I have recently been reading Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter‘s Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. It is a fascinating read. Especially for someone like me who has spent most of my life under the assumption that I am a part of the counter-culture. Not in the sense of being a punk rocker or smoking weed. But at least in the sense that since I went to college at 18, I defined myself against, as I saw it, the materialist, non-intellectual and non-spiritual forces of capitalism.
One of my vivid memories from college is going to a Indian-American Student Association party, the kind which I normally avoided, and thinking, while talking to the students studying computer science, medicine, law, business and so on, I am not like them. More: I will not be like them. It’s not that I didn’t like them or couldn’t identify with them. They were just like people my age in my family, and I liked my family.
What was motivating me rather was the question: If everyone has a job like they are planning to have, how will reflective distance about the core assumptions of our society be possible? It was precisely the fact that being a doctor or a programmer, etc. are central to our society which made me wonder: how can the cultural assumptions of the mode of life of these professionals be questioned? Who is going to do that questioning? From what space can such questioning happen?
When I decided to study philosophy and go to graduate school, I never thought I was outside capitalism. I thought I was on the margins of capitalism. The assumption was that there is a core to society (consisting not just of the billionaires and millionaires, but also those with affluent and upper middle class jobs – the future of my classmates as I saw it); then there is the outer-most edge of the society such that one is still within the society but outside enough to question society (consisting of academia, the priesthood, non-profits, and so on), and then there is being completely outside capitalism (villages).
My whole life has been spent in cities: Hyderabad, New York, Boston and so on. So I never imagined that the third option of village life was a feasible one for me. Besides, what I wanted wasn’t to escape capitalism. It was to be in a space which allowed critical reflection on the structures I was a part of. This was the main attraction of academia: it was simultaneously at the center of our society, and yet somehow not like ordinary society.
As I got further into academia in graduate school and as a professor, one of the things that unnerved me was the feeling that far from staying on the margins of capitalism, I seemed to be moving further into the heart of it. This is the fundamental difference in how college is experienced as an undergraduate and as a teacher. For the undergraduate college is a four-year haven before getting a job in capitalism; from this perspective, the professor seems like someone who is outside capitalism for life. But as one becomes a professor what becomes clear is that universities are now, and have been since the dawn of capitalism, at the center of capitalism.
A liberal arts university education aims to teach students to think for themselves. Here “think for themselves” is actually code for: don’t think in that old fashioned way, but think in the new fashioned way. Teaching at a liberal arts college, I started to have the unnerving feeling that the rhetoric of thinking for oneself was now just the way in which the students were being channeled into an uncritical acceptance of societal structures. Diplomas were stamps that a student was now certified as a critical thinker, meaning they have been sufficiently educated so that they can take their place in the new economy.
Most strangely, some academics who were Marxists seemed to think that the education they were providing was a way of toppling capitalism. That academia was a method of subverting capitalism form within. The more getting a college degree seemed necessary to get a job in the current economy, the more this idea seemed delusional. How can getting a college degree be both central to capitalism, and be the way that capitalism will be undermined? Either college education is a kind of Trojan horse, or now it is the very rhetoric of anti-capitalism which is propelling capitalism. The latter seemed too bizarre to be believed.
But this is exactly what Heath and Potter argue. They suggest, persuasively to my mind, that ideals like rebellion, thinking for oneself, standing out from the crowd – far from threatening capitalism, are the roots concepts of capitalism. That capitalism functions not by being or appearing conservative, but precisely by fostering the sense that each person is unique, and so they deserve products expressly suited to their uniqueness. This is why 50 years of counter-culture in America hasn’t made a dent in capitalism, but rather the way the counter-culture expresses itself is the mode best suited for capitalism. They write:
Over the past half-century, we have seen the complete triumph of the consumer economy at the same time that we have seen the absolute dominance of counter-cultural thinking in the “marketplace of ideas.” Is this is a coincidence? Countercultural theorists would like to think that their rebellion is merely a reaction to the evils of the consumer society. But what if countercultural rebellion, rather than being a consequence of intensified consumerism, were actually a contributing factor? Wouldn’t that be ironic?(99)
Heath and Potter draw a distinction between the square image of capitalism (typified by the 50s image of the guy in the grey suit) and the cool image of capitalism (typified by the hip computer programmer or youthful college professor), and suggest that the sense of change and rebellion which seems like the forces of counter-culture are actually the engine of capitalism itself. They give a name for this new form of capitalists: “Bourgeois bohemians”. What has changed is not the hierarchical structures inherent in capitalism, but how that hierarchy is defined:
This new elite isn’t held together by an old boys’ network of family, money and school ties. The bobos (short for “bourgeois boheminans”) are a fairly loose group of “meritocrats” who live in places like Seattle, Austin, Toronto and Palo Alto, working in knowledge-industry jobs at universities, high-tech firms and design agencies. What unites them is a shared refusal to compromise on either the bourgeois or the bohemian front.(198)
The bohemian value system – that is, [being] cool – is the very lifeblood of capitalism. Cool people like to see themselves as radicals, subversives who refuse to conform to accepted ways of doing things. And this is exactly what drives capitalism. It is true that genuine creativity is completely rebellious and subversive, since it disrupts existing patters of thought and life. It subverts everything except capitalism.(205)
This is pretty much my sense of the academic bohemian. It is nice to finally have a name and concept for it, one which helps situate it within the broader forces of the last several centuries.
But it also brings up the question: If thinking for oneself and the stance of rebellion is what drives capitalism, then what does critically thinking about capitalism look like? Is that even possible?
The answer I am now drawn to is: there is no such thing as being critical of capitalism as such anymore than one can be critical of wearing clothes or eating food. At this point in human society, capitalism is the basic framework of our lives, and in that sense it is like the air we breathe or the ground we stand on. But this doesn’t mean all we can be is cogs in the machine, anymore than accepting that we are physical beings means that we cannot make choices.
Capitalist reductivism is the view that if capitalism is accepted, then every aspect of human life reduces to capitalist exchanges. For a long time I was a reductivist in this sense. Hence my desire to find a space on the margins of capitalism as a way to keep alive the many aspects of life – such as philosophy and spirituality and community – which I thought shouldn’t be reduced to market forces.
Now I think capitalist reductivism is no more correct than biological reductivism or physical reductivism. At this stage in our species, we are capitalist beings, and this is invariably connected to our becoming, more and more, technological beings. But that doesn’t mean everything is merely a matter of buying and selling, anymore than it meant that in pre-capitalist economies.
Modern philosophy asked the question: How can live meaningfully given that we are creatures made up of physical matter? The analogous question is: How can we live meaningfully given that as creatures we interact through this vast institutional framework, or set of frameworks, called capitalism? Just as holding onto a non-physical soul is not the way to make room for meaning in our lives, so too holding onto the sense of a non-capitalist space is not the way to make room for meaning and progress in our lives. Assuming we can overthrow capitalism whole-sale leads not to a non-capitalist promised land, but only to uncritically being a part of capitalism.