The Wizard of #OWS
Jake Whitney interviews Kalle Lasn December 2011
The editor in chief of Adbusters on sparking the Occupy Wall Street movement and its next phase, why the president is a “f#$%ing wimp,” and his beef with David Brooks.
Photo by Jim Labounty
Just hours before Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a militaristic, middle-of-the-night raid on the protesters at Zuccotti Park, Kalle Lasn and his team at Adbusters sent a “tactical briefing” to their ninety thousand followers. Lasn, the magazine’s cofounder and editor in chief, sensed that with winter bearing down and media coverage turning increasingly negative, morale was slipping. His missive urged protesters to “declare victory and throw a party,” “scale back,” and “emerge rejuvenated” in the spring. Bloomberg’s raid, however, was a “game changer.”
In fact, Lasn says, the raid, which occurred at 1 a.m. on the morning of November 15 during a media blackout and under closed airspace, was a “huge tactical blunder” that not only reenergized the protesters but officially ended the peaceful, amorphous, strategically vague “Phase I” of the movement. Phase II will see not only specific demands, but, because of the increasing thuggishness of police crackdowns nationwide, more counter attacks and disruptions. “When you attack young protesters who are expressing their right to free speech and fighting for a better future, there is going to be a price to pay,” he says. “It didn’t work in the Middle East and it’s never going to work in America.”
Lasn is, for the moment, the closest thing that Occupy Wall Street has to a leader. It was his pronouncement on July 13 that first urged demonstrations at the world’s financial district. Calling for a “Tahrir moment” that combined the peaceful encampments of the Spanish acampadas with the youthful uprisings that toppled Mubarak in Egypt, he prodded his followers, “On Sept 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.” That tweet has resulted in over one thousand occupations globally, according to Lasn, and while each protest has its own raison d’etre, Adbusters continues to offer suggestions on strategy, organization, communication and even inspiration.
Nevertheless, OWS has taken criticism for being leaderless and demand-less, though Lasn asserts that this “all-inclusive” model is a key to its success. Each protester, it seems, harbors a different grievance. For some, it’s skyrocketing tuition costs. Others, the lack of jobs. For some, the too-big-to-fail banks. For others, a Supreme Court decision that granted corporations “personhood.” And still others a broken political system that, even in the wake of an economic catastrophe caused by Wall Street recklessness, couldn’t manage to implement safeguards that would prevent a similar crash in the future. Underneath it all, however, is a shared feeling of profound injustice; that the rules are different for those at the top, and that the traditional means of balancing the scales no longer work. So why was Lasn the man to start it?
He was born in Estonia during the Second World War. When he was two, Stalin’s tanks rolled across the border and his family fled to Germany, where they landed in a refugee camp. These early experiences with dictatorships left Lasn with a deep regard for the sanctity of freedom. As an adult, Lasn made his way to North America where he became an activist and documentary filmmaker. It was in Canada’s Pacific Northwest, in 1989, that Lasn’s worldview was shaped. After being subjected to a misleading public relations campaign by the forest industry, Lasn and some filmmaker friends decided to create a counter message. When they approached the television stations, however, they were refused airtime. “For fifty years in my country you couldn’t speak out against the government,” he says. “Now here I was in North America, the cradle of democracy, and I couldn’t speak out against a sponsor.” He concluded that corporations were a bigger threat to freedom than governments. Adbusters was born.
As for Occupy Wall Street, the smears are well under way. One lobbying firm offered to “construct negative narratives” about the movement if the American Bankers Association would pay the lobbyists $850,000, as MSNBC reported last month. But even earlier, opponents had attempted to brand Lasn as an anti-Semite, pointing to a 2004 article that attempted to shed light on the Iraq War by calling out the fifty biggest neocons in the Bush Administration. The article found that half of them were Jewish, and put a mark next to each Jewish name (to show that they were supporters of Israel). Though Lasn admits to being a frequent critic of Israel, he maintains that he doesn’t “have an anti-Semitic bone” in his body. During our phone calls, we discussed this topic as well as many others, including Obama’s relationship with Occupy, what the Tea Party and OWS have in common, and his plans to create a third political party by the spring of 2012.
—Jake Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: Occupy Wall Street is considered a leaderless movement, but Adbusters sparked it and continues to shape strategy. Your “tactical briefings” have told the protesters how they should behave, how they should organize, what their inspirations should be, and to scale back during the winter. Are you more of a leader than is acknowledged?
