Meme Wars

An interview with Kalle Lasn.

THE WHITE REVIEW – The new book, Meme Wars, 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?

KALLE LASN – Well, in all our brainstorming sessions we keep saying that we’ve been around now for over twenty five years now and had all kinds of social marketing campaigns and a number of ‘cracks of the whip’, and yet somehow nothing has ever really gained traction. I guess our biggest one was Occupy Wall Street which was an incredible magical moment in the sun and then, somehow, it faded away. So we're thinking ‘What can the political left do that still adds up to something? Something that starts to veer this human experiment of ours on planet Earth back onto a sane, sustainable path?’ Can we really follow up on Occupy or are we just crazy anarchists and malcontents shouting our anger into the wind?

There is hope … the global situation remains explosive and anything can happen … students, especially economics students, could suddenly wake up to the fact that their future doesn’t compute and become the spearhead of a larger movement. If students at the prestigious universities like Harvard, Oxford and Paris started viscerally talking back at their professors, putting up posters and nailing manifestoes to doors… And if that revolt spread to hundreds of universities around the world and then started spilling over into the larger economic think-tanks, IMF and World Bank, then we would have a chance at shifting the theoretical foundations of economic science and demolishing the ideological framework that has run the world for the last fifty years.

THE 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.

KALLE 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 time, awake and 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. I think that this project aimed at lighting 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.

THE 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?

KALLE LASN – Well you know we came up with that #OCCUPYWALLSTREET hash tag and that poster of the ballerina on the bull (the initial call-out for Occupy Wall Street) and we asked, ‘What is our one demand?’ And even though that one demand never quite came to the fore, there was a lot of discussion in all the occupations around the world about what that one demand could be. There was the usual kind of response, ‘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 – like ‘let’s zero in on one project that would really make a difference’. And yet in our brainstorming 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. Even if we got a 1% tax on all financial transactions and currency trades that still wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem … we’d still be running a Doomsday Machine. So the question remains: How can we go deeper? What is that one demand that could actually fix the problem?’ And that's when we started talking about going into the deeper recesses of capitalism and trying to pull off a shift in the theoretical foundations of economic science. That's how the Meme Wars book was born.

THE 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 realize it needs a structural analysis again?

KALLE LASN – What you’re saying still feels a little bit like the old left talking. For 20 years here at Adbusters we’ve been saying that we must jump over the dead body of the old left. The fall of the Soviet Union took the piss out of us and since then we’ve been shouting the same old slogans and talking the same old language and regurgitating 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 also go deep, deep down into the political left and ask, ‘Is there anything left here that we can salvage?’ Maybe one of the things we can salvage is this profound faith the left has always had about collectivism – I guess you could say ‘communism’ (laughs). What does collectivism mean in the context of this historical moment in which ecologically, psychologically, politically and financially we’re collapsing? In this moment of crisis when all these eco-, psycho-, political and financial crises all seem to be feeding off each other and spiraling down to the bottom, in this very moment, does the political left still have something to say? Is there an activism out there that comes from the political left that can save us?

THE WHITE REVIEW – Throughout your Meme Wars book 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 issues. 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?

KALLE LASN – Well, that’s a fantastic question. I think that nobody quite understands how myths are formed or how religions are born. I think that we human beings struggle away, but every now and again at some crisis point in history something heaves. I think that we are at that kind of a point right now. I think there is a fundamental questioning of everything going on right down … the big questions that have perplexed me all my life: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why is Western civilization so logic obsessed? Why did Christianity try to prove the existence of God by using the laws of logic? Is our obsession with logic a fatal flaw within our civilization? And what about the more ‘right-cortex, feet-in-the-mud’ kind of philosophy that is emerges out of the East… Is there some way that our logic and the ‘feet in the rice fields’ logic of the East can merge and create a new mythology that captures the imagination of the world? Or will some ‘Messiah’ kind of a character suddenly emerge? Or could an ecological economist rise up like Keynes did during the crisis of the 1920’s and 1930’s and give us a new economic paradigm? Or maybe a philosopher like Plato or Heidegger will come along with a new way of being in the world? I see a glimmer of a new mythology hovering on the horizon right now.

THE 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.

KALLE LASN – I think your analysis made a hell of a lot more sense in previous eras. At the moment humanity is living through a very dangerous moment. Ecologically, psychologically, politically and financially we’re about to hit the wall, and if we do hit the wall then all this ‘rationality’ you talk about will mean nothing, you know. It’ll be like a fart in the ocean because if we go through a 1929 scenario – and back in 1929 of course we climbed out of it because we still had the forests, clean water, fish, and oil in the ground, that is, we had the natural capital of the planet to fall back on – this time we don't have a lot of that natural capital left! And you know you can’t eat derivatives! I think we’re at the early stage of descending into a long year dark age. You know it takes a thousand years 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. Rationality doesn’t make any sense when people are killing each other for food and if there’s not enough clean water to drink. This is the nightfall scenario that I think we’re living through right now. So we need new approaches, new mythologies, more global moments like Occupy, where young people rub shoulders and become politicized. More than rational analysis we need magical new approaches. At the moment most of humanity is still in denial. I think we should try more radical, anarchic, fuck-it-all approaches.

Read the full interview at The White Review.

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