Chapter 7 (Part 1)
Chapter Seven – Undermining the Machine (Part 1)
The death of Rachel Corrie on 16 March 2003 was tragic but inevitable. I realise that discussing many aspects of Rachel’s death, crushed by a bulldozer operated by a member of the Israeli Defense Forces while attempting to prevent the demolition of a pharmacist’s house in the Palestinian town of Rafah, is contentious; but discussion is important because amongst the political and ideological toing and froing is little mention that it was bound to happen. Immersed in the intense and often dangerous work of the International Solidarity Movement, Rachel Corrie’s time in the Gaza Strip was a genuine expression of empathy with the plight of ordinary Palestinian people caught up in a horrific situation. That the work of the ISM also involved “embracing Palestinian militants, even suicide bombers, as freedom ﬁghters, [adopting] a risky policy of ‘direct action’ [including] entering military zones to interfere with the operations of Israeli soldiers”1 was part of the inevitability of Rachel’s death. But it was not the underlying reason.
The driver of the Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, a Russian with considerable operational experience, claims not to have seen a female activist standing ahead of the machine’s armour plated blade. This is entirely possible. The fact that the targets of the bulldozers were the homes of Palestinian people, whose habitation was only illegal by virtue of a politician’s decree, makes the claim of anyone not seeing a person blocking the progress of the machine irrelevant. Lives were intended to be crushed. Another life, taken accidentally or not, would hardly register as far as the political decisions that led to the razing of Rafah were concerned.
On the other side of the machine’s steel blade stood the activism that Rachel Corrie both carried out and represented in all its tragic folly. As she stated: “I feel like I’m witnessing the systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive. It’s horrifying. It takes a while to get what’s happening here. People here are trying to maintain their lives, trying to be happy. Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realize there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I’m having dinner with.” Yet, for whatever reason, she felt that by standing in front of a machine built entirely for destructive purposes, operated by a driver employed solely for destructive purposes, ordered by a political regime that felt entirely justified in taking lives at the stroke of pen, the destruction would be stopped.
War is a symptom. You do not stop it by dealing with the symptoms. You stop it by dealing with the causes. The cause of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict may appear to be as complex as any conflict fought in recent history, yet it is only the ongoing story that is truly complex and fraught with contention. The causes are simple: the leaders of a nation desire something they haven’t got; the leaders of another nation do not want to give that something away. Substitute “nation” for “religion”, “corporation”, “military establishment” or any other institution and you have the cause of every war fought in modern times.
And even then you aren’t addressing the root of the problem: why does one institution want what the other has got?
Stopping the Shopping
Why do people want to buy things they have not got? This isn’t an easy question to answer because there are all sorts of forces operating on individuals, their families, their peer groups and their other spheres of influence. How these individuals, families, etc. respond to the various forces depends on other factors, among them the intensity of and time spent under the influence of the commercial selling machine, and whether other influential people have already been suitably “primed” to be fully-fledged Shoppers.
In order to undermine the forces that make people want to buy things they would not need if they weren’t being persuaded to buy them, you need to understand how they manifest themselves. Why we would want to focus on shopping per se is because the forces that make people buy things are the same forces that make people behave in all sorts of other, highly destructive (both externally and internally) ways that serve to keep the industrial machine functioning. So, off the top of my head, here are what I consider to be some of the most powerful ways Industrial Civilization makes us want to shop, and keep us shopping even when we don’t want to. You can probably think of a few more than this:
• Advertising appeals to the emotions – in particular the contrast between negative emotions (dressed up as “you don’t have this”) and positive emotions (“you do have this”). The nature of advertising is such that it can, as with movies and live music, be carefully tuned to make us feel whatever the advertiser and their client wants us to feel.
• The consumer culture has created a general sense of the “need” to shop for everything, using whatever currency the state deems acceptable. Almost by default when we need something (let alone just wanting it) our first response is to consider buying it, new, from a major retailer; in addition, we will buy from whichever place is uppermost in our mind as a result of advertising and physical presence.
• Obsolescence is designed into everything we purchase, by dint of its limited “shelf life”, its lack of durability, it no longer being “in fashion” or even it simply not being enough of whatever it is.
• The mass media, in particular, imbue us with a sense of duty by making us afraid of economic failure on a larger scale than we can normally appreciate. Thus, we are urged to “spend our way” out of a recession or “prop up the economy” with our spending. Meanwhile further investments (grants, tax breaks and rule changes) are made to assist the things that make us buy more.
• Special events such as sales excite our more primal instincts by making things available for a limited period, or at a certain price if you buy a certain amount, or by creating a sense of competition with other Consumers through limited (as least in theory) numbers or locations where something can be obtained.
Now I understand that there isn’t necessarily anything really tangible that could be undermined in that list; but if you break down each item into a number of components, taking special note of the “nuts and bolts” that hold them together, potential undermining targets start to become clear. If you know how to stop people shopping then you are well on your way to undermining the entire infrastructure of the industrial system. You’ll see what I mean as we go along.
