Reinventing a political culture is a difficult task to set oneself; political aesthetics develop alongside political movements, and tracing the direct influence of any one group is a bold claim. If one group can be said to have had any serious influence on the culture of activism in the last twenty years, however, it is Adbusters – a glossy Canadian magazine which has played an influential role in the alterglobalisation movements right up to the instigation of Occupy Wall St. At the forefront of the magazine’s development has been the filmmaker and author Kalle Lasn.
Emerging out of the despondency of post-socialism in the early nineties Adbusters, a ‘journal of the mental environment’, aimed to expose and interrupt the stranglehold advertisers and the media have over our brains, relationships and lives. From the start Adbusters rejected the established organisations and aesthetic regimes of the left, instead mixing post-situationist and punk aesthetics with the more everyday visual techniques of advertising and marketing.
This rejection, alongside its professional production and distribution methods, established Adbusters as a clear and important voice amongst the nascent social movements rising against the huge global conferences and free-trade agreements that shaped the political landscape for activists in the late 1990s. It would be fair to say that the Adbusters magazine itself (as opposed to the Adbusters Media Foundation, which organises ‘social marketing campaigns’) is characterised by a tendency to collage, both in its visuals and its ideological slant. There is something for everyone in the magazine: images compete on the page for the attention of the time-strapped consumer-activist, just as punchy slogans and articles appeal for the ideological fealty of the reader. ‘We’re trying to sell ideas, rather than products,’ Lasn said in 1996.
Its strength – a low bar for ideological investment in the magazine – is also its weakness, with Adbusters often producing contradictory, lightweight and occasionally dangerous and disgusting ‘critiques’ of capitalist and geo-political systems, with frequent recourse to consumer choice and moral indignation. Whilst Adbusters has played a significant role in the development of post-socialist aesthetics on the left, its economic critique has frequently lacked depth or clarity.
Lasn’s latest book, Meme Wars, is intended to change that – to extend the political reach of the Adbusters project beyond the ‘social movements’ of activists and designers that constitute their regular readership. As an attempt to affect political change it is certainly bold; it aims nothing less than to shake institutions of power through an intellectual revolution from the inside. The question is whether the powerbrokers that Lasn has identified – the economists – will be persuaded by the economic critiques of Meme Wars.
QThe White Review — The book comes at an interesting time for Adbusters. Whilst the foundation and magazine were an important voice within the anti- and alter-globalisation movements, there was a sense that those movements had lost a popular traction by the financial crash of 2008. And yet Adbusters has since played a role in the early days of Occupy Wall Street, setting the tone in terms of horizontal decision-making and accessible activism. Now, this book seems to address a quite narrow audience of prospective economics students. Is that a tongue-in-cheek conceit to focus the book away from the collapsing ideology of neoliberal economics, or is the intention to shift a new generation of economists away from that still dominant paradigm?
AKalle Lasn — Well, in our discussion sessions we keep talking a lot about the fact that we’ve been around now for twenty five years and we’ve had all kinds of social marketing campaigns and a number of ‘cracks of the whip’, and somehow nothing has really ever gained any traction. I guess the biggest one was Occupy which had its incredible magical moment in the sun and then, somehow, it’s faded away. So we were thinking ‘What can the political left actually do that will add up to something? That starts to veer this human experiment of ours on planet Earth back onto some sort of a path?’ Can we really do something or are we just crazy anarchists and crazy leftists shouting into the wind there, and somehow hoping that things will work out?
Of course, the Occupy movement was a bit like that as well. We deliberately didn’t have any demands and now that it’s gone away we wonder what happened. ‘What was that all about?’ We decided that just about everything else we’ve ever talked about, all the ‘Buy Nothing Days’ and occupations, somehow it doesn’t mean anything.
What could actually happen is that the students of the world could suddenly wake up to the fact that their future doesn’t compute, using the economics students as the spearhead of a larger student movement. If they started revolting against the theoretical foundations of economic science, and if we were able to get some students at the prestigious universities to play a catalytic role and actually, in a visceral way, start talking back against the professors and putting up posters in the corridors… And if that revolt spread to hundreds of universities around the world and all of a sudden started spilling over into the larger economic think-tanks and IMF and World Bank, then we would have a kind of a crack at demolishing the theoretical foundations that have run the world for the last fifty years and actually start off on a sort of whole new paradigm.