Kalle Lasn: We are not the leaders, but we did spark it. When a movement is ripe, all you need is a spark. And we’ve tried our darnedest to insert our two cents with our tactical briefings. We’ve also been able to launch conversations at the general assemblies. Our role is similar to the one the Situationists played in 1968. They had good ideas and fired people’s imaginations with books like Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. They had these wonderful slogans and they provided the philosophical underpinning, but they weren’t the leaders. Debord, the leader of the Situationists, was by no means the leader of the movement. The same thing is happening here. A bunch of people, not just Adbusters, but Michael Moore, Slavoj Žižek, Naomi Klein and others have been setting the scene for a while. Then the moment was ripe and Adbusters lit a spark. This could be the beginning of a second great mind-shift, possibly a global revolution.
Guernica: Where did the idea for the occupation of Wall Street come from?
Kalle Lasn: The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt got the ball rolling. At our brainstorming sessions at Adbusters, we watched how these largely nonviolent regime changes upset the power balance in the Middle East and inspired activists around the world. The tantalizing thought was regime change. But in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime changes were hard. In Egypt, you had murderous dictators torturing people for years. Obviously, that kind of hard regime change where you topple obvious criminals and murderers doesn’t translate to America. The story in America was a vibrant, bottoms-up democracy subverted by corporations and financial speculators. Those people now control much of the narrative. They also control the congressmen and the legislation that’s passed in Washington. So we felt that America had become a corporate state and soft regime change was necessary. That was the concept that got us excited. Then we started thinking about ways to spark it.
Guernica: Many remain confused about what the protesters are protesting and what they want. Why?
Kalle Lasn: There’s a disconnect with older people who expect a movement to be vertical, like they’d seen in the past, with recognized leaders and demands and manifestos. Reporters want to be able to walk into an occupation and say, “Take me to your leader,” ask “What’s this about?” and write a story. But this movement is different. It’s been launched horizontally by people raised on the Internet. They don’t really like leaders. They’re egalitarian and don’t like having clearly articulated demands. But they have powerful, horizontal ways of communicating through social media. That’s the real magic here. Some of the young people at these occupations describe them as semi-religious experiences. Suddenly they feel things they’re not used to feeling, like hope and community. They share a belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with the direction the world is going in.
Guernica: In your Washington Post Op-Ed on November 18, you said we will be hearing specific demands, such as a 1 percent tax on all financial transactions, the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, and the overturning of Citizens United. What has taken so long?
Kalle Lasn: Our first tactical briefing of July 13 talked about demands. But then we realized that they were unnecessary during the first phase of the movement. Everybody was invited, whatever your beef was, whatever your angle or campaign was, you were involved. But now with winter coming and this game-changing moment by Bloomberg in Zuccotti Park, people will start brainstorming and networking. Our counter-attack will involve not only more precision-targeted militancy around specific projects, but also crystal clear demands such as a Robin Hood tax and others. Ultimately, though, what these young people want is not nitty-gritty policy demands. They’re after something deeper. They look at the future and see a black hole. They look at climate change and see an ecological crisis. They look at their leaders corrupted by money and see a political crisis. They wonder if they’ll ever be able to pay off their student loan or own a house. Given this ecological, political and financial crisis, what they want is a different future. Their fundamental demand is a different regime to provide that future.We needed to put the fat cats and financial speculators who gave us this mess under the microscope and say that the global casino they created to enrich themselves doesn’t mean anything for real jobs and the real economy.
Guernica: But if the protesters want regime change, they’ll need to attack existing power structures, which would involve a concrete goal like getting money out of politics. Your first tactical briefing, in fact, demanded that Obama appoint a commission to “end the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” What happened to that?
Kalle Lasn: We initially thought that if you’re going to pull off regime change then stopping the moneyed corruption at the heart of American democracy was the key. I still believe that is the crucial demand. Yet in an operational sense, it shouldn’t be the first thing you do. Before those issues are addressed, it’s necessary to talk about the global situation in terms of the one percent and the 99 percent. We needed to put the fat cats and financial speculators who gave us this mess under the microscope and say that the global casino they created to enrich themselves doesn’t mean anything for real jobs and the real economy. Before we dealt with the rational part, we needed to generate emotional outrage. It’s like going for the knockout punch in Round 1 of a boxing match, when maybe it’s better to wait until Round 12. We haven’t given up on that demand, but there’s still a lot of work to do before we’re ready for the knockout punch.
