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On June 9, 2011, Kalle Lasn, an Estonian-Canadian activist and filmmaker, registered the web address Lasn is the co-founder of Adbusters magazine, a far-left anarchist publication established in 1989. Earlier in 2011, the magazine had run an article titled “A Million Man March on Wall Street,” which purported to be a guide on “how to spark a people’s revolt in the West.” Registering was the first step in forming a movement that Lasn imagined would spark that revolt.

Lasn’s trajectory of radicalization was in many ways formulaic. He was trained in applied mathematics in Australia and then moved to Tokyo, where he spent five years running a market research firm in the 1960s. The firm used early computer technology to organize data and detect consumer trends. This capability allowed Lasn to create reports about how to increase the sales of various consumer brands. Lasn came to loathe advertising and the system that he saw as having created it: capitalism. In a 2007 interview, he referred to advertising as “brain damage” and deplored our “age of the Manchurian Consumer.”

The notion that advertising possesses awesome and nefarious powers can be traced back to bestselling books of the 1950s, such as Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957). In these texts, advertising is portrayed as a form of mind control. This characterization greatly exaggerates advertising’s power over the human mind, but it had currency as part of a larger set of beliefs about the latent totalitarian tendencies of the postwar middle-class consensus, beliefs that animated the 1960s counterculture.

A related term, “contraculture,” was introduced by the sociologist John Milton Yinger in a 1960 article. A dominant culture often hosts various subcultures—immigrant communities, for example, or marginal groups that operate with different norms than does the mainstream. But a contraculture, according to Yinger, is a unique kind of subculture, one populated by former members of the mainstream who define themselves in deliberate opposition to it. Yinger was particularly interested in the fact that young people after the Second World War were starting to form a contraculture. Sometimes the oppositional stance tipped into outright delinquency, rebellion without causes, as it were. But more frequently it was simply a product of a mass media society in which the public schools separated children from their families in a way that would have seemed strange to previous generations.

The concept of counterculture as a form of social protest originated with Theodore Roszak’s 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. Roszak took his inspiration from neo-Marxist writers Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, together with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, and he speculated that the student radicals and hippie dropouts of the 1960s might be the group that would spark revolutionary change. Yet there’s a paradox embedded in this notion of revolution. The youth culture that Roszak championed was a creation of the mass society it rebelled against. As the adoption of countercultural themes by astute advertising firms in the 1970s made clear, consumer capitalism thrives on the urgent desires of youth culture, which were stimulated by the leftist radicalism of the 1960s.

Lasn was born in 1942, and his ideological background is more European than American. He views the world through the lens of the French Situationists, a group of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists who were inspired by Marxist philosophy and social theory. The most prominent of these was Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967). By “spectacle” Debord meant the communications apparatus created by capitalist societies to channel behavior into acceptable, mostly consumerist activity. Lasn was inspired by the Situationists and their call to break through the “spectacle” of capitalist society with détournement (“rerouting” or “hijacking”). This approach involves turning “expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself,” as one proponent of Situationism put it.

Adbusters magazine was devoted to détournement. The artists and authors with whom Lasn worked took the images promulgated by corporate capitalism and “subverted” them by changing their meanings, supposedly to “unearth” the true authoritarian meaning behind the glamorous false face directed at the public. One “hijacked” advertisement shows an open bottle of Coca-Cola with garbage and pollution spilling from the top. The caption reads “open ecocide TM.” Another shows a fast-food burger stacked high with ten layers of meat and cheese, with the caption, “ARE WE HAPPY YET?” It seems unlikely that these interventions had the intended effect of “awakening” those who saw them to the supposedly dark realities of consumer capitalism. More likely they were used as dorm room decorations—another instance of radicalism as a “product” marketed by consumer capitalism.

Lasn himself seems vaguely aware that he was tilting at windmills. His 2007 interview in the trade journal Advertising Age was titled “When a Brand Buster Becomes a Brand.” It was not a new revelation. Well before Lasn awoke to the fact that cultural leftism might be deployed as an arch-tool of advertising in the service of consumer capitalism, Thomas Frank, in The Conquest of Cool, had detailed how the “revolutionary” movements of the 1960s had been used by advertisers to sell products.