To us, this felt grandiose, maybe a little unrealistic. But nonetheless it felt like something that could actually happen that could save the world. And that’s why we published this book. We tried to make it as credible as possible so if a professor picks it up and reads it there’s nothing there that is obviously flakey or easily demolished. Above all it’s a book that will hopefully light a fire underneath students all around the world.
QThe White Review — Is that quite a profound shift in the Adbusters project? In terms of moving from the very grassroots activist and ‘anarchist’ perspective that power can be bypassed through your everyday life to an actual acknowledgement that there are these institutions of power. Perhaps a more serious left project would need to get into those institutions. Do you think it bears any sort of relation to Rudi Dutschke’s ‘March through the Institutions’?
AKalle Lasn — We’ve always worked on two levels. The level of you as one human being, living here and trying to make sense of the world, trying to live and die in some way that means something – that you should live without dead times and you should be awake and your life empowered. But on another level we’ve always gone after the big boys. We’ve always wanted to revoke corporate charters and kill off some of the corporations like Exxon. We’ve launched projects like the Blackspot shoe venture where we said, ‘Alright, we’re going to come up with our own brand and demolish the Nike brand’. So in a way we’ve always operated on these two levels and I think that this project to light a fire underneath the students of the world – especially the economics students -is very much in the tradition of what we’ve been doing for the last twenty five years, operating on a personal but also a very grandiose level.
QThe White Review — So you could say that perhaps this book is the flipside to the Occupy project in that Occupy followed the line of ‘changing your everyday life’, whereas this is about affecting power?
AKalle Lasn — You know, we didn’t really see it that way. We came up with that poster of the ballerina on the bull (the initial call-out for Occupy Wall Street) and we said, ‘What is our one demand?’ Even though that one demand never quite came to the fore, there was a lot of discussion in all the occupations all around the world about what that one demand could be.
There was the usual kind of stuff about ‘maybe it could be a Robin Hood Tax’, or in America it could be the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act. There was a sort of bread and butter kind of a feeling about it – ‘let’s zero in on one project that would really make a difference’. And yet in our discussion sessions we had the feeling that even if we were able pull off a Robin Hood Tax, somehow we’d still be operating within the existing paradigm.
If you suddenly get a 1% tax on all financial transactions on currency trading and everybody, including the US and UK, ratifies it, suddenly we have a Robin Hood Tax that collects a few billion dollars that still wouldn’t solve the problem. We’d still be running a Doomsday Machine; the capitalist project is still a Doomsday Machine, with or without the Robin Hood Tax. That’s why we said, ‘So, how can we go deeper? How can we have one demand in the tradition of Occupy? What is that one demand that could actually fix the problem?’ We started talking about going to the deeper recesses of capitalism and trying to pull off a shift in the theoretical foundations of the system itself. We felt that this book gets to the very heart of the matter and we’re hoping that it could be the catalytic moment that gets people thinking on the deepest level rather than always on the surface, which is basically why the political left has failed so dismally over the last twenty or thirty years: because we’re always operating on that surface level.
QThe White Review — So with relation to Occupy you feel that as an experiment its demands were still reformist? In that it was attempting to operate within the pre-existing paradigm and not fundamentally change that structure?
AKalle Lasn — Exactly right. In the beginning when we wanted a Robin Hood Tax, we had all these ‘within the existing paradigm’ kind of demands. Yet this book is our attempt to answer that question of what that one demand is. We believe that if the political left and students and people all over the world suddenly said, ‘We need to tinker with the very foundations of the current global economic system’, if we can actually get people thinking on that level and starting off on that level – the paradigm shift from the neoclassical to the ecological paradigm or the bionomic paradigm or the psychonomic paradigm, the very foundations of our system – then after that it’ll be simple to pull off the Robin Hood Tax and all these other surface things that obviously also have to happen.
QThe White Review — I always thought of Adbusters, within a wider project on the left, as ‘decodifying’ a lot of the left-wing politics up to that point – in terms of taking down the red flags and the ideas of denim clad workers on machines, reimagining an aesthetic of left action that is more in tune with people’s lives.
