Tall Poppy Interview: Andrew Potter, Author of The Rebel Sell
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Tall Poppy Interview: Andrew Potter, Author of The Rebel Sell

112406TallPop4.jpgIn the United States, the day after Thanksgiving has come to be known as Black Friday, during which retailers offer huge discounts and usher in the Christmas shopping season. Not to be outdone, the chic anti-chic magazine Adbusters introduced its own event on the same day: Buy Nothing Day. And while American Thanksgiving is limited to the United States (for now), Adbusters assures us that Buy Nothing Day should be celebrated globally.
So…happy Buy Nothing Day.
To mark the occasion, Torontoist sat down for a lengthy chat with Andrew Potter, co-author of The Rebel Sell.
Read on for the interview.

Torontoist: For readers who might not have read The Rebel Sell, what’s the crux of the argument against Buy Nothing Day?
Andrew Potter: Buy Nothing Day is part of the culture jamming movement that Adbusters is the flagship publication for. Culture jamming is based on a certain understanding of the culture, the way the culture works: we live in something called “the culture”, which we also call “the system”, or “the man”, or feminists call it “the patriarchy”. The idea behind all of these terms is that there’s a system of inter-locking institutions; it involves the education system, the government, the capitalist economy, the media, so on. And the point of all these systems is that it’s a bunch of mutually reinforcing institutions designed to create and incur a certain conformity amongst the masses- conformity of thought, conformity of taste, conformity of desire, conformity of everything. And the question is, why? Why does it want us to conform? The idea is that the capitalist system functions most efficiently when you can get everyone buying the same stuff. And you can sell a bunch of mass produced widgets to a whole bunch of identical people.
Now, quite obviously, not everybody has naturally the same tastes, desires, feelings, and so on. We’re all individuals. And so the question is, how do you get everybody to be a bunch of conformists? How do you inculcate this conformity of tastes and so on? Well, the way you do that is through advertising. According to this idea, the main function of advertising is to create in the masses a homogenized set of desires.
So, on this view, advertising is a form of mind-control, to put it in its most stark form. So how do you interfere with this system. Well, you jam the system, right? You culture jam- you jam the culture. 112406TallPop6.jpg And what that means, quite literally, is interfering with advertising. In particular, you take the tools, and instruments, and techniques of advertising and turn them against themselves. So you either spray-paint billboards or engage in the various forms of anti-advertising that Adbusters has become famous for. And if the whole point of this culture is to turn people into a whole bunch of bovine consumers, then another way of jamming that culture is by getting people to not consume. Hence, the idea behind Buy Nothing Day. If everyone were to spend one day buying nothing… the system would creak to a halt. So you could actually undermine the system. The extreme version of the idea would be like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix. It would shimmer and shake, the machine would grind to halt, scales would fall off everyone’s eyes and they would see the whole consumer culture for the web of illusion that it actually is.
That’s the theory…
That’s the theory behind culture jamming. Now, what’s wrong with culture jamming? Well, there’s the broad problem, which is that it’s based on a completely flawed understanding of the culture. The culture doesn’t exist– in the sense that this theory needs. There is no such thing as “the man”, in the sense that there is nothing that requires conformity. In fact, if anything has demonstratively been proven true over the past 40 years, it’s that capitalism flourishes in a culture of hyperactive diversity. Pluralism. The system doesn’t really care about conformity. In fact, the constant turnover of tastes that you see, the constant search for new this, new that, new these and those, is actually the lifeblood of capitalism. Capitalism is the breeze of creative destruction. So that’s the broader problem with culture jamming- it completely misunderstands the capitalist system. It’s based on a really 1950’s understanding of capitalism.
I think you say in The Rebel Sell that it’d be better to have “No Production Day”, to halt everything.
Yeah, that’s the narrower objection to Buy Nothing Day, which is that the critique of advertising that you get in Adbusters, or with Naomi Klein, is that the reason we needed advertising in the first place is because once industrial production got sufficiently capable- after the war- there was suddenly a surplus of goods; we needed someway to get rid of this surplus. And the way you get rid of the surplus is through advertising- you create needs in people, you bamboozle them into having desires that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Our argument is that Buy Nothing Day buys into this myth that there’s a surplus of production. In fact, buying and producing are two sides of the same coin. Whenever you buy something it’s because someone has produced something; whenever you produce something it’s because someone is buying something. The idea is if you go to work on Buy Nothing Day, you are actually making someone purchase something.
