Countercultural corporations and capitalism

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Sat Jun 30 22:31:12 MDT 2001

>Date: Sat, 30 Jun 2001 08:19:56 -0400
>From: Grinker <grinker at>
>Subject: Countercultural corporations
>[ HTML stripped ]
>      27 June 2001
>     Countercultural corporations

>by Andrew Calcutt

>Some critics have emphasised capital's capacity to incorporate
>successive countercultures. In their account, today's capitalists
>continue to dominate in the same old way. Incorporation is depicted as
>a continuous blood-sucking process of which the assimilation of new
>protest movements will be only the latest instance.
>Commentary in this vein is essentially an update of the Frankfurt
>School's 'critical theory' of the commodification of culture, in which
>commerce preys on creativity and renders it banal. But such singular
>emphasis on continuity misses what's different about today. While the
>commodification of culture occurs as before (it is traceable all the
>way back to the marriage of art and the market, and the divorce of art
>from the church), today it is offset by the inverse process - the
>culturalisation of commodities.
>It is not just that cultural production is an increasingly significant
>aspect of commodity production in general. More significantly,
>commodities in general are drafted into the system of symbols and
>signifying practices defined as culture. Entry is made by means of
>branding. Branding is the process through which commodities in general
>are invested with cultural connotations and meanings, which in turn
>means that branding expresses not the commodification of culture but
>its opposite, the culturalisation of commodities.
>A century ago, the 'brand' was a mere mechanism for identifying
>products made by a particular company: a straightforward response to
>market competition between producers for consumers. But 'branding' is
>a far more recent invention. It is a nearly-neologism which speaks
>volumes about capitalism's 'cultural turn'.

>Instead of capitalism taking cultural forms and making them banal by
>putting them into saleable packages identified by brands, today's
>corporate branding is the attempt to make banal products and services
>(steel/Corus; delivering a letter/Consignia) into something cultural.

While all this is a fair enough *description* of what's happening, the
problem is that it is all *surface* analysis.  Calcutt doesn't analyse what
is driving the process of trying to invest the most banal commodities with
cultural significance.

Since the 'Spiked' crew have eschewed 'old-fashioned' categories like
exploitation, competition, wage-labour, capital and so on, they end up with
an almost post-modernist spin on things.  Except where the postmodernists
celebrate, the 'Spiked' crew whine.  In particular they whine that
capitalism has forgotten how to do business.  Presumably this would explain
the *real growth rates* in the US economy in the 1990s, real growth rates
based on old-fashioned production.

In fact, both the commodification of culture and the culturalisation of
commodities are driven by competition and problems of profitability.  In
the past competition in the field of tooth-paste meant companies would
advertise the superiority of their product on the basis of its dental-care
capacities and tell you that it had such and such chemical or whatever to
do the job of destroying germs and decay; now they might advertise it by
using cultural signifiers and try to attract customers on that basis.  The
tooth-paste is still made through the exploitation of labour in the
production process and the advertising is still driven by competition
between firms for market share.

Comrade Calcutt has been spending too much time reading capitalist hipsters
and advertising pundits and not enough time reading 'Capital' in order to
get his context.

>The epigones of the Frankfurt School are only half-right: corporations
>typically co-opt countercultural creatives and assimilate their work
>into a commercial operation (a real, if unwelcome, instance of
>capitalist inclusivity). But to leave it there is to miss a crucial
>new development in the balance of forces. Fear and loathing once
>characterised the attitude of the capitalist class to the
>masses. Today its fear of the masses is matched by a self-loathing so
>intense that its core activity - business - has been redefined as
>anything but. In ideological terms, the corporate world has been
>co-opted by the counterculture.

This notion that the imperialist ruling class is 'self-loathing' is one of
the truly most bizarre things I have ever seen coming from people who once
used to know something about Marxism.  Presumably, when Clinton and Blair
bomb Serbia and Iraq, or Bush and Balir try to stitch up Milosevic at the
Hague, they are really expressing their 'self-loathing'.  Really, the
working class and oppressed of the world don't have much to worry about,
then.  The ruling class is so paralysed by self-loathing, they're on the
edge of collectively booking themselves into therapy.

>The counterculture's agenda is hegemonic. Branding is cultural
>politics for corporations. Brand planners aim to dramatise and
>mythologise, just like their counterparts in the new protest
>movements. The prioritisation of creativity and the relative
>devaluation of profitability also are common to both.

I wonder just what corporate handbooks this guy reads.  Several friends of
mine do Management Studies and Economics and their textbooks certainly have
lots of stuff about social capital, the importance of keeping the workfroce
happy and even quite new-agey stuff.  This also represents a *partial*
ideological change from the past.  However, the more significant aspect is
the *continuity*.  It is all still predicated on exploitation, and all the
hip and touchy-feely stuff is designed to enhance profits.  It is *not*
about forgetting about business strategy.  It is about developing more
effective business strategies.

For instance, here in Christchurch, New Zealand, Starbucks is getting its
staff involved for an hour or two a week in Youthline, a phone-line which
counsels young people who ring up with problems.  Starbucks staff are paid
by Starbucks while doing this.  Does this mean Starbucks have forgotten how
to be capitalists, and that paying for your workers to spend an hour or two
on a counselling line somehow militates against the relentless drive for

In fact, in a city in which coffee culture is massive and there are heaps
of trendy cafes, all fighting for market share, it's a bloody smart
business move.  It helps Stabucks attract the 'caring' middle class, who
would otherwise be too snooty to drink their lattes there, and it attracts
the youth market.  Given the wages Stabucks pay, and their ability to make
their workers work harder for the rest of the week, plus the extra custom
drawn to it by the good publicity, it's a real smart capitalist move.  If I
was a capitalist manager running Starbucks, and fighting for profits in a
tight coffee-shop market, I'd certainly be trying something like this.  I'd
also be doing my utmost to brand Starbucks with some trendy cultural

>And the readiness of corporations to fling open their doors to Naomi
>Klein soundalikes is one more indication of the common culture beneath
>the phoney war of Genoa.

Companies have always been prepared to do this.  The BBC series on the
history of rock music had an interesting episode on the Haight-Ashbury
musical explosion.  They had someone on from the time talking abut some big
record executives going to San Francisco to sign the Grateful Dead.  While
the Dead were thinking they'd feed the record execs LSD and subvert the
corporation, the execs seeing haight-Ashbury got dollar signs in their eyes.

>Andrew Calcutt teaches in the School of Cultural Studies and
>Innovation Studies at the Docklands campus of the University of East
>London. His books include Arrested Development. . . .

Well, I'm still waiting for "Arrested Development: the story of the RCP's
flirtation with Marxism".

Sadly, Calcutt's spin is what happens when you recruit a load of
pretentious students and other middle class trendies and remove yourself
from the working class and any hard class orientation.

Philip Ferguson

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