Tom Keefer on Mon, 14 Dec 1998 01:34:33 +0100 (CET)

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BLUEPRINT FOR REFORMISM: a critique of the politics of anti-consumerism,
‘meme warfare’ and ‘culture jamming’ in Adbusters magazine. 

by Tom Keefer

"The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live."

-Gil Scott-Heron: "The revolution will not be televised" (1974)

Last week on Nov 27th, our university campus saw the staging of a campaign
for ‘Buy Nothing Day’, a campaign sponsored by Adbusters, a publication of
the Media Foundation.  For many on the left, the Media Foundation, it’s
quarterly publication Adbusters, and it’s campaigns around ‘International
Buy Nothing Day’ and ‘TV Turnoff Week’ are basically where it’s at in
terms of resistance to the corporate takeover of our society.  Indeed, the
last several years have seen great improvements in terms of the slickness,
circulation and political currency of Adbusters magazine and the promotion
of its “new” ideology of “anti-consumerism”. 

Arguing that we have reached new limits in terms of the corporate
commodification of all aspects of our lives, Adbusters has published very
important social criticisms of the tight media control exercised by
corporations and the decadence of Western consumer society.  But
unfortunately, while denouncing the excesses of consumer capitalism, the
social criticism and political activism of Adbusters has fallen far short
of the kind of penetrating vision and struggle based politics needed to
challenge the status quo and to build mass movements of resistance to
In recent issues of their magazine, Adbusters seems to have made some
moves to recognize the importance of “revolutionary politics” to change
the world.  Perhaps goaded on by the Asian economic crisis and the near
revolutionary situation in Indonesia, the Fall 1998 issue of Adbusters
magazine is entitled “Blueprint for a Revolution” and is filled with
“revolutionary” prescriptions for social change. 

Yet despite adapting revolutionary rhetoric and repackaging glossy
pictures of Indonesian student protests, the liberal politics of Adbusters
have come shining through as exemplified by their near total contempt of
the power of ordinary people create revolutionary change.  There are three
main parts to the analysis that has led Adbusters to this political dead
end: their privileging of resistance in the individual act of consumption
over the collective organization of production, their view of revolution
as consisting of a purely subjective and highly individualized
‘mindshift’, and their insistence that the “revolution” will be made on
behalf of the masses by a small group of “culture jammers”. 

One of Adbusters’s main responses to the corporatization of our planet and
the rapid destruction of the life-giving resources of the natural world
has been to call for people to abstain from consuming.  Hence, a major
part of Adbusters’ “radical” activism has been the organizing of an
“International Buy Nothing Day” to serve as a “moratorium on consumer
spending” which could bring capitalism to its knees.  The power of this
day, Adbusters explains, is that several hundred activists are taking
anti-corporate messages to the streets and malls of North America and
Europe, and that an “estimated one million people world wide fail to

Now, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the folks organizing Buy Nothing Day,
but the idea that this day is somehow “radical” and “revolutionary” needs
some serious examining.  For most of this century and the last, we’ve had
what are in effect, countless “Buy Nothing Days” that have involved
hundreds of millions of people, but which have left capitalism untouched.
These Buy Nothing Days are called ‘Sundays’, and although they happen
every week who could seriously claim that they bring the revolution any

Another problem of the politics of “Buy Nothing Day”, is that it appeals
primarily to the affluent sons and daughters of the middle classes who
seek to assuage their liberal guilt by not throwing away their money that
day.  Other than rubbing middle class privilege into the faces of the poor
and downtrodden for whom “buy nothing days” aren’t exactly causes of
celebration, Adbusters ignores the crucial fact that power in any society
comes from the point of production- where society is constantly being
created and re-created. 

Capitalist production disciplines, unites and organizes an ever increasing
number of workers from all races, genders, sexualities, and nationalities,
and by its increasingly irrational manner makes obvious how much we need a
democratically planned and free society.  Capitalist consumption on the
other hand, individualizes, divides, and isolates working people, all the
time reinforcing the oppressive values of the status quo. 

