Kalle Lasn – Meet the mind behind #occupywallstreet

Kalle Lasn – Meet the mind behind #occupywallstreet

For 20 years AdBusters has been a bit of a Jack Russell on the fringes of capitalism, yapping about over consumption, greed and the abusive power of mega corporations. That is until its founder Kalle Lasn predicted America’s Tahrir Square moment and gave birth to the #occupywallstreet movement. Lasn speaks to MANDY DE WAAL from his home in Vancouver, Canada.

There is the sound of unmistakable delight in Kalle Lasn’s voice. The Estonian born adman-come-activist with a broad Baltic accent verges on glee when he talks about the big guns of capitalism. “Their moment in the sun is over, and this 1,3 trillion dollar a day global casino that they have been enjoying for the past many years…”

There’s a slight pause. A hesitation. And then Lasn says: “We are going to dismantle this global casino and come up with a new economic system where they don’t have anywhere near the power that they have had up to now.”

The “casino” that the mind who made anti-consumerist magazine AdBusters is talking about, is that market system of derivatives, and credit default swops and other financial instruments so aloof and inaccessible to ordinary humans.

It is Kalle Lasn’s moment in the sun. After decades of operating on the fringes, the editor-in-chief and intellectual behind AdBusters, a media foundation with the aim to “topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we live in the 21st century”, has launched a campaign that’s grabbed the world’s imagination. That campaign is of course, #OCCUPYWALLSTREET.

“It is a very gratifying moment,” says Lasn, speaking to Daily Maverick from Vancouver in Canada, which is both his home and AdBusters’ base. “Our motto for the past 20 years has been that global cultural revolution is our business. We tried for the last 20 years to point out that the world is heading in an apocalyptic direction with climate change, the ecological crisis, financial crisis and also political crisis. For us to survive into the future in some sane, sustainable way we have to pull some radical transformations. We’ve tried very hard in the past with all kinds of social marketing campaigns to do this, but this time we have really hit the jackpot.”

AdBusters’ campaigns include “Buy Nothing Day” and “Buy Nothing Christmas” which urge people to consume less and actively exempt friends and family from buying festive gifts for Xmas. The “Blackspot Shoes” campaign was launched in 2004 as an experiment in grassroots capitalism and used the slogan “unswooshed”. Deliberately giving Nike’s Converse sneakers the middle finger, AdBusters’ Blackspot Shoes were produced in fair-trade factories out of recycled tyres, hemp and vegan leather. Retailed at independent stores, more than 25,000 pairs of these shoes have been sold to date.

Then there’s “Digital Do Nothing Week”; and an ongoing series of culture jamming ads that take aim at the likes of McDonalds, Nike, the fashion and beauty industry, and the advertising industry in general.

While these campaigns have had more limited appeal, Lasn’s #OCCUPYWALLSTREET movement could be a game changer or some kind of tipping point that may herald more far reaching change. At the very least it has created an international dialogue on capitalism, greed and how economies and democracy have forsaken average consumers.

“It has been very much about timing,” says Lasn speaking about the success of the “occupy” movement. “For the past 20 years times have been very good and it has been easy to be in denial about climate change and this global casino that our global economy has become. It has been easy to become complacent about the fact that here in America and Canada the political process is largely controlled by corporations and financial power structures.”

“But ever since that financial meltdown, I think people are suffering. Young people can’t find a job, people are losing their houses and in the meantime there is this intense feeling of unfairness because the financial speculators of Wall Street, not a single one of them has been brought to justice. Not a single one of them has stood up and said: ‘I am sorry for what I did.’ In the meantime the people are really feeling anxious, stressed out and pained, so I think that the moment is ripe. When the moment is ripe all it takes is a spark and this is exactly what happened on September the 17th,” said Lasn.

The idea for #OCCUPYWALLSTREET goes back to the first half of this year when Lasn and the artists, writers, pranksters and activists that work with him at AdBusters identified a growing dissatisfaction with democracy and capitalism in Canada and the United States. Lasn recognised a common pessimism that people shared about the future, and had an epiphany that a Tahrir Square moment might be possible in America.

