Branded and Jennifer Government

By Alissa Quart
By Max Barry

The main current of today’s counterculture is a loose, global movement of activists often mistakenly labeled as anti-globalization. In fact, what they are is anti-neoliberal capitalism (or “capitalizm”, as Max Barry has it), and their agenda deals with such matters as the destruction of the environment, the loss of public sector resources (or the commons) to private interests, and the rise of ultrapowerful international corporations that undermine democracy while advancing social and economic inequality.

One of the their main enemies is the brand: those abstract symbols of corporate power that dominate our physical and media environments like so many national flags. Hence Naomi Klein’s counterculture manifesto No Logo, subtitled “Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.” Following in Klein’s wake, Alissa Quart’s Branded focuses on the making and marketing (branding) of teen consumer culture.

Klein’s book, though wildly popular, was not very original in its arguments or information. In Branded Quart has even less to offer. By now most of us are familiar with the way marketers target even very young children in their advertising, how ad agencies manufactured an entire youth subculture beginning in the 1960s, and the way corporations are currently muscling into public education. Quart’s analysis, which is quite anecdotal and limited to her observations of the consumption patterns of very affluent American teens, doesn’t add much. She makes some interesting observations – particularly in her discussion of how teen movies have gone from celebrating rebels and outsiders to preaching the values of materialism and conformity (think of the gap between the films of John Hughes and Clueless) – but even these seem to be mostly borrowed. Meanwhile, her main point – that things have gotten much worse, that the brand has gotten inside today’s youth, that teen identity has been consumed by consumerism – is not fully persuasive. Things may be worse today than ever before, but there is need of more evidence that this is so.

What is also needed is more analysis of the rise of youth culture itself. How a generation of kids with large amounts of disposable income dominates our culture by providing an unsophisticated market of young consumers tossed off by weak families and other public institutions and hungry for role models that corporations have been only too happy to provide.

From here Quart might have pointed out how there is no youth counterculture anymore, not because resistance is futile, but because, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, the rebels against the conventions and restrictions of corporate society paradoxically share the assumptions and ideological justification on which mass consumer society has been built: the unlimited autonomy of individual desire and self-regarding individualism pushed to its limits. Today’s rebels – whether they be hotshot young writers launched on the Internet or X-treme sports stars with their own name brand gear – indeed have a cause: They want to be rich and famous. The only true counterculture is one made up of anonymous volunteers.

Resistance to corporate rule is also a major theme in Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, a dystopic novel set in a world made up of rival international trading blocs. Branding has taken its natural course, to the point where people take their last names from their employers. John Nike is the chief villain, an aggressive marketing wizard with plans for global domination. His nemesis is Jennifer Government, an agent for the U.S.-Alliance global government (though most of the action is set in Australia, Australia is a U.S. affiliated nation, meaning it’s part of the U.S. “free market”).

Most SF novels tend to outstay their welcome. SF often functions as a sort of social barometer, and once you get the message that’s all there is. In addition, the point of Barry’s satire, that corporations are taking over the world, isn’t new to SF. Much like Quart’s Branded, it follows in the wake of a better Canadian book on a similar topic – in Barry’s case Jim Munro’s Everyone In Silico. To Barry’s credit he keeps things moving at a breathless pace, peppering the action with constant gunfights and explosions of violence. But this also gets tiring. The characters are mere types who only come to life in their cynicism, while the emphasis on fast-paced action is pure Hollywood. In the final shootout, which takes place between warring McDonald’s and Burger King franchises, one of the characters realizes “it was just like a movie.” And so it is.

As a book with a message, a dramatization of the new anti-corporate activism, it has its moments. One particularly effective scene has John Nike rising to confront the President in London’s House of Parliament and informing him that he is “out of a job.” The triumph of the market means that government is obsolete, while the Police and National Rifle Association are now the publicly traded stocks of private armies involved in international gang warfare.

But as with Quart’s teens, any real resistance to “capitalizm” is unavailable. There are hackers and jammers aplenty, but their efforts are only a sideshow and easily co-opted by the brands. Neither author imagines a truly revitalized democracy. And oddly enough, Barry’s anti-corporate alternative is finally rooted in something as conservative as old-fashioned family values, ending with the social antidote that we should all be making love rather than war or profit.

It is at least one hopeful note.

Review first published March 29, 2003.


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