Guernica: You described Bloomberg’s raid on Zuccotti Park as a game-changer. What did you mean?
Kalle Lasn: Bloomberg made a huge tactical blunder. He did what Ben Ali did in Tunisia, what Mubarak did in Egypt and what Assad is doing in Syria. He turned against his young, striking against peaceful protesters while they slept. On the surface, it’s hard to compare what Bloomberg did with what the Middle East’s dictators did. And yet the sentiment is exactly the same. When you turn against young protesters expressing their right to free speech and fighting for a different future, there is going to be a huge price to pay. It didn’t work in the Middle East and it’s never going to work in America.
Guernica: Your recent writings are more militant, calling for edgy theatrics and disruptions of transit and other things. Isn’t there a danger that these tactics could turn popular opinion against the protesters?
Kalle Lasn: I don’t really give a damn about popular opinion. Bloomberg’s mistake has created legitimate anger. Now some of the more radical elements are going to come out, like anarchists and similar groups who up to now have been marginalized by our nonviolent philosophy. But now, like it or not, there is going to be more militancy. By striking at the heart of our protests, Bloomberg has brought the first phase of the movement to an end. He’s got thousands of young people feeling that a brutal attack in the middle of the night deserves a ramped-up counter-attack.You look at the media and realize that these corporate-run commercial entities are failing to give Americans the information they need to make informed choices.
Guernica: Comparisons have been made with the Tea Party. How would you compare the movements? I would argue that they share a basic motivating idea. As trite as it sounds, it comes down to freedom; a desire for less outside control on their lives. The key difference between the groups is how they define freedom and who they believe is most responsible for restricting it.
Kalle Lasn: I agree that we share that. It’s a profound way of seeing resonance between the movements. But there’s an even deeper resonance. The two parties grew out of the same emotional feeling: that the future does not compute; that America is going in the wrong direction. They see America in decline, people losing their jobs, all this pain. Both movements know that we the people have to passionately rise up and change the existing system if we’re going to have any kind of a future. But we see the problem in different ways. They see the problem as Big Government, we see the problem as corporations and Wall Street.
Guernica: The movement has been credited with bringing attention to income inequality. Inherent in that is a sense of injustice. The president of Ireland recently assailed the “small group of people” who crashed the global economy and who now “run around the continent with impunity.”
Kalle Lasn: That’s why the 1 percent/99 percent slogan is so important. There’s something so fundamentally unfair about those fat cats and financial speculators getting away with this. Not one of them has been brought to justice. None of them has apologized. People who just lost their house or cannot pay their student loan see this and say, “Those fucking bastards.” But it’s not just recent events. There is a profound injustice at the heart of the American economy. You look at the media and realize that these corporate-run commercial entities are failing to give Americans the information they need to make informed choices. You look at the food we’re eating and the obesity epidemic and realize there is something fundamentally wrong about our nutritional habits. So across the board there is something fundamentally unjust about every aspect of our personal lives.
Guernica: And there’s a sense that the traditional ways of righting these wrongs no longer work. Obama was the left’s great hope for change, yet even after a global economic meltdown he couldn’t pass meaningful financial reform. In a healthy democracy, that should have been a no-brainer.
Kalle Lasn: That’s what revolution is all about. It’s like putting up with Mubarak for forty years who is controlling the media and having all his friends make money hand over fist—and you can’t stop it. The same thing exists in America now. People have tried all kinds of ways to fix things, like electing Obama and having a debate about decreasing the power of corporations. Then the Supreme Court gives them personhood [with the Citizens United decision]. You realize that no matter what you do, who you elect, how wonderful your article is, how eloquently you speak on CNN, none of it will make a difference. Ultimately, the only choice is a revolution that pulls off a soft regime change.
Guernica: Let’s talk about Obama’s relationship with the protesters. The left has been deeply disappointed with him. But could OWS be the fulfillment of Obama’s vision, after all? He helped usher in the Arab Spring. His financial reform bill was flawed but an attempt to address many of the issues OWS rails against. As Van Jones keeps pointing out, Obama’s slogan was always “Yes, we can, ” not “Yes, I can.” Is it possible to see OWS as the left finally doing its part to help Obama succeed?
