|Protesters in the heart of New York and across the US staged rallies against the power of the financial industry [Reuters]|
The Occupy Wall Street movement was announced in July 2011 with the goal of demonstrating in New York City’s financial district from September 17 onward.
The original call to action was launched by Adbusters, a counter-culture magazine based in Vancouver, Canada.
As the activist-driven protests gather steam across the US, the publication has taken some of the credit for generating online buzz and social media attention.
Al Jazeera spoke with Kalle Lasn, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Adbusters:
AJE: The #Occupy theme centres on the notion of “occupation”, which is often reviled by the left in the foreign policy context. Explain why the connotation is different domestically.
KL: We’re caught in the middle of a maelstrom here. This Occupy Wall Street thing has suddenly exploded on us and we’re trying to figure out how to harness that energy and move it in the right direction.
Here in North America [occupation] is not really reviled among the political left. It’s a word reviled by some people in the Middle East, maybe because of Palestine and so on. But here the word came out of the student movements in the 1960s and 1970s when they occupied university buildings. It has quite a positive connotation and a certain history of success in the context of protest movements.
AJE: Adbusters has its roots in anti-consumerist “culture-jamming” activism. Perhaps you could give some background on how this strategy will bring practical change to society.
KL: We started culture-jamming as one of the hubs of global activism in the early 1990s. Back then, consumer culture didn’t really have a dark side to it. And when we had campaigns like Buy Nothing Day – celebrated in dozens of countries around the world – people started thinking about consumerism and what it really means to live in a culture where you get thousands of ads thrown at you every day.
But now we are living in a much more serious time. In 1993, there was no climate change crisis. There was no financial crisis either. Now we live in a world where climate change tipping points are hovering on the horizon and there’s a very apocalyptic feel about the future. Culture-jamming and anti-consumerism are morphing into an attempt to shift the neo-classical economic paradigm into a new economic paradigm that people call ecological economics or psychonomics. This movement that we started 20 years ago is now becoming a movement for theoretical change in the whole foundation of the global economic system.
AJE: Situationism also seems to be the philosophical point of reference for the current campaign. Was that movement – which mounted urban displays of contempt for the capitalist order – focused more on social revolution than on economic angst?
Yes, but there was a larger perspective there. Some people say 1968 was the first attempt at global revolution, the moment when uprisings in the Latin Quarter of Paris inspired revolts in hundreds of campuses and cities all around the world. Of course we all know that it fizzled and became an inspiration for people like me. But I think what’s happening now is uncannily similar to what happened in 1968.
There’s this uprising happening in New York. And all of a sudden cities around the world are now rising in solidarity. This time the stakes are much higher. This could be the next phase from 1968 – the global revolution that so many of us have been dreaming about for the past 30-40 years.
“We have the chance to do more than just have an Arab Spring. We can have a global spring.”
Watching Al Jazeera on my TV set during the early stages of the Arab Spring was incredibly inspirational. This time the same thing is unfolding but in the so-called developed countries of the world. What’s happening in America is, to some significant degree, inspired by what happened in Tahrir Square, when some websites were suddenly able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to go out into the streets and vent to their rage.
That’s exactly what we did when we put out that hashtag #OccupyWallStreet and put out a few posters and all of a sudden a small movement grew through social media and now it’s exploding all over the world. We have the chance to do more than just have an Arab Spring. We can have a global spring.
AJE: Successful and sustained protest requires a relationship between you and mainstream media. Will you rely on spectacle and symbolic action or concrete achievements?
KL: We are doing our own thing. We’re not creating a spectacle for the mainstream media. They, quite frankly, can go to hell. If [they] want to cover us then they’re welcome to. But we’re not in any kind of symbiotic relationship with them … creating something interesting to film and put on the evening news.
We’re a movement and as long as we can keep our internal integrity and our own passion going, then we will succeed – quite irrespective of the mass mainstream media, which many of us hate.
AJE: Much has been discussed about the lack of both leaders and demands. Would you mind articulating a list of key aspects of a political platform?
KL: The situation is a little bit more complicated than that. These are the early stages of the movement. Things are very messy. There are no leaders and people are arguing about what they really want. But it’s growing very, very quickly. They’ve launched something.
You can criticise them about not being clear. But the fact that they don’t have any leaders – and for the moment don’t have any real demands – is the mysterious part that has allowed them to grow.
In the next few weeks, some very clear demands will start appearing out of of those assemblies that they have every morning. We the people want: [to levy] a one per cent Robin Hood tax (such as a Tobin tax on all financial transactions and currency trades); to slow down fast money and ban high-frequency trading; and in the US, to re-instate the Glass-Steagall Act.
It could all happen very quickly before the G20 meeting in Cannes, France, on October 29. There are going to be protests in cities worldwide.
AJE: Your effort to initiate financial reform and “fiscal sanity” has elements in common with the Tea Party movement, which loathes the US president. What is your attitude towards Barack Obama?
KL: Obama is somebody who really inspired me and my friends and much of the culture-jamming movement and all young activists that I talk to. We were really enamoured with him, but something happened there. After he got elected, he has bitterly disappointed us.
He doesn’t have the guts to follow his instincts and one of the reasons that we have the Occupy Wall Street movement is that we want to jump over him. He’s not going to solve our problems. If Obama can’t do it, then we’re going to do it ourselves or we’ll push him into doing it.
AJE: Some liberals believe that middle-class Americans vote based on ideology and fear rather than genuine self-interest. How do you seek to attract this demographic?
KL: Quite frankly, we haven’t gotten to that stage where we’re thinking along those lines. Maybe that is exactly the thing that will kill the movement. The Tea Party was very inspirational for a lot of us. They may be wrong but at least they had a lot of passion and were able to organise and do, on some level, exactly what we’re doing now. Of course, the Tea Party is against government, whereas we are against corporations and the financial elite.
“The Tea Party was very inspirational for a lot of us. They may be wrong but at least they had a lot of passion.”
A big mistake the Tea Party made was that they so quickly aligned themselves with the Republicans. Though they still have a lot of energy in them, they’re kind of a spent force.
We on the left now have a chance with Occupy Wall Street to build a real movement that doesn’t immediately hop into bed with the Democrats. As soon as we start thinking in terms of usual strategies, then I think we’re going to lose our momentum.
AJE: What does this movement need to achieve by next year to fulfill your expectations?
KL: I’ll be happy if this movement is one of the biggest blasts of revolutionary fervour that we’ve seen since 1968. If that happens, then we will have ignited a spark that will then spread into all kinds of different factions. Some people will continue to conduct their flash raids and some people will continue to try to talk our political leaders into Robin Hood taxes.
We will have further demands about campaign finance reform in America, and so in a way I’m dreaming of a period of global anarchism and some new ideas bubbling up from the bottom. After that, I want to see some radical transformations of the global economy – changing the way we eat, the way we get around, the way we live and get our information. I’m dreaming of a sort of revolution of everyday life.
Follow Ben Piven on Twitter: @benpiven