Thomas Frank, Consumerism and Dissent
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The contemporary problem of a society which has a democratic and liberal political setting alongside a free market economic system or any society which gears towards such characterizations remains to be one that involves what contemporary political thinkers and scholars refer to as the notion of the plurality of values - Thomas Frank, Consumerism and Dissent introduction. Isaiah Berlin, for instance, considers what he called values pluralism as an inevitable consequence of the processes of democratization and liberalization.
For the sake of clarity, it is but proper to lay down at the onset, what the task of this paper is. This paper’s task remains two-fold; first it seeks to explicate Thomas Frank’s views in his essay entitled, Why Johnny Can’t Dissent from the book, Commodify Your Dissent, and second, it aims to give substantive criticisms to Frank’s views and comment on how media and advertising have caused business culture and counterculture to become, essentially, one and the same. In what sense may they be considered as one and the same?
Now that the task of this paper had been laid down, we will now immediately proceed with Frank’s views. Prior to discussing Frank’s views, it is however, equally important to give a few remarks on commercialism and capitalism. Commercialism, as may be observed, has taken hold of many societies since the inception of globalization and capitalist paradigms on the scene. These current paradigms are paradigms that have met considerably many criticisms and yet were able to flourish. For this reason, it is important to examine the reasons behind the continued existence of such paradigms.
Adorno and Horkheimer, for instance, view commercialism, the weapon of capitalism in and through which it is possible to transform a society into a mediocre herd which prefers popular culture’s logic of style and false notions of values such as “individuality” over more pure expressions of truth, as the culprit for the erosion not only of societal values but also of culture. As they see it, commercialism made possible the existence of the “deceived masses” (133).
The deception of the masses is a phenomenon that is worth the time to evaluate. How is this phenomenon possible? It is at this point that media and advertising steps into the scene. In Legal Philosophy, fundamental rights are those rights that are inalienable to human persons. An example of this kind of right is the right of free speech. The state’s recognition that free speech is a fundamental right that ought to be granted to individuals or citizens of a free democracy has crucial implications on the current problems of any state claiming to be “democratic”.
For one, free speech, by virtue of being a fundamental right, paves the way for differing ideas, worldviews and values. In a liberal and democratic political setting, this is actually healthy. Ideally, it ensures that decisions are arrived at through proper deliberation. By proper deliberation, we refer to different ideas being examined critically through rational discourse. However, there had been considerably significant drawbacks to the recognition of free speech as a fundamental right and these drawbacks involve among many other things the core notions of social obligation and social responsibility that the press or the media ought to be mindful of in terms of proliferating false notions and values through the mechanism of advertising.
Naturally, societies which adhere to the tenets of liberalism and democracy will be flooded by too many ideas, worldviews and values. This is an accurate characterization of current liberal and democratic societies. Capitalism, in itself, has a commercial mechanism which Barthes calls “censorship by repletion” (185). Commercialism thus, produces confusion and perhaps, intellectual anarchy, by flooding too many false notions as exemplified in the slogans that capitalists use to market their products. In a certain sense, the rise of commercialism endangers the very fabric of society; society’s cultural, historical and intellectual heritage. Eventually, marketing and advertising were able to replace political discourse. People, oftentimes readily accept the truthfulness of advertisements. They rarely take the time to think for themselves the truthfulness of slogans and advertisements on the television and the Internet. Such a setting of course, poses serious threats not only on the individual but more importantly, to the whole of society. We seem to forget that we have an important epistemic obligation, that is, not to accept the truth of a belief or a statement unless we have sufficient evidence for it.
Undeniably, popular culture affects how the current generation thinks and reasons. To a certain extent, popular culture predisposes and moulds our children to behave and more importantly, to think in such and such ways. Culture, being a way of life, is a social phenomenon; it is the society which creates culture. It is the society which creates certain patterns of living, as argued by some social theorists. The idea is that it is ultimately, the people who draft their culture and their history. This idea is however, threatened by commercialism and capitalism. Vein Lasn adds up to this idea: “Culture isn’t created from the bottom up by the people anymore – it’s fed to us top-down by corporations” (189). What Van Lasn is pointing out is the fact that the market is too powerful a force that dictates culture.
