I can’t decide if I like Thomas Frank or not, but I think the answer is mostly: not. Occasionally he’ll say something smart, like in this recent Avclub interview, in which he points out the contrapositive of his What’s The Matter With Kansas thesis: namely, for liberal elite types like me disliking George W. Bush was more of an abstract intellectual thing than a bread and butter issue, because Republican economic policies aren’t that disastrous for us. We’ve got the marketable skills and employer-provided health insurance that allow us to muddle on through. But other times not so much. A decade ago Slate published a debate between Thomas Frank and David Brooks which has the momentous distinction of being the only time David Brooks has actually seemed smarter than someone else. On cultural issues in particular I’m inclined to roll my eyes at Frank, not because he’s more naive than other people I disagree with, but because he’s the lead spokesman for an issue I find particularly specious: the pernicious effect of countercultural marketing.
Frank wrote a whole book on the subject, but the basic story may be familiar even if you haven’t read it. Once upon a time in the 1950s and early 1960s America was a stultifying hellhole of male chauvinism, racism, and sexual repression. As bad as this was, at least you knew your enemy. He was the WASP at the country club, the man in the gray flannel suit, the bland white guy whose smooth mastery of the levers of power was intimately bound up with with his total absence of any meaningful inner life. Then along came the late 1960s and a general uprising against the whole postwar regime. And this wasn’t just political–it was also cultural. Hippies wore their hair long, smoked dope, and listened to rock music, and though each of these acts might individually seem like mere hedonistic indulgence, against the backdrop of the buttoned-down 50s they took on a political significance. Lifestyle choices became tools that helped the 1960s American left abolish Jim Crow, give rise to the women’s liberation movement, and end the war in Vietnam. (Actually, the war in Vietnam was ended by the Vietnamese Communists, who did so by very cleverly winning it, but that’s a story for another time.) The personal was political, and one’s personal tastes could have revolutionary significance.
The problem is, the story didn’t end there. It turns out that the Man’s hold on power wasn’t as tenuous as it might have appeared back in the heady days of 1968. He had the smarts and resources to stay on top, and if that meant jettisoning the gray flannel suit, so be it. Instead of fighting the counterculture he would embrace and co-opt it. Advertising now exhorted people to rebel and simultaneously sold them the products that enabled them to do so. You drank X-treme Mountain Dew, just did it in your Nike sneakers, and purchased your pre-packaged emblems of punk rebellion at Hot Topic. Counterculture became culture you bought over a counter. Corporate marketing’s adoption of anti-establishment poses was a brilliant jujitsu move and a visible symptom of Capitalism’s Borg-like indefatigability.
The bright side of all this is that it drives guys like Frank absolutely up a wall. I remember reading an interview with him years ago that sadly I’m unable to dig up now, but in it he described his experience as a young punk rock college student figuring out the stuff I outlined above. What struck me was his sense of outrage, not at the existence of Capitalist power structures per se, but at their willingness to barge in on his turf. They had everything else–the money, the cops, the MX missiles–so why goddamit it did they have to grab the cool clothes and music too? It was just so greedy. Beneath the Marxist analysis you could feel Frank digging in his heels and saying you’ll take my punk authenticity when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.
How much of this counterculture co-option story do I buy into? Most of it actually. The facts I don’t dispute, just their significance. Against the backdrop of the buttoned-down 1950s, hippie lifestyle choices really did take on a revolutionary significance, but only because 1950s squares had made themselves particularly vulnerable to this form of symbolic attack. The relationship between straight culture and counterculture is inescapably symbiotic. The symbolic tokens used to distinguish the one from the other–long hair versus short hair, marijuana versus whiskey–are completely interchangeable. They are–to wheel out the Saussurean machinery for the like umpteenth time in postwar cultural analysis–arbitrary signifiers, meaningful only in contrast to one another. It only matters if I wear my hair long if you are insistent about keeping yours short and vice versa. Corporate America’s adoption of the symbols of cultural dissent wasn’t some novel counter-revolutionary tactic–it was the inevitable next step in an ongoing process of symbolic interchange that you can no more stop than you can stop the tide. By its nature, a cultural style must be co-optable, because at some point its original adherents have to jointly opt into it. Curmudgeons like Frank who worry about the loss of some prelapsarian cultural authenticity are like the curmudgeons us linguists can’t stand who are always insisting it’s been all downhill for the English language since the days of Shakespeare. They are so attached to the particular symbols they grew up with that they fail to see the deeper homeostasis that underlies the whole system. And this isn’t just a pretext for a breast-beating pity party about how the Man always wins, because it takes two to symbiose. Eventually corporate adoption of countercultural poses will bottom out in absurd attempts to personify Corn Nuts as biker badasses, which is kinda cute, but also a self-parodying dead end. As soon as someone overcommits to a vision of consumer products as a gateway to cultural liberation, this becomes the raw material for someone else to build an identity around the way this equation is flawed, and possibly even make that identity do some real political work. Punks of the future, get busy.