construction of civilization in significantly more modest terms than Freud does. Most of the violence that we see in the state of nature is simply a product of insecurity. People are afraid of one another, and so they are prone to attack. But if you eliminate the source of insecurity, then you also eliminate the motivation for most of the violence. Thus the creation of order does not require massive repression of our instinctual nature; it simply requires the application of enough force to align individual incentives with the common good. Because the problem is superficial—arising out of the structure of social interaction—the solution can also be superficial. We do not need to transform human consciousness in order to correct the problem; all we need to do is realign people's incentives. In other words, both the problem and the solution arise at a strictly institutional level. Civilization is essentially a technical fix to the problems of social interaction; it does not require any deeper transformation of human nature. Freud, therefore, massively overestimates the amount that we must give up in order to enter into society, and thus the amount of repression that civilization requires.
... [Heath & Potter then use the Cold War arms race to exemplify their argument.]
The important point about these arms races is that, from the outside, they appear irrational. During the '60s, when the Cold War began in earnest, the logic of these conflicts was not well understood. Thus it was easy to conclude that politicians and military leaders had gone somewhat mad (or that the state had fallen under the sway of the "military-industrial complex"). Various Freudian analyses of this madness had enormous influence. The arms race was presented as an example of our aggressive instincts overpowering our rational faculties. ... Building weapons was essentially a form of sublimated aggression. The constant increase in size and payload could be explained as a neurotic reaction to the discipline that military production imposed upon society. The demand for more weapons means more discipline in the factory, more deferred gratification. This increase in psychic repression creates increased aggression, and thus the need for more sublimation—more weapons. The feedback relationship between the two creates the logic of increased escalation, inevitably culminating in nuclear holocaust.
From this Freudian perspective, an arms race reveals something deep about human nature. [italics original] The fact that human beings feel the need to build 100-megaton nuclear bombs shows just how scary our instincts are. It shows that, deep down, to want to use such weapons against one another, we must be extraordinarily violent creatures.
The Hobbesian analysis, on the other hand, denies that arms races reveal any such deep tendencies. It is possible for to countries to get into an arms race even though neither of them has any serious plans to attack the other one; they only need to believe that the other one intends to attack them. It is precisely this lack of trust that triggers the race to the bottom. One country starts stockpiling weapons in order to deter a perceived threat. The other regards this as a threat, and so increases its own level of expenditure. The cycle continues, with each one perceiving the other's defensive move as an offensive one. The important point is that, in a prisoner's dilemma, there is no difference between the two moves—either way, the arms race gets escalated. Thus the Soviet Union and the United States both claimed, throughout the Cold War, that their preparations were entirely defensive in nature. But since neither believed the other, the lack of aggressive intent did nothing to stop the arms race.
Now that the Cold War is over, it is possible to look back and see that the Hobbesian analysis was essentially correct. If the Freudian analysis had been right, then the Cold War would never have ended (or it certainly would not have ended in the way that it did). Both the Soviet Union and the United States were motivated less by hatred of one another than by fear of each other's intent. All it took to end the conflict was the essentially unilateral decision by Mikhail Gorbachev to call the whole thing off. In so doing, he showed that the arms race was based much less on aggression between the two parties than simply upon a lack of trust.
What can we conclude from all this? Freud argued that civilization creates unhappiness, by repressing some of our most powerful instincts. What is the evidence that we have such instincts? The evidence is that when you leave people free to do whatever they want, things quickly degenerate into violence. According to Freud, this shows that, at some fundamental level, we are all bloodthirsty creatures. Hobbes proposes a far more simple explanation. People often treat others poorly not because of any desire to inflict suffering, but out of a desire to avoid being treated poorly themselves. It is like the couple who break up not because they do not like each other, but because each believes that the other is about to break things off, and would rather be the "dumper" than the "dumpee." Their problem is simply a lack of trust.
The contrast between the Hobbesian and the Freudian analysis reminds us that psychologically deep explanations are not better merely by virtue of their depth. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a missile is just a missile. The exaggerated consequences of the kind of military escalation seen during the Cold War can be explained without positing a crazed inner child, hellbent on destruction. Nuclear escalation is certainly an undesirable outcome, but it is produced through a rational response [italics original] to a situation characterized by distrust and insecurity. Thus, eliminating the race to the bottom, replacing mutually assured destruction with "nuclear sanity," does not require repression of our instincts. If a coercively imposed solution is able to create the necessary level of trust, there is no reason that it cannot be enthusiastically embraced by all parties.
