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27.06.2008

June 21, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Marine Voskanyan

CAPITALISM AND COUNTERCULTURE

Sell of "internal freedom" is today not just a device for letting off steam but a profitable business. Part 3

Part 1: http://www.rpmonitor.ru/en/en/detail.php?ID=9425

Part 2: http://www.rpmonitor.ru/en/en/detail.php?ID=9534

A NEW SOURCE OF INCOME

In the world of today, a human can hardly construct a personal identity without getting under the influence of explicitly or implicitly imposed patterns of mass culture. However, even an individual, capable on insight in those manipulations and reluctant to imitate the characters of advertising billboards, may get into a trap of a higher order.

One feels weariness from corporate routine, false smiles of TV celebrities, slogans "to be successful" with absolute lack of opportunity for self-actualization – so what? Obviously, one has the possibility to recognize oneself as an exception, a rioter who only explicitly follows the workaday "home-job-home" pattern but actually longs for freedom, travel, risk and impressions, and therefore the possibility of being "hip and cool". However, that is not yet sufficient for most of "covert rioters". They also need to distinguish themselves in appearance: "informal", non-business clothes with a rucksack with a fancy fob, a jazzy mp3 player, cheap but original furniture and other attributes of that kind. Specialists in marketing have long developed the skill of exploiting not only the image of a classical bourgeois Ц expensive, elegant and spiffy but its "informal", youth-style", "ironical" antithesis. Globalized capitalism was not a bit shaken with the "countercultural insurrections" against consumer society reproduced since 1960s. Moreover, it has utilized the countercultural thinking as a lucrative source of income.

 

MARKETING OF "LIBERATION"

An ordinary consumer is easily sold the illusion of being different from others, of not being pitched into the pattern of exploitation and consumption, of despising bourgeois values. Symbols of such resistance are successfully traded. However, those who use this symbols fear of being confused with real poor. The "hipness paradox" suggests that ragged jeans and a seasoned tee are fashionable only in case they are not the only cloth of yours. Really threadbare clothes are a sign of being poor and marginal. Therefore, the industry of "modest" clothes is an industry of imitation.

Accurately analyzing the most successful advertising campaigns of transnational corporations, one realizes that they are propagating not bourgeois conformism but on the contrary, the idea of "becoming oneself", emphasizing one's originality and difference from others. Thomas Frank, in his piece "The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism" (1998), and his successors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their book "The Rebel Sell", (2004) describe the pattern in which the desire to challenge traditional culture becomes an object of sophisticated market strategies that transform any attributes of counterculture into elements of mainstream.

In 1960s, the hippie movement was a social force that aroused either sympathy or disgust. Today's countercultural groups like hippies, punks, goths, and emo, are perceived by the society without a bit of indignation or delight. The philistine, perceiving various kinds of counterculture, realizes that they are "not more than games". Therefore, the search for identity in real countercultural practices largely loses its romantic gloss, requiring a serious attitude towards oneself and at the same time, having a far smaller social weight than before. However, it is not necessary today to be a rioter Ц it is sufficient to feel like that and dress accordingly. That does not mean that a tee with an anti-globalist slogan is just masquerade. It is quite possible that the guy who had pulled it on is sincerely convinced of being a covert rioter. He is likely to get a job in a company with a relatively free dress code. The last decade's trends in human resources management reveal that organizing office work as a labor camp is inexpedient. The task of any company is income. Why not allow the personnel to pull on jeans and decorate their workspace with merry posters and answer business messages through the roar of "Rammstein" in their ears Ц why not?

 

ARTIFICIAL LIFE IN TWO WORLDS

Several decades ago, counterculture and business were not regarded as compatible. The world of bourgeois ideals and traditional industrial labor was extremely distant from "informal" individualistic subcultures. To exist in both worlds was impossible: either you are a small executive, a cog in the machine, committed to scrupulously work and conform to the existing order, or a countercultural rioter in a creative research. Still, this borderline was blurred already three decades ago.

In his book "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism", renowned sociologist Daniel Bell emphasizes that a mature capitalist society generates phenomena that were earlier considered as ideologically hostile to its superstructure. The author shared the version that the roots of capitalism emerged from Protestantism and particularly Calvinism, with its apprehension of labor as a pious devotion that rejected and even denounced satisfaction of desires and search for pleasure, and upheld adherence to customs, orderliness, parsimony and allegiance to the job. However, the progress of technology and economy made material well-being a reality, and recognized mass consumption as the engine of progress. Home technique, autos, travel, fashionable clothes have become affordable for the mass of the West's population. The middle class did not need to concern of daily bread like the proletarians of the past, acquiring an opportunity of enjoying life. The Protestant ethics, built on asceticism and austerity was no longer required as the system based upon it has overgrown its basis. The once reproved pursuit of pleasure and entertainment became a key factor of capitalist success.

