Meme Wars

Kalle Lasn brings his Adbusters aesthetic to a book on economic theory. But does it work? Aditya Chakrabortty is unconvinced

This book is the child of a walkout. Last November, around 70 Harvard undergraduates marched out of an introductory course on economics. Easily the most popular class on the university’s most sought-after subject, Ec10 is taught by Greg Mankiw, who is one of the most well-known economists on the planet and author of the discipline’s biggest-selling textbook. This bandwagon of academic superlatives is of course what Ivy Leaguers and their career-conscious families pay for: nearly half of Harvard graduates reportedly go on to work in finance or business consulting.

Which, for the one in ten students who left Mankiw’s classroom to join an Occupy Boston march, was precisely the problem. In an open letter, they accused the former economic adviser to George Bush and Mitt Romney of teaching “a course that espouses a specific – and limited – view of economics that… perpetuates… inequality in our society today. If,” they warned, “Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.”

That Harvard protest is the subject of Meme Wars’ strongest passages, which attack Mankiw as “one of the most talented propagandists of our time”. More than that, the accusation that economics is right- wing ideology in social science’s clothing animates this anti-mainstream textbook [from Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters].

“Hey all you students out there,” it begins. “Your economics department operates very much like a police state.” The text bristles with such jaunty aggression, those ‘yous’ and ‘heys’ deployed with all the loving intimacy of a charity mugger.

A meme, Malcolm Gladwell once wrote, is “an idea that behaves like a virus – that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects”. It is propaganda, but not of the old, top-down kind disseminated by civil servants or corporate marketeers. Meme Wars is bottom-up propaganda: an attempt to counter the official line on how economies should be run, as taught on university campuses and followed in Whitehall departments and City dealing rooms.

What follows are ten chapters of posters and slogans. A finger points at the reader: “Your Economy Needs You to Keep Consuming”. A man in a suit snorts lines of money. A couple clasp each other: “Darling! Let’s get deeply into debt”.

There are photos from Occupy encampments, of Third World hovels. These are paired with close-ups of consumerist excess: an old white woman’s hands – liver-spotted, wrinkled, claw-like – festooned with jewellery. There are no page numbers and nothing as bourgeois as an index. In an apparent concession to the economics trade, there are a few graphs – but they are just upward sloping curves of debt or carbon emissions or mental disorders.

Through grainy images and extreme close-ups, the same point is rammed home: that economics, with its models based upon self-interested, rational, all-knowing individuals, paints a distorted view of the world which, when put into practice, creates inequality, endemic unhappiness and environmental carnage.

Stark messages made discordantly: this is author Kalle Lasn’s hallmark. Two decades ago, he started Adbusters, a magazine that attacked contemporary consumerism using its own tools: images of billboard boldness and social-marketing campaigns such as Buy Nothing Day. Last autumn, 70-year old Lasn gained fresh notoriety for his role in branding Occupy Wall Street. He and his colleagues gave the movement its name, its image of a ballerina dancing atop Wall Street’s sculptured bull. Even the first day of the occupation was so chosen because it’s the birthday of Lasn’s mother.

And this is an Occupy book. Not only because that’s how it will be sold and inevitably discussed, but in its very subject and approach. When a camp was first set up in Manhattan, much was made of how they used the internet to organise and stream pictures on the web. After Iran’s Twitter revolution, ran the commentary, here was the West’s digital insurgency. Yet in their enthusiasm for publishing newspapers, producing pamphlets and reverence for debate and ideas, there was something very 18th century Paris about the Occupiers – even if these sans culottes were decked out in skinny jeans.

And Diderot would surely have smiled at Lasn’s assumption that the next front in the war on neoliberalism must be in university economics faculties, rather than among underpaid shelf-stackers at Wal-Mart, say, or in lobbying government. This isn’t meant to sound wholly disparaging: as a journalist, I share the same cultural biases, even if I doubt whether politics is best approached through the library.

But there’s a more immediate problem with Lasn’s project: he doesn’t know enough about his adopted subject. The single lesson this textbook taught me is that it is infuriating to see an argument you agree with being mangled by a stranger. I agree that the economic crisis is also a crisis of economics: what Lasn fails to get to grips with is why. This is a discipline in which it pays to be deluded: get it wrong in just the right measure and you will be rewarded with peer recognition, early professorships at top universities, consultancies at big banks and in government, and book contracts.

One leading west coast economist sometimes puts it thus: “If you got behind Wall Street, you went to Lake Como every summer. If you left finance alone, you took a nice vacation in California. And if you took on the bankers, you drove a secondhand car.”

One problem with the meme concept is that it assumes there’s a marketplace of ideas; the very dominance of mainstream economics suggests otherwise. The market is rigged, and politics is all-important in deciding which ideas win out.

But Lasn is bad at politics, at such trifles as power and class (a term that barely features in this book). What he likes are heckles. Some are good. “Hey professor,” students are told to ask, “do economists suffer from an academic inferiority complex called ‘physics envy’?” Some are bad. “Hey all you neoclassical logic freaks… try to live 30 seconds of your life without thinking a single thought”: is Lasn really painting logic as the handmaiden of brutish capitalism? And some are just mystifying. “Dark pools of money roam the financial ecosystem looking for quick kills”: um, what?

‘Um, what?’ is a question often provoked by this book. Inexpert on the discipline he is criticising, Lasn lashes out in all directions and ends up flailing. He calls for more psychological realism in economics, without clocking the boom in behavioural economics. He wants more Islamic economics, more ecological awareness, a tax on financial transactions, a ban on high-frequency trading. This isn’t a coherent argument, but Lasn is above such petty concerns: he wants this and that, left and right, Pepsi and Coke.

Economists have got away for too long with pretending to understand the way the world works. The Adbuster could simply have pointed that out, found out why and argued for a more democratic debate about the way we run our economies and to what ends. In the end that would have been far more radical than Meme Wars. Trouble is, it wouldn’t have sat well with Lasn’s own confidence about the way the world works, or his bombastic way of making arguments: all those screaming close-ups and bold-type slogans. So what you’re left with is propaganda without a proposal. What you’re left with is mere screechiness.

Aditya Chakrabortty is economics leader writer and a columnist for The Guardian. Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics, by Kalle Lasn, is published by Penguin; £19.99

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