Because a surplus still increases, beyond Buy Nothing Day?
It’s that there is no such thing as a surplus. It’s that production and consumption balance in the economy overall. There is no such thing as more production than there is consumption. So it makes no sense to talk about consumption in the absence of production. It’s an economic theorem known as Say’s Law. A lot of it gets misunderstood, but it’s a basis of supply-side economics. It’s a lot of complicated stuff that nobody really wants to get into. But the gist of it is that it makes no more sense to talk about Buy Nothing Day in the absence of “Earn Nothing Day”, that it would be to talk about there being a surplus of heads over tails in the coin economy. They’re two sides of the same thing. And so our argument is you might as well call Buy Nothing Day, “Earn Nothing Day”, but that doesn’t have the same pleasantly cool ring to it.
But the deeper point to all this is if you engage in Buy Nothing Day by not shopping, but you still go to work, you are contributing to the very problem, in that your work is actually causing somebody to consume something. Out of necessity. That’s not a physical necessity, it’s a logical necessity: if you show up to work, somebody is consuming your labour. Someone is buying whatever you’re producing. 112406TallPop7.jpgAnd so, the deeper point here is that if you think there’s a problem with consumption in our culture, then you actually also think there’s a problem with work in our culture. If we consume too much, it’s because we’re working too much. So if you’re really worried that we live in a consumer society, the real target shouldn’t be advertising and consumerism, it should be production and work. And if you think we ought to do something about it, take the French model and advocate a 35-hour work week or payroll taxes or all kinds of things. But that’s not sexy. And payroll taxes actually cause unemployment- as does a 35-hour work week- and that’s not something the culture jammers really want to advocate.
It’s much less cut and dry than saying, “We’re going to walk through the Eaton Centre dressed up like zombies”; it doesn’t have that marketability.
Yeah! Exactly. It doesn’t have the same ring to it, it’s not a good brand. I mean, Buy Nothing Day is a very catchy brand. And unfortunately, it has absolutely zero effect on anything.
One of the things I liked about your book is that it looks critically at other cultural commentary like No Logo– which was massively popular a few years ago for its own sort of culture jamming. Can you talk about the King/Spadina loft issue that No Logo gets into?
Yeah, we’ve taken a lot of heat on that, for sort of being rude to Naomi Klein. But the point is this: on page one or two of No Logo, in the very introduction, Naomi Klein uses, as a sort of introduction to what problems she’s trying to elucidate, the gentrification of her neighbourhood. In the King/Spadina area back in the 90’s. Before all the dot-coms moved in, there were a lot of lofts- they were authentic lofts in the sense that they weren’t available on the market. Because you weren’t actually allowed to live in them; you could only get them if you had some sort of social contacts or had an in with somebody who knew how to get in. And in the introduction to No Logo, Naomi Klein complains about yuppies moving in to the neighbourhood, the idea being that this used to be an authentic area where you know the real commies used to live. And now all these yuppies have come in and she complains about that, right? Well, that is the problem with consumerism in our culture. That very attitude embodies precisely- that’s The Rebel Sell right there: the idea that “authentic” living involves avoiding the masses. And one of the big problems that a lot of people see with our society is that the masses tend to be able to buy their way in anywhere, and that, you know, ‘There used to be a really cool band that you could go only see [with] 50 people, then they got popular! Now there’s 50,000- they sold out.’ ‘This neighbourhood used to be cool when it was all artists and then a bunch of yuppies moved in, and now it’s been ruined.’ This is an old story. But all it really points to is that when things get popular, their ability to serve as a mark of social status declines. 112406TallPop2.jpgAnd so the people who are concerned about social status need to go somewhere else- to retrieve that status. And you see the same thing with gentrification with bands, with cool electronics, with exotic travel- the same cycle of cool people seeking out places where only they know about. Or only they have access to. The masses eventually find out, pile in, it gets ‘massified’, becomes uncool, and the cool kids need to find a new tool or a new toy or a new whatever. That is the essence of consumerism- it’s that constant search to distance yourself from the masses. To be a rebel against what everyone else is doing. And it’s a bit ironic that that very attitude finds its most flagrant expression on the first page of No Logo, a book that is supposedly about anti-consumerism.
I want to be careful here: we’re not calling Naomi Klein a hypocrite. What we’re trying to do is to point out that there is, even amongst the most acute critics of consumerism, a deep-seated misunderstanding of the forces that drive consumerism. Most people think it’s driven by advertising and the corporations; Naomi Klein thinks that. In actual fact it’s driven by competitive consumption amongst consumers. And that’s what is exhibited on page one of No Logo.
