- Co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation
- Derides “the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism” as “a destructive system”
- Condemns American consumerism
- Catalyst of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011
Born in the nation of Estonia on March 24, 1942, Kalle Lasn spent his early childhood years in a German refugee camp before relocating with his family to Australia. After earning a degree in applied mathematics, he took a job designing computer war games for the Australian military.
From 1965-70, Lasn lived in Japan, where he founded a market-research company and worked in the advertising industry. Using a multitude of persuasion techniques, he promoted, among other things, various alcohol and tobacco products by trying to make them appear attractive and “cool” to his target audience. “It’s easy to generate cool if you have the bucks, the celebrities, the right ideas, the right slogans,” Lasn explained. “You can throw ideas into the culture that then have a life of their own.” As a result of his success in advertising, Lasn became a very wealthy man. In 1970 he moved to Vancouver, Canada, where he spent the next two decades producing documentaries for PBS and Canada’s National Film Board.
In 1990, Lasn and wilderness cinematographer Bill Schmalz co-founded the Adbusters Media Foundation (AMF), a not-for-profit, anti-consumerist organization. Lasn also released a new bi-monthly periodical, Adbusters magazine, which offered an open forum to all manner of radicals such as Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, anarchist David Graeber, and post-anarchist Saul Newman.
Lasn fervently maintains that excessive consumerism — promulgated especially by the United States — is one of the great plagues afflicting humanity in the modern era. “America, the great liberator, is in desperate need of being liberated from itself,” he says, “from its own excesses and arrogance. And the world needs to be liberated from American values and culture, spreading across the planet as if by divine providence.” Denouncing consumerism as being not only “ecologically unsustainable,” but also “psychologically corrosive,” Lasn casts “the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism” as “a destructive system” that has caused “a terrible degradation of our mental environment.” He addressed this theme at length in his 1999 book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge—and Why We Must, wherein he wrote: “The aggregate level of American life fulfillment peaked in 1957, and with a couple of brief exceptions, it’s been downhill from there.” “Our mental environment is a common-property resource like the air or the water,” says Lasn. “We need to protect ourselves from unwanted incursions into it, much the same way we [once] lobbied for nonsmoking areas.” By Lasn’s telling, “at least 75 percent” of the U.S. population today is “caught in a consumer trance,” having been “brainwashed” into “believ[ing] in the American Dream.”
To strike back against America’s rampant consumerism, Lasn — as the title of his book suggests — urges people to engage in “culture jamming,” a term connoting the use of sabotage to cause economic harm to capitalist business enterprises. He writes, for example: “[J]amming a coin into a monopoly newspaper box or liberating a billboard in the middle of the night can be a rather honest and joyful thing to do.” “Culture jammers,” Lasn elaborates, are people who heroically “take on the global automakers, the chemical companies, the food industries, the fashion corporations, and the pop-culture marketers in a free-information environment.” A related objective, he explains, is to target executives in those fields with relentless negative-publicity campaigns, so that they: (a) “feel just as squeezed and beleaguered as tobacco executives,” and (b) “have a hard time looking their kids in the eye and explaining exactly what they do for a living.” By employing these various tactics, says Lasn, “We will wreck this world.”
Asserting that the greenhouse gases associated with human industrial activity have enormous environmental consequences, Lasn claims that “overconsumption” is “in some sense the mother of all our environmental problems” — most notably anthropogenic “climate change.” He heaps a great deal of scorn upon the automobile, which he describes — because of its carbon emissions — as “arguably the most destructive product we humans have ever produced.” To counteract the environmental damage allegedly caused by motor vehicles, Lasn recommends “not just a carbon tax, but a global across-the-board pricing system” that would make it prohibitively expensive for anyone to own a car or truck. Under such a system, says Lasn, “Your private automobile will cost you, by some estimates, around $100,000. And a tankful of gas, $250.” Moreover, Lasn advocates the imposition of a 1 percent “Robin Hood Tax” on most goods and services, with the aim of using its generated revenues to fund social-welfare programs.
The evils of consumerism, said Lasn in 2006, have ramifications that extend far beyond the borders of the United States. Asserting that “every single purchase that you make has some kind of an impact on the planet,” he lamented that “we, the rich 1 billion on the planet, are now consuming 86 percent of all the goods in the global marketplace, leaving a lousy 14 percent for the rest of the 5 billion people on the planet.” The worldwide resentment that is allegedly bred by this “overconsumption in the rich countries,” Lasn concluded, “is one of the root causes of terrorism.”
Elaborating on that theme, Lasn wrote, in the March/April 2007 issue of Adbusters, an article titled “The Existential Divide,” which portrayed Islamic terrorists as good-hearted, religious individuals who are pushed beyond the limits of their psychological endurance by Western abuses: “In our eyes, the Islamist suicide bomber has come to epitomize ‘the terrorist,’ a modern savage….. Yet in fact, this ‘other’ is a man whose life revolves around the mosque, daily prayer, restrained dress, moderate fasting, a tight-knit family and community. When pushed to the limit, a committed Muslim may decide to sacrifice his own life … for what he sees as a greater social and spiritual good. Which one of us in the west will do this now?”
Lasn and AMF strive to combat consumerism through such initiatives as “Buy Nothing Day” — a tradition they started in 1992 — and the “simplicity movement,” both of which encourage people who have been “stung by consumer culture” to drop their obsessions with money and material possessions.