The July 2011 issue of AdBusters contained a simple poster that read:


September 17th. Bring tent.

The invitation on AdBusters’ website was a little more specific and read: “Alright you 90,000 redeemers, rebels and radicals out there, a worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future. The spirit of this fresh tactic, a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain, is captured in this quote:

“The antiglobalisation movement was the first step on the road. Back then our model was to attack the system like a pack of wolves. There was an alpha male, a wolf who led the pack, and those who followed behind. Now the model has evolved. Today we are one big swarm of people.” – Raimundo Viejo, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain.

The time has come to deploy this emerging stratagem against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America.”

On 17 September 2011, a thousand people converged on Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street financial district and a couple of hundred stayed overnight. Three weeks later, the occupy movement had spread like a virus and was prevalent in 70 major cities and some 600 communities in the US and was spreading to hundreds of other cities across the world.

“One of the really big factors was what happened in Tunisia and in Egypt where young people through the power of social media they were able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to go out into the street and call for a regime change. Now, of course, this Occupy Wall Street Movement is demanding a kind of softer regime change in America, and in Canada and in many other places around the world,” says Lasn. “Possibly even a kind of global regime change where the mega corporations and the financial people who control things… well we take back some of the power from them and we change things.”

“There is this global economy, which is to a large extent a global casino where 1.3 trillion dollars’ worth of derivatives and credit default swops and other kinds of financial instruments are sloshing around the system every day. 1.3 trillion dollars is bigger than the commercial transactions that actually mean something to real people, and real jobs, and the real economy. I think this is a moment where we can really wake up to what is really happening, and start changing things.”

The occupy movement has come under fire for not having any clear leadership or a cohesive message or a list of demands, but Lasn is unfazed. “What the movement has been able to do up to now without any leaders or without any clear demands, it is actually miraculous. The fact that it has been able to launch a national conversation in America, and a conversation worldwide,” he adds. “This movement is different. It is a movement of young people who grew up in the culture of the internet, they have a more egalitarian, a more leaderless, a more ‘demand-less’ kind of an ethic about them and they are coming up with a new model of how to talk to each other, and how capitalism could work on a more grass roots level.”

Occupy Wall Street photo by Paul Stein

Lasn predicts that greater clarity will follow in the second phase of the occupy movement. “When the second phase of this movement rises up next Spring after the Winter is over and this first occupation phase of the movement comes to a close then I think we will see some crystal clear demands coming out of this movement. We will also see some powerful ways of making those crystal clear demands come true.”

One wonders how Lasn would seek to change capitalism if the power to rewrite the script for the global economy was in his hands. Lasn has two key problems with capitalism, the first being over-consumption which he says has risen three-fold in the US since the Second World War. “Our consumption has gone up and put a huge stress on nature and created this huge crisis because we are living with an ecological footprint that is too big,” he says.

The second complaint Lasn has is with how capitalism – which he says should have been about entrepreneurship – is now about mega power. “Instead of capitalism being a bottom up phenomenon where people start  businesses and sell things, all of a sudden we are in a capitalist system where the real influence exists in these huge corporations who have so much power that if some guy starts some a little business it is impossible to compete with the big corporations. It is now a kind of a top down system where small number of, maybe a hundred or so very large corporations, control everything,” says Lasn.

“They control what we eat, they control what information we get through our commercial media, they control how we get around with our cars, and they control even what we think. They are in control of every personal aspect of our lives. These two phenomenon, the unsustainability of over consumption and the power that exists with mega corporations… these are two horrible things that happened to capitalism over the last 15 years, this is what the Occupy Wall Street Movement will hopefully have the power to change.” DM

Read more:

  • Adbusters’ Kalle Lasn: the flawed genius behind Occupy Wall Street in the Vancouver Observer;
  • The Brains Behind ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in Forbes;
  • Exploring Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Adbuster’ Origins at NPR;
  • Occupied Spaces at BBC.

Photo: Kalle Lasn, photographed by Jim Labounty


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