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Buying into the psychology of consumerism

"Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture" is not your typical business book.

Instead, it's a wide-ranging work of social criticism peppered with examples from the movies and rock music. The authors focus more on the psychology of consumers than the inner workings of the boardroom, which is not surprising, considering that both come from backgrounds in philosophy. Each of the authors teaches philosophy in Canada: Joseph Heath at the University of Toronto, Andrew Potter at Trent University.

The book reads like a cross between an academic text and a copy of Rolling Stone magazine. Heath and Potter glide comfortably from the theories of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx to the lyrics of Kurt Cobain and Alanis Morissette. Throughout the book, they argue that the counterculture has done more to boost capitalism than to undermine it.

The hippies, for instance, were intensely entrepreneurial with their love beads and tie-dyed T-shirts. Ironically, their rejection of the consumerism of American society simply spawned new markets for goods. Punk rockers, too, have criticized the capitalist system but failed to upset it. In their first chapter, Heath and Potter raise the question, "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" Their answer: The counterculture. The notion that "alternative" rockers could not be authentic and popular, too, did him in. Cobain committed suicide rather than risk "selling out."

Next, the authors analyze the psychological underpinnings of the counterculture in their chapter "Freud Goes to California." Freud, they say, believed in the importance of civilization even though it limited individual freedom. The counterculture, on the other hand, chose to elevate individual freedom over civilization. They condemn the widespread individualism of the counterculture for making it difficult to organize social movements. Engaging in guerrilla theater might be fun, they say, but it does not solve serious problems.

With biting wit, the authors expose what they see as the hypocrisy of anticonsumer critiques of capitalism. Arguments against consumerism, they say, are merely snobbish putdowns of what other people buy. Budweiser is bad, single-malt liquor is good; hamburger is bad; risotto good; Chryslers bad, Volvo good; and so on.

In actuality, they argue, the anticonsumer movement has found its most fertile ground in the United States. Antimaterialism has become a cash cow, they say, offering expensive handmade goods to those willing to afford them. But does buying "all-natural organic tea" make you more virtuous? No, they say, it just helps a new market grow.

The authors level their harshest criticisms on those who favor cultural rebellion over political action. Take the marketing of brand-name products to teens, for instance. Countercultural critics might see no solution to the problem of selling goods to vulnerable consumers short of overthrowing the capitalist system. The authors offer a simpler reform: Putting a tax on advertising.

For the most part, the authors build a solid argument. While the complexity of the ideas prevents this book from being a page-turner, it's undoubtedly a thought-provoker.

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