Task 1: Subvertising
Defacing an advertisement is as easy as taking a leak, at least if you are a man. Take a black marker pen and write or draw something of your choice upon the advert assaulting your personal space while you pee, taking care not to lose your aim. Having not used a ladies toilet since my glorious summer performing hygiene tasks at a seafront McDonald’s, I can’t vouch for what happens there now – though until fairly recently adverts in toilets were a rarity. As for the black marker, it can easily be slipped in and out of the pocket for whatever subtle purposes you require; or if you are feeling a little angrier, you can just take the advert off entirely. Posters and billboards still play a vital part in the system of selling us things we otherwise would not want; but there is a powerful ally for Underminers in the form of the Billboard Liberation Front, whose Art and Science of Billboard Improvement is perhaps the de facto guide for practical subvertisers everywhere. It begins:
Billboards have become as ubiquitous as human suffering, as difficult to ignore as a beggar’s outstretched fist. Every time you leave your couch or cubicle, momentarily severing the electronic umbilicus, you enter the realm of their impressions. Larger than life, subtle as war, they assault your senses with a complex coda of commercial instructions, the messenger RNA of capitalism. Every time you get in a car, or ride a bus, or witness a sporting event, you receive their instructions. You can’t run and you can’t hide, because your getaway route is lined to the horizon with signs, and your hidey-hole has a panoramic view of an 8-sheet poster panel.2
The guide then goes on to detail a multitude of ways to plan, carry out and avoid detection during the act of billboard sabotage. Subvertising as a concept obviously goes beyond the physical billboard, stretching across the realms of electronic communications and digital media. Its purpose is to change the meaning of a message into whatever the perpetrator desires, ensuring it is always different to the original intended message. Thus the Nike Swoosh becomes an evil grin overseeing row-upon-row of sweatshop workers; Ronald McDonald transforms into a murderous clown intent on depraving children; “General Motors” is revealed to read “Global Murder”; the Conservative party are exposed as performing one big CON, and so on.
In the context of this task, it is the emotive aspect of advertising that needs to be reversed, neutralised or parodied, depending on what is most appropriate. So, if an advertisement is suggesting that buying a certain Smartphone will make your life better, the obvious retort would be that it makes the lives of the people making the Smartphone components immeasurably worse, ripping them out of their former communities in very many cases, despoiling the local environment and bringing a culture of greed and monetary want to places where previously there was something far more important. Not easy to put on a billboard – but a simple image of someone hanging themselves from a factory roof could do the trick.
Despite the obvious criticism that a small group of Underminers can never match the reach and numeric superiority of the corporate advertising giants, subvertising – first given prominence by the group Adbusters – is a very good introduction to practical undermining. First, it is fairly low risk, and generally you aren’t doing anything illegal even if you do get caught – though it’s a good way to practice being covert in a relatively safe environment. Second, with success it can lead onto bigger things. As I mentioned earlier, doing something quick and easy can still give you a buzz; it’s contagious, not just to others who might like doing the same thing, but for your own sense of adventure. Once an easy task is wrapped up then more challenging tasks won’t seem so distant. Third, subvertising is a great outlet for creativity. Underminers might be seen as tough, resilient people with a surplus of sinew and guts; but creativity can trump all of these in the right circumstances. Who, but a creative person could have thought up this:
Where, what and how you subvertise is down to your imagination, always following the rules, of course. In Chapter 3 the point about who can potentially be an Underminer was that there was no obvious place to look; and this applies in the case of subvertising – you don’t know who could be influenced by a piece of emotion-reversal subvertising, and if it is a lonely bus stop with a 3×6 advert on the end, then it’s a good a place to start as any. You stand a hell of a better chance getting your job done unnoticed in a quiet spot than climbing to the top of a gigantic freeway-side billboard. Although, for anyone planning to do the latter – hats off to you!
Task 2: Welcome to Barterland
Go to a supermarket with something you have grown, baked, produced or made yourself – something you think most people would be happy to pay money for. I can understand if this seems like a tall order, but I also know that we all have the potential for creating beautiful and delicious things if we only have a bit more faith in our abilities. If you’re feeling a bit humble or embarrassed, take something provided by a member of your family or a close friend. Now, when you get to the checkout with whatever you are going to buy, ask the cashier (the clue to your potential success is in the title) how much they will knock off your bill for whatever you are offering in exchange. The important thing is not that what you are offering might not be what the now bemused member of staff wants at the time, but whether any recognition or acceptance of bartering as a means to obtain goods happens.
I can almost guarantee that, even if the cashier is friendly and sympathetic, the transaction will fail, because the supermarket could never accept anything but cash or a cash equivalent such as a credit card. If you attempted the same at a small local store or a market stall then your chances of success would be greatly enhanced; but let’s stick with the supermarket for the moment, because now I want you to call a supervisor, in a polite way, and ask why bartering – for that is what you are trying to do – is not acceptable in a supermarket. Don’t accept anything like, “It’s company policy” as an answer: you want to know why that particular type of transaction is not permitted. A reasonable argument, at least superficially, might be that it’s just too complicated to process something that has no agreed, tangible value, and cannot be further exchanged easily.
And that’s the point. A supermarket, and anything else that operates on capitalist principles, will only exchange goods or services for something that can be further exchanged, either for other goods and services, or other forms of finance, such as bonds or shares. Bartering operates outside the capitalist system, more or less3, and it makes “authorities” very nervous. Take this quotation from the IRS:
If you engage in barter transactions you may have tax responsibilities. You may be subject to liabilities for income tax, self-employment tax, employment tax, or excise tax. Your barter activities may result in ordinary business income, capital gains or capital losses, or you may have a nondeductible personal loss.
Barter dollars or trade dollars are identical to real dollars for tax reporting. If you conduct any direct barter – barter for another’s products or services – you will have to report the fair market value of the products or services you received on your tax return.4
But hang on! How can you report a “fair market value” on something that, by its very nature, operates outside the capitalist system? When I carry out computer repairs at peoples’ houses in my local area I am placing an arbitrary value on my time, based on what I think people can afford as well as making the trip worth my while. In all cases I offer customers a barter option, which some – an increasing number, to my joy – take up. It also gives an opportunity to discuss the reason I prefer to barter than take cash. How can all of that be encompassed in something as crude as “fair market value”?
