Behind the Bizarre Ideology That Fuels Adbusters Magazine
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.
To them, the brand names bearing the coolness were more important than what the branded products did. It wasn’t drinking itself that their anti-Absolut vodka ads seemed to target, but glamorous logo-brands – as if smokers and alcoholics were hooked solely on label prestige.
The earliest Adbusters website on the Wayback Machine reads like a tamer, more Canadian, version of Alex Jones’ operation. Greeting you on the intro page is a Marshall McLuhan quote about “guerrilla information war.” Above its table of contents is the All Seeing Eye engraving from US currency.
“There’s a war on for your mind!” is the current InfoWars tagline. Not too far from the early Adbusters (the “Journal of the Mental Environment”) which promised to “take on the archetypal mind polluters – Marlboro, Budweiser, Benetton, Coke, McDonalds, Calvin Klein – and beat them at their own game.”
Oddly for a site now considered left-wing, Adbusters 1.0. was cheesily evasive about its political position, claiming to be “neither left nor right, but straight ahead.”
There’s good reason to be suspicious of anyone who pulls that “neither left nor right” line. Though Alex Jones’ InfoWars may not have been directly based on early-days Adbusters, the two were undeniably similar in sentiment. Both take a hostile view to mass media and widely-available consumer products, pushing readers towards an ascetic alternative lifestyle that insulates them from “The System” and its toxic worldliness.
And, as luck would have it, both are also the merchants of the (rarer, more expensive) alternative products needed to live this lifestyle. Alex Jones expounds the virtues of food-hoarding and drives Truthers to amass his survival packs, anti-fluoride filters, and nascent iodine drops; Adbusters flogs Blackspot shoes, Corporate America protest flags, and overpriced culture-jamming kits to “create new ambiences and psychic possibilities.”
With Lasn as its guru, culture jamming became popular among activists in the 1990s. Behind all those “subvertisements” lay one big assumption: regular sheeple were so brainwashed by consumerism that they couldn’t even snicker at rose-petally tampon ads without an enlightened jammer to spell everything out for them. Every adbuster got to feel like Morpheus, unplugging Sleepers from the Matrix with the Red Pill of Situationism.
This view of society wasn’t Marxist, left-liberal, or anarchist, so much as Don Draperist: “We are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers,” Kalle Lasn told an audience of advertising “creatives” in 2006. “More than any other profession, I think that we have the power to change the world.”
Lasn might claim not to believe in leaders, but he believes in elites: marketing professionals with a higher calling, responsible for shepherding public consciousness to save humanity from brands, from themselves.
And by exaggerating the mass media’s ability to zombify the public, jammers could imagine that they, too, had Svengali-like powers over ordinary proles. For all the “tools” Adbusters offered to sway public consciousness – stencilling, stickering, page defacement, supermarket trolley sabotage – there was never much emphasis on social skills, on persuading people with politics instead of bombarding them with theater or treating them like hackable machines.
More than anything, what sets culture jammers apart from social anarchism and weds them to the Grillo camp of quacks is a unifying emphasis on a theory called “mental environmentalism.” Mental environmentalism, Micah White explains, is “the core idea behind Adbusters, the essential critique that motivates our struggle against consumer society.”
For Adbusters, concern over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect democratic transparency, freedom of speech or the public’s access to the airwaves. Although these are worthwhile causes, Adbusters instead situates the battle of the mind at the center of its political agenda. Fighting to counter pro-consumerist advertising is done not as a means to an end, but as the end in itself. This shift in emphasis is a crucial element of mental environmentalism.
Mental environmentalism is an emergent movement that in the coming years will be recognized as the fundamental social struggle of our era. It is both a unifying struggle – among mental environmentalists there are everything from conservative Mormons to far-left anarchists – and a struggle that finally, concretely explains the cause of the diversity of ills that threaten us.
To escape the mental chains, and finally pull off the glorious emancipatory revolution the left has so long hoped for, we must become meme warriors who, through the use of culture jamming, spark a wave of epiphanies that shatter the consumerist worldview.
“The end in itself.” For culture jammers, posters and billboards don’t justrepresent exploitation, they are the tyranny (“the cause of the diversity of ills that threaten us”), and fighting them trumps all the progressive causes of their would-be allies.
That “neither left nor right” thing? It wasn’t just posturing. Not only is White equally willing to work with “far-left anarchists” and “conservative Mormons” but his mentor Lasn once hoped to guide Occupy into a merger with the Tea Party, producing a “hybrid party” that would transcend America’s “rigid left-right divide.”