In Frank’s view, the corporate world feeds on the masses’ desire to individuality. The capitalists exploit this desire to be different, to be unique, or to stand out by linking the notion of individuality with a certain product that they sell on the market. The commercial mechanism of capitalism is, as stated earlier in the discussion, is the media through advertising. Businesses make extensive use of media and advertising to get the attention of the consumers.
Capitalism, through media and advertising commodifies values such as individuality. By linking the false notion of individuality to a certain commodity, consumers think that they are unique, that they are different. A deeper analysis however reveals that the aforementioned claim to individuality is nothing but an illusion; a figment of the mind manufactured and institutionalized by capitalists. It is not only the case that it is manufactured and institutionalized; it is also sold to the consumers. Frank offers a metaphor: “The race track, the plane on which all individuals race for stardom, is run by those who create and instill conformity. The harder one tries to rebel, the deeper they play into the new consumer hip world, thus defeating their original goal entirely”.
At this point, we will discuss how media and advertising marketed the idea of rebellion and how the subversive youth counterculture became, in itself, an affirmation not of individuality but of conformity. The quoted statement above from the last paragraph of Frank’s essay raises considerably significant issues that need to be dealt with accordingly. As Frank sees it, the race for individuality is a race that can never be won. The problem, as he sees it, is the fact that the “race track” or the playing field is in itself, owned by those who create and instill conformity – the capitalists. In addition to this, the aforementioned race cannot be won simply because it is the capitalist who dictates the rules. As a matter of fact, they do so because they are the ones who create the rules. So, following Frank’s reasoning in his metaphor, it is indeed the case that no matter how one tries to rebel, one inevitably gets caught up, entangled with the webs of commercialism and capitalism.
The goal to be non-conformists is in vain. Why is this so? As Frank sees it, the current youth counterculture and its attempt to rebel involves a contradiction at its very core. Frank argues that “consumerism is no longer about conforming but about difference” (113). How did this happen? In the preceding discussions, consumerism is associated with conformity but why is it that Frank now claims that it is about difference? For him, the answer is simple. The youth counterculture rebels through material means like fashion and clothing or cars. The idea of individuality, the idea of being unique or different is limited to the shallow definition that the youth appropriates for itself. Consumerism is no longer about conforming but about difference, as Frank claims, since individuals are desperately trying not to conform but by trying not to conform, they end up conforming. Indeed, conforming and not-conforming becomes one and the same since they all play by the rules of the game; and the rules of the game as stated earlier, are created and thereby, controlled by the capitalists.
Frank also makes mention of how the television makes significant contributions to the deception of the masses. It makes them believe that they are in control of themselves and their lives. On a superficial level, one may think that one is free in choosing the kind of television shows that he or she may choose according to the dictates of his or her will. The problem is however, much more complex and to think in the way described above is an oversimplification of the problem. It simply misses the point, so to speak. For even the shows on the television are dictated by the “fad”, by what is considered hip during a particular point in time. As Frank states: “hip is their official ideology” (121).
Moreover, flipping channels on the television may generate feelings of being in control but this is not exactly true. It is still the market-driven, capitalist-owned television networks that dictate the range of the so called “choices”. The people’s experiences with the advertisements on the television are just the same. These advertisements proliferate false consciousness, false notions of values. The television is indeed, also contributory to the aforementioned deception of the masses.
Aside from generating feelings of being in control, the television industry also generates feelings that people are capable of rebelling against popular culture. Even brilliant and innovative television producers and directors may be tempted to think that by coming up with a new idea, they are rebelling against popular culture. But the crucial point that must be underscored here is the fact that since these people are all engaged in a competition against rivals, they would naturally do what is best for their respective television networks. And so, they think and do the same things; thinking and trying to come up with something new, something unique that they can offer in the hope that they would provide entertainment to the audience. Again, the point is clear; these television show producers and directors just like everyone else are caught up in the web.