Frank showed more than that advertisers had repurposed the cultural critiques espoused by the cultural left; in many cases, they had created them. For example, Frank contrasts a 1958 advertisement for Calvert Whiskey with a 1965 ad for Booth’s Gin. The 1958 ad evokes our ideas of the 1950s: A masculine figure stands in suit and tie in front of his sporting trophies, enjoying a glass of whiskey. The text reads: “Clear Heads Agree That Calvert Is Better.” The 1965 advertisement for Booth’s Gin features a picture of a tie with patches sewn onto it that read: “Protest against the rising tide of conformity.” The advertising text reads: “I hate conformity because __________________.”

The Booth’s Gin advertisement either predates or is contemporary with many of the supposedly subversive cultural movements of the 1960s. The novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters engaged in the drug experimentation known as the “acid tests” in 1965, the year of the Booth’s advertisement. The Youth International Party, whose members (the “Yippies”) became famous for their satirical commentary on politics, was formed in 1967, and the famous Woodstock festival was held in 1969. It appears that advertisers may have had more influence on the cultural left than the cultural left had on advertisers—although there is no doubt that the two groups fed off each other.

It seems that each generation of the postwar left goes through the same cycle: It generates critiques of contemporary capitalist culture that, though presented as countercultural, are heavily influenced by that very culture; the critiques are quickly absorbed into capitalist culture itself, giving it a fresh impetus; the aging radicals eventually begin to recognize what has happened, but by then a new generation is repeating the pattern of mainstream-informed oppositional radicalism, quickly repurposed to sell products.

Lasn worked with a number of young activists to start the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the key players was Micah White, then a twenty-nine-year-old activist and self-described “mystical anarchist.” White’s passion for activism seems to have been inherited and is in that sense “traditional.” He refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in middle school, an act of protest that enjoyed his parents’ full support. In high school, he founded an atheist club, a venture that eventually earned him an invitation to appear on Bill Maher’s television program Politically Incorrect. From there, White began doing the rounds on the New Atheist circuit. With White and others, Lasn—drawing on his belief in the power of advertising and “spectacle”—crafted an image meant to spark the revolution: a ballerina standing atop the famous charging bull statue on Wall Street. The caption read: “What is our one demand? Occupy Wall Street. Bring Tent.”

The occupation was to take place on September 17, 2011. In retrospect, it was not Lasn’s ballerina atop the bull that brought people to the protest. Occupy Wall Street got traction when a group of transgender activists referring to themselves as Trans World Order got involved. The key figure was Justine Tunney, a twenty-six-year-old software engineer. He organized the online aspect of the movement. As Occupy Wall Street gained momentum, White and his colleagues networked with other activist organizations.

The reactions to Occupy Wall Street indicate the degree to which its purported radicalism was comfortably part of mainstream culture. During a news conference in early October 2011, President Barack Obama indicated support for the movement: “It expresses the frustrations that the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression . . . and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place.” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Occupy a salutary “message to the establishment.” Polls at the time showed that more Americans (37 to 54 percent) supported the movement than opposed it (18 to 23 percent).

Occupy Wall Street needed a manifesto. White and Lasn began to draft a list of demands in the form of a letter to Obama. These included: the tightening of banking regulations; the banning of high-frequency trading; the jailing of all the “financial fraudsters” responsible for the 2008 collapse, and the formation of a presidential commission to investigate corruption in politics.

In truth, the authors had a simplistic view of how both modern finance and modern politics worked. But the demands at least were somewhat concrete. This concreteness would quickly be dissipated by the activist blob. Lasn and White shared the draft with anarchist filmmaker Marisa Holmes, who had become, if not a leader of the movement, someone who could get attention for its ideas. Holmes liked the draft but informed the authors that the General Assembly—as the movement was now calling itself—was in the process of drafting a statement using more “democratic” methods.

A week later the General Assembly adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation.” The declaration was less a list of demands than an attempt to articulate a worldview. The beginning had the ring of a creed: “As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality . . .” The declaration went on to claim that “the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members,” and that “our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to individuals to protect their own rights.” The authors laid out a list of ­grievances, including everything from concerns about student debt to complaints about the quality of the food supply. The declaration then asked the rest of the population to rise and join the movement.