The power of bartering, and its cousins gifting, lending/borrowing and timesharing, lies in its simplicity. The IRS note refers to Barter Exchanges; in fact it goes to great pains to emphasise the function of such exchanges rather than getting into a public tizzy over informal bartering. The obvious reason for this is that barter exchanges, like other market economies, formalise the process of exchange, making it far more complex than it needs to be, and thus play easily into the hands of the financial system. Informal bartering, on the other hand, just is. Two parties mutually decide on the value of something against something else and make the exchange, perhaps straight away, perhaps later on, as in the form of a service that may be carried out whenever it is required. I carried out a website build for a local farm that was branching out its business, and got in exchange all the materials to build a raised bed, along with a load of soil and a few bags of manure. In addition, I’m giving ongoing support which will be paid for in the form of corn for our chickens.
This is nothing unusual. People unconsciously barter, gift, lend and share all the time – but on being asked how they pay for things, they will invariably respond by stating various types of formal payment – credit card, cheque, bank transfer, cash, and so on. The dominant mindset in the Dominant Culture is that we have to pay for everything, and be paid for everything, using a formally agreed method approved by the system.
Even when we don’t.
This is the fault of the corporations that have controlled the way we trade from their very first appearance in the civilised world. We have to not only physically abide by the rules they have set up, but we have to think that we have to abide by these rules and there is no other way to do it. So, go to that supermarket, and expose the corporate control of our thoughts for what it is. And when you have become suitably frustrated, start thinking in a different way, and doing things in a different way. For a start, use your local stores and businesses, which will undoubtedly be more amenable to alternatives, and encourage them to accept – and publicise – non-capitalist methods of payment. If this becomes a reality, then help publicise what they do. Get local people to use local services, and discourage them from feeding the corporations that are keeping the illusion of capitalist infallibility alive. Not only are you taking money away from the corporate machine, you are undermining the dangerous message that the way we used to do things between each other – the simple way that everyone could understand and embrace – is no longer acceptable.
To be fair, it’s an easy message to propagate. I made up a list of the reasons we, as civilised people, no longer barter or carry out any of the other informal things mentioned earlier. As an exercise, go through each of these points and think of a counter-argument or some reason why they are not relevant.
Exercise: Not not bartering
Argument: We don’t trust or know each other well enough to agree a value for things.
Counter argument / opposition:
Argument: We don’t understand the intrinsic value of things without a cash equivalent.
Counter argument / opposition:
Argument: There is no way of profiting from bartering without obvious fraud.
Counter argument / opposition:
Argument: We cannot easily store everything we desire for later use.
Counter argument / opposition:
Argument: Bartering gives little opportunity to attain status through material possessions.
Counter argument / opposition:
Argument: Bartering is socially unacceptable in a capital society.
Counter argument / opposition:
Argument: Bartering requires preparation and, usually, pre-agreement.
Counter argument / opposition:
Most of these “reasons” are complete red-herrings, because they are framed in the mindset of Industrial Civilization. For instance, why would you want to profit from bartering at all? The point of the exercise is to force you to think in an uncivilized manner – face down the arguments head on, and think from the point of view of an Underminer. Now go and start bartering, and don’t carry on reading until you have done it at least once.
Task 3: Fix The Bloody Thing!
We all need practical skills. At the end of the book Time’s Up! I used a little space outlining some of the key attributes for living in a post-collapse society. This was not just some crude list of bushcraft skills that will mean you can kill, collect, heal and shelter as necessary – though all of that is incredibly useful – but a collection of ideas that contributes to the development of a longer term strategy for building a future, such as learning how to work together as a team. The contribution of practical ability to this list was purposely understated, but for some types of undermining it is practical skills that come to the fore.
While I will willingly submit to others with more ability than me when time is of the essence or something has to be done just right, there is really no substitute for getting down and dirty with your hands, particularly when it involves those jobs that all too easily get skipped because buying something new is so easy. Let’s take the example of a toilet. Last week, probably to my shame, I had never stripped down a toilet cistern. I really would love to install a composting toilet, but at the moment our garden is above a steep slope down to a river, so anything that gets into the soil will likely end up somewhere in the burn below; using a large plastic trap in a very big hole will have to wait a bit longer while I get this book finished. Anyway, the toilet wasn’t flushing, but I vaguely knew how to get to the sump connector and had bought a flap valve (a tiny sheet of shaped plastic) for £1 from a local hardware shop5. This will be no big deal to a plumber, but to me the moment I fixed the cistern back on the wall, having effected a repair, and flushed the loo, was a moment of joy. I had learned a useful skill, and saved the cost of a plumber and an entirely new sump – for that is what a plumber would have fitted – in the process.
And a few weeks ago I learned to carve spoons from pieces of wood.
There is no smugness at all in any of this, just pleasure, and a great deal of disappointment because each time you learn a new skill it becomes clear how many other skills we have lost and are just starting to claw back again. For most people, sadly, those skills will never be regained – instead, as society collapses, the repeated pressing of the remote control buttons and sending of multimedia messages will be used as a pathetic surrogate for learning how to survive in the new world. This is tragic, when it could be so positive.
I have no rabid desire to undermine the plumbing profession – hell, when the shit hits the fan, we’ll really need to be able to deal with it – but as a way of undermining corporations such as Home Depot, OBI, B&Q and Lowe’s then being able to fix things yourself and for others at little or no cost is very handy. There is a key question to raise here that contributes to the effectiveness of repairing as undermining: is buying something new really that easy? On the face of it, especially if you live in a city, that would seem to be the case; but assuming that the place you are buying from won’t accept barter – so we are talking corporate retailers here – then you have to use cash. Where does that cash come from?