To get a sense of the power that can be exerted by direct action at the
point of production, one just has to look at something like the last GM
strike in North America, where literally a few hundred workers striking at
a single plant were able to force one of the largest corporations in the
world to the bargaining table and made them lose hundreds of millions of
dollars.  The power of working people to take control of their lives and
use their political power for positive change can also be seen in how dock
workers around the world refused to load goods destined for South Africa
during the Apartheid years, or more recently in the massive strikes and
factory occupations which have swept South Korea over the last several

Adbusters has some funny ideas about what a revolution is and how
“revolution” is made.  Forget the old cliche of the unwashed masses rising
up in all their millions and running things for a change.  Revolution ą la
Adbusters is one in which the squeaky clean, upwardly mobile, middle class
techno-yuppies will liberate us all by deploying their “macromemes and
metamemes” (according to Adbusters, these memes are “the core ideas
without which a sustainable future is unthinkable”.) From the Spring 1998

“You don’t need a million people to start a revolution.  You just need a
passionate minority who sees the light, smells the blood, and pulls off a
set of well-coordinated social marketing strategies… By being ready,
waiting for the ripe moments and then jamming in unison, a global network
of 500 jammers could pull the coup off…”

So is this what their vision of revolution comes down to?  Not a
revolution in which millions of people rise up and recover their humanity
by organizing together to retake what is theirs, but a ‘well-coordinated
social marketing strategy’ spoon-fed to the masses by a network of “500
jammers”? I can’t imagine that the students and workers currently being
shot down in the streets of Jakarta would take too well to this statement,
but then again, maybe they’d have a fundamental disagreement with
Adbusters about what constitutes a “revolution”. 

For Adbusters, “the next revolution: -WWIII- will be waged inside your
head.  It will be as Marshall McLuhan predicted a guerrilla informational
war… Meme Warfare- not race, gender or class warfare- will drive the next
revolution…” So any of you out of the 6 billion people out there who think
that your lousy situation in the world might have to do with the
neo-colonialism, imperialism, poverty, racism, homophobia or sexism of
capitalist society, you’re wrong.  You see, according to Adbusters, the
real war is actually going on in our heads, or more exactly in the heads
of a handful of mostly white, mostly middle or upper class men
manipulating glizty anti-ads in the richest and most well off countries of
the world. 

While Adbusters appropriates the Situationalists’ view of capitalist
society as a ‘spectacle’, they fall right back into the trap of just
providing another “cool” spectacle for people to consume.  Now, a
revolutionary ‘meme’ message on TV that pokes fun at the broadcasting of
the corporations is all fine and well, but it does nothing without the
mass organization and direction of the people themselves.  A major project
of Adbusters’s Media Foundation has been to buy airtime to run
anti-consumer ads on the major TV networks in North America. 

When all is said and done, the multi billion dollar media conglamerates
have little problem taking the tens of thousands of dollars that it costs
for Adbusters’ thirty seconds of fame. The corporate elites gain by having
the activist resources of Adbusters going to their pockets and not to the
cash strapped grassroots movements organizing for change, and they know
that as long as they control the airways they can easily cancel or subvert
the anti-ads should matters get out of hand. 

If “revolutionary” politics don’t actively challenge the control that the
ruling elite has over the means of social and ideological production in
our society, (i.e. by physically taking over and democratizing the
factories, offices, and mass media institutions) they are not in fact

We should not underestimate the corporate power structures ability to
subvert and expropriate symbols of resistance.  One only has to look at
the Body Shop’s “Activist™” perfume, Bell Canada’s “student power” saving
plan, the Che Guevera Soda Pop, or Nike’s commercials featuring the
“ground activist” to see how corporations are able to appropriate even the
minimal amount of resistance going on today.  Should it be proven to
increase sales, there’s no limit to the levels of ‘revolutionary hipness’
corporations will sink to. 

The contradictions of Adbusters show themselves in other ways than just
trying to buy advertising from the corporations they claim to despise.  In
a section of their “Blueprint for a Revolution” entitled “the souless
corporation” Adbusters state “trying to rehabilitate a corporation, urging
it to behave responsibly is a fool’s game”.  In typical contradictionary
style their next sentence reads “the only way to change the behavior of a
corporation is to recode it; rewrite its charter; reprogram it…” ie they
have just suggested the reform of corporations- the “fool’s game” they
denounced but one sentence earlier. 

To “recode”, “rewrite”, or “reprogram” a corporation is to try and reform
it, and it is profoundly non-revolutionary in its long term results.  We
need to realize that the exploitation and oppression caused by
corporations are irreconcilably linked to the capitalist system which is
destroying our world.  In conjunction with an international revolutionary
movement for social justice, human rights, and democratic control over all
productive forces of society, corporations should be recognized as
incompatible with human freedom and abolished, not reformed or

Adbusters is a well produced and slick magazine that effectively reveals
the destructive impact being made upon our world by corporate elites.
However, as a guide to the kind of action needed to overcome those elites
and lay the foundations of a new society based on human liberation and
social justice, Adbusters fails to do anything but provide a blueprint for
top down reformism under a thin veneer of hip phraseology. 

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