AKalle Lasn — Yes, that’s true. That’s been inspired by the Situationists and Guy Debord. Of course, in a sense we’re still trying to do that because if you shift the paradigm, as you see in the tail end of the book, if you really shift the paradigm then you’re not just shifting the ideas about growth or different ways of looking at money but you’re also trying to shift the aesthetic. You’ll notice in the last pages of the book that we’re actually talking about an aesthetic shift and that this project of shifting the very foundations of our system, it goes right across the board, you know? We have to rethink the axioms, but we also have to rethink the aesthetic and we have to rethink the way we live. In some strange way this book encompasses everything we’ve ever tried to do, but with a singular focus of digging as deep as we can into the origins and foundations of the existing global economic system that we’re caught in.
QThe White Review — When people are trying to rework a new aesthetic, quite often they end up rejecting a lot of the ideas that did have value in a previous political movement. Maybe this is a moment where the left has deprogrammed a lot of the heritage of the Soviets, and is now at a point where it’s starting to realise it needs a structural analysis again?
AKalle Lasn — What you’re saying still feels a little bit like the old left talking, somehow. We’ve been saying for the last twenty years at Adbusters that we have to jump over the dead body of the old left, and that we’ve not really been able to do anything significant since the fall of the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union took the piss out of us and somehow since then we’ve been shouting the same old slogans and talking the same old language and coming up with the same old analysis. I must admit that I’m totally disillusioned with the political left. I think that we have to not just rethink the theoretical foundations of economic science but we have to go deep, deep down into the political left itself and say, ‘Well, what is it still that we can salvage?’
I think one of the things we can salvage is this deep down feeling about collectivism – I guess you could say ‘communism’ (laughs) – this idea that we in the left don’t stand for this rational utility-maximiser kind of guy who runs around trying to become a millionaire but we stand for some sort of a collectivism. What does that collectivism mean in the context of this moment that we’re living through, where everything seems to be collapsing around us? Where ecologically we’re collapsing, and psychologically we’re collapsing, and politically we’re collapsing, and financially we’re on the edge of entering into another 1929 scenario? In this moment of crisis when all these eco-, psycho-, political and financial crises all seem to be intertwining with each other and spiraling down to the bottom, in this dangerous moment what does the political left still have to say? It isn’t just the theoretical foundations of economic science but is there an activism out there that comes from the political left that is up to the task?
QThe White Review — What worries me is that there are core values that you’re highlighting as being ‘of the left’ which, without that wider structural analysis, aren’t intrinsically good – for example collectivism. While I’d say a type of collectivism is a core value of the left, collectivism in itself isn’t necessarily positive. There’s a collectivism of the nation-state, or the German American] Bund. There’s all sorts of types of collectivism. Quite often when I was going through the book I felt there was an idea of building new myths and new narratives, but they were too detached from a clear understanding of the economic position, and that they therefore could be co-opted. They weren’t necessarily emancipatory forms of collectivism. Would you say that’s fair?
AKalle Lasn — My own feeling is that we shouldn’t try to be too clear. I don’t think that any one of us has figured out the way forward and that’s one of the reasons I thought the Occupy movement was such a wonderful, magical moment. The political left was floundering, as it has been for the last thirty or forty years, and all of a sudden a few young people that weren’t part of the left establishment – who felt in their guts that the future doesn’t compute and that they have to stand up and fight for a different kind of future – totally took the left establishment by surprise and it was kind of a magical moment. Like back in the Sixties when I was young!
They were politicised in a way that absolutely dumbfounded, for a while anyway. One by one all the Naomi Kleins and the Žižeks came to Zuccotti Park. And yet the phenomena itself, this attempt to occupy the iconic centre of global capitalism on Wall Street and take it over, this was a totally surprising new moment.
I think what we need is more ‘new moments’. We need new moments like Pussy Riot in Russia, or like all those young teenagers who are dashing off into the streets in Chile and demanding some sort of education reform, or those people who suddenly rose up in Québec and threw the whole province into a loop, and, of course, the anarchists in Greece and the Indignados in Spain. It seems to me that all over the world young people who feel that the future doesn’t compute are all rising up and trying to figure out how to create a future that does compute.
I don’t think we are in the moment of going back to this sort of ‘old lefty’ idea that we have to somehow come up with some sort of structural analysis of what’s right and what’s wrong. I think we’re in a crazy, anarchic global moment that does have a possibility of leading to a global spring. I think we’ll either have a global spring or we’ll finish up in a thousand year dark age. That’s the basic choice we’re faced with and we have to be open to new magical moments like Occupy, not try to go back to this left-cortex analysis of ‘what the fuck is actually wrong and how do we fix it?’
