November 5, 2012
The Adbusters book Meme Wars makes its serious economic points with the aid of sharp graphic images. Photograph: Adbusters
Last November, 70 Harvard economics students walked out of a lecture by their faculty head, Greg Mankiw . Angry at the conservative nature of Harvard's economics course, they were suspicious of their lecturers' failure to predict the ongoing financial crisis, and their unerring faith in the theories that led to the crisis in the first place. So up stood the students, and out they went to join a march organised by Occupy Boston instead.
It's this kind of campus reaction that Kalle Lasn wants to inspire with his latest book, Meme Wars – the Creative Destruction of Neo-Classical Economics. "I want to light a fire under the economic students around the world," he says. "I can imagine a few of them asking: how come we are still being taught the old economics? Why did not even one in a hundred of you professors see the meltdown coming? It's an invitation to the students who get wind of the book to create a bit of a ruckus within the university."
Lasn is the founder and editor of Adbusters , the very leftwing, very well-designed magazine that has railed against consumerism since 1989. Among other successful stunts, Adbusters has popularised TV Turnoff Week – where, as you would expect, millions try to avoid television for seven days. Then there's the annual Buy Nothing Day, which is again fairly self-explanatory. Both campaigns go hand in hand with what Adbusters is most famous for: culture-jamming, or subvertising, which sees the magazine's team create spoof versions of well-known adverts. It's also the organ that invented the concept of Occupy Wall Street , and Lasn is the man who first registered the movement's website .
Like anyone involved in Occupy, Lasn doesn't want to be identified as its figurehead or posterboy. He is proud of the movement's horizontal structure, and has been running from the authoritarian left since he was a child. Born in Tallinn in 1942, his family fled the Russian invasion two years later. For the next half-decade, he lived in a German refugee camp, before spending the next two decades in Australia and Japan. Lasn made it to Canada in 1970, where he now lives on a small farm outside Vancouver, apparently padding to work in wellington boots . Before founding Adbusters, he made TV documentaries that critiqued capitalism. Yet he defines himself against consumerism, rather than with the old-school left.
"For the past 15 to 20 years, we at Adbusters have been saying we have to jump over the dead body of the old left," he says. "I'm not all that interested in the political left, unless it's this new horizontal left that's coming out of Occupy."
But Meme Wars is not, he stresses, a manifesto for Occupy , a movement often criticised for its lack of direction. It is nevertheless an attempt to do what Occupy couldn't: it's a radical economics textbook that Lasn hopes will spread the spirit of Occupy from the town square to the university campus. "It was of the things that the Occupy movement didn't quite achieve, unlike in 1968 – the great moment in my life, when I became politicised," he says. "For some weird reason, when almost the same thing [as 1968] happened in Zuccotti Park, and then spread around the world like it did in '68, it didn't really happen in the universities."
The book is billed as an alternative textbook, and it certainly looks it. Adbusters pastiches adverts to satirise consumerism – and Meme Wars does something similar for economics primers. "Darling!" reads a subverted image of two 50s lovers. "Let's get deeply into debt." Elsewhere, graphs that chart economic growth over the past half-century are overlayed with ones that show a simultaneous rise in depression and pollution. While the text's content is pretty dense, visually it has the look and feel of a messy scrapbook or graphic novel. There aren't even any page numbers: a rejection of what Lasn sees as the faux-rationalism of mainstream economics. "That's deliberate. We don't like page numbers. It's one of the left-cortex things that you don't actually need if you want to understand something such as economics."
Lasn sees three problems with conventional economics teaching. First: orthodox or neo-classical economics has brought the world to the brink of financial ruin. Second: by fostering a consumer culture, it has turned humanity into a selfish, anxious race. Third: it fetishises economic growth – even though this growth is ultimately destructive, since it both makes us unhappy and wreaks unsustainable havoc on the planet's natural resources. "This is one of the most fatal flaws in neo-classical economics," says Lasn, in a delicate Estonian lilt that belies the passion of his argument. "We cannot keep on selling off our natural capital and calling it income. It's the most stupid mistake of all … When they measure growth, they don't measure real progress."
The "they" to which he refers is the economics establishment. People such as Harvard's Greg Mankiw, whose textbook, Principles of Economics , is taught in many universities, and which – Lasn argues – helps entrench the values of orthodox economics in the minds of each successive generation of economists, who then use their influence to maintain the status quo inside governments.
Lasn's modest hope is therefore to inspire the next generation to grab Mankiw and his brethren "by the scruff of their neck and throw them out of power. In a sense, I am calling for a scientific revolution: a revolution where the new guard – the heterodox, maverick people who have been sniping for a long time – rise to the top and finally create a new kind of economics." Once that happens, Lasn argues, a new crop of economists will emerge – "and they'll become economic advisers to the people running governments all around the world, and bit by bit the whole practice of economics can begin to heave ."
As Lasn himself acknowledges, his hopes are not new. In fact, Meme Wars is structured around the thoughts of leftwing economists who have been making these arguments for years. The book features interviews with Joseph Stiglitz , and essays by, among others, Herman Daly and George Akerlof . "We," says Lasn of his colleagues at Adbusters, who helped him edit the book, "took all these people who we had fallen in love with over the years, and we put together a jigsaw puzzle of them."
Meme Wars takes those existing radical arguments and uses them to flesh out what Lasn sees as a new(ish) brand of radical economics. Something that is humbler than the orthodox schools – that doesn't hubristically see itself as an exact, rational science, but a social one. Lasn suggests the concept of "psychonomics" – economics that takes into account human behaviour – or "bionomics", which bears in mind the cost of environment damage. "There has been a maverick tradition out there that has been snapping at the heels of the dominant paradigm for a long time," he argues. "But they haven't quite zeroed in on exactly what [the alternative] could be. And I thought of those two words."
There is no faulting Lasn's ambition. "At the risk of sounding a bit grandiose," he says, Meme Wars "is an attempt to do something that actually could put humanity on a new path." Of course, it probably isn't quite as revolutionary as all that. Behavioural and no-growth economics already exist as concepts. Tim Jackson's Prosperity Beyond Growth and Ha-Joon Chang's 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism are just two recent books that also contradict traditional economic ideas. But Meme Wars – with its unusual visuals and collation of today's main radical thinkers – is nevertheless a welcome addition to the fray. And if its unique graphics can turn a few more heads than its predecessors on campus, then so much the better.
Meme Wars: the the Creative Destruction of Neo-Classical Economics , by Kalle Lasn/Adbusters, is published in the UK by Penguin £19.99, and in the US by Seven Stories Press.