- Co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation
- Derides “the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism” as “a destructive system”
- Condemns American consumerism
- Catalyst of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011
Born in Estonia in 1942, Kalle Lasn spent his early childhood years in a German refugee camp and then relocated with his family to Australia. From 1965-70 Lasn lived in Japan, where he founded a market research company and worked in the advertising industry. In 1970 he moved to Vancouver and spent the next two decades producing documentaries for PBS and Canada’s National Film Board.
In 1990 Lasn lent his support to an environmentalist group that was engaged in an anti-timber-industry campaign. When the CBC and other television stations refused to sell advertising airtime to that organization, Lasn and his allies started Adbusters magazine. (In this publication, Lasn would offer an open forum to all manner of radicals such as Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, anarchist David Graeber, and post-anarchist Saul Newman.) Soon after launching the periodical, Lasn and wilderness cinematographer Bill Schmalz co-founded the Adbusters Media Foundation (AMF).
Denouncing American consumerism as an “ecologically unsustainable” and “psychologically corrosive” phenomenon, Lasn derides “the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism” as “a destructive system” that has caused “a terrible degradation of our mental environment.” In his 2000 book Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge—and Why We Must, Lasn wrote: “The aggregate level of American life fulfillment peaked in 1957, and with a couple of brief exceptions, it’s been downhill from there.” According to Lasn, “at least 75 percent” of the U.S. population is “caught in a consumer trance,” having been “brainwashed” into “believ[ing] in the American Dream.”
The dangers of consumerism, says Lasn, have profound “environmental, psychological, and political consequences” not only domestically, but internationally. Asserting that “every single purchase that you make has some kind of an impact on the planet,” he complains that “we, the rich 1 billion on the planet, are now consuming 86 percent of all the goods in the global marketplace, leaving a lousy 14 percent for the rest of the 5 billion people on the planet.” The worldwide resentment that is allegedly bred by this “overconsumption in the rich countries,” Lasn concludes, “is one of the root causes of terrorism.”
Lasn and AMF strive to combat consumerism through such initiatives as “Buy Nothing Day” and the “simplicity movement,” which encourage people who have been “stung by consumer culture” to drop their obsession with money and material possessions.
Warning that anthropogenic “climate change” poses a worldwide ecological threat, Lasn says that “overconsumption is in some sense the mother of all our environmental problems.” Specifically, he derides the automobile—because of its greenhouse-gas emissions—as “arguably the most destructive product we humans have ever produced.” To counteract the environmental damage allegedly caused by such emissions, Lasn recommends “not just a carbon tax, but a global across-the-board pricing system” in which cars would cost “around $100,000” apiece, and “a tankful of gas, $250.” Moreover, Lasn calls for the imposition of a 1 percent “Robin Hood Tax” (i.e., taking from the “rich” and giving to the “poor”) on most goods and services worldwide, with the aim of using its generated revenues to fund social-welfare programs.
Lasn refers to advertising professionals, whom he holds in contempt because of their commitment to perpetuating consumerism, as “the cool-makers and the cool-breakers” who “more than any other profession … have the power to change the world.” He hopes to promote “a mental/environmental movement that will wipe the advertising industry out as we know it.”
In 2004 Lasn wrote a controversial Adbusters article entitled “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?”—criticizing America’s most influential neoconservatives and noting, derisively, that “half of them are Jewish.” This would not be the only occasion when Lasn singled out Jews for critcism. In a June 2009 article/photo montage critiquing Israel’s embargo of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, for instance, Lasn’s Adbusters magazine likened Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto of the WWII era—suggesting that contemporary Jews’ treatment of the Palestinians resembled the manner in which the Nazis had treated Jews under Hitler. And in September 2011, Lasn praised Palestinian leadership—which had given no indication that it would abandon its longstanding quest to destroy Israel—for “moving beyond the Israel- and U.S.-dominated peace process” and “asking the United Nations to formally recognize Palestine as an independent, sovereign state within its 1967 borders.”
Describing himself as someone who has “been a student of revolution all my life,” Lasn says that in the summer of 2011 he and his fellow Adbusters staffers—especially senior editor Micah White—were “inspired” by the popular revolution that had recently occurred in Tunisia, part of the so-called “Arab Spring.” Moreover, they “thought that America,” whose economy was in crisis, “was [also] ripe for this type of [mass] rage.” According to Lasn, Americans’ anger stemmed chiefly from Wall Street financial speculators’ violation of the “sense of fairness Americans have always believed in.”
Lasn was also confident that young Americans’ “despondency” over such concerns as “climate change,” “corruption in Washington,” and the “decline” of their country, greatly increased the likelihood that the U.S. might experience “a Tahrir moment” of sorts. (The reference was to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which was part of the Arab Spring.) Emboldened further by “that sort of anarchy cred” which the civil disobedience/“hacktivism” group Anonymous had been demonstrating in recent times, Lasn and his Adbusters associates held brainstorming sessions on how they themselves might effect “some kind of a soft regime change” to diminish the political influence of “finances,” “lobbyists,” and “corporations.”
In an effort to “catalyze” a protest movement against those forces, Lasn on June 9, 2011 registered the domain name “OccupyWallStreet.org” and thus gave birth to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which he hoped would help “pull the current monster down”—i.e., the two-headed serpent of capitalism and consumerism.On July 13, 2011, Lasn and Adbusters posted an “Occupy Wall Street” call-to-action recruiting “redeemers, rebels and radicals” to join a mass protest movement “against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America.”
According to Lasn and Adbusters, “Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum—that Mubarak must go—over and over again until they won.” Following that model, Adbusters instructed its recruits to likewise “incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.” But that demand, explained an Adbusters communique to “radicals and utopian dreamers,” would have to be carefully worded so as to conceal its deeper motives:
“Strategically speaking, there is a very real danger that if we naively put our cards on the table and rally around the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ or some equally outworn utopian slogan, then our Tahrir moment will quickly fizzle into another inconsequential ultra-lefty spectacle soon forgotten.”
To guard against this possibility, Lasn knew that his organization would need to articulate “a deceptively simple Trojan Horse demand” that was “so specific and doable” that it would be “impossible for President Obama to ignore.” Soon thereafter, under the slogan “Democracy Not Corporatocracy,” Adbusters demanded that Obama “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”
Lasn’s “Trojan Horse” tactic adheres faithfully to the methods of the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky, whose preferred brand of revolution was a slow, patient process of incremental, rather than sudden, transformation. As author Stanley Kurtz explains, Alinsky “was smart enough to avoid Marxist language in public…. Instead of calling for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, [he] and his followers talk about ‘confronting power.’ Instead of advocating socialist revolution, they demand ‘radical social change.’ Instead of demanding attacks on capitalists, they go after ‘targets’ or ‘enemies.’”
While Lasn concedes that every popular movement faces the “danger” that its idealistic leaders may eventually “turn into monsters,” he nonetheless said in 2011: “it’s very important for us to win, and [to] worry about how badly we behave later—right now we need to pull the current monster down.”
After Mayor Michael Bloomberg evicted the OWS protesters from New York’s Zuccotti Park in November 2011, Lasn stated that “Bloomberg’s shock-troop assault has stiffened our resolve and ushered in a new phase of our movement.” Added Lasn:
“The people’s assemblies will continue with or without winter encampments. What will be new is the marked escalation of surprise, playful, precision disruptions—rush-hour flash mobs, bank occupations, ‘occupy squads’ and edgy theatrics…. We will regroup, lick our wounds, brainstorm and network all winter. We will build momentum for a full-spectrum counterattack when the crocuses bloom next spring.”