The Reconquest of Cool

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.

158 comments on the article “The Reconquest of Cool”

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you all are what you are fighting. you are a brand, you are a commercial entity. please, your hypocrisy is so glaring.

Juan Benitez

Cool is a slave tool. The quest for cool keeps you caught in the consumptive web. Image is nothing, functionality is everything. Meet your needs and ignore your lustful wants. Fuck up Central Services! Long live Saint Harry! Thou art WH.O.L.E ?

Jo Yo

To me, cool MUST be embodied that is, someone, a person is cool, never a thing or an idea. We generate cool from the inside out. Satchmo was cool. Hepburn either one! was cool. Lennon was cool. JFK and MLK were cool I'm definitely showing my age here there are more recent examples to be sure!. The things they wore, used, the ideas they held BECAME cool because of the people, not because of the things or ideas. Others talked of, worked towards equality or love, but MLK or Lennon embodied them and made them cool natural, proper, right in the world. Change came. We recognize and respond to that embodiment an idea made real and those who embody ideas are always more cool than those who embrace things. Of course it works the other way, too the embodiment of a bad idea can destroy a person's cool. Marketers latch on to the things or ideas because they can't have the people at least not the cool ones. We get sucked in thinking that if I wear those shoes or that perfume, or carry that bag, or play that song I'll be cool, too. No. I'll never be insert the name of someone cool here, but if I sincerely embody what I believe, that's cool. Oh and one more thing to me, cool is authentic only insofar as it leads one to care about, do something about others. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Rev. Jack the P...

Don't let people tell you your 'mood disorders' are symptoms and not personality traits and normal processes of life. Don't deny the poetry in your life make more of it. Refuse to be silent when those around you are speaking bull$&#. Refuse the right, refuse the left. Hack your way through cool with a machete of indignation. Don't answer the question Well what do you do? with secretary, lawyer, or clerk tel people you are a poet or painter or father or musician or lover of all things kind. And don't be afraid to tell people to piss off!


All of the breakaways of the 60s were caught onto pretty dam quickly by the corporations. They ran millions of marketing tests on consumers.I think the only way to solve the problem is for more awareness and education into the actual marketing strategies of these companies. I'd disagree with it being called a mindfuck though. its pretty straight forward once you do a bit of reading. We aren't being brainwashed, we're just being shown and given our product options the wrong way. People NEED to read and learn about it. But in fairness nobody forced you to put the dollar in the machine for that can of coke. I think that the only thing to save people from wasting tonnes of time and effort to buy that perfect shirt that costs $200 and has an label on it, as opposed to spending less time thinking about their own things that will make them happier, and more with people that will make them happier.

evilyn garnett

Unfortunately the only way to be truly hip is to create nothing that can be commodified. i.e. to create nothing. But I think one can still be cool if you BUY nothing, or as close to nothing as possible. Trends are only marketed if there's a profit somewhere, and a quick profit, usually. Turn around the paradigm: quality is cool, discipline, experience, and critical thinking. Old age. Thomas Frank's book and the song Rock and Roll Lifestyle were two signposts that the jig was upthey clarified an ongoing sense of inchoate unease, for me, at least. Since then my definition of cool is this:
Buy little, think lots.
What a great comment thread, so happy to see it discussed..


cool is a word thats just made up. nothings cool and nothing ever will be. who has the right to say whats cool and what isnt. people have different emotions and everyone is a little crazy. the human body and mind is so crazy and society is turning the same way. nobody can say what normal is...

chris woodfield

i am normal. from my point of view everyone else in the world is weird, purely because they aren't me. the world will end when i die because to me thats all there ever has been and ever will be. define your world and live your own life on your own terms.


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