Kalle Lasn

The grandfather of Occupy talks culture jamming, sandpaper textbooks and reaching for a new economics

Arts+Culture Q+A

Despite being 70 years old, editor and activist Kalle Lasn isn’t showing signs of fatigue. During World War II, his family fled their home in Tallinn, Estonia, eventually settling in Australia. During the late 1960s, Lasn ran a Tokyo-based market research company, before having a political awakening that led him to travel the world searching for answers. Evidently he found them in Canada, for it was there that he settled and became first, a documentary maker, then, in 1989, co-founder of popular anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters.

We were simply in this euphoric moment in which everyone was making money, and the people that were running the show were defiant that as long as we stuck to the rules, the good times would never end...

Since then, Adbusters has provided thousands of writers with a platform to challenge the conventional wisdom around economic and environmental issues. Using a strong visual technique it calls “culture jamming”, Adbusters also doubles as a poster resource for activists, with pages illustrated by images hijacked from popular culture and given subversive motifs. Adbusters has also published books, the latest being Meme Wars – an introductory economics handbook written by an array of leftfield thinkers that aims to provide an alternative to prevailing “neoclassical” economics.

Dazed & Confused: How would you describe neoclassical economics?
Kalle Lasn: It’s the system that has dominated economics since WWII. It’s a highly rationalist system that’s all about money-flows. Neoclassical economists believed that they could create a mathematically driven economics, which could manage economies simply through its theoretical foundation.

D&C: Why is it vital that we change this system?
Kalle Lasn: Because it shapes our culture, our mood and the dog-eat-dog market-place that dictates how business is done. Capitalism is a process that we are so caught in that not even one neoclassical economist predicted the financial meltdown of 2008. It proved that the neoclassical paradigm had taken hold of economics to such a degree that people had stopped questioning it. We were simply in this euphoric moment in which everyone was making money, and the people that were running the show were defiant that as long as we stuck to the rules, the good times would never end... The reason why 2008 was so monumental was that it turned out that those people didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.

D&C: So why are solutions to the crisis such as austerity not working?
Kalle Lasn: Because austerity is just a concept that is derived from neoclassical economics! It’s still firmly stuck in the money paradigm, and that’s not going to change things. There may be some short-term fixes that keep the machine running for another few years, but what Meme Wars is saying is that there are fundamental flaws in this old paradigm that are so great that they could put us into a dark age from which we may never recover.

D&C: Meme Wars seems to dwell upon practical reform rather than radical change.
Kalle Lasn: I wouldn’t call it practical, but theoretical. The old battle between the left and the right, and the Marxists and the free marketers... to me, none of those people really got it right. But we do know that neoclassical economics isn’t working, and now we are stumbling towards a new paradigm. And the important thing is not to get caught up in 100-year old ideological battles, but to encourage debate so that students can start asking their professors difficult questions, and put up posters in university corridors.

D&C: Is it enough just to be against the status quo? Where are the solutions?
Kalle Lasn: Since 2008 there have been a lot of books that have sniped at the heels of neoclassical economics. But in Meme Wars we try and identify some of the things that are wrong and need to change, while imparting some tools for change to the students of the world. So we’re trying to move from analysis to action.

All of a sudden, we had an army of young people around the world making demands and launching political parties

D&C: Reading Meme Wars feels like reading Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in which he admits that his analysis of the subconscious was wrong, and that human desires are not just geared toward survival but have an innate destructive element as well.
Kalle Lasn: That’s the insight I hope students find when they read it, and that they wake up to the fact that what we need in economics now is a breakthrough of the same magnitude as Galileo’s work in astronomy or Einstein’s work in physics.

D&C: The book advocates intellectual activism as much as it does physical forms of protest such as making posters. Why?
Kalle Lasn: We were going to call the book Occupy Econ 101 originally, because it was born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement that we helped spark last year. As such I would not only like to see every economics department in the world turned into a battleground, but a worldwide revolt as well.

D&C: It’s been over a year since the Occupy movement started and many people think it has run out of steam.
Kalle Lasn: That depends on how you look at it. If you just look at it as a phenomenon that began in New York, then yes, you could say that it was over. Yet I see Occupy as one hub of a global movement. And think about it – what’s happening right now in the world? Maybe that Occupy model is dead, but look at what’s happening in Mexico, Chile, Greece, Spain, and Russia!

D&C: What about criticism that the Occupy movement didn’t have any real aims?
Kalle Lasn: This is the mainstream criticism. There was a poster put up at the start of Occupy Wall Street asking, ‘What is our one demand?’ And that’s how I wanted it to start – with priorities being made. But things unfolded in a different, wonderful way. I quite like the idea that thousands of young people congregated in parks and became politicised. And all of a sudden, we had an army of young people around the world making demands and launching political parties. I don’t see how anyone can call that a failure! It was the beginning of something big.

D&C: At the Occupy London site, there seemed to be a divide between radicals and reformers. Is this a problem?
Kalle Lasn: Whenever people talk about what’s happening now in old political terms I start feeling uncomfortable, because the future will unfold in surprising new ways. I just hope that it’s the best idea that wins – that’s why we called the book Meme Wars, because it’s like a battle out there. I’m not quite sure what Penguin is doing in the UK but here in Canada we have an edition of the book where the cover is made from sandpaper, the idea being that this would be the textbook that demolishes all other textbooks. The idea goes all the way back to the Situationists, who wanted to publish a similar kind of book. With this book, however, we’re going up against people like the neoclassical economist N Gregory Mankiw, who has written the biggest-selling economics book in the world, Principles of Economics. During our preliminary meetings we discussed how it would be possible to wipe this guy off the map, and that’s why we came up with the sandpaper edition. And it’s important that we do this. Every morning I wake up and switch on the television and half expect the Dow Jones to have crashed!

Photography by Rose Athena

Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics is published by Penguin Books on November 13

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