Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3
|Reviews||Out on the Heath
The Efficient Society: Why Canada Is as Close to Utopia as It Gets
Toronto: Penguin, 2001
Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture
New York: HarperBusiness, 2004 (published in Canada as The Rebel Sell, Toronto: HarperCollins)
What do the Jonestown Kool-Aid drinkers, the Manson family, the Nation of Islam, Scientologists, devotees of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto and aficionados of Ufology have in common? And what links them to such popular entertainments as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Natural Born Killers,” “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “American Psycho” on the one hand, and to internationally knownif not universally praisedacademics such as Michel Foucault and R. D. Laing on the other? And what connected all of them to Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”) and to the Columbine High School killers?
In the opinion of Joseph Heath, Associate Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and Andrew Potter, they are either elements or derivatives of the 1960s counterculture. They are not praiseworthy. The authors of Nation of Rebels and Heath alone in The Efficient Society insist that they are progressives, but they disdain the goals, strategies, tactics and even the motives of the radical boomers who imagined that sex, drugs and rock-and-roll would somehow combine to produce a revolution in consciousness that would put an end to war, pestilence, famine, pollution, racial bigotry, sexual repression and all other manifestation of bourgeois values, to say nothing of state violence at home and abroad.
As far as Heath and Potter are concerned, the advocates and practitioners of the counterculture were and remain not only exemplars of narcissistic irrationalism, but their self-indulgent and solipsistic schemes were and are nothing more than hedonistic moral conceits used to disguise the decadence of privileged upper-middle class kids with the luxury of turning garden-variety youthful rebelliousness into a delusional, inarticulate and pathological quests for mind-altering drugs and mindless revolution. It’s not that the evils the poorly potty-trained potheads denounced were not rightly to be condemned. Indeed, political movements for civil rights and moral protests against brutal and unjust wars were to be commended. The problem was that these admirable goals were systematically subverted by many of the people who took to the streets in outrage, and whose outrageous depravity and debauchery fundamentally undermined the authentic case for justice and peace by, among other things, provoking a backlash against the putative left, and by setting the stage for the right-wing uber-patriotism, neoliberalism and ultra-greedy cowboy capitalism of the Reagan-Bush era.
Or so they say.
Joseph Heath is a man of estimable achievement. From his comfortable position as Associate Professor, Undergraduate Director and Associate Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, he can already look backward on a successful academic career and, more importantly, he can look forward to further decades of productive intellectual labour (he’s just past forty-years-old). His co-author of one of the books under review, Andrew Potter, seems also to have dabbled in academia (he taught for a time at Trent University and was a research fellow at the Centre de Recherche en Éthique de l’Université de Montréal), but he is now well ensconced as news editor of the Ottawa Citizen and public affairs columnist with the recently but relentlessly right-of-centre Maclean’s magazine. Separately or together, they advance a perspective on Canada and North America that merits examination.
Out on the heath, where the storm still rages, we are called to come to our senses, for the delusions and excesses of the 1960s have not fully retired. Festering in the composter of recent history, their odor can still be sensed on the wind. In Nation of Rebels, for instance, the authors offer up especially nasty remarks about Naomi Klein, the popular critic of corporate capitalism and the contemporary consumer culture. Ms. Klein, they insist, is the poster-girl for “the hodgepodge of anarchists, students, environmentalists and culture jammers who make up the contemporary counterculture.” Culture jamming, by the way, is the actionable part of the countercultural critique of consumerism and the advertising that promotes it. According to Heath’s and Potter’s contemptuous dismissal, efforts to subvert the messages of environmentally unfriendly and child labour-exploiting corporate brands such as Nike are not merely ineffective, but they actually contribute to the “system” that anti-globalization activists oppose. For better or worse, they say, our culture cannot be jammed.
On the apparent assumption that the personal is political, they then take off on a denunciation of Naomi Klein’s alleged lifestyle. She is, they say, politically well-connected and economically at ease. So, they ridicule her occupancy of a downtown Toronto loft, and take her to task for pretending that the domicile is “a genuine factory loft, steeped in working-class authenticity yet throbbing with the urban street culture and what she calls a ‘rock-video aesthetic’ … [but is located on] possibly the single most desirable piece of real estate in the countrycomparable to a SoHo loft in Manhattan.” In an ad hominem argument scarcely worthy of philosophers, they portray Klein, the righteous champion of the poor and downtrodden and the demystifier of middle class consumerism and suburban customer manipulation alike, as a charlatana status-obsessed hypocrite and a shill for pseudo-radicalism.
