If left-wing activists really want to achieve a moral society—more equitable distribution of wealth, sane approaches to environmental policy (by industrialized nations), more hospitable treatment of the poor and disabled and adherence to human rights standards—then they must re-double and reconfigure their efforts or they are doomed to fail.
Activists think that by dismantling Big Corporate America-style capitalism, and along with it free trade and globalization, these goals stand a chance of being achieved. Activists’ rage against corporate targets has been displayed at the big left-wing street protests that accompanied the FTAA meetings in Quebec City and, more recently, the National Day of Action in Toronto on October 16 of last year.
Most marchers at these protests we’ve seen were peaceful, but some were destructive. Newspaper boxes were toppled, store windows were smashed and national flags were desecrated. Peaceful activists became outraged when the media chose to highlight only the destructive components of the protest. Peaceful demonstrators admonished the violent ones—our legitimacy is being diminished, they said, dismissed as thuggery because of your lack of restraint. The more violent activists rebutted: your actions are too soft. They lack impact.
The truth is that neither type of demonstration is effective. A sated middle class—the demographic activists must win over if they want any change whatsoever—will dismiss both kinds.
The logic of violent activism works like this: protests are all about creating a disturbance, making noise, blocking traffic—disrupting the orderliness of a business day. The violent activist’s goal is to make these disruptions frequent and inescapable. The average citizen will then, in an effort to ameliorate these breaches of peace, be forced to consider the activist’s perspective. Upon doing so, they will realize capitalistic government is not in tune with good moral practice and lobby the government to change its policies.
If we accept that an overthrow of the government is not realistic, especially in a country where the median wage is a comfortable $32,000 per year, then activists must ask themselves: how do we command the attention of a sated middle class and get them thinking about why capitalism is morally destructive? This is an extremely difficult thing to do.
The apparatus of western capitalism is analogous to a well-secured, well-fortified, redundant computer network.
The goods and services we buy from corporations are the bits of data that flow across our model network. They are the substance of capital transactions, and their distribution points—like the output nodes on our network—are myriad. Think shops, vending machines, subway kiosks, web sites. They are so numerous they form the fabric of our daily lives.
The second kind of data on the capitalist net is less tangible but even more important. It is advertising. The output nodes that carry this type of information—think billboards, TV, the Web, every inch of downtown wall space—are so high in number they saturate our landscape.
The creation of advertising is not a trivial matter; anyone who’s attended a focus group can tell you that creating an effective commercial message is a real craft that requires time and a lot of money. Advertising is expensive to generate because it must link emotional attributes with products or services that are essentially irrelevant to those attributes.
A can of Pepsi contains 355 millilitres of a highly acidic, carbonated black liquid. But Pepsi—the brand, as depicted by advertising—does not refer to these attributes. Pepsi is about Britney. The can of cola is a sublimation of her youth, her vigour, her sex. A can of Pepsi is thus a crystallization of the optimism of these things.
The optimism that links advertising to products twigs deep psychological satisfaction. Pepsi and Britney will both bring sex; SUVs bring freedom and power over smaller cars; milk brings health. This assured satisfaction is polished to a gleam by clean design, seductive typography and airbrushed perfection.
The bits of data that link optimism and consumerism are distributed over our hypothetical network and the transmissions are endlessly repeated. If re-directing the passions of a sated middle class is an activist’s objective, then hijacking these output nodes is necessary.
Culture jammers, who redecorate billboards and modify subway placards, have the right idea. But trying to modify a few nodes at a time is pointless. Like a well-secured computer network, the countless other distribution channels will compensate for the ones rendered defective by activism.
This compensation occurs largely because defaced advertisements challenge a target audience to think critically about the product the ad supports. Culture jamming attempts to divorce the seductive image of the product’s brand from the physical nature of the product itself. But rather than sparking a sudden realization in a consumer that product and brand image are unrelated, the altered ads are easily dismissed as destructive, as vandalism. Why? Because the altered messages lack the direct, crafted connection with positive emotion—with optimism—that advertising is so successful at establishing.
And since the nodes of advertising output are so myriad, their redundancy compensates for single points of culture jammer-induced aberration. It is much easier to ignore isolated anomalies when the literal background of your existence is saturated with synergic messages that illuminate a contrary position.
So activists must learn to take advantage of the success and efficiency of our capitalist network. They must direct their messages to the general public using optimism as their medium. Instead of defacing well-designed subway ads with crude stickers, why not replace the advertisement as a whole with a well-designed message of one’s own? Why not subvert optimism to craft your own messages? Why not make social consciousness sexy?
An activist recently wrote to the Varsity in defense of the violent disruption at the October 16 protest.
He claimed: “The leftí is not out to change the minds of the public through the vehicle of mass media.”
On the contrary: mass media is the robust network that continuously and effectively dilutes the activist’s message. Make it the left’s tool, too.