Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism pt5

By Benga · Oct 10, 2008 ·
  1. Benga
    The counterculture may be more accurately understood as a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class.

    Placing the culture of the 1960s in this corporate context does little to support any of the standard countercultural myths, nor does it affirm the consensual notion of the 1960s as a time of fundamental cultural confrontation. It suggests instead that the counterculture may be more accurately understood as a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class, a colorful installment in the twentieth century drama of consumer subjectivity. This is not, of course, a novel interpretation: in the 1960s and 1970s it was a frequent plaint among writers who insisted that the counterculture was apolitical and self-indulgent, or, when it did spill over into obviously political manifestations, confused and anarchistic. This critique of cultural liberation even extends back to the late 1950s, when Delmore Schwartz reacted to the rise of the Beats by pointing out that the attack of the "san francisco howlers" on "the conformism of the organization man, the advertising executive, the man in the grey flannel suit, or the man in the brooks brothers suit" was

    a form of shadow boxing because the Man in the Brooks Brothers suit is himself, in his own home, very often what [Bertrand] Russell has called an upper Bohemian. His conformism is limited to the office day and business hours: in private life—and at heart—he is as Bohemian as anyone else.

    Michael Harrington described the counterculture in 1972 as a massification of the bohemia in which he had spent his youth, an assumption of the values of Greenwich Village by the decidedly nonrevolutionary middle class. "i wonder if the mass counterculture may not be a reflection of the very hyped and video-taped world it professes to despise," he wrote.

    Bohemia could not survive the passing of its polar opposite and precondition, middle-class morality. Free love and all-night drinking and art for art's sake were consequences of a single stern imperative: thou shalt not be bourgeois. But once the bourgeoisie itself became decadent—once businessmen started hanging nonobjective art in the boardroom—Bohemia was deprived of the stifling atmosphere without which it could not breathe.

    Others understood the counterculture explicitly in terms of accelerating consumer culture and the crisis in corporate thought. "having professed their disdain for middle-class values," wrote novelist and adman Earl Shorris in 1967, "the hippies indulge in them without guilt." Shorris envisioned the counterculture not as a movement promising fundamental transformation but as an expression of a solidly middle-class dream:

    The preponderance of hippies come from the middle class, because it is there even among adults that the illusion of the hippies' joy, free love, purity and drug excitement is strongest. A man grown weary of singing company songs at I.B.M. picnics, feeling guilty about the profits he has made on defense stocks, who hasn't really loved his wife for 10 years, must admire, envy and wish for a life of love and contemplation, a simple life leading to a beatific peace. He soothes his despair with the possibility that the hippies have found the answers to problems he does not dare to face.

    In a famously cynical essay that appeared in Ramparts in 1967, Warren Hinckle pointed out that, for all the rhetoric of alienation, the inhabitants of the Haight-Ashbury were "brand name conscious" and "frantic consumers."

    In this commercial sense, the hippies have not only accepted assimilation . . . , they have swallowed it whole. The hippie culture is in many ways a prototype of the most ephemeral aspects of the larger American society; if the people looking in from the suburbs want change, clothes, fun, and some lightheadedness from the new gypsies, the hippies are delivering—and some of them are becoming rich hippies because of it.

    Looking back in 1974, Marshall Berman directly equated "cultural liberation" in the sixties sense with dynamic economic growth. Andrew Ross pointed out in 1989 that this curiously ambivalent relationship with consumerism has always been the defining characteristic of hip: an "essentially agnostic cult of style worship," hip is concerned more with "advanced knowledge about the illegitimate," and staying one step ahead of the consuming crowd than with any "ideology of good community faith." Nor did those who were the counterculture's putative enemies feel that it posed much of a threat to the core values of consumer capitalism. On the contrary, they found that it affirmed those values in certain crucial ways, providing American business with a system of easy symbols with which they could express their own needs and solve the intractable cultural problems they had encountered during the 1950s.

    The counterculture has long since outlived the enthusiasm of its original participants and become a more or less permanent part of the American scene, a symbolic and musical language for the endless cycles of rebellion and transgression.

    The counterculture has long since outlived the enthusiasm of its original participants and become a more or less permanent part of the American scene, a symbolic and musical language for the endless cycles of rebellion and transgression that make up so much of our mass culture. With leisure-time activities of consuming redefined as "rebellion," two of late capitalism's great problems could easily be met: obsolescence found a new and more convincing language, and citizens could symbolically resolve the contradiction between their role as consumers and their role as producers. The countercultural style has become a permanent fixture on the American scene, impervious to the angriest assaults of cultural and political conservatives, because it so conveniently and efficiently transforms the myriad petty tyrannies of economic life—all the complaints about conformity, oppression, bureaucracy, meaninglessness, and the disappearance of individualism that became virtually a national obsession during the 1950s—into rationales for consuming. No longer would Americans buy to fit in or impress the Joneses, but to demonstrate that they were wise to the game, to express their revulsion with the artifice and conformity of consumerism. The enthusiastic discovery of the counterculture by the branches of American business studied here marked the consolidation of a new species of hip consumerism, a cultural perpetual motion machine in which disgust with the falseness, shoddiness, and everyday oppressions of consumer society could be enlisted to drive the ever-accelerating wheels of consumption.

    Both of the industries studied here are often written about in quasi-conspiratorial terms. Many Americans apparently believe advertising works because it contains magic "subliminals"; others sneer at fashion as an insidious plot orchestrated by a Paris-New York cabal. Both ideas are interesting popular variations on the mass society/consumerism-as-conformity critique. But this book makes no attempt to resolve the perennial question of exactly how much the garment industries control fashion trends. Obviously the Fairchild company is unable to trick the public into buying whatever look it chooses to launch in one of the myriad magazines it owns, but it is hardly conspiracy-mongering to study the company's attempts to do so. Nor does this book seek to settle the debate over whether advertising causes cultural change or reflects it: obviously it does a great deal of both. Business leaders are not dictators scheming to defraud the nation, but neither are they the mystic diviners of the public will that they claim (and that free-market theory holds them) to be. I am assuming here that the thoughts and worries and ecstasies of business leaders are worth studying regardless of the exact quantity of power they exert over the public mind. Whether the cultural revolution of the 1960s was the product of conspiracy, popular will, or the movement of market or dialectic, the thinking of corporate America is essential in judging its historical meaning.

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