Don’t get me wrong, I love Adbusters, the Vancouver-based magazine that first called for the occupation of Wall Street. They are “culture-jammers” by belief, which means they seek to disrupt the dominant image machinery and, in so doing, awaken a radical culture of resistance. In some ways they are descendants of Marshall McLuhan, also a Canadian, who fostered the 1960s concept that the “medium” itself is “the message” and, more particularly, they idealize the French Situationists who took to the barricades in 1968, and the Zapatistas who rose in 1994. Their roots go back further to their proud identification with the Paris Commune of 1871, which Karl Marx and many others extolled. Anarchists in particular celebrate the Commune as an early example of revolutionary direct action “prefiguring” the new society they imagined would come, with the emphasis on self-management from below. The Commune itself was decimated by the French Army with as many as 20,000 killed and tens of thousands marched off to prison.
It is quite a long way from the Paris Commune to the barricades of 1968 to Chiapas of 1994 to Zuccotti Park of 2011, but myth-making is extremely important to Adbusters. The aspiration is to spread “memes,” symbolic units of cultural transmission, through the Internet, as powerful nonviolent mind-altering “bullets” against the status quo.
They are on to something, as witnessed in the uprisings during the Seattle WTO protests of 1999, and a succession of similar confrontations leading up to the Occupy movement.
Adbusters are paranoid about being co-opted, as perhaps they should be. Change always emerges at the margins and, after long periods of conflict and compromise, arrives temporarily victorious in the mainstream, leaving many radicals disillusioned at the absorption of their original dream. As an extreme example, one might argue that the Paris Commune led to the eight-hour day and vacations for workers under capitalism. Worthy reforms or co-optations, or both? It is in the eyes of the beholders, and long painful struggles tend to cause jaundice among devoted revolutionaries.
There are problems not only with co-optation, but also with avoiding co-optation in the name of some sort of revolution. This may be the greater problem currently facing the multi-faced Occupy phenomenon. With a majority of Americans tending to be interested and sympathetic in what Occupy has to offer, the current issue of Adbusters is struggling with message. A few examples:
- Regarding the recent Chicago NATO summit, Adbusters advised their readers to somehow “swarm Chicago and retake the squares.” And: “This time around we’re not going to put up with the kind of police repression that happened during the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago 1968...nor will we abide by any phony restrictions the City of Chicago may want to impose on our first amendment rights...On May 1, 50,000 people from all over the world will flock to Chicago, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades, and #OCCUPYCHICAGO for a month...” Most of this advice turned out to be unrealistic, but in the world of meme-making it does not matter much.
- On the “personal front,” “hundreds of millions of us vow to live the month of May without dead time.” During the same month, “we shift the way information flows and meaning is produced. We train a new breed of livestreamers, citizen journos and p2p visionaries, and unleash them in the streets to be the eyes of the world during the month of May.” We should “open ourselves to an imminent life-changing epiphany.” That did not happen either, but no matter.
- The good news is that Adbusters apparently has dropped the notion of having no demands. Not quite, actually, since the May 18th issue declares, “No Demand Is Big Enough,” and goes on to suggest, “we need to be on the move from target to target, at least until we topple the system, when we get that done we can start on Plan C: rebuilding local communities.” While pushing to “topple the system,” whatever that may mean, Adbusters issues some specific orders in its “Tactical Briefing #26” (February 28, 2012): “we throw our movement’s weight behind one simple demand: the implementation of a 1% Robin Hood tax on all financial transactions and currency trades.” An excellent demand, along with their general call for a “binding international accord on climate change,” and a “global initiative for a nuclear-free Middle East.”
In Chicago, on May 18, the lively march for a Robin Hood tax consisted of thousands of nurses dressed in smart green caps and red shirts straight out of the myth of Sherwood Forest. While the nurses invited a speaker from Occupy, there was no serious Occupy (or Adbuster) presence, measured by numbers. The City, police and nurses union reached a compromise that resulted in the event coming off peacefully, even allowing Tom Morello to sing lyrics that would have gotten him hauled away in 1968. The next day, the Chicago cops did brutalize a number of defiant protesters after a march of tens of thousands had passed safely through the streets. The Obama administration cleverly chose to relocate the G8 Summit to Camp David. In all these ways, there was little resemblance to 1968, but the Adbusters “Culture Jammers HQ” nevertheless proclaimed they were acting “in the tradition of the Chicago 8.”
There is tremendous hope in the uprisings labeled the Occupy movement globally, and those risings certainly will continue. Hopefully, Adbusters and Occupiers will confront this month’s United Nations summit in Rio with their demand for a binding climate change accord. But how? And how will an action have effects around the world? According to Adbusters Tactical Briefing #25, “if they ignore us...we’ll flashmob the streets, shut down stock exchanges, campuses, corporate headquarters and cities across the globe...we’ll make the price of doing business too much to bear.”
Stirring words these, and how can anyone not hope for success, since the institutions clearly are failing us all? I carry the burden of memory, however, of Chicago 1968 and its attempted recreations down through time. Like the Yippies in 1967, Adbusters might just as well add levitating the Pentagon to their list of demands. Some still say it happened. Others wonder what they were thinking. The cycle repeats, partly truth and partly fiction.