QThe White Review — We don’t need that analysis?
AKalle Lasn — Open to the future! Open to the future in a way that the political left has never been open to future before.
QThe White Review — Throughout the book I felt there were a series of different narratives that were challenging each other as to what the causes of this crisis are. You seem to be saying that all these disparate uprisings from the Arab Spring to Québec to Chile to the UK and Occupy are linked, but through the book I found it hard to pin down exactly what you thought the cause of this financial crisis was. There was a mixture of discussion about neoliberal economics, but then there was also a strong moral criticism running through of greed and usury and a lack of ‘community values’.
AKalle Lasn — I like the idea that this book doesn’t articulate exactly what the problem is and say exactly how to fix it. I think that if you pushed me against the wall and said, ‘What IS that one thing?’, then I would go back to what I said earlier – that the starting point for veering our human experiment back onto the tracks again is going back to the theoretical foundations of economic science itself: these axioms. Then we can start to process and over the next few years we can figure out what place greed plays in it, what place the professors play in it. In a way, you need a starting point and I think the starting point is the economic foundations of this global economic system that we’re caught in right now – to wake up to the fact that we never talk about!
We never talk about the core axioms that propel our system. If we start talking about those fundamental things, like ‘Can we really keep growing forever on a finite planet?’, or ‘Can we really have an economic system that makes any sense if, at the centre of that economic system, is this parody of a human being called “a rational utility maximiser”?’ Or can we have any kind of system that works and is sustainable if we dismiss the externalities, if we dismiss climate change and if we ignore people like Sir Nicholas Stern who said that ‘climate change is the biggest market failure that the world has ever seen’? If we keep on ignoring the biological, ecological and philosophical foundations of our system, then how can we ever fix anything?
I think there is a glimmer of hope in this book. For if we start fighting a ‘Meme War’, a war of ideas against the keepers of the current system, and we go right to the very foundations of that system, then we can begin a war of ideas where the good guys can eventually win.
QThe White Review — To pick up on this ‘Meme Wars’ idea – throughout Meme Wars you highlight the importance of injecting narratives as a key way to change ‘western society’s’ view of itself, and to become more in tune with its environment, with the poor, with inequality. To remove some of the micro-issues and deal with a much broader, more literary conception of society’s direction. That’s something that’s been happening in Europe with movements like the Dark Mountain project and groups that question ideas of growth and progress through new stories and new myths. You talk about a new cultural myth that needs to be created and propagated by ‘Meme Warriors’. I’m wondering how you see this myth being created. Is it a communal form, or is it more of a small group or multiple groups who can fire out different ideas and see which takes? I’m struggling to differentiate the difference between a ‘Meme’ as a specific cultural form rather than a myth or wider story.
AKalle Lasn — Well, that’s a fantastic question. I think that nobody quite understands how myths are formed or how religions begin. I think that what happens is that we human beings struggle away and every now and again at some point in our history we come across something that actually threatens to demolish us. If you look back at any of the religions or big myths of humanity then these were always crisis moments where some new – I like to call them ‘Memes’ – some ‘Meme’ or even mythology emerged. I think that we are at this point now.
I think we need to fight a ‘Meme war’. We need to have ‘Meme wars’ in our universities, and ‘Meme wars’ are already going on. I mean if you look at philosophy or you look right across all the endeavours of humanity then right now there is a fundamental questioning of everything that happened over the last few thousand years, right down to this big question that has perplexed me all my life: What is it about Western civilization? How were we born? Were we born out of logic? Were we born out of the left-cortex? How come that we in the West were the people who came up with the foundations of logic? Why is it that we have always tried to prove the existence of God by using the laws of logic and is that logic is some sort of a fatal flaw within our civilization?
The more ‘right-cortex, feet-in-the-mud’ kind of philosophy that came out of the East… Is there some way that the logic of the West and the ‘feet in the rice fields’ kind of an ethic can create a new mythology that suddenly does start to make sense and capture the imagination of everybody on the planet? Is there going to be some sort of a ‘Messiah’ kind of a character? You know it could be an economist, like Keynes. That hasn’t happened yet. Is it possible that some ecological economist will suddenly rise up like Keynes did during the crisis of the 1920’s and 1930’s and suddenly give us a new way of looking at economics? Is there some sort of philosopher who can come up with a new connection to nature we’ve never had before?
