I Used to Like Political Statements, Before They Got All Popular: The Commodification of Counter-Culture

Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to New York, I’m well familiar with both the concept of hipsterdom and the concept of gentrification. So Dale Beran’s recent article on the relationship between the two, “A Tale of Two Hipsters”, was fascinating to me.

In it, Beran makes the argument that “artistic” hipsters ought to be separated from the “consumerist” hipsters that follow in their wake. The process, he says, is that an educated but impoverished creative class will seek out low-income neighborhoods with cheap housing; these artists will overwhelmingly, as artists do, identify as left-wing counter-cultural types; the neighborhood will gain a reputation for being attractively bohemian; and a well-off, liberal population will pour into the area, seeking out the counter-culture that they are by their very presence inevitably destroying.

I’m not sure if I agree totally with Beran’s argument—it ignores, for one thing, the class privilege bound up in the decision to become an artist, and for another, the racial factors present in a neighborhood’s switch from “poor” to “bohemian” to “gentrified”. But Beran hits on what I suspect is the most important problem in modern attempts at radicalism: the commodification of the counter-cultural.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of effective activism among today’s youth. There, I said that millennial apathy towards politics was closely tied to an overall millennial sense of despair. I still stand by this, but I’m beginning to think that there’s a larger problem in modern activism, one that’s been building since the 1960s.

The 1960s played host to what was the most well-known counter-cultural movement in American history, and the reasons for its fame are easy to comprehend. Think of 1968, and you think of Hunter S. Thompson, LSD, tie-dye, long hair, peace signs, the Vietnam War.

But step into any popular clothing store today, and you’ll find blue jeans with flowers embroidered into them. Step into a used car lot and you’ll find a VW Bug. The anti-mainstream symbols of the 1960s have been absorbed into the mainstream; the anti-corporate slogans are sold to the populace by those same corporations.

The fact is that radicalism and counter-culture are overwhelmingly classified as either “naive and laughable” or “cool and marketable”. The first is ineffective. The second plays into the exact power structures that it seeks to dismantle.

This is true, I think, because of the basic nature of the modern world itself. We live in an era where culture is created and shared almost entirely on social media, and in order for a piece of culture to be validated, it must have gained some following on a social media platform. After all, who surfs YouTube looking for videos with 0 hits, or follows Twitter accounts that are un-referenced and unknown? In order for a piece of culture to be taken seriously, it must be popular.

And in order for something to be popular, it must be cool.

Modern activism, like everything else, hinges on this concept of cool. This is probably most evident in environmental practices—eating organic food is cool, urban farming is cool, biking to work is cool—but it’s also evident in other areas: who hasn’t heard of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, aimed at LGBTQ teens? Who hasn’t smiled at Google’s informal slogan, “Don’t be evil”?

But what’s cool is inherently marketable, what’s marketable is consumerist, and the counter-culture is sold back to the mainstream at alarming rates and alarming profits. And a corporation, unlike a social movement, has very little investment in the ideas and ideals that triggered the counter-cultural trend in the first place. Free love becomes a sale on Beatles merchandise at Macy’s. Anarchy in the UK becomes Doc Martens in the windows of department stores.

The uniform eclipses the person. The aesthetic eclipses the idea. The image eclipses the substance.

So the question is, and must necessarily be: how can those who want to change society create a movement that is simultaneously desirable and unsellable? How can activists create popular demand without creating market demand?

How can people effectively champion political change without the ever-present risk that their work will be co-opted by the very people they’re trying to fight?

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