Crawl Across the Ocean

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Post Holiday Book Reviews: Rebel Sell

Of all the various forms of writing, the book review has to be one of the ones I know least about. Of course, if I was going to let something like lack of knowledge of what I'm talking about keep me from posting, this blog wouldn't be here. So far, the most interesting book I've read over the holidays has been, The Rebel Sell, which was first (and second, third and fourth) brought to my attention by Darren Barefoot - so here's the review.


Reading through the Rebel Sell, I was consistently entertained, but I found it difficult to keep track of the general argument in my mind. Looking back over the table of contents, it's not hard to see why, the book doesn't seem to have any coherent structure to it: the chapters are more like a series of meditations on the same set of basic points, with the occasional digression into just about anything the authors happen to find annoying about left-wing commentary. That said, I found myself generally agreeing with most of what was written and finding some definite insights, so I have made the effort to pull out what I believe to be the main argument:

1. Society has lots of problems (e.g. there's too much pollution, you find the same stores everywhere, lousy conditions on factory farms, school children way too concerned over what they're wearing, etc.)

From here the argument splits in two: the counter-culture version of how to solve these problems (as described by the authors) and the authors view on how to solve them.

'Counter-Culture' view of the world:

2 a) The 'Counter-culture' (think Naomi Klein, AdBusters, anti-globalization protestors, etc.) believes that these problems are reflective of a systemic problem with (Western) culture / capitalism / paternalistic institutions (like organized religion, schools, hospitals etc.). Collectively known as 'the system' or 'the man' these institutions enforce statism, conformity, oppression, rationality, stifling of creativity etc.

3 a) Since the specific problems we see are just symptoms of the underlying disfunction of our society / culture / system, the way to solve them is not by addressing them directly, but rather by changing the 'root problem' - i.e. changing the system.

4 a) Since the government, the church and the other institutions are part of the problem, they can't be effective as part of the solution. The way to solve the problems is by taking individual action and by forming together into groups (as long as these don't become too formalized - otherwise they are betraying themselves by becoming part of the system) in order to defeat / change the system.

5 a) Once the system is defeated, the general mass of people will see the light / 'have their consciousness raised' and will be ready to do things the new way (which will then solve all of our problems).

Author's View of the World:

2 b) The authors believe that most (many) of the problems we face are not caused by 'the system' but are instead collective action problems1. Basically, prisoner-dilemma like situations where what makes sense for each of us individually doesn't make sense for us collectively (e.g. I am safer if I buy a gun and you don't but if we both buy guns then we are less safe than if neither of us did - hence the rationale for gun control).

3 b) Rather than changing the system, what we need to do is improve the system to solve these collective action problems.

4 b) Since, by definition, a collective action problem requires collective action to solve, solutions which disregard our collective institutions (i.e. government) in favour of individual (or unformalized group) action are doomed to failure.

5 b) The way to solve the collective action problems is to institute solutions which apply to everybody. Rather than being coercive limitations on our freedom as the counter-culture would suggest, these rules will instead protect us from harmful prisoner's dilemmas.

6 b) If only counter-culturalists would stop trying to destroy the system they could work towards fixing it, and we would have the necessary political willpower to solve our collective action problems.

Once we have this framework, the entirety of the book can be seen as a long series of examples which attempt to support the argument (and show that the Author's view is accurate while the counter-cultural one is counter-productive).

A couple of the more memorable examples they give are:

School uniforms: Counter-culturalists reject the oppression of conformity and uniformity they bring while the authors suggest they are just a practical way to stop the collective action problem whereby students are forced to put great effort into buying and wearing the right clothing to avoid being seen as geeks/losers etc.)

Advertising: Counter-culturalists think we can defeat the advertising system by turning brand power against the companies which own them through culture jamming, protesting etc. while the authors suggest that advertising is just a collective action problem in which one company can gain an edge by advertising but then other companies have to respond and then it just keeps escalating like an arms race. What's needed is government rule changes to help companies get away from this self-destructive behavior (they recommend making advertising only 50% tax deductible - a good idea in my view).


