The Reconquest of Cool

Forty years after corporations hijacked "cool," we need to start generating authentic cool from the bottom up again.

Joe Szabo Smoking Girl.jpg
Photo: Joe Szabo

From its roots in Africa through to the youth cultures of the present day, cool has always been an attitude of resistance to subjugation, an expression of rebellion and a posture of defiance.

During the ’60s, in the midst of one of the biggest cultural revolutions of our time, corporations discovered that cool could be incredibly profitable. While young people spontaneously took to the streets and organized festivals and anti-war protests, corporations started raiding their counterculture for eye-catching signifiers and stylistic expressions to incorporate into their marketing campaigns.

Thus began a two-step dance of authentic cool and fake, commercialized cool. As Thomas Frank explains in his 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool, bit by bit cool “became central to the way capitalism understood itself and explained itself to the public.” In one of the most stunning cultural coups d’état ever, ad agency gurus figured out “how to construct cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent.”

Forty years after the corporate takeover of cool, we find ourselves again in an era of extraordinary cultural and political upheaval. Global warming has us running scared, an epidemic of mood disorders is eroding our confidence, and as the War on Terror morphs into an open-ended World War IV, we are feeling more insecure than ever.

Kaapo Kamu
Photo: Kaapo Kamu

Suddenly, people are waking up in droves from the dreamland of corporate cool. We’re realizing that ever since we were little babies crawling around the TV sets in our living rooms, we’ve been lied to, propagandized, and told incessantly, day after day, that we can find happiness through consumption. That’s why, like rats in a Skinner box, we’ve kept on pressing that BUY button – millions of us marching in lockstep, all dreaming the same consumerist dream.

Now the fog is lifting. We’re finally beginning to understand where this bogus cool has been leading us: not to happiness and prosperity as promised in the ads, but to cynicism, ecocide and a brutal, dog-eat-dog future.

This is the magic moment in which capitalist cool can stumble and authentic cool can start bubbling back up again. And after decades of wandering around the wilderness, we on the Left are finally realizing what that magic moment is all about. Clive Hamilton – author of Growth Fetish and Affluenza – nails it in his 2006 article, “What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy,” when he writes, “The defining problem of modern industrial society is not injustice but alienation... the central task of progressive politics today is to achieve not equality, but liberation.”

Forget about treating the symptoms. Forget about the hedgemaze of identity politics. Break away from the glorious equality and social justice battles of the past. Instead, liberate yourself from the capitalist mindfuck. Learn to live without dead time. Start generating authentic cool from the bottom up again. The rest will follow.