Interview: Kalle Lasn, publisher, Adbusters magazine

Kalle Lasn, publisher of Adbusters magazine (Photo: Jim Labounty/Adbusters)

Canadian Business: On the U.S. presidential election:
Kalle Lasn: Most young people, 99% of the occupiers I would say, are pretty disillusioned with Obama. We feel that he has become a kind of a gutless wonder who didn’t do what he had promised. He has disappointed us bitterly. When it comes to a choice between somebody like Rick Perry and Obama, then of course people will vote for Obama, but not in great numbers and without much enthusiasm.

I think the really interesting thing that could happen leading up to the presidential election is that there will be rumblings of third parties. Especially people in the Occupy movement are totally sick of this Coca-Cola/Pepsi kind of choice that Americans have had for so long. They’re yearning for a real choice, for real democracy, and we may well see the beginnings of a third party rising next year. Of course, I don’t think that it will suddenly challenge the Republican and Democratic parties, but it could well play the role of the spoiler in the way that Ralph Nader and Ross Perot and the Green Party have never quite been able to do.

CB: Are these third-party rumblings already occurring?
KL: People are coming up with the Optimist Party and all kinds of weird stuff, but nonetheless I feel that something serious could happen. We may well see something like the True Cost Party of America—a radical new way of looking at the global economy and the ecological future. It could well be a sort of strange hybrid party, a getting-together of the left and the right. If you look at the Tea Party, they are totally convinced that America is going in the wrong direction, that there is something fundamentally wrong with America, and that is a very similar feeling to what we have on the left. So maybe this third party will not be the usual kind of a clearly left or right party.

If anything like that happened in Canada, this sort of euphoric feeling some of us on the left have now, we may actually be able to force the NDP and Liberals to get together. And if we can do that, then we will finally have a party that can take on the Conservatives.

But this is exactly what movements like this are all about: They are moments when people start seeing things differently and strange bedfellows suddenly start liking each other.

CB: Do you think the movement will gather momentum or fizzle out in 2012?
KL: After Mayor Bloomberg, in his military-style operation, took out Zuccotti Park [protesters], a lot of pundits pronounced the end of the movement. But I think it has just begun. Last month, we saw the young people of Russia suddenly rise up in a totally unexpected way. You’d think Putin had the game sewn up there, yet all of a sudden we have tens of thousands of people showing the same kind of fervour that we saw in Greece and Spain and, of course, in Tunisia and Egypt. To me, the core impulse behind this movement is the feeling among young people all over the world that the future doesn’t compute, that their lives will be full of ecological, political and financial crises, and that they will never have a life like their parents did. And unless they stand up and fight for a different kind of a future, they’re not going to have a future. When I see even the Russians rising up, then I have the feeling this movement—especially if the global economy keeps on tanking—could well morph into a full-fledged global revolution.

CB: Does this movement have the chance of making real change?
KL: This revolution is the revolution of the Internet. People are talking to each other intensely, all the time. Whenever anybody does anything interesting in Spain or Italy or Greece or Russia, the word goes out immediately and globally, so this truly is a global phenomenon. That’s why I think the possibility of a global uprising against the current status quo is possible. I think we will be able to influence the way the global economy works and implement things like Robin Hood taxes [on financial market transactions] and ban high-frequency flash trading and dismantle this global casino. I think this Internet generation can have a huge influence on how business is done in the future.

CB: What does success mean for the Occupy movement?
KL: Basically to keep on going. The political left has had a long history of fizzling out. In 1968, it fizzled out. The Battle of Seattle and all those global marches fizzled out. And the political left has been kind of a loony left—an ineffective, whiny political force—for a long, long time. There’s still a danger that the Occupy movement will meet that same kind of fate. So our biggest success will be keeping our spirits high and occupying campuses and coming out next spring and starting myriad projects. The big challenge is to just keep the movement together.

CB: What might the movement look like in 2012?
KL: I think the first phase that was all done in this beautiful, horizontal, magical way is over. There will be occupations in 2012, but I think the focus of the movement will move into surprise occupations of banks and corporate headquarters and economics departments of universities. Here in B.C., we’re planning a major occupation of the economics department of the University of British Columbia for early this year. [We’ll do] things like moving your money from big banks into credit unions. Surprise moves. The slogan that seems to be catching the imagination is something we put out in a tactical briefing recently: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I think that’s a beautiful way to describe the future of the movement, because it’s going to be swarms of occupiers.