White’s explanation of how mental pollution works sinks even deeper into conspiracy babble. Sounding a bit like a Scientologist, he tells us that humanity’s biggest problems are due to something called “infotoxins” which enter us through “commercial messaging”:
If a key insight of environmentalism was that external reality, nature, could be polluted by industrial toxins, the key insight of mental environmentalism is that internal reality, our minds, can be polluted by infotoxins. Mental environmentalism draws a connection between the pollution of our minds by commercial messaging and the social, environmental, financial and ethical catastrophes that loom before humanity. Mental environmentalists argue that a whole range of phenomenon from the BP oil spill to the emergence of crony-democracy to the mass extinction of animals to the significant increase in mental illnesses are directly caused by the three thousand advertisements that assault our minds each day. And rather than treat the symptoms, by rushing to scrub the oil-soaked beaches or passing watered-down environmental protection legislation, mental environmentalists target the root cause: the advertising industry that fuels consumerism.
Instead of blaming mental illness rates on obvious culprits – workplace stress, problems at home, school bullying, bad genes, changes to DSM criteria – the “mental environmentalists” at Adbusters pin it all on subliminal infotoxins polluting our precious bodily fluids. How do they prove it? About as well as you can prove rock albums are demon-infested or that 70-million-year-old thetans cause influenza. White has decided that “external” environmentalism just doesn’t go deep enough – only “mental environmentalists,” with their meme wars, are fighting the “root cause.”
Lasn’s “mental environment” writings are just as L. Ron Hubbard-ish as White’s. (His epiphanies spawned the concept, after all.) In 2006, hesuggested to the Guardian that advertising may be the cause of “mood disorders, anxiety attacks and depressions.” Four years later, he co-wrote an article with White repeating the same claims, along with new fears that TV was poisoning us with too many sensual images of “pouty lips, pert breasts [and] buns of steel”:
Growing up in a violent, erotically-charged media environment alters our psyches at a bedrock level. … And the constant flow of commercially scripted, violence-laced, pseudo-sex makes us more voyeuristic, insatiable and aggressive. Then, somewhere along the line, nothing – not even rape, torture, genocide, or war porn – shocks us anymore.
The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences. It pays to pollute. The psychic fallout is just the cost of putting on the show.
If “mental environmentalism” had a true ally in American political thought, it would be Allan Bloom, with his Platonist neocon fretting about Sony Walkmans and MTV reducing life to cultural impoverishment, a “nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.” You can’t as easily picture Lasn agreeing with the “Anonymous” brand of anarchism or its “Information wants to be free!” maxims: whenever volume comes up in these mental environment articles, more infomation is apparently worse.
White made this explicit in a July blog post, “Toxic Culture: A Unified Theory of Mental Pollution,” writing:
How do we fight back against the incessant flow of logos, brands, slogans and jingles that submerge our streets, invade our homes and flicker on our screens? We could wage a counteroffensive at the level of content: attacking individual advertisements when they cross the decency line and become deceptive, violent or overly sexual. But this approach is like using napkins to clean up an oil spill. It fails to confront the true danger of advertising … is not in its individual messages but in the damage done to our mental ecology by the sheer volume of its flood.
White has even theorized a much earlier spiritual forefather for Adbustersthan Kalle Lasn: Emile Zola, “who wrote what may be the first mental environmentalist short story, Death by Advertising, in 1866” and offered “a deeper look at advertising’s role in inducing a consumerist mindset” with his later novel, Au Bonheur Des Dames. Yes, Zola the social reformer who devoted his career to chronicling the fecund depravity and bestial desires of the underclasses. The guy who wrote a twenty-novel cycle promoting determinist psychology and Second Empire theories about hereditary animal passions of the colonized. Au Bonheur Des Dames is a cautionary tale about the nervous excitation big department stores can wreak on women’s fragile senses.
White hopes to take some morals from Zola’s shorter fiction:
Like junk food can make us obese, junk thoughts and advertisements can make us moronic. …We are, in a literal way, poisoned each time we see an advertisement and that is the essential danger of a consumer society based upon advertising.
Zola glimpsed a hundred and forty years ago…that advertising has poisoned our minds and corrupted our culture. As we march toward collapse, the question remains whether we will go passively toward our death and remembered only as a foolish civilization killed by advertising, or whether there remains within us a spark of clarity from which a mental environment movement may catch flame.
Advertising, to culture jammers, is virtually the same kind of universal scapegoat psychiatry became for Scientologists: an insidious, corrupting Demiurge responsible for all evils. But you’ll rarely find paranoia without self-importance. The grander vision, for Lasn, White, and their associates, is a world where marketers have the power to save humanity or destroy it with their “carefully-crafted imagery.” Instead of “clearing” the planet with Hubbard’s E-meter auditing, they hope Zen subvertisments, Buy Nothing Days, and strange hybrid political parties will be the answer.
Given the focus of their psychosis, it can often seem like culture jammers have the same concerns as anarchists and socialists: saving the environment, fighting capitalist exploitation, building a popular movement. But if they hate some of the things leftists also hate, it’s for the wrong reasons – and worse, their solutions are quack ones.
So don’t be surprised by White’s new alliance with Grillo, or Lasn’s dashed hopes for a merger with the Tea Party: Adbusters was never on our side.