We do need a new mythology. I believe there is a glimmer of a new mythology hovering on the horizon right now.
QThe White Review — I can agree with you that we’re at a very significant moment in our cultural, political and economic history. But when you combine this conversation about ‘new myths’ with an idea that it’s a ‘tabula rasa’ for the left, and with your book itself, where you say ‘there is no analysis’ but rather a whole series of different ideas which you aim to stimulate – I think dangerous myths can emerge within this framework. That is a problem I’ve had with Adbusters in the past – that it’s been very keen to have a sort of ‘suck it, and see’ approach to things.
AKalle Lasn — I think that Adbusters is an experiment in activism that is still unfolding. We’ve learnt a hell of a lot over the last twenty five years. After the Occupy moment when we were able to catalyse a global magical moment, now we’re trying to build on everything we’ve done. I do believe there is something to be said for being ‘fuck-it-all’ open to the future and allowing your emotions to take over for a while. I think that economics itself is a perfect example of where a whole bunch of left-cortex, unfeeling scientific type personalities have taken over this discipline and tried to turn economics into an exact science on the model of physics. I think a lot of what’s wrong with western civilization right now is a lot of this sort of rational, logical streak.
When I was young and was studying philosophy at University there was this thing called ‘logical positivism’ and there were people like Gilbert Ryle in the UK and a whole bunch of people coming out of France at the time who tried to get rid of metaphysics and hated existentialism. There was this sort of a battle between a more emotional Europe versus a hyper-rational Britain and I do believe that somehow between those two approaches is some clue to the future. I think that we on the political left, and we in the West, do have to jettison some of that tradition of logic, rationality and exactness that people like Bertrand Russell stood for. Perhaps the other side, the people who come out of the Islamic tradition and the Eastern tradition – especially the Chinese and Japanese tradition – you know, maybe they have something to learn from us about being a little bit more exact and a bit more rational. I think that the only glimmer of hope is for there to be a synthesis of those two traditions that have fought for the imagination of the world over the last few thousand years.
Capitalism is like a religion; it’s like a mythology that has all seven billion of us in its grip.
QThe White Review — My worry is the degree to which people are coerced by mythologies. A mythology becomes dominant and hard to challenge and without that rational analysis there may be a blurring of the democratic control of ideas. The power structure becomes mystified. This is always what has worried me about the Adbusters horizontal project; that in its attempts to remove all the previous power structures through mythology it actually takes away all the decision-making structures. Then there’s an appearance of horizontalism but in reality the people who can control the narrative become the powerful ones.
AKalle Lasn — I think that your analysis is right on the button but that it made a hell of a lot more sense in previous eras of human history. At the moment my feeling is that humanity is standing at some sort of a very dangerous moment.
Ecologically, psychologically, politically and financially we’re about to hit the wall, and if we do hit the wall all this ‘rationality’ that you talk about will mean nothing, you know. It’ll be like a fart in the ocean because if all of a sudden we go through a 1929 scenario – and back in 1929 of course we climbed out of it because we still had the forests and we had the fish and we had most of the oil still in the ground and we had the clean water and we had all that fantastic stuff going on, we had the natural capital of the planet still to fall back on – this time if we go into a 1929 scenario then we won’t have the forests! We won’t have any of that stuff anymore and you know you can’t eat derivatives!
Again, I have a feeling that we’re in danger of descending into a thousand year dark age: it takes a thousand years even to grow back 1 inch of fertile topsoil. So maybe the difference between you and me is that I see the immediate future in much more apocalyptic terms. The rationality that you talk about, as I said, is like a fart in the ocean if this human experiment of ours descends into chaos, into hubris, into a long dark age. Rationality doesn’t make any sense when people are killing each other for food and if there’s not enough clean water to drink anymore. This is the dangerous moment that I think we’re sitting in right now. So we need new approaches, we need new mythologies. We need more moments like the Occupy moment, where young people suddenly become politicised. Rather than rational analysis we just need magical new approaches that wake the world up to what’s really happening, because at the moment we’re still in denial. Most people are still sort of saying, ‘Oh, we’ll be OK. We’ll slowly work out this recession that we’re in and then it’ll be sailing forward again’. But if you see the world in the same apocalyptic terms that I see it, then maybe you’ll be more ready for some of these free, open, anarchic, fuck-it-all approaches. Let’s just go forward in a ‘fuck-it-all’ way and keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.