First published in The Canadian Press (October 14, 2011) ☛ With roots that reach as far as Cairo’s fertile Tahrir Square, the Occupy protests roiling Wall Street will finally come full circle this weekend as they blossom in Canada, where they were conceived by Vancouver-based Adbusters. Just a few short months ago, staff members at Adbusters’ magazine — one of the seminal agents of the modern-day culture-jamming movement — watched, rapt, as scores of ordinary Egyptians took to the streets to depose a dictator and end decades of brutal repression at the hands of their government. “We had sort of a communal, ‘Aha!’ moment,” Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn recalled in an interview. “We started wondering whether the same kind of tools that were used in Egypt, and the sort of regime-change philosophy, couldn’t be applied to America.” The ensuing conversation eventually led to the Occupy Wall Street movement, an international uprising against economic inequality and corporate influence on the U.S. federal government. The campaign, which began on Sept. 17 as an occupation of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, has generated waves that have engulfed dozens of American cities and spread to countries around the world.
Watching the phenomenon come full circle has been both surreal and exciting, Lasn said. “I kept on wanting to go to New York, and now instead of me coming to the occupation, the occupation is coming to me,” he said. “This idea of occupying the iconic centre of global capitalism … there was something magical about that right from the start, so I knew something very special would happen there on Wall Street, but I had no idea that it would spread to hundreds of cities all around the place and become this possibility of a global mind shift.” Even to a publication for which subversive trends are its stock in trade, the momentum has been surprising. Adbusters has been a staple of the counter-cultural scene since Lasn and co-founder Bill Schmalz put out its first issue in 1989. The inaugural issue challenged ads of the day that promoted the British Columbia logging industry, using spoof advertisements and articles to raise awareness of environmental issues at a time when the environment was hardly the mainstream topic it is today. The magazine has gone on to embrace other social causes, adopting the slogan, “Cultural revolution is our business.” Its following is largely based in the U.S. — American readers account for 60 per cent of the bimonthly magazine’s circulation of 100,000. Adbusters tries to challenge mainstream thinking through culture jamming, a process of replacing common messages with alternative narratives. Kate Tilleczek, Canada Research Chair of Child and Youth Cultures, said Adbusters quickly emerged as a leader in the culture jamming movement that found its niche in a specific demographic. “It was a voice. They created a space. Young people were really, really moved by it, especially the strong visuality of it,” Tilleczek said. “It probably plays its part in so far as it set a culture among the left and the young of feeling fine about jamming the culture.”
The desire to overthrow the lobbyists and corporations that exert the most influence on the U.S. government galvanized Adbusters staff to reach out to the magazine’s network of activists around the world, Lasn said. Those contacts helped stir up interest over the summer. The message was originally targeted at Americans grown weary of economic imbalance between the rich and poor, as well as an economy that has foundered for the past three years. Activists soon found that the issues ran deeper, Lasn said. The ongoing financial crises, coupled with escalating environmental disasters such as last summer’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, have left people feeling the need to take control of their collective destiny. “Young people are looking at this sort of black-hole future, and they’re saying, ‘Unless we stand up and fight for a different kind of future, then we’re not going to have a future.”‘ Adbusters spread word of the fledgling idea in its July issue by publishing a poster depicting a ballerina poised atop the charging bull statue that has become a Wall Street landmark. Social media helped to leverage the message, as did the support of subversive forces like the computer-hacker community in the U.S. The support of self-proclaimed “hacktivist” group Anonymous, known for its defiant and decisive attacks against mainstream corporate brands like MasterCard and Visa, gave the movement the “street cred” it needed to truly flourish, Lasn said.
However, Andrew Potter, co-author of the anti-culture-jamming book The Rebel Sell, warns that the unstructured nature of the protest could be its demise. Protests based on culture jamming must also adapt themselves to the very systems they hope to overthrow if they want to effect any meaningful change, he said. The message of higher taxation for the rich and financial reform is valid and worthy of praise, Potter said, but risks falling on deaf ears unless it’s communicated more effectively. “The left has consistently stayed outside the system, to see the system as part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said. “What you’ve seen is a lot of people who would much rather take to the streets and leave it in the streets…. If they don’t successfully institutionalize themselves within the American political power structure, it’s not clear what’s going to happen.” In whatever form the movement evolves, Lasn said Adbusters will not be leading the charge. The magazine has done its part, but will continue to support the movement and play an active behind-the-scenes role. Its flexibility and lack of structure is its greatest strength, he added. “What they’ve done is miraculous,” Lasn said. “Without leaders, without demands, they’ve been able to launch a national conversation the likes of which America hasn’t seen for a couple of generations. It doesn’t get any better than that.”