A small part of it might come from welfare benefits, but for the vast amount of money any of us have, we have to go out and work for it, using up a considerable chunk of our lives in the process. This is something I’m going to address later. In addition, think about the people who make the things you are buying, or are carrying out the services you are using: again that is time that they have not got for themselves, their families, their community. And, of course, there is the incalculable ecological cost of the processes involved in producing goods, and those that contribute to making commercial services viable.
Convenience might be one word for this. You can probably think of others.
Obsolescence is the word we use to describe the limited lifespan of something, such as a hinge only being able to open and close so many times before it shears off, or a bearing eventually wearing out through friction. Built-In or Planned Obsolescence are terms used to describe a deliberately limited lifespan. By design. On purpose.
Almost all “consumer” goods have planned obsolescence, for if they didn’t then you wouldn’t need to replace them at the rate required to keep a business profitable. Durability is one way of controlling the rate at which things are replaced, or need repairing, and there is little doubt that as goods become cheaper, their durability reduces – this is the market economy operating as it should do, i.e. you get what you pay for. Simple lack of durability in cheap goods has little to attach a conspiracy to; basically we have been stimulated as a society to want a great deal beyond what we actually need, so as demand rises the things we want are produced in increasing numbers for as little money as possible, and inevitably quality suffers. Of course our expectations have to be managed too, so we have been very cleverly manipulated into not expecting goods to be durable. This is achieved through a combination of managing Consumers’ priorities away from quality and need, towards functionality and desire; and by purposely making older goods undesirable, so when they do break we aren’t really that bothered about it. Fashion plays a major part in that and we shall attack that in the next section.
Beyond this manipulation of expectations and desires, is something more sinister, probably first expounded by Bernard London in 1932, and revealed by Adbusters to be a source of a far more subtle modern application of Planned Obsolescence:
In a word, people generally, in a frightened and hysterical mood, are using everything that they own longer than was their custom before the depression. In the earlier period of prosperity, the American people did not wait until the last possible bit of use had been extracted from every commodity. They replaced old articles with new for reasons of fashion and up-to-dateness. They gave up old homes and old automobiles long before they were worn out, merely because they were obsolete. All business, transportation, and labor had adjusted themselves to the prevailing habits of the American people. Perhaps, prior to the panic, people were too extravagant; if so, they have now gone to the other extreme and have become retrenchment-mad.
People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected on the basis of earlier experience.
I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.6
To all intents and purposes, London’s policy idea has been implemented wholesale, although instead of the “duly appointed governmental agency” carrying out the destruction, ordinary people entranced by the consumer culture do it themselves via their trash, recycling bins and domestic tips; insurance companies and their property development partners do it spontaneously by demolishing old buildings and constructing new ones in their place; vehicle manufacturers do it systematically by offering us trade-ins for old cars and trucks, to be replaced by shiny new models. The corporate controlled governments of the modern civilized world can just sit back and enjoy the fruits of the Planned Obsolescence machine they put in operation, occasionally making the odd tweak to keep us replacing things at the correct rate. So what can we do about this that isn’t already obvious?
Adbusters’ Micah White, in his reposte to London’s pamphlet says we are locked in “a vicious cycle with two exits: the consumer’s debt ridden grave or the freedom of the culture jammer who refuses to replace the junk that breaks – the junk we never needed anyways.” Refusal is certainly one course of action – coupled with the determination to repair that which does break and the awareness that we don’t need most of the things we have. What about something a bit more underhand and proactive?
A few labels placed in strategic positions on product boxes, shelves, shop windows, adverts and brochures can do wonders for peoples’ perception of the consumer culture. It’s also a lot more fun than dumbly traipsing round shopping malls with eyes dulled by the constant promise of all-new everything.
Task 4: Recessions Are Good
It’s time to get positive. As I write this, the global economy is taking the kind of nosedive not seen since the 1930s. Only today the main share trading platforms lost between 3.5% and 5% of their total value. That’s not to say that the fall will continue day after day – if it did then by the time you read this the economy will be ruined and the global ecology will be singing a many-voiced song of jubilation in all the languages of life. But for today at least it’s OK to feel good about the crashing economy.
Of course this runs entirely counter to the mass media and political messages we are supposed to obey. In Chapter 6 we saw how our friend Sarah posed as a representative of the economic glitterati then gave out a message that most right-minded people would see as completely counterintuitive, i.e. that economic growth has to continue in order to make rich people even richer, or words to that effect. But that is essentially what we are being fed all the time, except with the top layer neatly ignored – the fat cats – so we don’t stop to wonder why we get so concerned about things like recessions.
Like all effective military manoeuvres there should be a second front, just in case the thing that is being undermined manages to recover and take a different route. So let’s all put on a big smile and share the joy of economic failure.
Quick Win: Smile, The Economy Is Crashing
This is a great little task for making your day brighter. Keep the news on the radio or television for a while, and listen to the economic pundits. You might want to check at the beginning of the day to make sure it’s “bad” news, because no one wants to feel grumpy without good cause. As the pundits and “experts” drone on about Company X losing money, Stock Market Y dropping a few hundred points and the GDP of Nation Z stagnating, smile. In fact, laugh. Don’t be mocking or sarcastic – take real pleasure in the situation by lighting up your face with a grin, celebrating the news that the killing machine of Industrial Civilization is falling, bleeding, writhing in pain as the Dollars, Euros and Yuan gush into a great lake of institutional debt. This is not your problem, it is your release. Today is a good day because the economy is having a bad day.
Did you feel the joy? It’s a difficult one to pull off first time because, as you would have heard and seen countless times during that day of “bad” news, the brainwashing is relentless. Nothing, I repeat, nothing is more important to Industrial Civilization than keeping the economy buoyant and healthy. If you could only undermine one thing in your life, then I would recommend you undermine this belief, for without belief there is no reality – something that politicians know only too well. If civilized society can be made to believe that a failing market economy is good news then the market economy will fail.
