Kalle Lasn is the co-founder and publisher of Adbusters “The Journal of the Mental Environment,” and along with his editor Micah White, the fellow behind Occupy Wall Street. I interviewed him recently in Vancouver for the upcoming book for the Surmountable project, a visit to activists and thought leaders around the world to surmise what makes for effective protest and political engagement. The conversation covered a lot of ground, from the effects of advertising not he nervous system, to a potential going Dark Age, to the phenomenon and outcomes of Occupy. Here is an excerpt. The book will be completed in the coming months.
Gruber: What did you learn from Occupy Wall Street? And what do you think those who were actively involved learned from it, from the outcomes? How is that informing projects that you’re doing now as you were obviously so close to it?
Lasn: The biggest lesson that we learned from Occupy Wall Street is that sometimes the near impossible actually is possible, that you can actually sit around a table like this and you can say, well, what’s the one big thing that we can do that could really disrupt America right now? And then somebody stands up and says, “Well, why don’t we go to the iconic heart of global capitalism, which is Wall Street, and why don’t we just fuck the place up for a while and see what happens? And then somebody will say, “Oh, no, that’s too big, it’s too idealistic. And, we can’t do that.”
And then somebody says, “Fuck it, let’s do it.”
And then you come six months before the event, you have a poster, and you come up with the hashtag and then you come up with a website, and you start putting out tactical briefings and you talk to some of the people in New York who are actually on the ground and able to organize, you got people like David Graeber, and suddenly, something happens and then you have a few lucky breaks along the way, where we’re seeing some police stupidly attacking young girls and suddenly creating headlines, which we didn’t actually create ourselves, and basically knock this whole Occupy Wall Street thing into the national limelight. I think that’s the biggest thing we learned is that, it’s okay to dream big, and think big, and not to be afraid of monumental ideas. And even if a meta-meme feels like a sort of idealistic pipe dream, you can still go for it. And as the global situation gets worse and worse and worse, then somewhere along the line, there’s going to be a meeting of your idealism with the severity of the situation, and suddenly an idea, a meta-meme that felt impossible even a year ago, all of a sudden, it can take off and start transforming the culture in the deepest way that you can imagine.
And then I must admit, I realized that, I mean with our slogan, “What is our one idea,” that was the big slogan we put on top of our poster. And that never really happened.
Gruber: There was that one statement of Barack Obama ordaining a presidential commission, tasked with ending the influence of money on the electoral process, that seemed a cogent, interesting idea. But part of the criticism, the horizontal organization, was intentional, to let that breathe on its own. Risky and bold in its own way.
Lasn: In the very early days, I remember trying to make the Robin Hood tax one of the simple demands, because (it) had already made headway in a lot of countries. And it’s one of those ideas, of slowing down fast money, and then figuring out how to use that incredible amount of money that you can collect by having even a point one (0.1) percent tax on all financial transactions and currency trades.
But again, that didn’t quite stick. I don’t know exactly why. I understand the criticism that somehow we will never able to do what the Tea Party people did, get people elected and come up with some ideas that really change culture. And yet, in my own way, I never thought of Occupy Wall Street being something that goes along the Tea Party track. I always saw it as being something very similar to 1968, the phenomenon that politicized me, when a tiny protest in Paris somehow exploded into this global phenomenon where the young generation suddenly realized that they don’t like the way things were being run by the old generation. And they came up with what I saw at the time as being the beginning of the first global revolution.
A lot of people who criticize 1968, and then criticize Occupy Wall Street, what they don’t understand is that the world has never really had a global upheaval. We’ve had all kinds of revolutions, but we’ve never had a global revolution. And yet, the most revolutionary tool ever invented is in the palms of our hands now. Now, we are capable of coming together, a hundred million or a billion people on the planet, and work on a global level and pull off some sort of either violent or nonviolent global revolution.
And I always saw Occupy Wall Street just being one more step along the way. And all these people’s, “Oh, you guys did a bunch of shit together. You never did this. Never did that.” (They) just don’t get it. You know, we politicized the whole generation.
Gruber: Was the idea of the 1% in the collective consciousness before Occupy Wall Street? I don’t think so.
Lasn: No, no, that was a new phenomenon. And that’s still percolating.
Gruber: I think a Bernie Sanders candidacy might not have happened without that idea.
Lasn: It was a child of Occupy Wall Street. So, if you think about it that way, if you think about 1968, the first little test, then Occupy Wall Street, of course, they’ve been other little bangs as well, like #metoo is something also global and there’s all kinds of other little skirmishes that are happening all the time. But there’s gonna be a third moment, you know, and Occupy Wall Street will be remembered as one of the milestones along the way.
Gruber: In the civil rights movement, they reached a certain point in Albany, Georgia, where their voting rights protest just didn’t work. And they were thinking, should we just give this thing up? And they learned from that, and pushed forward. And I wrote down this phrase, from one of the issues of Adbusters, that failure can be a springboard. Do you think that trial and error and being willing to embrace failure is an important part of social movements?
Gruber: Micah White called it a constructive failure.
Lasn: Yeah, whatever. But I don’t think it’s a failure. I don’t think it’s even a constructive failure. I think it was one step along the way. It politicized a generation. And now we’re more ready than ever before to take it to the next level. The factors that gave birth to it are still there, they’ve only intensified. And somewhere along the line, there’s going to be more Big Bang moments like Occupy Wall Street and 1968. And they’re successful. Somewhere along the line, I think there will be a global revolution. And then I don’t think people will look back on Occupy Wall Street and talk about it as a failure.