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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.

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