Visiting Professor Jim McGuigan’s talk on ‘cool capitalism’ promised to demonstrate that there is still space left for rebellion against the seductive power of the free market economy. The crux of his critique borrows from Thomas Frank’s idea of ‘the conquest of cool’, which McGuigan argued is at the heart of contemporary capitalism.
The professor traced the lineage of ‘cool’ back to West African roots, locating it originally as a kind of composure on the battlefield, before continuing the exploration of black culture as the epitome of ‘cool’, most evident in the American Jazz Age, though noticably still applicable in the modern-day (not merely in musical terms).
McGuigan’s main thesis was that ‘cool capitalism’ incorporated a disaffection into capitalism itself, essentially claiming that counter-culture, anti-capitalist subversiveness becomes assimilated into capitalism because it is perceived as ‘cool’.
Using examples of such ‘subversion’ as far reaching as the films of Francis Ford Coppola and the post-war American ‘Beat’ poets, McGuigan argued that entrepreneurs welcomed such instances of supposed ‘counter-culture’, with their accompanying allure of danger and excitement a guarantor of profit. While McGuigan maintained that his thesis was not a pessimistic one, his argument pointed to the virtual impossibility of existence outside of a capitalist domain, and when pushed in a question-and-answer session, the Loughborough University Professor admitted he had no solution to the issue.
In tracing the lineage of ‘cool’, McGuigan claimed the main trope of ‘cool’ was ambivalence, so why did one leave the talk with a feeling of quite overwhelming apathy? His oratory left a lot to be desired, rather than a stirring, scathing critique of his given topic, the speaker remained seated and motionless, reading from numerous sheets of A4 which, given the tone of his voice, one can only assume he had exhausted to the point of tedium.
While his argument was far-reaching, broadly sourced and occasionally compelling, the lack of a viable alternative to ‘cool capitalism’ rendered his thesis somewhat anti-climactic.