A quick point of clarification: I use terms like industrial economy and market economy deliberately, to distinguish the trading, buying and lending systems of the civilized world from anything that is real and connected. The word “economics” derives from the ancient Greek words οἶκος (oikos) meaning “house”, and νόμος (nomos) meaning “law” or “custom”. It is quite true that there isn’t necessarily any purity in the form of economics from which the Greek term is derived; however, there are types of economy, such as the general management of food and essential items within the household, and the informal trades and exchanges that take place in close-knit communities that should be nurtured. These types of economy are the kinds that matter, for if you do not know where your next meal is coming from, or do not have enough fuel to keep warm, and have no means to borrow or trade to satisfy that need, then it is bad news. You are allowed to frown.
But move outside the realm of domestic and community economies and we enter a type of system that thrives on exploitation; it encourages greed and hierarchy; it values profit and growth above stability. The industrial machine needs us to believe that kind of economy is good, and so we must be distressed when it is wounded. Which is why we have to learn to smile at its downfall.
Then we can teach others. On November 12, 2008, the Yes Men along with a team of designers and writers released a fake version of the New York Times. The aim was to tell the news that people might want to hear, rather than the news they are made to hear:
The papers, dated July 4th of next year, were headlined with long-awaited news: “IRAQ WAR ENDS”. The edition, which bears the same look and feel as the real deal, includes stories describing what the future could hold, if we forced Obama to be the president we’d elected him to be: national health care, the abolition of corporate lobbying, a maximum wage for CEOs, etc. Less momentous, but poignant, was columnist Tom Friedman’s letter of resignation, full of remorse for his consistently idiotic and fact free predictions about the Iraq war.7
I’m not going to copy the front page here, because what is important is not the message produced on that day – it supported a healthy economy, for one – but how it was broadcast. There is no question that an enterprise such as producing a high quality handout, however thin, to thousands of people is time intensive and potentially expensive; but it is worth it if the message is powerful enough. The entire paper, along with a number of other articles was replicated on a website bearing a striking resemblance to the New York Times’ own site. We have to be careful not to get too excited about websites, for although they are considerably easier to replicate and alter than print media the real work is getting people to stumble upon the fake site and continue to believe that the fake is the real one for as long as possible. I will come back to this point later in the chapter. The tangible piece of media, placed in the hand and having the kind of appearance as to encourage a person to read and take it at face value is, in my opinion, a far more powerful thing that the ephemeral byte-exchange taking place on a computer screen. For one, it can be kept (the New York Times later suggested that the fake would become a collector’s item) and re-read at the recipient’s leisure. The tactile nature of the paper makes it something that imbues a sense of ownership, especially if it has been given with a smile and the impression that this is something the recipient really wants. The communication and empathy skills from your Underminers Toolbox are essential here, as are artistic and writing talents. Oh, and a way of getting the things printed without too much expense.
Try and avoid the clichéd glossy leaflets and flyers of advertising, and don’t bother slipping something inside something else unless your aim is to try and undermine the thing you are infiltrating – say, a bicycle advert in Big Trucks Monthly. Chances are anything that takes the form of a piece of junk mail will be treated as such. The same with pop-ups and virus-type redirects on websites as opposed to proper pages – they will likely be blocked or ignored, or at worst get your host blacklisted.
Now back to the message. For this exercise I want you to take a genuine article about an economic subject from a mainstream newspaper. As with the listening task, concentrate on “bad” news. What you now need to do is reverse the message entirely, putting an unremittingly positive spin on something that really should be positive. You might want to take out references to individuals who have been hurt through little fault of their own, for they are victims of the system after all. Once you have corrected any typos or grammatical errors send or give the happy news item to a friend or colleague as though you have cut and pasted it from a genuine news source – well, you have – and ask them to tell you what they think of it as if it is genuine. If they are left with the feeling that it’s a spoof then you have a bit more work to do. If they get some kind of positive feeling from it then find out why, and note the parts that particularly worked. If they start questioning whether the entire economic system is bullshit designed to make us slaves of the machine, then you, my friend, are a genius and could have a very bright future bringing down the economy.
Task 5: Locking The Mall
If you thought “Stopping The Shopping” meant preventing people from getting to their chosen place of retail therapy then this is the task for you. You will remember the discussion about Black Friday back in Chapter 6: there I suggested all sorts of different ways of preventing the consumption message from getting through, but not how to prevent the targets of the message from getting to the place they were being influenced to go to. The latter task was excluded because it falls outside the Veil of Ignorance – the Shopper or Consumer is already keen to shop or consume, hence the titles so willingly donned by victims of the consumer culture. At this stage drastic action is needed to undermine the act of consumption; but not just any old action, because it is only undermining if it reconnects people to the real world.
So, choose a lovely day, a day on which people could be doing something so much better than warming their credit cards. A weekend is good, say a Saturday in the summer with the forecast set to suit days of adventure and exploration – walks in the woods or on the beach; time spent together tending the garden, playing football, idling by a river or building a den. Things people used to do before shopping became the most popular leisure activity in the civilized world. That means you start on a Friday night, at closing time.
Most parking lots have locking barriers to prevent drive-ins or stop anyone using that precious Tarmac for anything other than parking cars (and on that point, why is it I have never met a skateboarder I didn’t like yet have had more arguments with people driving cars than in any other situation?) Have a look next time you pass such a barrier. Is there a way of locking it shut manually? It is already locked shut when the store or mall is closed? Take a photo of the barrier, or find a photo of something very similar and estimate the size of the locking points – the two places that when connected together mean the barrier cannot be opened. Now buy the best quality toughened lock you can: a decent second hand motorcycle chain will do the job very well. Are you starting to feel like a criminal? That’s the mindset you need because laxity will mean you get caught. You could be seen by CCTV or caught in the act; you might have left fingerprints; the lock purchase could be traced back to you. Don’t be complacent.
