Countercultural corporations

Grinker grinker at
Sat Jun 30 05:58:21 MDT 2001

[ HTML stripped ]

      27 June 2001
     Countercultural corporations

by Andrew Calcutt

'I'm not white. I've read No Logo, and I don't wear Nike.'

The woman speaker cited these characteristics as articles of good
faith, setting her apart from traditional corporate culture (male and
monolithic). With these credentials, you might envisage her as an
anti-brand activist en route from Gothenberg to Genoa. But far from
fronting street protests, she works for advertising giant McCann
Ericson - and the revolution she is involved in is the corporate
world's 'cultural turn'.

She made her comments at Youth Marketing Reaches 40, a conference
hosted by Kingston University at which 'alternative marketing
consultants' declared that the production of inclusive experiences
should be the main business of business. This means turning away from
old models of business practice, oriented towards maximising profits,
and turning business into creative practice designed to maximise
inclusion, with profitability demoted to a mere by-product.

The alternative marketers' message was lifted from Naomi Klein's No
Logo and New Labour's social inclusion policy. Their deliberations
often sounded like a planning meeting for anti-brand activism. Trend
forecaster Sean Pilot de Chenecey - aka Captain Crikey - summarised
the presentations he makes in blue-chip boardrooms all over the world:

'We tell them that nothing happened in the 1990s except for Seattle, 1
December 1999.'

Captain Crikey reported varying degrees of success in getting the
message across: the Mid-West was hard going; but companies like
Starbucks have been asking him to 'come and talk to us about why
everybody hates us'.

While Naomi Klein has refused to take her ministry directly to
corporate sinners, disciples such as Captain Crikey are going about
their mission with evangelical zeal. The heathens of the Bible belt
may be resistant to the new gospel, but expanding client lists
indicate a multitude of corporate converts elsewhere.

The stock footage of 'new global protest' usually shows protesters on
one side, men in suits on the other, with mounted police, barbed wire
and rubber bullets in between. True, on occasion, brand owners and
anti-brand activists are miles apart - but their consistent
ideological differences are thinner than the proverbial cigarette

Astute observers have commented on the strangely close relationship
between corporate culture and counterculture. But, for the most part,
they have also tried to preserve some distance between them. So there
is an insistence that anti-brand activists are authentic, while
business, like politics, is associated with 'spin'.

But personal motivation is not paramount here. The degree of cynicism
(they are saying it but don't believe a word) or naivety (these people
really believe what they say) is secondary to the key development -
namely that corporations feel the need to address the
'anti-capitalist' agenda and to present themselves as anything but
profit-centred organisations.

Branding is cultural politics for corporations

Whatever is whispered behind closed doors, capitalism is now in public

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.

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.

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.

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.

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: pop culture and the
erosion of adulthood (available from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)),
and White Noise: contradictions in cyberculture (available from Amazon
(UK) and Amazon (USA)).

More information about the Marxism mailing list