Right. The same problem as Buy Nothing Day: this issue of “the man” that doesn’t necessarily exist.
Yeah. The fundamental problem- it’s really weird, in that- we have no problem in our society blaming crime on criminals or rape on rapists but we seem really reluctant to blame consumerism on consumers. And it’s really bizarre. Everyone wants to blame the advertisers, the corporations, or the masses, or somebody, right? In our book, Joe and I blame consumers. And that’s something we didn’t invent, you find it in Thorstein Veblen and Thomas Frank. But it’s something that people- even people who have read Veblen and Frank and agree with them- seem to miss.
You mentioned rape just now, which is an issue you also touch upon in The Rebel Sell. One of the arguments you make is that feminism perhaps took away a lot of necessary social restraints. And you argue that that leaves the door open to criminality. Can you speak to that end? How that maybe counter-culture leaves society susceptible?
The essence of counterculture politics- or one of the essential pillars of counter-culture politics- is the rejection of conformity. In all it’s forms. And one of the more obvious forms of conformity is rule following… within bureaucracies, everywhere. Even found within the counterculture, [there is] a rejection of the rules of grammar, the rules of logic. Essentially creations of “the system” or “the man”- or feminists put it, “the patriarchy”. Reason was seen as a male tool that was used to oppress women and to undermine or denigrate more feminine ways of knowing, emotional ways of knowing, or spirituality and so on. So you get this sort of rejection of rules of any sort and that had really, really pernicious effects. Because it failed to distinguish at all between good rules and bad rules. And there are any number of good rules; I mean, the most obvious example of a really useful rule is ‘Drive on the right-hand side of the road’ and ‘Stand to the right when you’re going up an escalator’. There’s all kinds of everyday rules we use for getting through life that we have no trouble following. But when things get a little more robust or when they get backed up with the policing power of the state, people suddenly get all worried about it, and they see incipient fascism in any sort of rule following at the societal level. So you get this sort of thoroughgoing rejection of rules- the rules of etiquette, the rules of chivalry, and so on, got tossed out with all kinds of negative rules. But that left the entire culture at sea. 112406TallPop3.jpgAnd one of the most obvious ways of that happening was relationships between men and women. Monogamy was seen as a way that men could control women; so you throw monogamy out, you get “free love”. Well, free love for men, that was like, “Great.” The counterculture’s rejection of monogamy or taking care of your kids, basically handed male chauvinist pigs the very form of life they’d always desired, which is the freedom to have sex with whomever they want… and not have to call them the next day. So a lot of feminists quickly realized in the late 60’s that free love wasn’t doing them any favours, but they had nothing to fall back on- they’d rejected the old rules and they sort of drank the counterculture Kool-Aid of the value of spontaneity and no rules. They had nothing to fall back on. So it really left the sexes at sea for a very long time. And they still are now. It’s why you find the popularity of books like The Rules or The Game, because people are starting to realize that- especially in relationships- any rules are better than no rules at all. It’s like when you’re going for supper, right? You’ve got 10 people that want to go for supper, you could fight all day- at a certain point all it takes is for one person to say, “We’re going here.” And it’s better to go anywhere than stand around all day and not go anywhere.
And have you received any response to that last point the way you did with your criticism of No Logo?
