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Behind the Bizarre Ideology That Fuels Adbusters Magazine

By exaggerating the mass media’s ability to zombify the public, Adbusters' "culture jammers" could imagine that they, too, had Svengali-like powers over the public.
 
 
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This article first appeared at Jacobin Magazine

The easy narrative about Adbusters, accepted by its friends and enemies alike, is that it’s, at heart, an anarchist project. To those wishing it well, the magazine is one of the cornerstones of the Left, a wellspring of anti-authoritarian tools meant to revive progressive activism and shake things up for the greater good. For curmudgeonly detractors, “culture jamming” is little more than a powerless rehash of old Yippie protest tactics. Yet anarchism, nearly everyone assumes, is either the best or the worst part of Adbusters.

But those explanations miss a much weirder side of the magazine’s underlying politics.

This March, Adbusters jumped into what ought to seem like a marriage made in hell. It ran a  glowing article on Beppe Grillo – Italy’s scruffier answer to America’s Truther champion Alex Jones – calling him “nuanced, fresh, bold, and committed as a politician,” with “a performance artist edge” and “anti-austerity ideas… [C]ountries around the world, from Greece to the US, can look to [him] for inspiration.” Grillo, the piece gushed, was “planting the seed of a renewed – accountable, fresh, rational, responsible, energized – left, that we can hope germinates worldwide.”

Completely unmentioned was the real reason Grillo is so controversial in Italy: his blog is full of anti-vaccination and 9/11 conspiracy claims, pseudoscientific cancer cures and  chemtrail-like theories about Italian incinerator-smoke. And, as Giovanni Tiso  noted in July, Grillo’s “5-Star Movement” also has an incredibly creepy backer: Gianroberto Casaleggio, “an online marketing expert whose only known past political sympathies lay with the right-wing separatist Northern League.” Casaleggio has also written kooky manifestoes about re-organizing society through virtual reality technology, with mandatory Internet citizenship and an online world government.

Adbusters could have stopped flirting with Grillo at that point, but it didn’t. Another Grillo puff-piece appeared in its May/June issue. Then the magazine’s outgoing editor-in-chief, Micah White (acknowledged by theNation as “the creator of the #occupywallstreet meme”) recently went solo to form his own “boutique activism consultancy,” promising clients a “discrete service” in “Social Movement Creation.” Two weeks ago, in a YouTube video, White proposed that the next step “after the defeat of Occupy” should be to import Grillo’s 5-Star Movement to the US in time for the 2014 mid-term elections:

After the defeat of Occupy, I don’t believe that there is any choice other than trying to grab power by means of an election victory … This is how I see the future: we could bring the 5-Star Movement to America and have the 5-Star Movement winning elections in Italy and in America, thereby forming an international party, not only with the 5-Star Movement, but with other parties as well.

The day after Adbusters ran its first pro-Grillo article, Der Spiegel  comparedGrillo’s tone – and sweeping plans to restructure Italy’s parliamentary system – to Mussolini’s rhetoric. Ten days before that, a 5-Star Movement MP, Roberta Lombardi, faced a  media scandal after writing a blog post praising early fascism for its “very high regard for the state and protection of the family.”

Most progressives might reconsider their glowing assessment of a party as “the seed for a renewed left” when its leaders peddle absurd conspiracy theories and praise fascists. No such signs from Adbusters or White.

But Grillo may be more than a random ally for the gang at Culture Jammers HQ.

Just where did Adbusters get its defining philosophy? Why was it always so obsessed with ads and consumerism, while hardly focusing on class dynamics until the financial crisis?

In 1989, Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn claimed to have had an epiphany in a supermarket and started a movement to fight branding and advertisement. This wasn’t to be a repeat of Abbie Hoffman’s  Steal This Book!-style anarchism, with roots in Proudhon’s famous “property is theft” dictum. Culture jammers weren’t acting to communalize most products, but to “uncool” them by taking on those products’ ads, with their own slickly-produced spoofs.

 
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