David Brooks is right about two things. The demands of the Occupation are nowhere near radical, unless you’re standing under the red metal sculpture at the southeast corner of Zuccotti Park listening to the guy who still wants to free Bob Avakian. Don’t ask. So these demands are, by definition, “less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club.” Translation: the brutes in suits are also looking for a paradigm shift, because, like the earnest Tom Friedman, they know something strange is happening in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Before we explore the possibilities of these unintentional insights, let’s address Brooks’s opening move against the Occupation: like Salon, he says the protest was sparked by Adbusters, but he goes on to note that until now this magazine was best known for “an investigative report that identified some of the most influential Jews in American and their nefarious grip on policy.”
Then Brooks tells us what the “core theme” of OWS is: “the virtuous 99 percent is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent.” This is at once an intellectual and a political problem, he suggests, because it lets that 99 percent believe “their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.” The repetition of “nefarious” seals the rhetorical deal: the ideological roots of the Occupation reside in anti-Semitism. It’s a great move—it’s sleight of hand, to be sure, but it accords nicely with the obtuse notion that this moment, this movement, is composed of “fringe groups” without a purchase on the mainstream or the middle class, just as the Wall Street traders and the hedge fund managers told the New York Times last Friday (NYT 10/15/2011).
So let’s take a look at Kalle Lasn’s magazine. I’m a paying subscriber to Adbusters because my new book is about consumer culture—I’ve been reading it carefully for a year now, or rather looking at the grotesquely beautiful graphics that constitute this publication’s most eloquent statements. The “report” Brooks cites to characterize the magazine as anti-Semitic is actually Lasn’s way of asking why Likudnik Zionism has become an inviolable premise of US foreign policy, a question everybody on the American Left has been puzzling over since Ronald Reagan’s second term.
But it’s true, there’s more than a hint of conspiracy, paranoia, and eschatology in these pages, and there’s a blissful ignorance or refusal of everyday life, too, which adds up to the kind of political schizophrenia that allows the magazine’s writers to denounce consumer culture and corporate capitalism in nothing but apocalyptic terms, on the one hand, and, on the other, to demand nothing more of the politicians than stock trade taxes, reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, and better financing of education. Tax the rich, create some jobs? Obama’s already there, and the last time I looked, he wasn’t advocating the abolition of capitalism.
“Far from being a horrible experience, apocalypse represents the revealing of the true nature of things. It ushers in an era of forgotten freedoms and unprecedented clarity. This ‘lifting of the veil’ [in Greek, apocalypse translates as revelation] will set us free from the misery that has been the result of our ignorance.” This is Adbusters #96 July/August 2011, the same issue where the call to occupy Wall Street is supposed to have originated. The words are a “caption” on a gorgeous photo of a huge grocery store with empty stainless steel shelves.
Well, there is clarity, if nothing else, at the hour of your death. But then you’re dead. The visual language of a fossil-fueled “planetary endgame” permeates every issue—on these pages, the world looks like a landfill on fire, just waiting for environmental annihilation. The words are no less anxiously prophetic, always predicting a coming “mutiny against consumerism” and thus a “castrated capitalism”: when we understand that Michel Serres is right, for example, that advertising is mental pollution, a “tsunami of writings, signs, images and logos” that floods every social and psychological space, why, we’ll clean it up along with all the material garbage we’ve strewn since we came out of our caves prepared to subdue Mother Earth (or to replace the Father, whatever).
But culture jamming requires a perfect mastery of advertising’s idiom, and an entrepreneurial energy that matches up with the class enemy. So every issue of Adbusters fairly bursts with writings, signs, images and logos meant to stem the tsnumai that flows from the other side of this decaying civilization. In effect, Lasn and his crew are desperate to contain the rising tide of global capitalism—or rather, the tentacles of the corporation—by using the Situationist strategy of detournement, rerouting, resignifying, or just hijacking the visual language and verbal gestures of commodity fetishism.
Here’s how Lasn himself explained the project in Culture Jam (2000), the manifesto that still animates the form and content of the magazine: “We build our own meme factory, put out a better product and beat the corporations at their own game.” Thus Blackspot Shoes—no brand except No Logo—becomes the answer to Nike. And here’s the copy from the last “advertisement” page (from rethinkcapitalism.org, the maker and the marketing arm of Blackspot Shoes) in Adbusters #80 (2008), which lines up hand-drawn logos from McDonald’s, Nike, and Starbucks, then draws an arrow from them to a scribbled blackspot, the universal form of erasure:
“Global capitalism is in crisis and morphing into something new. Megabrands are losing market share as people question the values they stand for and the power they have over our lives. Now a new kind of cool is bubbling up. It’s about a greener, more local, more politically charged way of living, and it starts with dumping megabrands and flowing your money into the small, indy stores and websites that are popping up everywhere. Join us in unswooshing the swoosh and creating a vibrant, new kind of capitalism that actually works.”
The apocalyptic logic of Adbusters makes sense in these terms, as a political urge to wipe the corporate-bureaucratic slate clean, restart the program, and reinstate a market society in which proprietors—small, indy enterprises, self-made men—were the locus of goods production and distribution. It’s the logic of that sturdy American standby, the anti-monopoly tradition, which insists the free market would yield intelligible and democratic results if only it weren’t contaminated by the extraordinary powers of big business, if only we could use the Sherman Act to break up every firm that claims it’s too big to fail.
But the political urge this logic, this tradition, sponsors is regressive because it ignores the weight of the past, for example the structural constraints on individual choice (the monetary costs of market entry, say, or the psychological costs of entrepreneurship) and the structural benefits of a corporate-bureaucratic division of labor (you don’t have to produce what you consume, and have more choices about everything, including who you want to be when you grow up).
More important, this logic finally makes consumers and capitalists equally culpable for the end times that are already upon us, because both functional groups have been using the free market to do exactly the wrong thing. That’s why bloated bankers and just plain fat people consistently appear in these pages as the insignia of crisis, ignorance, excess, and decadence. The cover of #80, a glossy, color photo, shows the midsection of a jean-clad man whose belly is so huge he wears suspenders to hold it up; above the photo, in red, white and blue sans-seriph letters on a black background, you read this: “FREEDOM ISN’T FREE/THIS IS ABUSE OF THE FREEDOM FROM WANT”
The irony of this same apocalyptic logic is that it turns Lasn and his crowd into good liberals intent upon improving capitalism, rather than insurgents willing to burn down the mission. For such logic can’t grasp how ethical principles (“ought”) are legible in historical circumstances (“is), even, say, in the bureaucratic bowels of corporate capitalism: it’s this fallen world or the next, there’s no traffic between them. As a radical who lives by this rule of reason, your task is to denounce and abstain from this world, to keep yourself pure enough to inhabit the next.
As Chris Hedges puts it in #96, in a featured essay up front: “We will have to rapidly create small, monastic communities where we can sustain and feed ourselves. It will be up to us to keep alive the intellectual, moral and cultural values the corporate state has attempted to snuff out. It is either that or become drones and serfs in a global corporate dystopia.”
But abstention is not action. If you want to act upon this world as it actually is, and not just on your own neuroses, you go where reality resides, and that is where people can’t afford to take flight or burn it down—because they still have moral obligations in and to this fallen world, and mean to redeem it, not escape it. As soon as you go there, you’ve relinquished your purity and learned to compromise with reality. That’s what has happened to Kalle Lasn and the Adbusters crowd. And a good thing, too: the nick of time.