There was originally a chapter [in The Rebel Sell] on feminism and sexism and that side of things, where we made the argument that the patriarchy is just a feminized version of the system or the man or the culture. It didn’t get published- it got cut for length purposes; we published it in THIS MAGAZINE about a year ago, a year and a half ago. And it was met with extraordinarily hostile reactions. Probably because people hadn’t read the whole book so there wasn’t a lot of background, partly because we didn’t give the whole chapter. But also because there’s a tendency- we found in reviews to the book- to agree with every part of the book except the parts that affect [one’s own personal] deep-seeded convictions. I’ve had people say, “Oh you’re right about everything except the stuff on organic food.” Or “You’re right about everything except ecotourism.” And I had people saying, “You guys were absolutely right about everything but you don’t understand feminism.” Now, I’m willing to accept that I don’t understand everything about feminism.112406TallPop8.jpg But I think the essential point we were trying to make in the chapter on feminism that got printed in THIS MAGAZINE is that for second-wave feminists in the 1980’s- the Catharine MacKinnon texts and so on- pornography played the symmetrical role in upholding the patriarchy that advertising plays in upholding the consumer culture. Just as advertising was the mechanism of creating in the masses a desire for consumerism, pornography was seen by feminists as the mechanism creating in men a desire to oppress women. And so the idea was that just as a lot of people believe that if you get rid of advertising you’d have no more consumerism, feminists believed that if you got rid of pornography you’d have no more patriarch. Obviously false. And if it were true that, as people like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin believe, pornography was rape- pornography was just the reenactment of rape- then you would see today an epidemic of rape amongst 16 to 25 year-old boys who can get all the pornography in the world thanks to the Internet; something unheard of in the 1980’s. It hasn’t happened. So it’s pretty clear [that] the assumptions underlying second-wave feminism about the role of pornography were false. And there are actually a lot of counterculture attitudes underlying a lot of second- and third-wave feminism. Especially the third-wave. You know, people in the Riot Grrrl movement and all that stuff that came up in the 90’s. We sort of just say that’s “cool feminism”, that’s just “cool” applied to feminist culture. And I don’t think it’s necessarily controversial- it’s not to say that feminism is a waste of time. It’s just that, just as the best way to fix society is, in general, through liberal reform, the best way to achieve equality for women is through a form of liberal feminism. A lot people got really mad about it. Not much you can do about that.
Well, to that end: you respond to your critics regarding your argument against organic food. And while these issues might be trendy (or “cool”) in some ways, is it not better that people are somewhat aware and thinking critically about things?
No, I don’t think so. That’s not to say that I don’t think there’s anything worthwhile about various forms of ethical consumption. Joe and I both think that ethical consumption is a good thing. If you want to buy a [Toyota] Prius to save the environment, go for it. If you only want to invest in [particular] stocks- no military, no tobacco and that sort of thing- excellent. There’s all kinds of great things you can do. They’ll be minimally useful, but there’s nothing wrong with them.
There are a number of things where people say, “Well, isn’t it at least sort of good that we’re doing this?” Organic food is one of them. It’s not a good thing to do if what you have is a form of status competition masquerading as ethical consumption. And I think it’s fairly obvious that’s what’s going on with organic food. A lot of people disagree. I think that the best way to see this is to look at how advocates of organic food behave. And very recently Walmart announced that they were going to move in a big way into the organic food business. And if you genuinely believed that organic food was a good thing and that the more people who bought it the better, then you should’ve greeted Walmart’s announcement with unalloyed glee. Here was the major evil retailer in the world conceding that there was a mass market for this- it would be like the Canadian Pension Plan announcing it would only invest in ethical mutual funds. This is a major coup. Except that’s not how the organic food people reacted- they reacted with hostility. And the reason is because suddenly the masses have access to some ethical thing that had been a status good. So what they said was, ‘Walmart isn’t selling ‘real organic’, because the organic food they’re getting is going to be manufactured for use by industrial organic farming.’ [Now there’s] a battle between the organic movement and the local movement. The local people are saying, ‘The true spirit of organic food is found in the local movement. It’s not just only the inputs that matter, it’s where it’s made that matters.’
What you’re seeing here is a bald-faced moving of the goal posts. In the same way people moved the goal posts in music or in cool clothes or sneakers- a way of getting away from the masses. It’s a classic Rebel Sell moment. To me, the reaction of the organic food supporters on this has been disgraceful. In a way that has shown the entire world that their favourite organic food was entirely a function of the status it accorded them and not the benefits it has for the world.
The Rebel Sell was published in 2004, but in some ways it seems even more relevant now.
I think if anything’s become clear in the last two years, it’s the absolute impotence of the anti-globalization movement to affect anything in the world. I mean, they’ve completely given up. In a way that’s a bit sad, because there was all this energy from 2000 to 2003 that went into nothing. I think it soured a lot of people on politics. But it’s too bad, because they wasted their time- the anti-globalization movement was never going to change anything. They would have been better off putting their energy into more constructive forms of politics that might’ve situated the left in a way to actually do something about it right now. But nothing’s going to be gained by Buy Nothing Day or any form of culture-jamming: it’s fundamentally an apolitical act. It doesn’t engage politics at the level at which you can change things, which is the institutions of institutional democracy. It attempts to bypass democracy entirely by taking the fight directly to the street, etc. and it’s a colossal waste of time.
Andrew Potter also writes for Maclean’s and maintains an up-to-date Rebel Sell blog. The Rebel Sell is available in book stores today.