Meme Me Up Scotty

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Review of Adbusters

'The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of their needs, whether they arise from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference. Nor does it matter here how the thing satisfies man's need, whether directly as a means of subsistence, ie an object of consumption, or indirectly as a means of production.'

These words of anti-capitalist insight were first published in 1867, well before the dawn of the modern mass media and their exploitation for global marketing. It was also well before the vast majority of the planet's populace were forced to sell their labour as a commodity in exchange for subsistence wages.

Yet Karl Marx's observations at the opening of 'Capital' seem to have escaped the attention of many who rail against the tyranny of that system in what they see as its distinctively 21st century guise. They seem to think that the commodification of ideas and the manufacture of 'needs' or even 'desires' through practices like advertising was not anticipated.

The Adbusters Media Foundation (www.adbusters.org) is one such exasperating outfit. The Vancouver based 'loose global network of media activists' founded by Kalle Lasn practises 'culture-jamming', stunts intended to break us out of the contrived overconsumption and waste creation that capitalism depends on. For example, they deemed 29 November 2002 to be 'Buy Nothing Day', and coordinated enough donations to buy TV audiences during the Lou Dobbs Moneyline show on CNN. The animated anti-ad featured a pig denouncing viewers credit card enslavement. Michael Moore included his own bit of culture-jamming during his live London shows at the time, getting audiences to surrender their Sainsbury's Nectar cards to him for destruction.

On the war Adbusters' lead response has been a 'Boycott Brand America' pledge, with 20,000 hits as of the eve of hostilities.

Another Adbusters stunt, 'Turn TV Off Week' is planned for 21 to 27 April. Stencil and linocut monoprint posters on their website, reminiscent of Paris 1968, invite us to unplug the addictive TV drip from our lives. With US TV being qualitatively Vauxhall Conference compared to Britain's Premier Division, most US progressives exist without TV already. So such a campaign has a different meaning either side of the Atlantic. But at best it's passive and individualist.

The most regular and visible Adbusters gets is its monthly magazine, the self-styled 'journal of the mental environment'. The November/December 2002 edition was brilliant--its overall theme was 'appetite'. In trilingual text, with a stunning variety of artwork/photography, it assembled a concentrated blast at the most elemental form of overconsumption: obesity, the triumph of fast-food excess, the repository of high fat chemicals-and-sugar crap, a diet rich in profit.

Using laboratory pictures, stats, corporate blurbs, medical analyses, plus accredited artworks, e-mailed contributions from dozens of places and altered images of all kinds, this edition makes for a breathtaking attack on corporate capital.

So where are the contradictions here? Well one of the e-mails proclaims, 'I used to be a fast food eating fat-ass until I woke up and became a vegan I lost about 100 pounds. Just goes to show what breaking off from everyday American culture can get you.' Healthy eating for those who can afford it is to be encouraged. But statements of abstinence like this could just as well be found in some distinctly procapital weight watching manual.

The first edition for 2003 is even more problematic. In conscious juxtapositions that John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' famously analysed as unintentionally eloquent in mainstream fashion mags and Sunday supplements of the early 1970s, a half-page shot of massed summer airport check-in lines sits above a scene of thousands of scraggy fowl hemmed in to a mirror-walled enclosure, with the slogan 'Nothing exists outside the dominant logic of capitalism'. Another infuriating and anonymous chunk of prose insists that 'Conventional revolution is an empty promise--defiance is futile against a power as great as this one.'

Yet what makes Adbusters worth engaging with is the initial spirit of 'Culture Jam', Kalle Lasn's manifesto of 1999. Completely contradicting the quotes above, Lasiri claims in his second sentence that 'we can change the world'. He goes on to remind us of a litany of outrageous damage that capitalism has wrought on the natural world including Honno sapiens. His search is for a culture of authenticity, a life worth living.

But when he moves from the why of anti-capitalism to the what of replacing it and the how of overcoming it, he gets pretty silly. His answer is 'meme warfare'! A meme is a sloganised idea with added potency that can 'catalyse 'collective mindshifts'. 'Whoever has the memes has the power,' he claims laughing. Traditional radical actions like sit-ins, mass protest, even riots are belittled as 'spectacles with radium half-lives'. His mentors are Marshall McLuhan and Guy Debord, punk, surrealism, Dadaism and anarchism. Belligerence and risk-taking are prized. Idealism is paramount.

Lasin claims as his model of success the battle to 'uncool' tobacco, to undermine the lung cancer profiteers. Apparently, anti-smoking ads in 1969 helped force the ban on all US TV and radio cigarette advertising by 1971. The anti-smoking meme won out, according to Lasn. But he doesn't acknowledge that the pressures from the health insurance industry and corporate insurers to reduce their costs also played a part.

When the West Country satirists Cyderdelic carried their banner 'Overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer' on the 2001 London May Day event they were confirming an Adbusters point about the 'meme' power of slogans. Many commentators missed the piss-take involved in the slogan and took it at innocent face value. The globalised resistance movement is mature enough to tolerate its sardonic critics. But the general mistake of championing consumer revolt is much more debilitating than that.

When Marx also wrote that the alienating impact of capitalism was most intense where it robbed us of control over our own actual and potential power to transform the world through creative labour, he was pointing us in the direction of the strongest lever to overturn the rule of capital--the organised mass of workers producing the profits.