What Does it Mean to be an Outsider in a Capitalist Society?

When rebels, technology and capitalism mix, alternative culture can disrupt the status quo — or morph into it.

Copyright © 2013 by Alissa Quart. This excerpt originally appeared in Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels published by The New Press Reprinted here with permission.

The traditional duality between insider and outsider has, to some extent, broken down. Media renegades, for instance, tend to be people who in a previous era would have been marginalized from established newspaper and media culture; now they create separate spheres where their voices are often more popular than the output of traditional news organizations. But then the most popular of these once-outsider voices are seemingly inevitably swallowed up by the big media brands. Or take a look at formerly fringe stances such as “animal protection,” which has become so familiar that it’s appropriated by burger franchises.

So what constitutes rebellion, originality, and resistance in a culture of remix? What is rebellious thought? In fact, what does it mean to be an outsider in a contemporary culture where “selling out” has almost become an honorific?

The results vary, of course. Sometimes rebels’ attempts fail. Sometimes they succeed on their own terms. Whether these identity innovators fail or succeed, the outcomes can be attributed to the aggressively viral and short life span new ideas are now afforded in America. The line between the outsider and the establishment seems to shift by the day. Once upon a time, an established band or a musician disseminating music from her own small label was maverick or newsworthy; a few years later, that’s closer to the industry standard. Some of the cases in the book, such as the once-disruptive technologies I first reported on years ago and considered for inclusion in these pages, including Craigslist and Pandora, have since become part of a new establishment. Craigslist radicalized sales and publishing, but sooner rather than later its owner had been recast as a kindly philanthropist whose site the New York Times dubbed stodgy and reactionary.

This trajectory isn’t entirely surprising. In the last two generations, centrist culture in the United States has taken on and been enriched by novel, countercultural ideas, movements, and products, including civil rights, workplace safety laws, community antismoking campaigns, “green” architecture and cars, and the widening acceptance of gays (even in the military). And the digital has altered what’s inside the categories “outsider,” “indie culture,” and “niche market”: the Web has increased visibility at the margins because every rebel or amateur can publish or post his or her opinion. There is also a chance of anyone’s output going viral. That in itself changes what is considered outsider or marginal and how “fringe culture” operates: alternative or subcultures no longer assume their messages are for the few or the like-minded. The idea of a mainstream is, at the very least, a useful cliché. Yet it becomes less of a cliché when we recognize that all cultures—the establishment culture included—are dynamic.

Of course, today’s forces of rebellious style can also act as mere supplements to the mainstream. The stances, practices, or styles are often borrowed and watered down. Sometimes these outsiders are voluntarily co-opted, or what I call “self-co-opted,” offered up to a more homogenous populace by the renegades themselves.

While the Internet has enabled saboteurs, it has also created an ephemeral culture where alternatives to the mainstream arise only to crash almost instantly or be absorbed into the established order overnight. Instead of a broad-based participatory democracy, digital culture has given us millions of fragments; while some offer a respite from the endless churn of late capitalism, the escape provided is usually fleeting.

This is not the first era in which this has occurred. Throughout history, movements, aesthetics, and disruptive technologies would eventually be formalized, institutionalized, and capitalized. Outsider styles would be borrowed by insiders and ultimately mainstreamed. Sociologist Philip Selznick popularized the word co-optation to describe this process when he wrote an analysis of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s relationship with community groups and elites in the 1930s. For Selznick and others, co-optation is the process by which a dominant group copies or steals another group’s ideas, style, or practices.

In his book The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank tracked the more recent history of this process. Frank wrote critically about how commoditization of “the alternative” was a hallmark of 1960s counterculture, which was quickly copied and neutralized by Madison Avenue as admen welcomed nonconformists as consumers. Frank further claimed that some advertisers presaged—and even triggered—youth rebellion. More than ten years ago, when I was researching my first book, Branded, I also tracked the co-optation process, at a time when teen and tween girls’ very identities were being invaded by niche marketing to an unprecedented degree: the teens themselves were being co-opted by large companies to market to one another. Scattered groups of teenagers and school officials tried to rebel in a process I called “unbranding,” a complicated endeavor that often required its rebels to have a strong anticorporate style—a sort of renegade sales pitch—to combat soda sponsorship in the schools or reclaim public spaces where they could hang out. It was clear to me then and is even more apparent now that we live in a clever capitalist society that shapes our attempts to resist.

The rebels in this book take the tactics the “unbranded” teens and teachers used much further. But they also are more likely to try to take control of their own commoditization and achieve a truce with the mainstream, concocting novel ways of negotiating the straits. The aim for all of these outsiders, however, is to incarnate their authentic selves, while recognizing that spreading their ideas among “the normal” may require compromise. It’s a type of co-optation that keeps us constrained by allowing us to loosen our strictures—but only slightly, within limits that keep dominant powers safe. While people do function outside of established institutions, there are plenty of conditions that limit or codify their activities. The self-co-opting tendency of some of today’s outsiders has its limits: defining animal rights by "happy meats" at Whole Foods can be great, but it doesn’t always lead to changes in policy or law.

For all the unlimited access of the digital age, there is also an upsweep of ignorance, mindless and sometimes dangerous outsiders, and irritating and self-promoting pranksters. Political theorist Jodi Dean has rightfully called our period one of “communicative capitalism”: we converse and interface endlessly, but all the transferred information and data flow doesn’t ensure that any tangible meaning gets through. Experts once had been defined, selected, and mediated by journalists and their institutions, but now soi-disant experts present their knowledge unmediated and out loud online. An “expert” can be an autism activist such as actress Jenny McCarthy, who insists that vaccines caused her son Evan’s neurological disorder—a claim with near-zero support in scientific literature. Is this sort of communication meaningful or effective? Her main defense is the line “My science is Evan.”

McCarthy’s celebrity voice can define a debate, blotting out esteemed science writers who have repeatedly and completely debunked the antivaccine claims. An opinion page editor on a major metropolitan newspaper told me that when he assembled a group of bloggers to accompany the daily print page, he knew he was in trouble when one of them, a professed conservative, informed him, “I won’t be consulting any mainstream sources for my facts. I don’t trust them anymore. It’s the bloggers for me.” Other problematic outsiders include pseudo-outsider types such as the discredited graffiti artist Shepard Fairey or the founders and early adopters of dirty hacker paradises such as 4Chan; these are not the best this generation of alternos has embraced or produced.

Not all possible outsiders have made it into this book, of course. For example, the natural birth advocates and the lactivists whose once-renegade movement has succeeded—to the point that formula has become much harder to obtain in hospitals—aren’t here. Neither are right-to-lifers, exemplars of the new American atheist movement, single parents, or married gay couples. Nor have I included many other outliers: the people I interviewed who were into DIY birth, having babies without anyone else on the premises; the gun stockpilers; the Northern California Zen visionaries; the low-calorie crowd seeking eternal life through near-starvation; the raw milk aficionados; the Tea Party; and even the freegans, clad in torn jeans, Dumpster-diving for discarded apples and pears. I got as many as I could on these pages, however. My goal wasn’t to provide a comprehensive overview of modern rebellion but rather to investigate a series of examples. By placing these seemingly unlike cases alongside one another, I saw better what they shared: stakes, goals, and practices.

Alissa Quart, the author of "The Republic of Outsiders" and "Branded", is the editor for the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.