On his own, in The Efficient Society, Joseph Heath presents the case for reforming our culture by pressing forward with reforms that take and extend, rather than refute its basic premises. Yes, he acknowledges, there are demonstrable injustices and unfair practices that are properly to be condemned. These include the usual suspects: economic and gender inequity, environmental degradation and so on. Utopian thinking, however, is equally if not more damaging. The legacy of the French Revolution, maximized by the “epochal miscalculations” of Karl Marx and given a profound twist by late twentieth-century irrationalists is utterly pathological. Not only do countercultural analyses fail to take account if reality, but the also they generate no reasonable alternatives. The keys to solving real problems, they go on, are already available; we need only work harder at making them work. Heath’s subtitle, “Why Canada Is as Close to Utopia as It Gets” points toward his preferred mechanisms for healthy change. “The basic institutional blueprint for Canadian societywelfare state capitalismis unlikely to be improved upon. Despite a million flaws,” he assures us, “what we have is simply the best overall arrangement.”
This is eerily reminiscent of the “end of ideology” illusion that gripped American sociology at the turn of the 1960s. Its leading public intellectuals, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset insisted that political ideology was “exhausted,” and that there was no need to search for a different social order because the United States was already “the good society in operation.” Within the decade, this complacency was shredded by the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the emergence of feminismall serenaded by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jim Morrison and Grace Slick.
Sociologically speaking, Heath is making the same mistake as end-of-ideology ideologists from James Burnham to Francis Fukuyama. He puts his faith in welfare capitalism at a time when social assistance has been eviscerated along with the rest of the public sector, and capitalism seems to be edging toward a state of permanent crisis.
Heath also puts great store in the notions of efficiency and rationality. He carefully selects pragmatic threads from social theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and weaves them into a prayer for reasoned moderation and enlightened self-interest. He finds clues to the future in the deft handling of “the prisoners’ dilemma” and game theory; but, his visceral connection to real prisoners and endgames is remote.
Heath is part formal philosopher, with Habermas and the traditions of the Frankfurt School being among his enduring philosophical interests. His book, Communicative Action and Rational Choice, is “a critical study of Habermas’s theory of communicative action, from the perspective of contemporary rational choice theory.” His next book will be Following the Rules, “a more general book on rational action theory and moral philosophy.” They are both rooted in an empirical commitment to the engagement of value-free social science with moral and political problems. They claim to be working toward emancipatory education and social policy. I fear, instead, that they are retreating into what Habermas might call a model of instrumental reasoning in the guise of constructing a critique of ideology.
Such issues are not for extensive discussion here, however, for Heath elsewhere puts the two books under review in their proper context.
Left alone on the moor, otherwise known as his Home Page, Heath describes his authorial mission. It is partly to philosophize and partly to popularize. In these pages (pixels?), I have often praised the popularizer, the person who writes clearly and well about important and often complex matters in a way which allows the intelligent laity access to the otherwise dense and difficult work of scholars and researchers. Excellent popularizers are not elitists. They do not patronize their readers, but translate professional prose into engaging English. Even when explaining complicated ideas, they do not talk down to their audience, but they do bring dense and difficult work down to Earth with with meticulous integrity. This is not necessarily Heath’s way.
“There are,” he has said, “two distinct dimensions to my work. I do academic work, which attempts to address questions of normative foundations, and I also do popular work, where I engage in critical commentary. I maintain a fairly strict partition between the two … I mention this partly as a warning: you cannot always discern my fully-considered, appropriately nuanced, and properly footnoted view by reading the popular work. Effective popular writing requires a willingness to assert in an unqualified way things that are not, strictly speaking, true, but close enough to being true to be worth asserting.”