More generally, Hobbes's argument shows that not all rules are bad, and that people who follow the rules are not merely repressed conformists. There is a middle road between Colonel Fitts's neurotic demand for "structure" and Lester Burnham's puerile rejection of all social norms. It is possible to be a normal, well-adjusted adult, simply by following the rules that promote the general interest while conscientiously objecting to those that are unjust. Yet this option is one the countercultural critique has studiously ignored. [pp. 81-9] I have quoted this argument at length because I believe it to be crucial to Heath's & Potter's argument. The Hobbesian analysis of human nature, they say in effect, shows that the countercultural appropriation of Freudian (or depth) psychology is off-base. However, I would like to posit that this argument is a failure, because it does not, in fact, disprove the Freudian analysis of human nature. First, a short digression: notice that, yet again, Heath & Potter use a Freudian concept without irony when they write '[i]t is possible to be a normal, well-adjusted adult'. To return to my main point about this section, let me first state that the failure of this argument does not fatally weaken Heath's & Potter's argument. The key argument in The Rebel Sell is showing that the counterculture exacerbates precisely the kind of competitive consumption its proponents attack, and, so far as I can see, it is a winner. Part of the problem with this argument is that Heath & Potter really don't need to be making it, or else could have approached the appropriation of Freudian analysis by countercultural thinkers from another angle (I have spelled out some ideas in my own marginal comments above, so I won't repeat them here). But let us look at some of the difficulties peculiar to this argument. In the first place, Hobbes is, as a thinker writing about the motives of human behaviour, psychologically naïve. I do not mean that his analysis is thereby wrong, but it does not - indeed, cannot - directly address the problem of human psychological motivation. As Hobbes was writing in the seventeenth century, for all his sophistication as a thinker he can hardly be said to provide, by himself, a determinative account of human behaviour. Put another way, even if Freudian psychology were one day to be wholly discredited, there would still have to be a psychological account of human behaviour; it is impossible to return to a pre-psychological account. I'll spell out in detail some things that relate to this first problem. I am uncertain whether Heath & Potter have committed a categorical error, since it seems to me that they are not so much arguing that Hobbes directly addressed the same kind of thing as Freud (which, it needs hardly be stated, he did not), as that their claims can be inferred from Hobbes's analysis of the 'state of nature'; that, in other words, what they have to say logically follows from what Hobbes wrote. To return to some specifics with the first problem, the Hobbesian analysis does not, simply put, account for all psychological phenomena - it does 'save the appearances'. (I mean, Heath & Potter are trying to employ Ockham's Razor to disqualify the Freudian analysis.) If violence is the product of insecurity and mistrust, where do such feelings of insecurity and mistrust come from? If my neighbour has never lifted a finger against me, nor I against him, how can it be rational for one of us to provoke the other by taking aggressive measures against him? Put another way, I would charge that Heath & Potter are equivocating somewhat in their use of the term 'reason'. Whatever the problem with Freud's use of the term (he does seem to reify 'reason' into a discrete entity independent of thought in the passage quoted), it doesn't really make collective action problems 'rational', just because it appears to be in the interests of the parties involved to perform the actions that get them into those problems in the first place. 'Reason' might tell me to shirk instead of toil, but it would (I should think) also tell me that those who toil will beat me up should I shirk. 'Reason' might tell me that I should strike first in order to prevent my neighbour from doing the same to me, but wouldn't it also tell me that coming to terms with my neighbour is in my interest, and that it would serve my own interests better than taking violent action (in the course of which I risk being defeated, injured, or killed). In other words, aggressive action in particular (and, I dare say, collective action problems generally) does not necessarily follow as a rational response to insecurity, although we have to acknowledge that taking aggressive action may appear to be a rational approach in any given situation. 