The strange thing is, though, you may not even be breaking the “law”. Tampering with private property is perhaps the worst thing that could be pinned on you, but you are not breaking and entering – quite the opposite – and you are not trespassing, because you never went beyond the barrier. Odd, isn’t it? Undermining is like that.
The next day, that sunny Saturday, the cars queue up at the locked barrier – and some of them drive away to do better things. On the radio, news of traffic queues at the GigantiMall dissuades others from even bothering to set out. The day is enjoyed in a different way. Some people even question why the act of “sabotage” was carried out.
It’s a lot more serious to block a public road than a private one – any misdemeanour taking place on private land has to be privately prosecuted, and if there is no one in sight then that “no one” can hardly be convicted of trespassing. Shopping malls, retail parks, leisure parks and other behemoths of the consumer culture have private roads. Vans are relatively cheap to hire, and there is no law against covering vehicle identification plates on private land. I think that’s enough information to be going on with.
Moving into less risky territory, have you noticed how radio shows are increasingly relying on traffic reports from members of the public? They like to be right on the ball and will snap up any news of road closures and delays being offered, so long as the report sounds authoritative enough. Now suppose your nearest GigantiMall had an electrical failure, or a flood on the roof that was leaking into the shops and causing a serious safety hazard; or perhaps there are emergency repair works on the approach road meaning that it’s not even worth trying to get to the mall today! You don’t even have to arrange that. You can just make it up; not too often because after a while the radio station will stop trusting callers, but once in a while a little road closure or blackout could do wonders for the lives of those planning to immerse themselves in retail hell. Team up with a couple of other people to make the story more convincing and likely to be broadcast; this applies to a variety of other undermining tasks for which more is, indeed, more. If you feel like a bit of acting then it shouldn’t take too much effort to transform yourself into the communications director of one of the malls or leisure complexes affected by the “incident” – it certainly reduces the chance of the radio station calling the place up to verify the story.
On a smaller scale, there are countless billboards that advertise sales, grand openings and other commercial fakery that draws people in who might otherwise have stayed at home, and with their friends and family. And before anyone says, “Shopping is a social event,” can I just remind people of the communities that have been ripped apart by those out of town retail celebrations, and the lives turned asunder by the financial woes created by overspending in the desire to keep accumulating material goods? These billboards don’t need custom treatment such as a nice piece of subvertising entails; instead, an all-purpose paste-on banner proclaiming, “Closed until further notice!” or “Cancelled!” can be used on almost anything related to getting more customers. Alternatively, if you’re feeling more destructive, or simply need an outlet, then tear the billboard off, or – as I discovered a couple of years ago – tear a corner, leaving enough loose paper for someone else to finish the job. Encouraging latent Underminers to do something useful is all part of the mix.
Getting Too Clever
Just out of interest, would you have put any other messages on the billboard banner, something that makes people think rather than be informed of a closure? This is a common mistake made by creative activists who, and I don’t want to make enemies here, just state the truth, are sometimes so full of their own cleverness that they completely miss the point of what they are trying to get across. I have been guilty of this, writing too-subtle fake press releases with the intention of making the recipient think, rather than simply getting the necessary “information” across and producing spoof logos that are more creative than they are effective.
We forget that civilized people are essentially trained to only read headlines and accept things at face value: which is why soundbites are used on television by politicians rather than complex analysis. It’s not so much a time thing; far more a way of conditioning the public to see everything in terms of discrete, disconnected packages. Most people won’t get the clever allegory or the subtle metaphor contained in an artistic counter-cultural performance – they just see a smug student dressed up as a prison guard shouting random words. So, when it comes to the Undermining message, unless you know the audience will really get something, keep it simple.
Fashion Makes You Ugly
Yesterday8, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple Computer died. I did not mourn the passing of Steve Jobs as so many people are doing while I type these words. The media sources vomited out pre-written tributes and countless members of the culture of celebrity have made their thoughts known, without exception glowing and full of admiration for a life spent filling homes and offices with technology. He was a giant in the world of computers, a poster boy for the hi-tech generation. It would be apt if, after a week or two, he was forgotten, to be replaced in the minds of the many by another, more up to date model.
Callous doesn’t come close to it, but then callousness is normal in the world of fashion. Steve Jobs, along with a host of designers, financiers, marketing people and the inevitable shareholding string-pullers, created a new paradigm for the fashion industry, whereby something cutting edge and luxurious became an affordable commodity, used goods on eBay, then detritus in the garbage stream, at a speed previously unheard of. Breathless consumerism, accompanied by lung-bursting screams as the first in the queue to buy Version Next of Product Latest gets his hands on the electronic equivalent of fool’s gold.
Fashion exists to keep humans in a state of psychological flux: malcontents always looking for the next thing to desire. What is especially evident in the destructive monster called Industrial Civilization is that the idea of fashion is increasingly becoming the driving force behind economic growth. Where once it was enough for industry to ensure that everyone had what most people in the industrial world would consider to be basic goods, such as a pair of shoes, a warm coat, a radio and a refrigerator; the saturation of the Western economies with such “basic” goods, along with ever shrinking profit means that baseline consumption has to be augmented by a constant desire for different versions of the same thing.
Mention “fashion” and we think of clothing. Haut Couture and the catwalk freak show. It is that, but it is much more, and goes beyond the physical to symbolise a cultural mindset that embraces manufactured rapid turnover and the rejection of anything that isn’t defined as “current” by those who tell us what we should desire. The net effect of this contrived aesthetic obsolescence is a trail of environmental destruction, factories full of slave labour, entire cultures forced into frenzied consumerism, and the scarred minds – such young, embattled minds – that take the brunt of fashion’s brutal marketing army.