Soon the Occupy Wall Street brand was everywhere. In mid-November the police moved in, on the orders of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Attempts to reoccupy Zuccotti Park failed. Although Occupy encampments had cropped up in cities across America, the protesters lacked the energy they had enjoyed during the initial phase of the movement. Nevertheless, Occupy was destined to have a real, if ambivalent, effect on the everyday world of American politics.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, regulators and policymakers were already discussing how best to clean up the financial system; in the wake of Occupy, many left-leaning economists emerged to promote financial regulation. One of these was Janet Yellen. Until the financial crisis, Yellen had been a second-tier Federal Reserve economist. But by backing heavier regulation of the banks, she attracted the spotlight. With the help of progressive activists in the Democratic Party, she became chair of the Federal Reserve in 2014, beating out the establishment favorite, Larry Summers.

There is no doubt that Occupy Wall Street and the publicity it generated gave a renewed impetus to the Obama administration’s inclination to appoint reformist candidates to key positions in economic management and the regulatory bureaucracy. But did that impetus make much of a difference? The post-crisis financial regulations irritated Wall Street but were not a fundamental threat to its business model. At the end of 2006, financial services in the United States had employed around 8.4 million people; that number was surpassed in 2017, and by 2022 the financial sector employed around 9.1 million people.

A similar story can be told about income inequality. Occupy Wall Street famously adopted the mantra “We are the 99%,” referring to the fact that the top 1 percent of earners in America claimed a disproportionate share of the wealth. In 2006, before the crisis, the top 1 percent had claimed around 18.5 percent of total income in the economy before tax; by 2021, this figure had increased slightly, to 19 percent. It seems that just as brand busters become brands, financial reformers become pillars of finance.

Not surprisingly, the major figures of the Occupy movement have become disaffected. In 2016, Micah White published The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. White cites previous uprisings, such as those that toppled the communist regimes in central and eastern Europe in 1989, and wonders why protests in the Western world today never effect significant change. He explains how he and his fellow organizers expected that spectacle would be sufficient: “[We thought that] if we hang in there, twenty-thousand strong, week after week against every police and National Guard effort to expel us from Wall Street, it would be impossible for Obama to ignore us.” He has since turned to selling digital art that “celebrat[es] the history of protest.” In effect, White has found a way to monetize the Occupy brand.

Adbusters, the radical magazine that started it all, now hosts themes that would not look out of place on a mainstream cable news channel. A 2022 issue features a reversible cover. One side features a portrait of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, with the word “Hope” and the subtitle “Stairway to Heaven.” On the other side is a portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin, with the word “Nope” and the subtitle “Highway to Hell.” Whatever one thinks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this message echoes the Western mass media’s portrayal of the conflict, and the “Hope” theme harks back to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Nothing here is particularly radical or subversive. Another issue of the magazine, from 2021, features a retro image of a man getting a cream pie squashed ­into his face. The caption reads: “Every world leader who doesn’t live up to their carbon commitment gets a pie in the face!” Today Adbusters does not push anything remotely subversive. It reiterates what one reads in the New York Times.

Justine Tunney, the transgender activist who established Occupy’s online presence, took a particularly unusual turn. In 2014, Tunney, employed at that time as a software engineer for Google, launched a White House petition calling on Obama to step down and for then–Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt to become “CEO of America.” This was to be the first step in the tech sector’s takeover of the American government. Explaining how a billionaire could run the country on anti-­capitalist, anarchist beliefs, Tunney said: “Tech companies expropriate ad money from capitalists to build a superintelligence and don’t pay dividends!” The reason Google does not pay dividends, of course, is that it prefers to invest its earnings and grow rapidly. The notion that the company is “post-capitalist,” as Tunney claims, is laughable.