Kalle Lasn: I don’t see it that way. I was absolutely inspired by the speeches Obama gave before he got elected, and some of the ones after, like in Cairo. But there’s something wrong with him now. He changed once he got elected, flip-flopping on Guantanamo and many other things. And now, especially in knuckling to Israel when it comes to the Arab Spring and the freedom fight that Palestinians have been waiting on for so long, he’s a fucking wimp. He’s like a guy who knows he’s doing the wrong thing but just wants to get re-elected. When you sense that in a leader, then you really lose faith in the guy.
Guernica: Do the protesters need Obama to succeed…
Kalle Lasn: I hope not. The guy has proven himself to be a gutless wonder. I’m not saying that if the 2012 election is between Rick Perry and Obama that many in the movement won’t vote for Obama. But a much more tantalizing possibility is that the movement will give birth to a third party…
Guernica: …because you’re not going to get a President Rick Perry to appoint a commission to examine financial corruption in our political system.
Kalle Lasn: We weren’t really expecting Obama to either. What needs to happen is that the movement play exactly the same game that was played in Egypt, where there was a battle between Mubarak and the people. We need to have hundreds of thousands of young people saying “Mr. President, whoever you are, we want this.” And then the American people would say, “That sounds reasonable, let’s do it.” So we’re really launching ideas to force the president’s hand.
Guernica: What role do you expect this third party to play?
Kalle Lasn: We’d like to see it emerge next spring. It may not be able to [challenge for the presidency] in six months, but we may be able to play a Tea Party-type role. We’re not going to hop in bed with the Democrats, though. We expect it to be much more powerful and broad-based, more infused with enthusiasm and the passion of young people than Ralph Nader or other third-party candidates have been. I call it the True Cost Party of America. Our goal is to get beyond the Pepsi-Cola/Coca-Cola political choice that Americans have had for so long and to give them a real choice for a different future. It may be an amalgamation of the passionate people from the Tea Party and the passionate people from our side. We can finally transcend this rigid left-right divide that always turns into a slugfest and ultimately means nothing.A deep transformation of capitalism is something we’d like to see: a bottoms-up capitalism with a free market that gives entrepreneurs the ability to launch their business ventures.
Guernica: You mentioned the media several times, so let’s talk about news coverage of the protests. Media bias has rarely been more obvious. The right wing press has thrown out even the slightest pretense of objectivity in demonizing the protesters.
Kalle Lasn: The global press is the same. Look at the BBC. I don’t know if they’re still doing it, but a few weeks after the movement began, they were talking about it as an “anti-capitalist movement.” The commercial mass media would like this movement to just go away. They are threatened by it. They were a hell of a lot more comfortable covering the Tea Party because the Tea party was anti-government. That suited them fine. Our movement is fighting against the same corporations that own their TV stations and magazines. They know that eventually we will not only be trying to reform capitalism but we’ll be trying to reform the mass media that is continually lying to us.
Guernica: Adbusters was launched, in fact, out of frustration with the media. None of the television networks would air one of your TV spots.
Kalle Lasn: Yes. A group of us in the Pacific Northwest weren’t able to respond to the forest industry. The industry was killing our old growth forests and their TV campaigns said how well they managed the forests and how we’ve got “forests forever”—that was their slogan. When we tried to answer them with our own TV spot, the stations refused us. So we concluded there was no democracy on the public airwaves. It provided the spark for everything we’ve done since. I was born in Estonia. For fifty years you couldn’t speak out against the government there. Now here I was in North America, the cradle of democracy, and I wasn’t able to speak out against a sponsor. This brought to mind the stranglehold that consumerism has on our media and our lives.
Guernica: Is your goal with Adbusters to replace capitalism with socialism or communism?
Kalle Lasn: In our brainstorming sessions, there are not too many people who want a chilling off of capitalism or an ushering in of some sort of communist system. They’re saying there is something fundamentally wrong with the existing financial speculative capitalism and we have to do heavy surgery to create a global economy that works. A deep transformation of capitalism is something we’d like to see: a bottoms-up capitalism with a free market that gives entrepreneurs the ability to launch their business ventures. On the other hand, because of the atrocities that took place in the Soviet Union, communism has gotten something of a bad rap. Some of the ideals of communism are finding their way back. We’ve woken to the fact that this individualistic, everybody against everybody culture that we’ve created is hitting the wall.The average American consumes three times—300 percent—more than the average American after WWII.
Guernica: Adbusters is anti-consumerist. But we seem to be stuck in a consumer cycle that is not easy to break. If we start consuming less, as you advocate, companies will produce less and jobs will be lost.