In The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Frank still has a lot to say regarding American business and advertising. What he has to say includes among many other things, how the business culture was able to benefit from advertising propaganda and how the advertising industry mocks the intelligence of the masses by treating them as such. In describing the status of advertising in the fifties, he writes: “Never has advertising been so unwilling to acknowledge the myriad petty frustrations, the anger, the fear that make up so much of daily existence, consuming and otherwise. Never has it insisted so dogmatically on such an abstractly glowing vision of American life. And never has it been so vulnerable to mockery” (48b).
The statement above further supports and strengthens the points that were previously established regarding the deception made by advertisers on the masses. The technique employed by these advisers is the use of a simple, catchy slogan, which is oftentimes repeated over and over again to facilitate better recall. The point however, in the above statement is that these advertisements were painting an all too beautiful picture of American life; a picture that may be considered as far from reality. It is also important to note that there are even advertisements that are not simply far from reality but divorced from reality. In addition to this, there are also advertisements that defy the very foundation of rational discourse. There are advertisements that are, so to speak, simply illogical; a non-sequitur.
For Frank, “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” (28b). The counterculture for him is still held fast by and is still rooted in consumer capitalism. Indeed, consumer subjectivity had been an accurate description and characterization of the American society.
What mat be called as youth subculture started out in the sixties; which is in part, an attempt to capture the youth. For the business culture, the very idea of “being young” is in itself, an idea that may be considered “marketable”. He further argued that the reason for this is that the youth is a symbol of something new and exciting. It symbolizes an attitude and a break from the old; from the very idea of conformity. An example of a slogan used by advertisers in the past is “think young” which is intuitively appealing not to the youth but to the older generations.
The striking fact though in the case of the counterculture is how the business sector together with the help of advertisers were able to transform what is supposedly, an act of rebellion through new and revolutionary ideas to one that would further their interests. Consumer capitalism provides as with an answer to such a query. It was able to feed on the vanity of individual persons.
As I reckon it, the important contribution made by Frank is the idea that we must fix our gaze on those who may be regarded as the creators of mass culture since they are the ones who dictates the rules of the game. The playing field is owned by them. By focusing on those who create mass culture, we will learn what needs to be done to solve the problems confronting us. Frank actually gave a recommendation in the last paragraph of his essay, Why Johnny Can’t Dissent. According to him, “we should knock over the stage”. As stated in the earlier part of the essay, it may be inferred that this knocking over the stage means that if we want change to happen, we must identify the root of the problem. As I reckon it, what Frank is pointing at is the fact that metaphorically speaking, there are people who “own what he calls the race track or the stage”; if I may be allowed, to use my preferred term, the “playing field”. The materially, capitalist-driven economy paved the way for consumerist values to flourish. These values are however, arguably not the kind of values that would allow for a society to flourish. Society in itself has gone through a tedious process of transformation to the extent that the values of the past were replaced by emerging values albeit of a different character. As a matter or fact, these values are built upon false notions of values such as individuality.
The final part of the paper is devoted to a discussion of the value of “dissent” in a free democracy. Frank presented plausible arguments in support of his claims however, as I reckon it, he overlooked the vital role of the notion of rebellion or of dissent in a free democracy. I will argue that even if Frank’s arguments are true, it does not necessarily follow that rebelling or dissenting against the status quo or the paradigms of capitalism and consumerism. For this part, I will use Levinson’s ideas to serve as a starting point to further my point. In his work entitled, Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct I), he put forward ideas that induced significantly considerable insights which led me to think that Frank overlooked the values of dissent and rebellion. Levinson’s project albeit, ambitious is in itself a powerful criticism against the status quo. Of course, such a “dissenter” inevitably meets various criticisms. However, in a deeper analysis, dissention reveals itself as a valuable and vital condition for a constitutional democracy. It is also important for political stability and conceptually plays a very crucial role in the avoidance of political stagnation. The core notion of dissention is an issue that I would like to discuss next. We were able to point out several important criticisms posed by Levinson on the American Constitution and his appreciation for dissention; the need to challenge and change the status quo.