'Reason' ought to tell us that getting caught in collective action problems is against our best interests. Moreover, to return to the question of origins, where do the feelings of mistrust and insecurity come from? Hobbes's analysis (or Heath's & Potter's use of it) does not account for this. It is without a doubt that circumstances obtain in which no rational grounds for insecurity exist, and yet feelings of insecurity (and aggressive action stemming from such a perception of insecurity) persist. For example, while some forms of addiction are generated by circumstances of insecurity, they persist even after those who are addicted are no longer actually insecure. But there are also a lot of people who have not had to deal with conditions of material insecurity or mistrust, but who nevertheless succumb to addiction or develop habitual and maladjusted behaviours. Or, to take another example, how does one account for the hostile and aggressive behaviour of those whose positions are secure toward those over whom they have power, as when managers bully their underlings? A psychological explanation is needed (whether Freudian or not), and this is just what Hobbes does not provide. Another point (which I have raised above), and one which tells against both the Hobbesian and Freudian analyses of the 'state of nature' is that humans are irreducibly social. There never was a time in which humans existed without being organised into social groups, so far as any anthropological account of the earliest stages of human existence goes. If there is one thing about Freudian thought that has been firmly discredited, it is his 'primal horde' theory of primitive social organisation. As for Hobbes, it must be pointed out that his 'state of nature' is more of what might be called a 'thought experiment' than a scientific account of what has actually obtained in human social affairs: he posited his 'state of nature' in order to justify political authority, and arrived at it (i.e., the 'state of nature' in which insecurity and mistrust prevails) inductively. (This is part of the reason why I think that Heath & Potter are making a categorical error; Hobbes evidently is not addressing the same kind of thing that Freud and his countercultural interpreters are. But I have acknowledged that Heath & Potter might be able to plausibly claim that what they argue can be inferred from what Hobbes wrote.) Thus, so far as we can tell, humans have always enjoyed at least some security; whence, then, the extent of human aggressiveness? So far as I can tell, a 'superficial' account of human action (i.e., aggressiveness is the result of collective action problems and institutional insecurity) can hardly be said to account for outbursts of aggressive action which are incommensurable as responses to perceived insecurity, such as the bloodshed concomitant with the conquest of Asia by the Mongols under Genghis Khan, or the fanatical aggressiveness of National Socialist policy (it was trauma of the war caused by fascism and the concomitant slaughter of noncombatants that led to the countercultural critique of mass society in the first place, as you may recall), or the maelstrom of war into which the Great Powers slid one by one in the fall of 1914. If such things are the result of collective action problems only, and are internally rational, why did no one say, 'hey, guys, we're in a race to the bottom here; let's do something else, whaddya say?' Even if such a thing had been pointed out, it is simply the case that aggressive action often does not stem from entirely rational motives (protection from insecurity, &c.), because the violence inflicted is incommensurable with what is needed to accomplish the goal for which the aggressive action was deemed necessary. That said, it is not that the Hobbesian analysis is uninsightful; it is that it does not, on its own, disprove the idea that humans are at least in part driven by underlying, unconscious, and irrational instincts. This does not mean, of course, that we can reject Heath's & Potter's insights about collective action problems and other such things - it is just that they should have taken a different tack in approaching the countercultural use of Freudian psychological theory. Given what we know of the evolutionary development of the brain, no one would deny that there are subconscious impulses (the apparatus that controls breathing, for example, or the fight-or-flight instinct); furthermore, Heath & Potter do not take advantage of contemporary psychological or biological research in order to rebut Freud's instinctual theory. The end result is that, despite a number of very good points, their argument against the countercultural use of Freudian theory does not carry the day. The other problem with the use of Hobbes to show that many problems are 'superficial' and 'institutional' is that they ignore the corrupting tendency of power and the imperfect ability of institutions to enforce solutions to collective action problems. Indeed, part of the reason the countercultural critique has endured is because it is evident that many institutions are not accomplishing their stated task - indeed, all institutions at one time or another fail (on the other hand, most succeed at least some of the time, too), or that those entrusted to enforcing the rules and regulations often act as if they were above them. The countercultural critic and the psychoanalyst alike (even if the latter disdains the counterculture) could say that the fact that the powerful are corrupted by their power is due to their instinctual desire to dominate getting the upper hand. Moreover, an institutional or superficial approach to collective action problems seem to have the character of vicious regression. Once you create a regulation or institution to solve certain collective action problems, you find that, once enacted or in action, the regulation or institution becomes involved in new and unforeseen collective action problems. (To be fair, pretty much every effort, process, or method for solving problems raises new problems in its stead, even if the problems for which it was devised in order to solve are subsequently solved.)