Bell indicated that the cultural tenets of the society were changing as well. Individualist bohemian values had once been the appanage of aristocracy and its cultural establishment that despised early capitalists. In classical literature and fine arts of the XIX century, the bourgeois world and its "petty' values were a typical subject of criticism. The cultural community, from Dostoyevsky to James Joyce, demanded self-analysis, self-expression and answers to everlasting issues, on the contrary to the stuffy workaday life dominated with vanity and desire of profit. Mass culture definitely could not rise to the level of those ideals.

Still, these requirements eventually generated a certain style of self-expression in counter-cultural unconstraint and freedom from conventionalities that became much more popular than the standards of elitist art and aristocratic manners.

In his book, Bell concluded that the basis of capitalist culture was shaken. Still, the upsurge of countercultural movements of late 1960s Ц early 1970s did not result in any revolution: on the contrary, adoption of bohemian values not only enabled capitalism to survive but made it more viable and influential than before. This fact was admitted by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, two former "countercultural activists".

Unfortunately for the former hippies and other rioters against the capitalist system, they underwent a scathing bloodless defeat by the system in accordance with the well-known remark of Lao Tse that "the greatest warrior does not need to wage wars". Instead of cracking upon the opposing ideology, a strong system is able to integrate it into itself. Capitalism has just absorbed the counterculture, making it a part of itself and accepting as a version of mainstream culture.

The efficiency of this strategy may be illustrated with examples from advertising policy of major corporations. Not long ago, someone produced a video clip featuring a bottle of Coke that ejects a fountain when a Mentos chewing candy is dropped into it. Instead of suing the sarcastic author, Coca-Cola and Mentos, realizing that the clip was very popular, launched a joint promotion campaign. The competition, run under the title "Poetry in Motion", urged the visitors of the website to create video clips, associated with the theme of challenge.

The authors were supposed to demonstrate the way usual objects could be used for extraordinary purposes, the photo of the "experiment" with the candy becoming the official emblem of the competition. Pete Blackshaw, marketing director of Nielsen/BuzzMetrics, the company that monitored virus technologies on a contract with Coca Cola, argued that viruses could be used as a good means for advertising. MarketingVox quotes Blackshaw's remark: "Instead of addressing an advertising agency for elaboration of a promo campaign, we could just borrow it from a virus clip". Thus, the attempt of Internet users to mock the tycoons of food production was used against them by the corporate logic of marketologists.

The liberal market system has followed the example of the alien biomass from fantastic movies that reacts at any assault on itself with new consolidation. Why attack antiglobalists if it is much more profitable to sell them tees with a photo of Che Guevara? Why forbid anti-corporate books if they are successfully sold? Why suppress freedom if it can be profitably traded?

 

COVERT RIOTERS AND NEW YUPPIES

The middles class can allow itself the behavior of "covert rioters" only on the weekend, having to comply with corporate regulations on working days. Meanwhile, the community of high qualified IT specialists, involved in technologies of management and strategy, enjoys the possibility of combining market ideas with informal artistic-type behavior and appearance. At their generously paid jobs, they don't perform everyday service but implement their own creative ideas.

This new culture has been untypical for Russia, where the new bourgeoisie deliberately distinguishes itself from the personnel by means of expensive and conservative style of clothes and limousines, positioning itself as a self-sufficient caste. Still, new manners of style and behavior can be now noticed in Russian metropolises Ц a top manager with a democratic style of communication, using a motorcycle instead of a limousine to arrive at his office; a high-paid designer with a flexible working schedule and a fancy-style office where he plays "World of Warcraft" in the process of creative work; a marketing manager, borrowing ideas of advertising strategy in sports competitions.

Ostensibly, these new types don't have to comply with any "matrix", any totalitarian suppression and any corporate uniformity Ц instead, they exhibit informal manners corresponding with their search of innovative projects, designs of goods and novelty of services that makes life more comfortable and also more exciting, thus enabling clients to feel unique and open for new impressions. David Brooks has invented the term of "Bobos" Ц bourgeois bohemians" Ц to define this community in his latest book "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There". He emphasizes that for this class that eventually fuses the countercultural cravings of the 1960s with traditional values of market success, being unique and "hardball" is not measured with wealth alone.

Thus, the individualist negation of the world of corporate culture, as well as any forms of individual intellectual riot, does not actually contradict to the system. The rioter is either transformed into a consumer of well trade symbols of liberation, or, in case of special capabilities, even integrated into the most prestigious spheres of business and technologies. This crossbreed of creativity, self-actualization, and success is not the worst achievement of civilization Ц but still not the best. Improvement of the quality of life for everyone and not only for the new yuppies can be achieved not through attractive and often false individual non-conformism but through half-forgotten practice of social activity which an individual develops if he dedicates himself to a higher objective than individual success.


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