A former advertising professional himself, Lasn now holds advertisers in contempt because of their commitment to perpetuating consumerism. He describes them as “the cool-makers and the cool-breakers” who, “more than any other profession … have the power to change the world.” Lasn’s objective today is to promote “a mental/environmental movement that will wipe the advertising industry out as we know it.”
Describing himself as someone who has “been a student of revolution all my life,” Lasn says that in the summer of 2011 he and his fellow Adbusters staffers—especially senior editor Micah White—were “inspired” by the popular revolution that had recently occurred in Tunisia, kick-starting the so-called “Arab Spring.” Moreover, Lasn “thought that America,” whose economy was struggling at that time, “was [likewise] ripe for this type of [mass] rage.” In Lasn’s calculus, U.S. citizens as a whole were angry at Wall Street financial speculators who had made a habit of violating the “sense of fairness Americans have always believed in.”
Lasn was also confident that young Americans’ “despondency” over such concerns as “climate change,” “corruption in Washington,” and the generalized “decline” of their country, greatly increased the likelihood that the U.S. might experience “a Tahrir moment” of sorts. (The reference was to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which was part of the Arab Spring.) Emboldened further by “that sort of anarchy cred” which the civil disobedience/“hacktivism” group Anonymous had been demonstrating in recent times, Lasn and his Adbusters associates held brainstorming sessions on how they themselves might be able to effect “some kind of a soft regime change” aimed at diminishing the political influence of “finances,” “lobbyists,” and “corporations.”
In an effort to “catalyze” a protest movement against those forces, Lasn on June 9, 2011 registered the domain name “OccupyWallStreet.org” and thus gave birth to the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which he hoped would help to “pull the current monster down”— a reference to the two-headed serpent of capitalism and consumerism. Then, Lasn and Micah White promptly disseminated an #OccupyWallStreet e-mail to their subscribers, urging them to reserve September 17 as a day on which they would gather to protest en masse in New York City. Said the e-mail: “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On September 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.”
Following up on the June e-mail, Lasn and Adbusters posted an “Occupy Wall Street” call-to-action on the Internet on July 13, 2011, recruiting “redeemers, rebels and radicals” to join a mass protest movement “against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America.”
In fulfillment of Lasn’s request, approximately 5,000 participants gathered at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011, for an event that was widely dubbed a “Day of Rage.” The demonstration was conducted in conjunction with an affiliated movement known as USDayOfRage, named after a series of Weatherman-inspired anti-Vietnam War protests that had taken place in Chicago in 1969. Zuccotti Park was a perfect location for the Lasn-inspired gathering, because its status as a public-private location meant that there was no enforceable curfew — meaning that the participants could camp out on the grounds overnight and stay there for as long as they wished. Thus was the OWS movement born.
Early in the OWS movement, Lasn and White urged the activist occupiers in cities nationwide to give the movement some definition by articulating a clear and consistent message. According to Lasn and his Adbusters comrades, “Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum—that [President Hosni] Mubarak must go—over and over again until they won.” Exhorting the American protesters to follow that model, the Adbusters team instructed them to likewise “incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.” And that demand, explained an Adbusters communique to “radicals and utopian dreamers,” would have to be carefully worded so as to conceal its deeper motives:
“Strategically speaking, there is a very real danger that if we naively put our cards on the table and rally around the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ or some equally outworn utopian slogan, then our Tahrir moment will quickly fizzle into another inconsequential ultra-lefty spectacle soon forgotten.”
To guard against this possibility, Lasn knew that his organization would need to lay out “a deceptively simple Trojan Horse demand” that was “so specific and doable” that it would be “impossible for President Obama to ignore.” Soon thereafter, under the slogan “Democracy Not Corporatocracy,” Adbusters demanded that Obama “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”
Lasn’s “Trojan Horse” tactic adhered faithfully to the methods of the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky, whose preferred brand of revolution was a slow, patient process of incremental, rather than sudden, transformation. As author Stanley Kurtz explains, Alinsky “was smart enough to avoid Marxist language in public…. Instead of calling for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, [he] and his followers talk about ‘confronting power.’ Instead of advocating socialist revolution, they demand ‘radical social change.’ Instead of demanding attacks on capitalists, they go after ‘targets’ or ‘enemies.’”
On September 20, 2011, Lasn and White — both of whom lived in California — tried to write an OWS manifesto in the form of a letter to President Obama. The letter called for the tightening of banking-industry regulations, a ban on high-frequency trading, the arrest of all the “financial fraudsters” responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, and the formation of a Presidential commission to investigate corruption in politics. “We will stay here in our encampment in Liberty Plaza”—Zuccotti Park’s post-occupation name—“until you respond to our demands,” the letter concluded.
While Lasn conceded that every popular movement faces the “danger” that its idealistic leaders may eventually “turn into monsters,” he nonetheless said in 2011: “It’s very important for us to win, and [to] worry about how badly we behave later—right now we need to pull the current monster down.”
After New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg evicted the OWS protesters from Zuccotti Park in November 2011, Lasn stated that “Bloomberg’s shock-troop assault has stiffened our resolve and ushered in a new phase of our movement.” “The people’s assemblies,” he added, “will continue with or without winter encampments. What will be new is the marked escalation of surprise, playful, precision disruptions—rush-hour flash mobs, bank occupations, ‘occupy squads’ and edgy theatrics…. We will regroup, lick our wounds, brainstorm and network all winter. We will build momentum for a full-spectrum counterattack when the crocuses bloom next spring.”
Also in November 2011, a New Yorker article quoted Lasn speaking about “a dark age coming for humanity,” and about the pleasing prospect of “killing capitalism.”
- Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam (pp. 29-30).
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