Nation of Rebels and The Efficient Society, then, are not intended for advanced minds. They may contain “noble lies.” They try to be effective by ensuring that their readers do not get lost in “fully considered, appropriately nuanced” writing, much less distracting footnotes (although Nation of Rebels contains three-hundred and thirty-one of them). Instead, he is content to win his audience over with statements that are “close enough to being true to be worth asserting.” As I bristle under the clouds of this Socratic presumptuousness, I may be playing the fool. Perhaps Heath means his unctuously sounding pronouncement to be taken tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps I am simply too thick to sense his delightful humour. If so, well, the joke’s on me. Somehow, though, I think that he is being serious.
If so, I have to say that these books may be less effective than he would like. It is not so much their main arguments against the counterculture and their praise of the “core value of efficiency” that disturb me. I do not even mind his assertion that what may be considered the hand of “invisible moral value” makes Canada “the most successful country on earth.” I can even put up with his dyspeptic denigration of the counterculture, which I nevertheless suspect is one of the larger “straw men” recently raised primarily for the purpose of beating down.
The fact is, I once expressed some fairly critical opinions about the promoters of a revolution in consciousness and the celebration of anti-intellectualism, apolitical psychic transformation artists, Hare Krishna chanters and shills for a fading vision of bedrugged ecstasy. In my first ever publication in a genuinely “professional” journal (Popular Music and Society, 2, Winter, 1973you can look it up!), I wrote that I was unimpressed by everyone from Charles Reich to Timothy Leary, and I wryly rejected George Harrison’s confidence that “the world is ready for a mystic revolution, a discovery of the God in each of us.” But, that was almost forty years ago!
Heath and Potter are quite right to say that the counterculture was co-opted, commodified and commercialized. But that was forty years ago as well. It may have been forgivable for esteemed philosophers such as John Passmore to take the alleged threat to Western Civilization as we knew it, as he did when he write contemptuously about “The Logic of the New Mysticism” in Encounter magazine in November, 1970. I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that he may not have known that Encounter was a CIA front.
But this is 2008. Hair is no longer on Broadway (where I saw it in 1968). Max Yasgar’s Farm shows no sign of permanent damage from the Woodstock Festival (which I also attended) in 1969. Almost no one is protesting the devastation in Iraq as they did the folly of Vietnam. So, I wonder if Heath and Potter didn’t just miss the boat. As accepters of “good” globalization, the mixed market economy and the rational choice model of human behaviour, they certainly seem to be on the winning side; but, I wonder if their apparent fear and loathing of the dark Dionysian gods lurking in the bowels of environmental extremists and Nike nay-sayers isn’t just a trifle overwrought.
In the end, of course, their attachment to efficiency is intended to achieve mainly worthy objectives. They support a larger role for public goods, a genuinely mixed economy, limitations of market choices when the consequences are demonstrably toxic (they do not seem to be big fans of the tobacco industry). They do seem overly preoccupied, however, with hippies and former hippies who “reek of bongwater,” and who subscribe to culture-jamming magazines like Adbusters, “groove” to the music of the Grateful Dead, propose alternatives to plastic shopping bags and encourage people to eat locally to assist small farmers and reduce the economic and ecological effects of long-distance transportation of pineapples and mangoes. Such frivolities are their own sort of ideological toxin, they say, and besides, they just don’t work. (Note to Heath and Potter: Despite your declaration that public awareness campaigns in support of local environmental improvements are a “big flop,” plastic bags are now being phased out in some jurisdictions, whether by government regulation, by supermarket chains or both.”)
I therefore find their general arguments sadly reminiscent of a speech I heard delivered by New Democratic Party stalwart David Lewis in 1965 (two years before Heath was born). Lewis, who would later become federal NDP leader, was speaking to a group of York University undergraduates. He was expected to talk about how democratic socialism might help ameliorate problems of poverty and possibly reduce the level of international hostility then (as now) evident on several continents. Instead, perhaps fearing that impressionable young people might otherwise be duped into supporting some sort of Stalinism, he delivered a hyperbolic cascade of words about the evils of communism. Jaws dropped. These were earnest middle class youth, properly attired in blue blazers and grey slacks. They were indulging their social consciences before taking important positions as lawyers and administrators. They were in no danger of becoming in thrall to the twisted logic of dialectical materialism. But I did hear the word “hysterical” usedsomewhat unfairlyto describe the performance. I will not apply the same term here, for that would be grotesquely unfair. Still, the thought did cross my mind.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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