The philosopher Descartes found it helpful to doubt in order to arrive at something that he cannot deny, an indubitable truth. In the same vein, it is also helpful for us to practice a healthy kind of skepticism; we must have room for doubts, for questioning things. In a free democracy, one is bombarded by so many ideas; there are occasions when all these ideas produce certain kinds of uneasiness on the part of the individual since it seems that there are so many ideas to choose from. A free democracy is indeed, a marketplace of ideas.
There are issues within this universe of discourse that we may take time to consider. It is not uncommon, for instance, to see advertisements on the television that boast of acquiring a certain value for purchasing a certain product. There are even advertisements on the television that makes an improper and questionable use of notions such as “individuality” by linking it with a particular product like a watch, a pair of shoes or a new model of a cellular phone. It is not also uncommon to see advertisements of beauty products on the television or the Internet. These advertisements oftentimes create a notion of beauty in the sense of having white skin, blemish-free skin, slim figure and the likes. Capitalists know where to hit the consumers. The media, being given the right to do so, oftentimes fail to take note of the so-called boundaries; the limitations of their state-given rights. It is not uncommon to see media people who have acted irresponsibly and unethically in the practice of their professions.
In line with the discussion regarding Levinson, the need to challenge the status quo, the importance of doubt, we will now turn to the idea of “dissent” and its distinctive function in the kind of society depicted above; a free democracy. In a free democracy, there exists a plurality of worldviews and values. Inevitably, these worldviews and values would, at some point, conflict with one another. This is a characterization of the current American society.
The kind of advertisements we see on the television and the Internet, these are mere chimeras of the values that they promise. A particular product may have a slogan that tells you that they value “individuality” and say “you are what you wear” but the truth is that the promised individuality is merely a figment of the imagination manufactured by capitalists. The capitalist-driven industries have indeed affected a vast majority of people in so many different ways. As pointed out earlier, the promised individuality is merely a figment of the imagination; there is no individuality in buying those things, there is only “conformity”. Sustein claims that “Much of the time, dissenters benefit others, while conformists benefit themselves” (6). Sustein is trying to demystify the belief that dissenters have nothing good to contribute to society; that they are mere troublemakers who, by dissenting to public opinion and standards are merely pulling society backwards. This is one of the issues in a free democracy. Given the wide range of choices we have, what will we choose? Given the many values there are, what values will we adhere to? If we are to be more specific about this, we may ask ourselves the question as to what it is that we must do, “to conform or to dissent?” How do we distinguish the truth given that we live in the time when the dominant paradigm is that there are multiple truths?
In a free democracy, it is important to have dissenters because contrary to popular belief, they do have something good to contribute. Unanimity, although usually held as a sign of agreement and cooperation may also mean inefficiency and stagnation since there is no opposing side to check whether the decisions, policies and statutes are arrived at through proper deliberation. In the government, it is important to have dissenters; it is always healthy to have an opposing side to ensure that there are “checks and balances”. Sustein argues that, “Freedom of speech provides the key safeguard against senseless cascades. It opens up space for dissent by forbidding government from mandating conformity or from insulating itself, and citizens generally, from disagreeable, unwanted, and even offensive opinions” (96). From this statement, one may thus infer that for Sustein, individual liberty, in the sense of the fundamental rights such as the freedom of speech takes priority over the interests of the state; that fundamental rights ought to be respected by the state.
Adorno and Horkheimer. The Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Herder and Herder, c. 1972.
Barthes, R. Image, Music, Text. Hill, c. 1977.
Frank, Thomas. “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent.” Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler. W. W. Norton & Company; 1st ed., c. 1997.
_____. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. University of Chicago Press, c. 1997.
Lasn, K. Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America. Eagle Brook, c. 1999.
Levinson, Sanford. Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong And
How We the People Can Correct It. Oxford University Press, c. 2006.
Sunstein, Cass. Why Societies Need Dissent. Harvard University Press, c. 2003.