What Andrew Potter and I were arguing against, in The Rebel Sell, was a certain political idea, which originated in the 1960s, but remained enormously influential during the punk era as well. The thought was that, in order to have a truly revolutionary politics, it was not sufficient to oppose just the capitalist economic system (as previous generations of communist revolutionaries had done). Capitalism was thought to be just one manifestation of a larger problem, which affected all aspects of society – the education system, the military-industrial complex, the church, the family, in fact the entire culture. In order to be truly revolutionary, one needed to oppose “the system” in its entirety. The central characteristic of the system was taken to be its fixation on order and discipline. If the entire culture was repressive, then liberation was possible only by forming a “counterculture,” which would celebrate the disorderly and the anarchic. This had a huge impact on left-wing politics. It explains how, as we put it in the book, “the hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, came to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than a civil rights activist working to enlist voters, or the feminist politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment.”
The countercultural analysis, unfortunately, turned out to be mistaken. There’s no other way to put it. The idea was that if certain forms of discipline broke down – for instance, if people overcame their sexual repression and discovered free love, or if people began to reject the soul-destroying conformity of the suburbs, that a new era of freedom and individuality would break out, as a result of which, people would no longer tolerate the exploitative conditions of assembly-line labour, or military conscription to fight wars of imperialism. In other words, it was genuinely believed that countercultural rebellion would undermine and destroy “the system.” In the end though, it turned out that “the system” doesn’t actually require mass conformity, or sexual repression. So all that “rebellion” just became a new source of competitive consumption. The sexual revolution, for instance, immediately gave rise to the pornography industry. And clothing companies are just as happy selling leather jackets as they are grey flannel suits. So countercultural rebellion immediately became a part of the system that it believed itself to be opposing.
This is not to say that art cannot change things. But it cannot change the fundamental nature of commercial society. Artists have been condemning bourgeois society and its values for well over 100 years, and all they have succeeded in doing is showing how deep and liquid the market is for anti-bourgeois products.