The biggest source of confusion (for me) was that the authors dwelt at great length on one particular example - the example of counter-culturalists trying to defeat 'the system' through their consumption choices. So much so that at first I thought the book was actually just about this particular case and was thus puzzled at all the other unrelated examples they threw in.

So we hear about Adbusters selling their own branded shoes, Naomi Klein living in a loft instead of a suburban house, alternative music instead of the mainstream, free range chickens and on and on, with the Authors consistently asserting that not only are these consumption choices not going to destroy capitalism, they are in fact reinforcing it (because these purchases are only done to achieve status by being unique but eventually what was initially cool (i.e. grunge music) becomes mainstream so the counter-culturalists have to find some new cool trend to buy stuff for, leading to a never ending cycle of consumption in the pursuit of counter-cultural status symbols).

Aside from the confusion caused by not clearly separating this frequently cited example from their core argument, I was surprised the authors would choose this particular example to focus on since it doesn't seem like one of their strongest.

The primary weakness of the consumption example (to me) is that, clearly not all 'counter-cultural' purchases are made in pursuit of distinction or status. Lots of people buy organic produce, not to feel morally superior or just to be different, but because they're willing to pay more to avoid the negative externalities caused by pesticides. If everyone started buying organic food and it started being sold by Kraft or whoever, most of the current organic food advocates would see this as a good thing - not as a sign that organic was no longer cool and that it was time to buy something else.


Looking at the book as a whole, the big weaknesses were the lack of structure, the over-emphasis of the one (not particularly strong) example, a tendency to argue against their opponents weaker points and ignore their stronger ones and a tendency to sometimes gloss over things a little too quickly.

Strengths were the clear entertaining prose, the wealth of interesting examples, the emphasis on collective action problems and the need for government involvement to solve them, and the broad range of ideas and other points of view that they covered.

The true message at the core of the book comes through when the authors talk about what they call the counter-culture's cardinal sin: opposing (or at least not endorsing) positive changes in the laws/regulations because they were just superficial changes that are all part of the same corrupt, screwed up system. As an example of this, they mention how in Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore rejects gun control laws as a solution since they don't get to the root of the problem which is the culture of fear in the United States.

I'd go into more detail on the strengths and weaknesses but I've already written too much (writing a book review is hard).

In a nutshell? If you're interested in consumerism or environmentalism this book is the best I've read on the topic in quite a while - even in this long-winded post I've only scratched the surface of what's in it. I just wish they had taken the time to structure their argument in a logical, easy-to-follow manner (it would have saved me some trouble anyway).


I feel like I haven't really gotten the point across about just how many collective action problems we face so perhaps I will add an (infrequently) recurring post on 'Collective Action Problem for the Day' starting with some of the better ones mentioned in the book and then moving on to whatever seems worthy/relevant/topical as time goes by.


1 If you want more background on what is a Prisoner's Dilemma / Collective Action problem, the Wikipedia article is excellent and very readable.

Labels: , , , , , ,


  • Reading your synopsis, the first thing that came to mind is: Hey, this sounds just like "The Efficient Society". Then I looked and saw that Rebel Sell has the same author.

    Have you read ES? If so, can you add any comment that tells me how this new book takes things further than what was included and/or implied in Efficient Society?

    By Blogger Andrew Spicer, at 4:07 PM  

  • Sorry Andrew, haven't read The Efficient Society. But after reading this well written (by Bob Rae of all people) review of it, ( - I'm guessing that the main difference is that Rebel Sell focusses more on Consumerism and the Counter-Culture's attempts to defeat it than The Efficient Society did.

    I probably put more emphasis on the collective action problem aspects of Rebel Sell in my summary than there is in the book, but that was because I found it to be the most interesting/persuasive part - so maybe I should have just read The Efficient Society instead!

    By Blogger Declan, at 5:49 PM  

  • Well, I think it is the same for me. I was really captured by the collective-action problem aspect of The Efficient Society.

    Long time ago I wrote about it here and here.

    By Blogger Andrew Spicer, at 8:50 AM  

  • Thanks for the links Andrew, they were both interesting reading. I was pretty surprised by the truck passing example.

    (for the first link, you need to go to:

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home