Nature doesn’t do fashion. Trees don’t compete in the bark colour or leaf shape stakes; rivers don’t meander deeper into the bank to impress their peers; birds don’t all change the length of their plumage or the sound of their calls because some bird in the next meadow told them it was the latest thing. Neither would we without the presence of an industry driven entirely by money. The fashion industry takes us from the cradle and teaches us that acceptance is determined by the cost of your shoes, the colour of your nails, the functionality of your phone…the way we express every aspect of our outward appearance to the world. This is not just clever marketing; it is – as writer and teacher Ana Salote9 says – mind control.
Only powerful mind control could fill the streets with so many black leggings. Where did all those tonnes of cotton Lycra and dyes come from? In two years time where will they be and why?
Why are we still promoting and celebrating an industry driven by disposability and waste, one that sucks in a ridiculous proportion of our hard-earned (for women particularly)? Part of the answer lies in the way language shapes perception.
Mexican Toltec wisdom discusses this power of language to create and destroy. According to the Toltec, words are not just sounds or symbols; they are a force which shapes our perceived reality. As we use them we assent to their culturally assigned meanings. Words cast spells.
It begins simply with the act of naming. Attention is the ability to discriminate and to focus only on that which we want to perceive. During infancy adults showed us where to direct our attention and reinforced it by repetition so we learned our reality. Language was the first step in the process. To name something is the beginning of attention. By the involuntary process of learning our mother tongue we imbibe the values enshrined within it. This is part of a process by which humans are domesticated in the same way as other animals. It occurs before more intentional methods of manipulation which may be easier to detect and resist.
To see beyond this inherited reality it is important to consider our words and the conceptualisation that surrounds them, to consider the unconscious agreements we make with our own language and if needs be to reframe those agreements in our own terms. To be free is to choose our own meanings and use words with impeccable attention to their import.
Every time the word fashion is used it is mentally tagged by youth, glamour, excitement, airbrushed perfection, the Dream. We need a new language to give an alternative account of fashion; to add counter tags like waste, exploitation and mind control. Fashion: let’s encourage a new verb to grow from the noun revealing its true nature. How about fashing (brain-fashing), an ugly word for an ugly thing.
Fashing: the exploitative or damaging creation of an artificial need.
British Fashing Week.
Dispensing with fashion needn’t mean People’s Party blue overalls. I have never seen an Indian woman of whatever size, shape, age or income look anything but elegant in a sari (unless teamed with clunky shoes and an acrylic cardigan – but saris weren’t meant for temperate climates). Ditto any people who dress timelessly to suit their environment, from Lakeland sheep farmers to the Inuit. No, it’s fashion that encourages clonewear; you just have to change the uniform four times a year, blind to the fact that it is often ugly, impractical, tacky and unflattering – we’ve all got a damning photo to prove it. It’s part of fashion’s essential paradox that newness and innovation lead to conformity so any satisfaction must be shallow and fleeting.
Classics can give service and pleasure for lifetimes, as can genuinely one-off pieces. We need a new word to describe this anti-fashion, one that means crafted, enduring and beautiful. The art of adornment needn’t die but it does need to shift its focus away from volume to quality, its values from novel to beautiful, and its time scales from months to decades.
Here’s one for the fash-pack’s T-shirts. Fashion eats Earth and shits landfill. It may be more accurate to say that fashion shits mattress filling, and bra tops for remote tribes. But accuracy doesn’t always make the best soundbites.
Task 6: Unfashion
As well as the reclamation and clever use of words, there are many other ways to undermine the fashion industry and its resulting mindset – we just need to understand how fashion controls us to work out how to undermine it.
A very powerful – possibly the most powerful – method by which fashion is imposed upon people is social peer pressure. The idea that someone important, and possibly influential, to you has something you do not have is more than enough to create personal “need”. This factor is heavily exploited by industry, most obviously in the form of advertising that suggests collective desire (notice the number of adverts that use happy crowd or friend scenes), but increasingly through virtual social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and direct viral networking. We have already covered subvertising in some detail, and it’s clear that there is an element of that which will be useful in countering the advertising messages specifically aimed at peer groups; but advertising is just the seed of most of the fashion ideas that spread with ease throughout these peer groups. In all commercial sectors creating fake peer pressure is common practice. Within larger groups such as office staff and school students individuals are often handpicked for their ability to spread the message, armed with materials to make their job easier:
The Dubit Insider Programme allows young people aged 13 – 24 years old to get involved in campaigns that impact our lives every day. These campaigns include many that can improve the lives of those taking part and of those around them – these are known as social marketing campaigns. We also offer those of you aged 16 and over the opportunity to work with some of the UK’s top brands and commercial companies.
What are the expectations once you become a Brand Ambassador?
Once you have been approved and placed onto a team, you will be asked to complete weekly tasks. These will be uploaded onto Insider each week. Tasks can vary from team to team and can involve anything from:
• Posting on message boards and social networks
• Instant messenger conversations
• Organising small events
• Hosting small parties
You will be asked to provide evidence of each piece of work you carry out, i.e. photos, screenshots, etc.10
It is very easy to sign up to such groups, in fact while researching this section I did so myself using a false identity (Damn! I breached their Terms and Conditions). Could it be coincidence that the day after signing up, using an Earth Blog email address the Dubit Insider website disappeared, with the domain redirected to their research arm? Possibly, though if not then it could be evidence that it only takes a hint of exposure to put the frighteners on unethical operations.