At the outset, Occupy Wall Street had a genuinely oppositional character. Though some in positions of power may have sympathized with its message, the movement enjoyed no institutional support from the mainstream political parties or their closely related NGOs and foundations. But it seems the system has learned to head off “anti-system” movements by funding oppositional stances less threatening to the one percent. In the summer of 2020, the Democratic Party held its first convention at which, as the Washington Post put it, the party “fully embraced the imagery and themes of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Many state-level Democratic Party websites have sections devoted to Black Lives Matter. In the summer of 2022, the Democratic Party unveiled a “Transgender Bill of Rights.” Though Democratic Party leaders in 2011 had to signal support for Occupy to shore up their base, ultimately the movement was shut down by riot police. Black Lives Matter and transgender activism, by contrast, can be embraced. It’s not hard to see why. Neither one materially threatens the interests of the financial and corporate establishment that funds the major political parties, as the Occupy movement in its initial form undoubtedly did.

The transformation of “oppositional” movements into fully funded constituents of the mainstream center-left has resolved a longstanding tension in American and international politics. By the 1990s, many of the Baby Boomers still identified with the countercultural movements of the 1960s. These people generally saw themselves as rebels pursuing a path of liberation. Yet, along the way, the Baby Boomer radicals had acquired wealth and assumed mainstream positions of power. Accordingly, they dropped the socialist rhetoric of the 1960s. Consequently, when they encountered younger groups of activists, tensions arose. Those tensions came to a head during the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests, when no fewer than 40,000 protesters descended on the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Violent confrontations with police ensued, and on December 1, Governor Gary Locke called in two battalions of the Army National Guard. The next day, President Bill Clinton arrived to attend the conference.

No doubt the situation was awkward for Clinton and for many in his administration. During the Vietnam War, Clinton, while living in London, had organized at least one “teach-in” demonstration and attended a protest at the American Embassy. It is not hard to imagine that as the president made his way to the convention center that year and saw protests directed against many of the free trade deals over which he had presided, he found himself glancing in the mirror. In less dramatic circumstances, the discomfort Clinton may have felt when confronted by young radicals has become a common experience for Baby Boomers. They see themselves as a culturally radical vanguard. But this self-image is threatened by younger activists whose rhetoric and action targets the economic, trade, and financial arrangements that have made the Boomers wealthy and successful.

As Darel Paul, Michael Lind, and others have noted, the steering of the modern left toward cultural politics over the last two decades has resolved this tension. So long as protestors and activists are waging cultural revolution rather than challenging financial power, Baby Boomers can sleep soundly. Out of the tumult of the 1960s, Baby Boomers have championed the sexual revolution rather than anything that implicates class relations. Indeed, not only does the emphasis on cultural revolution divert activism from economic matters; overturning cultural taboos is often good for business. It certainly has been so in the past. Antinomian culture and corporate capitalism have fed on each other in the postwar era.

On the morning of March 10, 2023, examiners from the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation arrived at the offices of Silicon Valley Bank. Several hours later, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation announced that it was taking control of Silicon Valley Bank on the grounds that the bank was effectively bankrupt. In the following days, the FDIC announced that it would bail out all the bank’s uninsured depositors, many of whom were either the Silicon Valley elite themselves or companies in which those elite invested.

Silicon Valley Bank was founded in 1983 by two bankers who wanted a financial institution that could specialize in banking services for startups. Their business model seems to have been sound. They stayed in business for forty years. It was not their lending that got them into trouble. Rather, it was the unusually large deposits they held. In the United States, deposits are insured by the FDIC only up to a maximum of $250,000 per account. Beyond this limit, the depositor simply trusts that the bank will not go bust. When rumors began to circulate that Silicon Valley Bank had taken large losses on its bond portfolio due to the Federal Reserve’s raising of interest rates, depositors got nervous about their uninsured deposits, and a bank run followed.

Another bank, Signature Bank, soon fell as well. Signature’s problems had not arisen from overexposure to large Silicon Valley deposit holdings. Instead, Signature had bought into the cryptocurrency hype spread by Silicon Valley and had taken massive positions in these volatile assets. When Signature went down, the entire cryptocurrency industry was spooked—until, of course, the government stepped in and stabilized the bank.

It must be stressed that there was no need for the government to bail out Silicon Valley Bank or Signature. Officials claimed that, had they not done so, a panic could have spread to the rest of the financial system. But insiders pointed out that this claim was misleading. In an article for the Financial Times, former FDIC chair Sheila Bair observed that the banks that were being bailed out were very small relative to the financial system and thus were not “systemically risky.” Further, Bair argued: “The uninsured depositors . . . are not a needy group. They are a ‘who’s who’ of leading venture capitalists and their portfolio companies.” Few could disagree with Bair. Indeed, in financial circles the whole episode was widely seen as rather sordid, and it was quickly swept under the rug.

