Hello, good evening and welcome to the subversive, lunacy tinged mischief of the Yes Men and their twinkling mission to fix the world. We love our inventive activists here at LSD and have a massive soft spot for complete nutters, and these two anti corporate reprobates combine the two beautifully. Having made two films that document their extraordinary stunts, they set up fake websites purporting to represent some of capitalism’s most shameless offenders, pursue any offers of the oxygen of publicity sent to those ‘organisations’, and proceed to reshape their despicable policies in the full glare of the public eye, raising not only awareness of the issues, but the spectre of those companies having to come out and deny everything, thus reiterating their complete lack of morality to the world.
From announcing 12 billion dollars of compensation to the victims of Bhopal live on the BBC on behalf of Dow Chemicals, to unveiling human corpses as the solution to the worlds energy crisis, to a fairer direction for the WTO to introducing a new risk assessment system that balances suffering against profits, to printing and distributing fake newspapers, the most absurd aspect of all is the lack of irony with which some of these announcements are received with. Currently being sued by the US Chamber of Commerce for crimes against criminality, we caught up with Mike from the Yes Men to reflect on some of the issues in play as they emerge from a blown cover and start instituting activist collaboration networks and action training programs.
Tell us a little about your background in political activism and what inspired you to start the Yes Men.
Well it all kind of happened by accident. We were already working on what you could call an anti-corporate corporation and we ran a thing called RTmark.com where we were trying to put together people with the resources they needed to carry out subversive projects – match making them with people with ideas and sometimes people with money. In the course of doing that, Andy started making fake websites including one for the World Trade Organisation that were so satirical, we expected people to look at them and laugh. In fact though, some people would go to them and having had such a hard time contacting say, WTO representatives through the real site, on finding the contact button on ours, they would email us thinking that we were the real thing. We had been dong that for a while and received a few invitations before we realised that we could follow up on them to participate in the conferences they were asking us to attend.
So you get an invite, you RSVP, and what – you just swan in
Yeah that’s pretty much it! I mean over the years things have grown more elaborate but the first time round we fully expected to be thrown out, and when we weren’t and people were ready to accept the dark satire that we were indulging in as gospel, it was so surprising and weird that we decided to stick with it. We kept on with actions in that vein, impersonating the WTO and then expanding into many other wrong doers, big corporations and governments for the last decade now.
How do you judge the line between exposing how absurd their policies are through an even more absurd satiric announcement and being credible enough to not get kicked off the stage within the first 30 seconds.
Strangely, we started being very careful about that and tried to ramp up the talk very slowly and not say anything outrageous for a while – sort of lulling the audience into it. Thing was, before long, we found out that there was basically nothing that we couldn’t say in that context because people had so much respect for us and people do tend to trust authority and avoid rocking the boat. They’re in a situation where they are supposed to meet the most important person in the room and get their business card and since we were supposedly the most important people in the room we were the target for everybody to come up, get the business card, meet us and shake our hands, so we had licence to say anything and people didn’t respond negatively. Consequently, as the years passed, we really just stopped paying attention to how subtle we had to be.
Were you amazed watching the herd mentality in action as people just swallowed this with very little sense of irony?
We were surprised at first, but then we came to understand that this was human nature and of course it reflects on what’s going on in the world. Think about it, how can we accept things like climate change and continue with business as usual despite the fact that we know that it’s going to kill us or if not in our lifetime, it’s certainly going to be killing a lot of us a few generations down the line. Right now it’s just killing “other” people far away – 300,000 people a year now according to the UN. But knowing that it’s destroying us why do we keep doing it? I think that this reality of people sitting back and not responding is related to that and of course it’s been tested in laboratory experiments, there’s the famous Milgram experiments and a number of others concerning human behavior whether it’s about group dynamics or deference to authority. People are easily manipulated and in many ways, we have what I would call ‘vulnerabilities to reason’, our reason has vulnerabilities where something else kicks in and we stop using that kind of reason.
Why do you think that freedom and capitalism are considered one and the same, especially in the USA?
Well there is one very specific explanation, and that is that a small clutch of ideologically driven people who have a lot of money, have put a tonne of it into that way of seeing the world. That’s one answer, and it’s no accident that these massive lobbying organisations like the US Chamber of Commerce who lobby hard for no regulation, the interests of business and that conception, that idea that human freedom is somehow connected or is in fact the same thing as economic licence. Obviously they’re not, and anybody should be able to see that, but that’s of course not the way it’s gone. It’s clear whose interest it serves – eventually there is an end game to all of this and it’s going to have to change, because you can’t just keep on having unfettered growth. Capitalism is a machine that will destroy itself given enough time and given enough rope and you’d just hope that it doesn’t destroy us all with it.
Obviously there are lobbying organisations and vast corporate wealth pushing these agendas but there is this phenomenon that even poor people seem to support this equation of capitalism and freedom especially in the US. In the health care debate for example, government having a hand in fairer health care was seen as an evil bid to enslave the people while leaving everything to the insurance companies was somehow ‘The American Way’ and a blow for freedom. It seems to permeate well beyond the rich and vested interest to the people that are directly suffering.