Peer group dynamics are complex but in general terms there tends to be a hierarchy of sorts, even within the most egalitarian groups. In very large groups, such as an entire school, it is very unlikely that any one person can have sufficient influence to spread a message to everyone else – networks are necessary so that the various “leaders” of the groups can interact, and in many cases such interaction rarely happens. That is why marketing campaigns, whether overt or covert, attempt to achieve a critical mass so that at the very least the most influential people are influenced. In the case of fashion there are commonly “fashion leaders” – you know the sort, the person who walks into a bar with a new pair of shoes and is immediately surrounded by a cluster of adoring disciples. The problem is if you are one of those fashion leaders then you are most definitely not going to be interested in undermining the fashion world. The key has to therefore be getting the undermining message into the system so that the hierarchy can do its work for you. The “message” could take the form of altered marketing materials – if you are somewhere in the distribution chain, then you have an important part to play in this – and many other related undermining actions. But I think more subtlety is needed here. At schools around the world, for that is where the cult of fashion seems to really take hold, at least outside the constraints of uniform, different brands can take on a life of their own once they have been accepted as the coat / hat / shoe / belt / undergarment / bag of choice. One such brand is Superdry which exploded in UK schools from 2010 onwards:
The Superdry brand has grown by word of mouth. There is no advertising or sponsorship and no cash spent on celebrity endorsement deals, although the company hit the jackpot when it mailed one of its trademark leather jackets to David Beckham. The soccer star was repeatedly photographed in it, generating a stream of publicity.11
Now what would it take to undermine Superdry? Perhaps an endorsement by a very unfashionable, unpopular person, at least in the eyes of young people: can you imagine the effect of a dull politician or a fading pop star being seen wearing a currently fashionable product in public? Mocking up something like that wouldn’t work – it might be seen as ironic once the fakery was uncovered – so it needs to be real. We are talking about fashion here, so it’s time to be a bit creative.
More subtly, but on a larger scale, another way that fashion promotes itself is through the use of targeted media such as technology and clothing magazines (who will readily promote product x in exchange for advertising revenue) along with newspaper supplements, that show new products as being “essential” or at least highly desirable. Far more cheaply, as far as industry is concerned is the blanket press release to kneejerk bloggers, desperate to be the first to report on the latest big thing – well, big in terms of potential income – and extremely willing to publish these press releases verbatim. Straight away we see an opportunity. If such blogs, and there are many of them that will print the most outrageous things if it gets readers, are desperate to get the latest news then their fact-checking is likely to be a bit sloppy. If a press release was to emerge from a top fashion house or major retailer claiming they were cutting down the rate of change of their ranges to, say, once a year because of the absurd nature of fashion and the impact it was having on both the personal finances and the mental state of the public, then who knows what would happen? And what about a fake leaked memo containing breakdowns of the various social groups, identifying which were most stupid and gullible – and thus how easily they could be convinced to keep changing their electronic goods for the latest model? Something like that might even get past the checking processes of a major television news channel or website, if the “source” was convincing enough.
Such techniques could work very well in the sphere of fashion, but I also think there is a lot to be said for simply making people feel good in other areas. We would not seek to be seen as the person with the latest thing, always ahead of the pack, if we knew we had nothing to prove. We would not desire to look “better” if we had a healthy body image already. We would not have to conform to what everyone else was wearing, seeing, hearing or using if we saw no need to be one of the pack. Self confidence creates magnificent defences against the cult of fashion, so go and make someone feel better now and turn them from a fashion victim into a happy human being.
CLICK FOR CHAPTER 7 (PART 2)
1 Joshua Hammer, “The Death of Rachel Corrie”, Mother Jones, 2003, http://motherjones.com/politics/2003/09/death-rachel-corrie (accessed September 2011).
2 Billboard Liberation Front, “The Art and Science of Billboard Improvement”, http://destructables.org/sites/default/files/destructable/step/downloads/ArtAndScience-BLF.pdf (accessed September 2011).
3 There may be exceptions, for instance bartering with ready commodities such as gold or copper, but these still have to pass through some kind of filter prior to being accepted as currency. So, if you barter with a kilo of coffee beans then they have no agreed value in the capitalist system until the beans have been formerly graded, and even then the price would change depending on the market value of that particular type of bean.
4 “Tax Responsibilities of Bartering Participants”, IRS, http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=188095,00.html (accessed September 2011).
5 We used to have a wonderful hardware shop in the village called The Hillside Shop, but it closed down before we moved there. It wasn’t so much a lack of custom that caused it to close as the suppliers insisting in their mass-market mindset that no one was allowed to order less than 1000 of anything small, and less than a dozen of anything large. So it was capitalism that closed the local shop down. I would love to get something going again – maybe a weekly hardware stall in the village hall run by one of the nearby shops.
6 Bernard London, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, 1932, quoted in “Consumer Society if Made to Break”, Adbusters, 2008, http://www.adbusters.org/blogs/blackspot_blog/consumer_society_made_break.html (accessed September 2011).
7 “New York Times Special Edition”, The Yes Men, http://theyesmen.org/hijinks/newyorktimes (accessed September 2011).
8 It’s Friday 7th October, 2011, but putting dates in books is terribly clunky.
9 Ana Salote is the author of one of my favourite children’s books, “Tree Talk” (Speaking Tree, 2007), a wonderful tale of disconnection and reconnection that left me in tears – it might do the same to you.
10 Taken from Dubit Insider FAQ, http://www.dubitinsider.com/faq.php (accessed October 2011). Dubit, a leader in social marketing, were recently cited in a number of UK media reports for their practice of using paid teenagers to infiltrate school and other peer groups for commercial purposes.
11 Julia Finch and Zoe Wood, “Superdry fashion label sees profits almost triple”, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/jul/15/superdry-profits-triple-supergroup (accessed October 2011).
Version 1.01, published 24 October, 2012