Occupy Wall Street emerged from the previous financial crisis with a message of “never again.” Yet Janet Yellen, who had made her career on the back of the outrage expressed by the Occupy movement, was deeply involved in the bailout of Silicon Valley Bank. Where were the activists who only a dozen years before had camped in Zuccotti Park?

As we have seen in the cases of Justine Tunney and Micah White, many now work in Silicon Valley and the tech industry. This industry offers activists ample opportunity to promote fashionable cultural causes. And it offers them electric dreams of a utopian future brought about by Google supercomputers, alternative monetary regimes, even AI-generated protest movements. The tech industry provides comfortable salaries and, at the same time, workplaces that do not seem far removed from the collectivist atmosphere of the Occupy movement. All the aesthetics of radicalism are there—along with all the comforts of advanced capitalism. It’s activism with Tesla sedans and weekends at Napa wineries.

The tech industry had long been a haven for countercultural figures. Most famously, Steve Jobs conceived of Apple as a countercultural company that eschewed the dreary corporate aesthetics of Microsoft in favor of beautifully designed, Zen-inspired hardware. In its early days, the tech industry fused pro-business ambitions with anti-corporate attitudes and culturally liberal libertarianism. Over time, what had been start-ups became corporate behemoths, and the cultural focus shifted. Anti-corporate libertarian rhetoric faded, and pro-corporate cultural progressivism came to the fore. Many of the founders of the modern American tech industry saw themselves as entrepreneurial disrupters, but their modern-day descendants are mainly careerist engineers and developers who want a solid income and space to explore their idiosyncrasies.

In many ways, the evolution of Silicon Valley culture echoes the transition undergone by the Baby Boomers. When they were young, they engaged in activism that threatened the economic and foreign policy establishment. As they got older and ascended the ranks in politics and business, they preserved what cultural radicalism could be reconciled with the system and dropped whatever could not. The present generation has gone a step further. It maintains protest culture as part of the system. Countercultural motifs dominate annual music and cultural festivals. The protests that occasionally flare up are captured by partisan political forces, and then they burn out. In its most extreme form, the co-opting takes place at the outset, as the left-wing NGO apparatus, funded by both business and government, provides support to activist organizations, some with very extreme ambitions.

Truth be told, at this point there is no “left” in any meaningful sense. Beginning in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, politics in the modern West was characterized by an often volatile conflict between labor and capital. To be on the left was to fight for the interests of labor against those of capital. Today there remains a cultural vanguard that advocates “liberation” on a host of social issues. But these activists and their organizations pose no threat to the corporate-state apparatus; indeed, they often work within it and gain prestige from it. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Lasn and other proponents of radical change could note the irony that brand busters were becoming a brand. Today the dynamic of domestication is all-encompassing. Cultural radicals are cogs in contemporary systems of power.

The absorption of the left into the system marks a change in the fundamental structure of politics in the West. Heretofore, the left had in most instances led the oppositional movements that forced establishment power to make reforms and adjustments. Now that leftist opposition has been repurposed as a supplement to the “creative destruction” of capitalism, all the real oppositional energy is on the right.

Evidence of this change is abundant. The center-left and center-right view conservative populists as dire threats, much as the authorities viewed the countercultural left in the 1960s and early 1970s. There is a good reason for this reaction: Right-wing populists are the only political actors in the present system who complain about issues—from free trade and globalization to large-scale migration—that threaten the economic bottom line. Moreover, “the system” today looks very different than it did when the cultural radicals were cutting their teeth in the 1960s. Back then, corporate capitalism was staid and respectable, run by men in gray flannel suits. Today, with crises around every corner, the system is unstable. It seems to maintain itself by promoting rapid and destabilizing cultural change, which normalizes disorder and prevents social resistance from gathering strength. Paradoxically, a conservative politics of reconsolidation, economic and cultural, has become the counterculture that bids fair to set the pace and direction of change in the West.

Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional.

Image by Glen Scarborough licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added.

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