Adbusters emulating the enemy

Dallas Hansen


WHEN in 1999, leftist protesters disrupted the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, it seemed to foreshadow a forthcoming decade of ideological showdowns. Where the angry mobs saw labour exploitation, environmental degradation, and malignant monoculture, the free-marketers saw the principles of comparative advantage and sustainable growth spreading a greater standard of living throughout the world.

How different were the last days of Clinton! Sometime before November, 1999, “globalism” had become a derogatory word; on North American campuses, radicalism was de rigueur. The party in Seattle launched a trend: Washington, D.C.; Quebec City, and Genoa would soon follow.

But on The Day the World Changed, everything changed.

Adbusters — a hip, glossy, Vancouver-based magazine for the activist set — had in the days following Sept. 11, 2001 faced calls to remove its “Corporate American Flag” from New York City’s Times Square. Rather than 50 stars, Adbusters’ flag was spangled with logos of such corporations as GE and Microsoft. While many readers’ politics were unfazed by the day’s tragedy, other radicals found themselves sufficiently in touch with their inner patriot to denounce Adbusters’ insensitivity in not immediately removing the seditious banner.

If, after Sept. 11, many students and workers lost their taste for radicalism, they were certainly fed a steady diet of reasons not only to maintain but to redouble their efforts. If, in 1999, American protesters were justifiably riled about sweatshop wages and fossil fuel emissions, their anger and numbers didn’t proportionately swell in response to the exponentially greater outrage that was their military’s invasion — without provocation and under the most transparent of pretexts — of a sovereign country. From 2004’s presidential election results, it seems some old radicals are now Republicans.

And why not? Between a runaway domestic surveillance infrastructure and increasingly prepared police, the stick has become more severe, while the old carrot — belonging to a powerful mass movement for change — is looking leaner than the ones you can buy earning a regular paycheque. With mass demonstrations increasingly impotent and dangerous, leftism has been forced to redefinition.

For Adbusters, this means emulating the enemy. Their January-February 2005 Special Year End Issue, The Big Ideas 2005, features a cover that so resembles The Economist’s “Year In Review” that I nearly mistook it for the latter. Some of their young readers should notice the satire; fewer will catch how similar these ostensible opposites actually are inside.

“Is the U.S. headed for fiscal Armageddon?” asks Adbusters, in a piece critical of President Bush’s deficit spending. The Economist, in less hyperbolic terms, has frequently lamented Mr. Bush’s red-ink budgets.

“Nothing short of a total revamp of the global economic system can save us from this looming ecocide,” says Adbusters, concluding a critique of China’s environmental policies. The Economist, too, has warned on Chinese pollution policy, but with a subtler presentation that made the case more convincingly. Outside student and academic circles, blatant, angry leftist rhetoric tends to be quickly dismissed.

Faced with the futility of a losing battle, Adbusters has abandoned all save for the pretense of trying to smash the system and has instead become a niche market within it. Following successful distribution of its T-shirts, calendars, posters, and videos, Adbusters’ “antiprenurial” movement has expanded to union-made hemp sneakers. A record label, a vodka, bio-diesel stations, and a caf are on the way. “Sedition, hot and fresh,” proclaims their vision of what promises to be a successful theme room.

In the days just before and after Sept. 11, I was an occasional visitor to the Adbusters Media Foundation house in Vancouver. My friend Richard DeGrandpr, a psychologist and author, was then an associate editor and had arranged for me to earn a bit as a part-time copy editor. I didn’t stay long. Maybe it was the incongruities: Subway lunches, Guess? jeans, Nike sneakers, wealthy Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn commuting by car. Hemp sneakers and fair trade coffee are undoubtedly fine products; if I had use for either I might be inclined to support worker-friendly vegan footwear and “a revolution in every cup.” But, unlike, say, Warner Bros. or Apple Computer, Adbusters is a brand I’m boycotting.

Originally published February 24, 2005