Kalle Lasn: Retailers use that argument when we launch a Buy Nothing Day. They tell us we’re going to ruin their businesses because the Christmas shopping season is so important. But learning to celebrate Christmas in non-commercial ways is the secret to a sane, sustainable future. The jobs argument is very myopic. It’s madness to sacrifice the long term for the sake of short-term satisfaction. The key flaw with our system is that it’s driven by the ability of corporations to keep consumerism going at all costs.
Guernica: But even after the financial crash, few people would want to return to a way of life from a century ago.
Kalle Lasn: That’s true. But in the process of becoming more comfortable, we’ve made a devil’s bargain. The average American after the Second World War had a great life and consumed a good deal. Now, just a half-century later, the average American consumes three times—300 percent—more than the average American after WWII. The richest one billion on the planet now consume three-quarters of the global pie, leaving a quarter to the other six billion. This comfort argument, like the jobs argument, allows you to be in denial. The truth is we are in a climate change scenario, in an age of terror largely fueled by this huge income inequality. We’re in the middle of an American mini-revolution. Has the comfort been worth it? How much is enough? It’s time to ask these questions. The good news is that a new ecological economics paradigm is emerging out of the ashes of the neoclassical paradigm that has been taught for the last many generations. A whole new way of looking at the economy and our lives is emerging.
Guernica: How will your third political party put this paradigm into practice?
Kalle Lasn: We’d mark on every product the ecological truth. It’s a new way of measuring. Currently, we don’t measure the bad things, just the good. When you pay for something, whether it’s a pin or a bottle of Coca-Cola or a thirty-thousand-dollar car, you should be paying the true cost of that product. Not just what it costs Toyota or Ford to make the car plus some profit. You should also pay for the ecological damage that you’ll be doing by driving that car and pumping carbon into the atmosphere for the next five or ten years. If you were forced to pay the true cost of the car, there would be less cars sold and we’d find alternative ways of transportation. It’s the idea of a marketplace that instead of getting us deeper into the shit starts pulling us out.
Guernica: One of the ways the right has smeared OWS is by labeling you an anti-Semite. You’ve been accused of having a history of anti-Semitic writing. How do you respond to that?
Kalle Lasn: It goes back to a half-page story that Adbusters ran seven years ago. Adbusters and I have suffered because of the way that story has been portrayed. The New York Times twice took a swipe at us over it. First, David Brooks in one of his recent columns [“The Milquetoast Radicals”], and then Joseph Berger quoted some organization saying that I had a history of anti-Semitic writing. I tried to get the right of reply but the Times refused. Brooks wrote a piece last year pointing out that 51 percent of Nobel Prize winners in nonfiction are Jewish and that 37 percent of Academy Award–winning directors are Jewish and many other percentages. He got zero flak for it. I think it’s perfectly valid for David Brooks to point that out to show the intellectual power of Jews. But then for him to take a swipe at Adbusters for pointing out that 50 percent of neocons were Jewish is a real double standard. It was a cheap shot and I’m not going to let Brooks get away with it.Neocons should be under the microscope for what they’ve done to American foreign policy. That’s a far bigger story than the fact that Adbusters or Kalle Lasn may be anti-Semitic.
Guernica: The article was “Why Won’t They Say They are Jewish?” and you listed the fifty most prominent neocons in the Bush Administration and marked the ones who were Jewish. You were trying to draw attention to the Iraqi invasion and to ask whether, because of support for Israel, they pushed Bush into war. But wouldn’t it have been more to your point to mark the names of the hard-line Israeli supporters, regardless of whether they were Jewish?
Kalle Lasn: Looking back, instead of using the word Jewish repeatedly, I would have pointed out that they were Likudists, Zionists, and people who had a special loyalty not just to America but to Israel. And the fact that they were able to play a significant role in pushing for war partly for the benefit of Israel. At Adbusters we’ve taken on not only consumerism but also the super pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian neocons that pushed for the Iraq war and who are now pushing Obama [in his dealings with] Netanyahu. Neocons should be under the microscope for what they’ve done to American foreign policy. That’s a far bigger story than the fact that Adbusters or Kalle Lasn may be anti-Semitic.
Guernica: To put the matter to rest, would you go on record saying that anti-Semitism is absolutely wrong and you oppose any trace of it in Occupy Wall Street?
Kalle Lasn: Sure, absolutely. I would much rather go on record as saying there is not an anti-Semitic bone in my body and people should read our story themselves. See it in the context of the percentages that David Brooks himself has quoted.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
The Wizard of #OWS