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24 July 2023

Commodify your dissent

With the husk of revolutionary language retained, capitalism has encircled the very idea of transformation.

By Lauren Carroll Harris

Everything is radical now. Searching for “radical act” in Google News yields an interminable prospectus of stories about the most picayune acts, gestures and merchandise: self-care, hair products, leisure, beauty, dark humour, dinner parties, gardening, craft, play, listening, orgasms, making friends, eating with strangers, divorce, rest, fashion runways, self-reinvention and generosity. Dozens more pages of search results herald other so-called “radical acts”: makeup ads, leaning on others, helping the pets of homeless people, kindness, shopping at small businesses, making your own clothes, finishing a cup of tea, and the Avatar films. Even doing nothing has been described as radical. If radicalism once offered a glimpse of better worlds, today it is a descriptor for life’s banalities and coping mechanisms.

In the art world, everything from knitting and dancing to printmaking and attending an exhibition has been presented as an expression of radicalism. Publications touting ever-present radical acts – Forbes, Bon Appétit, The Nation, The Business of Fashion, W Magazine and Los Angeles Times – are not radical mastheads, but the language of radicalism has reached mainstream acceptance in them.

Meanwhile, the ways that social change has historically been hard-won – pride marches, unions, social movements, revolutions, civil disobedience, picket lines, social housing, wealth redistribution – scarcely rate a mention in the present “radical acts” discourse. A deeper dispute lies latent: what is it, exactly, that changes the world? Consumer habits? What do we mean when we talk of systemic change?

A useful definition of a genuinely radical act might be one that transforms existing legal and institutional structures. Another might be a community-building project, or the pursuit of transforming capitalism rather than seeking change through piecemeal reforms. In Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration (2023), the legal scholar Jocelyn Simonson argues that when individuals pay bail for a stranger or use social media to report on courtroom proceedings, they are doing truly effective, radical work. How do acts such as gardening, hosting dinner parties or watching Avatar even compare? Peculiar, too, how so many self-heralded subversive acts seem to depend on a certain level of affluence.

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher argued that everything contrary to capitalism is and will be co-opted by capitalism. Fisher might have even deemed many of today’s “radical acts” to be examples of how the counterculture is no longer expressed through politics or organising. Corporations are frighteningly adept at identifying, appropriating and diluting once-reviled progressive sentiments; the dangerous idea of yesterday is the market opportunity of today. “No child-labour laws were broken to bring you fashion this affordable,” declared one ad for the now-defunct Daffy’s clothing store, illustrated with a child giving a peace sign. “Wear a suit without being one,” touted another campaign.

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These ideas about co-option have been theorised for almost 50 years, in which time the commodification of things that were better left uncommodified has only accelerated. Volunteering and global development have been commercialised through paid voluntourism. Concerns about ecology and food have been subsumed by the marketing fad for “plant-based” nutrition. Make-up brands feign solidarity with prospective consumers to sell them products that exemplify the in-vogue values of diversity and inclusion. Tie-dyed T-shirts, once the cliché of the unkempt hippy, now form an endlessly dull procession of cheap stock in high-street shops. Steve Jobs, who was mythologised as a revolutionary despite his largely orthodox success story, nearly called the Safari browser “Freedom”. Any number of Eastern health philosophies – reiki, intuitive bodywork and an emotional detox called Chei Nei Tsang – have been ransacked and co-opted by the wellness industry.

[See also: The New Age of Tragedy]

It is both stupefyingly dull and overstimulating to live in a culture convinced that it has exhausted its capacity to generate new ideas. The science-fiction genre – originally a project of political imagination – now churns out repetitive stories of catastrophe by screenwriters contracted by media companies and inserted into the overstuffed catalogues of streaming platforms. Marvel, the cinema-destroying company that has built a machine to produce formulaic hit movies, now makes a franchise devoted to the postcolonial politics of black power.

In the 1990s the American journalist Thomas Frank showed how, after the Cold War, businesses began to present themselves as nonconformist in both vibe and values, aided by the development of market segmentation and brand image. Drinks companies such as Dr Pepper and Pepsi vied to exhibit vague but marketable insurgent values with, for example, the use of rock music in their ads. 7-Up even went so far as to try to distinguish itself as an “uncola” of dissent against established soda conventions.

But what does co-option mean now? It’s not just ad men who remake the arcane materials of hipness and ideas that used to be threatening to establishment politics. So do editors, journalists and content creators, who have grown more responsive to progressive consciousness since 2020, when, in the year of Black Lives Matter, media organisations embraced a kind of corporate-activist concern over antiracism, diversity and conscious consumerism. Some of BLM’s ideas were deeply challenging – prison abolition, defunding the police – but its political victories were more amorphous. As the post-BLM malaise lingers, the language of dissidence prevails in social media copy, headlines and content. Capitalism is both absorbent and ghoulish.

In the unbecoming scramble for digital subscriptions and clicks, media organisations have become brands, too. Much content in digital and social media thrives on the fact that it’s easier to be a conscious consumer than it is to be an effective community organiser. The Guardian’s lifestyle section provides shopper’s guides to synthetic fabrics. Stylist.co.uk claims that Barbie “is set to consolidate Barbie’s new era as a feminist icon”. Vice’s fashion magazine i-D ran a story on a new collection by the Italian megabrand Moncler that will apparently “humanise luxury” clothing with jackets priced at £1,340. Highsnobiety’s new beauty section promises to “champion unconventional ideologies of beauty” while expanding into an e-commerce platform. All the while, consumption is presented as subversive because it promises both individuality and relief from what the trend forecaster K-Hole calls the “depressing” reality of “wars, famine, poverty, [and] global warming”. It’s not just that subversiveness has metastasised into a raft of new commercial fantasies and products; the idea being promoted by media titles is that brand culture is good for us. In our cultural consumption, the exhibitions we attend, the shows we binge and the consumables we buy, we are encouraged to entertain the notion that we can live out radical ideals.

The prevalence of “radical acts” symbolises a cultural trend that reaches further than the standard monetisation of left-wing values through, say, the sale of Che Guevara T-shirts or Palestinian keffiyehs repackaged as “plaid print fringe hem scarves” at fast fashion outlets – things that used to mean something, converted into aesthetic, saleable objects. The issue now is not the rebranding of a particular image or object, but the revision of radicalism itself as a concept, reduced to a set of consumer principles. With the husk of revolutionary language retained, capitalism has encircled the very idea of leftist transformation. Pepsi may have figured out how to create a resurrectionist Pepsi Generation in the 1960s, but now brands conjure group identities from inchoate public feelings by tailoring messages towards those who want to feel radical; Buzzfeed structured its entire business model around this approach for more than a decade. Change without change.

The prevalence of self-declared radical acts goes beyond old-fashioned corporate capture, or even heightened virtue signalling. It is a way to believe that we live in a world with a future. Platitudinous radical acts nourish the social imagination in a manner that governments and policymakers don’t. But maybe we’re better off seeing them as radical desires. Deep within the neoliberal psyche is the folly that disruption begins with the individual.

[See also: Dangerous minds]

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