The Sabbath Revolt

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Adbusters on 11 April 2009

When I was a kid, we lived in a relatively modest neighborhood and shared one barbecue pit at the end of the block. Every weekend, anyone could go down there and make some hotdogs. Parents would even cook for one another’s kids. When we got a bit wealthier, we moved out to the suburbs. There, each family had its own barbecue in the backyard. Instead of barbecuing with the neighbors, we competed with them. “The Jones’s have sirloin, so we better get filet mignon!”

Sure, in the suburban sprawl schema, the Weber Grill company gets to sell a whole lot more barbecues, but our experience of community is surrendered to the needs of the marketplace.

I’ve been making this argument for the past couple of years in articles and speeches around the US. Then, just last month, a libertarian magazine made a fascinating critique of my work that they believed should neutralize such anti-corporate sentiments: Those of us taking a stand against the marketplace as the dominant social paradigm are only doing so in order to make money!

That’s right - the whole ‘leftie’ thing is a disingenuous scam to sell books, posters, and magazines like this one. We’re actually in it for the profit.

What makes this argument particularly perplexing is that, if it were true, shouldn’t the libertarians praise us? We would be adhering, after all, to the very principles they espouse! We are simply providing a product that meets consumer demand, and - because we don’t really believe the rhetoric we spew - we are doing so without prejudice or forethought. We are as blameless as corporations selflessly catering to the will of the all-powerful consumer. Just like global conglomerates, we - the merchants of Marx - are simply appealing to a target market. In our case, we sell a hip, anti-consumerist aesthetic to people who fall into the Seattle Demonstrator psychographic.

This kind of circular, self-perpetuating analysis is symptomatic of a society getting itself into some serious ideological trouble. We are so inundated by the free market’s rhetorical whitewash that we are fast approaching what can only be labeled “market fascism”: a social contract that can no longer tolerate any opinion or event that doesn’t serve the speculative economy. Its adherents can’t understand motivation in any other terms than profit-mindedness; they can’t imagine alternatives to the logic of capitalism. Those who can conceive of counter-currents become the latest-variety “enemy of the state.” The state itself, of course, is to be reduced to the barest regulation required for the free flow of capital and protection of property. Market opponents must be eliminated or, better, assimilated. The bottom line really does become the bottom line.

Currently, trillions of dollars and man-hours are being spent to lock down just such a reality template. Through intimidation, reward, and an odd scheme of justifications, the market is yearning towards the status of sacred doctrine. While it’s still permitted, let’s deconstruct some of its sacred cows before they become our only source of milk.

The first faulty premise of market fascism is that consumption invariably leads to an expression of democratic will - that we vote with our dollars. In this sense, corporations conduct focus groups, polling, and other forms of cultural anthropology, and justify this information gathering as an effort to get to the heart of what people really want.

In reality, the results of such studies are divided into two categories: desires that can be monetized, and those that can’t. If focus groups conducted by the music industry, for example, determine that kids want to hear songs made by their own neighbors, record labels do not rush to market songs by anonymous teens. Instead, they use this information to construct publicity campaigns for the groups they have already decided to back.

No, the reduction of the role of citizens to that of consumers does not translate into cash register democracy. It means that the scope of our influence has been reduced to very limited conversation with our marketers.

Market fascists dismiss such arguments, claiming that we are paranoid leftists, imagining a conspiracy between a group of fictitious marketers and corporate chiefs– that such people do not really exist. In a sense, they are right. In the corporate reality, no one is in charge.

When you walk into the GAP, a young clerk will initiate a well-researched sales technique called GAPACT (Greet Approach Provide Add-on Close Thank). Should we be mad at her? Of course not. She’s just doing what her manager has told her to do. If she doesn’t end the day with a certain quota of multiple-item sales, she’ll get in trouble. So do we blame her manager? No. He’s got to meet a quota, too, set by corporate headquarters. Do we blame the marketing department? Well, they’re just taking their orders from the CEO. And he’s just taking his from the Board of Directors. And they’re just listening to their shareholders. And those shareholders, well, they’re some of the same people walking in the door as customers, who happen to have GAP stock in the mutual funds of their retirement plans.

The whole thing is on automatic. Although corporations may have the legal rights of human beings, they aren’t human at all. A corporation is just a set of code - like a computer program - a recipe for making money. The human beings enacting the code, from executives to customers to marketers, become part of the machine.

Worse still, today we are empowering our corporations with the most advanced techniques of persuasion known to science. I’m not talking about discredited notions like subliminal advertising, but much more pernicious forms of influence, like neurolinguistic programming, regression and transference, pacing and leading, and other forms of hypnosis. Sure, marketers and advertisers have always used versions of these techniques, but never have we extended and automated them through computers and onto the Internet. The Internet gives the formerly abstract corporate entity its eyes and ears. Consumer feedback is instantaneously recorded, compiled, shared, and acted upon. There is no need for human intervention, or, of course, the conscience or ethical considerations that might slow any of this down. Sell more stuff in less time with higher profit is the only corporate command set.

Like most Adbusters’ readers, I’ve spent a good deal of time examining how these techniques work. Suffice to say, the way to make people buy things they don’t really want is by making them tense. In order to sell unnecessary goods, you must convince people they are unhappy so that they yearn to make their lives better - to fill in that sad vacuum. The plain truth is rarely put this plainly: A marketer’s job is to make people unhappy.

And that gets us back to the oldest trick in the book for keeping people in line: take intimacy away from them. If a teenage boy is sitting on the couch next to his girlfriend, he’s less likely to be persuaded to buy those jeans in the TV commercial. He’s already getting laid! So what are the marketer’s alternatives? Get the girl to worry about how her boyfriend’s clothes reflect on her, or, better, find a way to keep the kids from having sex at all.

This all became stridently clear to me a few months ago, when I was asked to appear in a debate on CNN about censorship online. They had me up against a “family values” advocate. I was supposed to argue that the right to free speech outweighed the concerns of parents about what sorts of pornography their kids might stumble upon while surfing the web. As the debate went on, I realized we were all accepting the premise that kids should be protected from sexual imagery. What studies have ever been done to prove it’s dangerous for kids to see pictures of people having sex? We let kids watch sitcoms in which parents regularly lie to one another - but we fear what will happen if they see people making love?

My point is not that kids should be exposed to porn. Rather, it is that the sacred truths we hold be self-evident are, in fact, blasphemous distortions of social reality intended to reduce thinking human beings into compliant consumers . This, combined with marketing techniques designed to limit human agency to impulsive Pavlovian responses, leads to an unthinking, unquestioning, and absolutely unfulfilled population, ripe for market fascism.

The irony here is that religion might actually serve as a last line of defense against this branded cultural imperialism. Adbusters’ annual “Buy Nothing Day” used to occur once a week as a long-forgotten ritual called “Sabbath.” Once every seven days, the Judeo-Christian founders concluded a few millennia ago, people should take a break from the cycle of consumption and production.

Imagine trying to practice Sabbath today. What’s left to do that doesn’t involve paying for admission? Are they any public spaces left other than the mall? Though the Sabbath was widely celebrated even 10 years ago, it now falls outside the imaginable for the market fascists: Wouldn’t it throw the economy into a recession?

Perhaps, but it would also give us 24 hours each week to restore a bit of autonomy into our own affairs. The hard right has claimed the spiritual high ground (as a way of promoting market values) but it may actually belong to us. It’s our way of disengaging from the corporate machine, unplugging from the matrix, and considering whether we would rather have a communal barbecue pit at the end of the block. It’s not time off; it’s time “on.” It’s a sacred space for the living. We might even use it to have sex.