How to unravel the pervasive influence of consumer culture
The next revolution—World War III—will be waged inside your head. It will be, as Marshall McLuhan predicted, a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or around international fishing boundaries on the high seas, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV, and in cyberspace. It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda war of competing worldviews and alternative visions of the future.
We culture jammers can win this battle for ourselves and for planet Earth. Here's how: We build our own meme factory, put out a better product, and beat the corporations at their own game. We identify the macromemes and the metamemes—the core ideas without which a sustainable future is unthinkable—and deploy them. Here are the five most potent metamemes in the culture jammer's arsenal:
True cost: In the global marketplace of the future, the price of every product will tell the ecological truth.
Demarketing: It's time to unsell the product and turn the massive power of marketing against itself.
The doomsday machine: The global economy is a juggernaut that must be stopped and reprogrammed.
No corporate “I”: Corporations are not legal “persons” with constitutional rights and freedoms of their own, but legal fictions that we created and must control.
Media Carta: Every human being has the right to communicate—to receive and impart information through any media.
Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society whose members spend a great deal of their time in the irrelevant worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.
Aldous Huxley was on the spot in the foreword of his revised 1946 edition of Brave New World—which, perhaps more than any other 20th-century fiction work, predicted the psychological climate of our wired age. There's a clear parallel between “soma”—the pleasure drug issued to BNW citizens—and the mass media as we know them. Both keep the hordes tranquilized and pacified, and maintain the social order. Both chase out reason in favor of entertainment and disjointed thought, encourage uniformity of behavior, and devalue the past in favor of sensory pleasures now. Residents of Huxley's realm willingly participate in being manipulated. Only you, the reader (and a couple of “imperfect” book characters who somehow ended up with real personalities), know it's dystopia. It's a hell that can be recognized only by those outside the system.
Our own dystopia, too, can be detected only from the outside—by “outsiders” who by some lucky twist of fate were not seduced by the Dream and recruited into the consumer cult of the insatiables. Although most of us are still stuck in the cult, our taste for soma is souring. Through the haze of manufactured happiness, we're realizing that our only escape is to stop the flow of soma, to break the global communication cartel's monopoly on the production of meaning.
Guy Debord, leader of the situationist movement in 1960s France, said, “Revolution is not showing life to people, but making them live.” The desire to be free and unfettered is hardwired into each of us. It's a drive almost as strong as sex or hunger, an irresistible force that, once harnessed, is nearly impossible to stop. With that irresistible force on our side, we will strike. We will strike by smashing the postmodern hall of mirrors and redefining what it means to be alive. We will reframe the battle in the grandest terms. The old political battles that have consumed humankind during most of the 20th century—black vs. white, left vs. right, male vs. female—will fade into the background. The only battle still worth fighting and winning, the only one that can set us free, is the People vs. the Corporate Cool Machine.
First we kill all the economists (figuratively speaking). We prove that despite the almost religious deference society extends to them, they are not untouchable. We launch a global media campaign to discredit them. We show how their economic models are fundamentally flawed, how their “scientifically” managed cycles of “growth” and “progress” are wiping out the natural world. We reveal their science as a dangerous pseudoscience. We ridicule them on TV, in unexpected places: the local business news, commercial breaks during the midnight movie, national prime time.
At the same time, we lay a trap for the G-8 leaders. Our campaign paints them as Lears, deluded despots unaware of their deepening madness and the damage it does. We demand to know why overconsumption in the First World is not an issue on their agenda. In the weeks leading up to their yearly summit meeting, we buy TV spots on stations around the world: “Is Economic Progress Killing the Planet?” In a worldwide press conference, we ask, “Mr. President, how do you measure economic progress? How do you tell if the economy is robust or sick?” We wait for a pat answer about rising GDP. And that will be the decisive moment. We will have given our leaders a simple pop quiz and they will have flunked.
This escalating war of nerves with the heads of state is the top jaw of our strategic pincer. The bottom jaw is grassroots work at university economics departments, where neoclassical dogma is still being propagated every day. We must challenge the keepers of the neoclassical flame.
We must also challenge the idea that corporations have the same rights as a private citizen. A corporation has no soul, no morals. It is nothing but a process, an efficient way of generating revenue. We demonize corporations for their unwavering pursuit of growth, power, and wealth, but they are simply carrying out genetic orders. The only way to change the behavior of a corporation is to recode it, rewrite its charter, reprogram it.
In 1886 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that changed the course of American history. In Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, a dispute over a railbed route, the justices ruled that a private corporation was a “natural person” under the U.S. Constitution and therefore entitled to protection under the Bill of Rights.
The judgment was one of the great legal blunders of the century. Sixty years after it was inked, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said of Santa Clara that it “could not be supported by history, logic, or reason.” Yet, in a single legal stroke, the whole intent of the Constitution—that each citizen has one vote and exercises an equal voice in public debates—had been undermined. There is only one way to regain control. We must challenge the corporate “I” in the courts, and ultimately reverse Santa Clara .
Let's send chills down the spine of corporate America by making an example of the world's biggest corporate criminal. Let's take on Philip Morris Inc., get the truth out, apply pressure until the state of New York revokes the company's charter.
This is how the revolution starts: A few people begin to break their old patterns, embrace what they love (and in the process discover what they hate), daydream, question, rebel. What happens naturally then, according to the situationists, is a groundswell of support for this new way of being; more and more people are empowered, “unencumbered by history.”
If the old America was about prosperity, maybe the new America will be about spontaneity. The situationists maintained that ordinary people have all the tools they need for revolution. The only thing missing is a shift in perception—a tantalizing glimpse of a new way of being—that suddenly brings everything into focus.
Kalle Lasn is editor and publisher of Adbusters magazine. From Adbusters (Fall 1998). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (4 issues) from The Media Foundation,1243 West 7th Av.,Vancouver, BC V6H 1B7 Canada.