CB: Why do you think that will be more effective?
KL: Because that’s something Bloomberg can’t snuff out. It’s a surprise attack and nobody knows it’s coming until it comes. If we can get all these occupiers who slept in parks for a few months all to start creating cognitive dissidence in their cities and pull off surprise occupations everywhere, then there will be a sort of low-level rumble of discontent that keeps on disrupting business-as-usual. I think ultimately those myriad projects can be much more powerful than the occupations. Every city has its own problems, its own stupidities and arrogance of power and dysfunctional mega-corporations, so each city will have its own surprise occupations, and they can all slowly build momentum.

CB: Will there be leaders in this new wave, and will they voice demands?
KL: Even though much was made of the fact that these occupations were leaderless and without demands, the occupiers were constantly talking about what their demands could be. And there were leaders, even though those leaders said they weren’t leaders. They were in the media realm, or in various working groups. Human beings naturally gravitate towards certain kinds of people. I think this will intensify. When you have 1,000 people meeting in Zuccotti Park, then maybe it makes a lot of sense to have this horizontal assembly where there are no leaders. But when you have smaller groups of people pulling off surprise occupations in cities across the world, then each one of those projects will naturally have leaders.

CB: Do you fear that the movement will become diluted?
KL: After the Battle in Seattle, there were huge marches in Sydney and London and Toronto, and after awhile people said, “Another big march, who cares?” I think this fatigue already started to happen in these occupations in parks, and living in those parks became a little ugly. When you have hundreds of little actions, many of them pranks and shenanigans, those things are much more fun, exciting and edgy. These theatrics are something you never get tired of. Media loves it, and the people doing it love it. So this next phase of the movement, these myriad surprise attacks and occupations, that’s going to have a nice run.

CB: Will these actions translate into real change, though?
KL: Well, this is something the business community has to think about. There is something fundamentally wrong with this business-as-usual system. These young people who feel their future doesn’t compute, they’re onto something, they have to be listened to. A society that doesn’t listen to its young people is destined to have a hard time. I think things will change, especially if this economic pain and austerity continue tightening on us. If I was a CEO of some big company, I would look into the future and see some pretty heavy waves coming at me, and start taking very seriously the idea that the future doesn’t compute, that this $1 trillion sloshing around the global economy each day has turned it into a casino that needs to be dismantled.

On a much deeper level, I think there are a couple of very profound ideas percolating. One is challenging this neo-classical economics paradigm that’s been taught in universities’ Econ 101 for generations. There is a new bunch of heterodox economists—ecological economists, some call themselves bio-economists, there are feminist economists—all pointing out that the neo-classical paradigm is a relic of the past. I think there’s a real possibility that students all around the world will rise up against their professors and start demanding more realistic economic theories. There may well be a shift to an ecological paradigm over the next few years. This would be a very deep-down change in the theoretical foundations of our capitalist system.

The other thing is that at the moment, our market is not a true-cost market. You buy a car for $30,000 and you drive it around for 10 years and you’re pumping carbon into the atmosphere and creating maybe $20,000 to $30,000 worth of damage to the environment and to future generations. So that $30,000 you paid for the car just paid for the production of the car; it didn’t pay for the damage you do in using the car. If you look at anything from the napkin you get at McDonald’s to the car you buy, very few products in the global marketplace actually tell the ecological truth. There’s a real possibility that we may be at the early stages when we come up with a true-cost global market regime. That is an earth-shattering idea.

It will be difficult, but as this Occupy movement showed, young people are at the breaking point. And if the global economy tanks, there’s a real possibility that we may be in a 1929 scenario—you wake up tomorrow morning and the Dow Jones goes down by some incredible number and we suddenly find ourselves in a whole different world. And when that happens, radical ideas, like economic paradigm shifts and movement toward true-cost markets—ideas that people easily dismiss right now—will suddenly become possible. You need the crisis. Especially in places like America and Canada where, by and large, we’re still doing well.

CB: Do you foresee any other big issues and causes in 2012?
KL: In the private realm, there will be the birth of a kind of “mental environment” movement. People will wake up to the fact that the few thousand marketing messages that our brains are forced to absorb every day are making us stressed and giving us mood disorders and making us vulnerable to depressions and other mental illness. I think that advertising is going to be one of those industries that is heavily hit over the next few years, and will collapse down to something much more modest.

CB: Any parting words?
KL: I would like to say to the business people: Watch out. Interesting times are ahead.