Yeah, I passed this beat up rusty old car the other day in upstate New York (which is a pretty poor area once you get past the New York City suburbs) and it had all these anti government healthcare stickers all over it and a giant handmade sign that says ‘Nobama’. I’m looking at this thing and thinking, ‘are these people really enjoying not having healthcare?’ What’s the story here? How did we get to a place where we Americans believe that not having healthcare is somehow equated to freedom or somehow makes us freer that having healthcare. I’ve lived in the UK where I had access to free healthcare and I was amazed at how easy it was to deal with and how secure you feel in doing something like quitting your job because you can’t stand it. In the US, if you’ve got kids and you want to quit your job you may not be able to because you won’t be able to afford even basic medical bills for your family. If your company does something absolutely horrible or if you know that your company is a force for bad in the world, that consideration alone may force you to keep that job and keep working for a totally immoral entity just to make sure that your kids don’t end up sick with nowhere to turn. So yeah, it’s pretty sick and it’s pretty weird and it’s pretty bizarre and it could be that the education system has been so degraded over the years by a lack of funding. The way education is funded here is a problem because it’s based on property taxes, and although in some ways that should be fine, in a lot of ways it doesn’t work because rich areas will inevitably have better schools. It’s very straight forward – in poor areas you’ve got the worst schools because they don’t have the money in property taxes and so you end up with shitty schools for poor people and good schools for rich people. If nothing else, public education should at least be fair.
Do you think capitalism is fundamentally flawed as a system or do you think that there is space within the framework of a market based economy to change things if people change their consumption habits?
Well I think there is space to force people to change their consumption habits and certainly there are ways of running capitalism that could create a much longer range future for the planet and a much more equitable future where there weren’t simply winners and losers. That happens as a result of good regulations and good government and I think that there are lots of things that could be done right now to make capitalism substantially better. There is still a fundamental flaw in the system in that capitalism requires growth – it’s a kind of pyramid scheme and the way that capitalism creates growth can become cannibalistic once you start running out of room to grow. There is a very good reason why there is all this pressure to privatise everything because of course privatisation becomes a form of growth – as soon as you take something out of the public hands, try to make money off of it in the private sector and capitalise it, well then you have a kind of growth but whether it’s real or purely on paper is another question. I would argue that if you take something like a library and privatise it, you can present it as a form of private sector growth, but is it of benefit to anybody when services are reduced and there is less access to those materials. So overall I think that our best hope for saving the planet in the short term is better regulated capitalism, and when I say saving the planet I mean not having to deal with mass migration, starvation and upheaval in the next 50 years. In the long run though, I think that we are eventually going to have to come around to a sustainable system that isn’t about growth. But as an intermediary step I think that capitalism is our best hope – just super well regulated capitalism, capitalism that is held to rule and while I don’t believe that that’s going to work in the long term, it might be the shortest and least violent route to stabilise things and then we can look at alternate political systems later.
Obviously the developing world doesn’t have a voice to fight, but do you find that in the developed world that capitalism itself has bred this culture of individualism where as long as you are not directly affected by anything you simply don’t care?
That’s definitely what’s going on and I think in the US there is a major problem of people not caring and then there is something else going on too which is really hard for me to understand which is people caring but acting against their own interests. It goes back to the healthcare example because people haven’t had the experience of good government healthcare so they just buy into the bullshit that’s telling them that they will get a diminished medical system as a result of government involvement. It’s interesting as a problem and a psychological study.
Do you find that satirical comedy and holding up a mirror is actually far more potent than directly preaching to people and telling them what they should be doing?
I think that people in general don’t like to be told directly what to think and personally when I find that I’m confused by something that’s when I become receptive to different opinions. It’s a real challenge fighting against polarised opinions because so often, once people form an view about something, it’s very hard to argue with them. Like most of the people who watch Fox news. If you start arguing with them about Obama-care, you get nowhere, because they just aren’t listening. And so sometimes telling a funny story is a way of talking to people and opening a line of communication instead of yelling your world view at them. Nobody wants to be told what to think, well there are a few, but most people want to be in charge of their own thoughts and not be talked down to and the way we work always tries to open a conversation and when everyone can laugh at something, it becomes a way to discuss the issues. We were genuinely delighted that for the last film we had a lot of conservatives and libertarians saying that they really enjoyed the movie but they didn’t believe some aspects of what we said. But it was already a big deal that they were ready to engage in conversation with us rather than just hurl invective at us which is the usual form of back and forth between the right and left of this country. People just scream at each other and particularly people on the right scream, threaten and say very weird and disturbing things. I’ve seen a lot of that, being one of the people who is often the recipient of some of that invective.
On that note do you find it bizarre how the most powerful institutions can somehow have a victim complex. Just an example is the strong right wing corporate hold of a lot of the media and yet it’s always the liberal left wing elite that’s somehow bullying them. How do you think that these guys manage to convince themselves and everybody else that they are somehow the victim?
There’s this great book called ‘What’s the mater with Kansas’ by Thomas Frank where he traces how the right was able to successfully co-opt the language and position of being able to identify with working class values in the US. It’s deeply disturbing that they have managed to take over the territory previously occupied by the left or labour, and identified themselves with the needs of the working class. Very few people in the US think of themselves as working class any more and in fact are getting away from this idea of having a working class at all – something that hasn’t happened in Europe. In Europe and in the UK, people are firmly rooted in a classist vision which I think is in some ways empowering because rather than everybody thinking of themselves as middle class or upper middle class, people actually support social and economic policies that will genuinely benefit them. Unlike in the US where people earning $15,000 a year and fall under the lowest tax bracket are actively arguing for lower taxes. That becomes really weird but yet that’s what’s happened.
Do you think it’s because people think that they one day will actually be rich enough to need tax cuts.
I think that there is something to that. Within our culture, that’s now become global, we validate our existence through the accumulation of stuff and our personal wealth. When you honour those things above all else and that becomes the goal, then the people that achieve it are seen as having right on their side and become the figureheads everyone else looks up to and aspires to be. There’s another good book called ‘Global Problems in the Culture of Capitalism’ by an anthropologist called Richard Robbins that turns the lens of anthropology onto capitalist culture which is a relatively new phenomenon in terms of the history of human existence. It’s very rare to have a system that’s structured like this and I think that one of the reasons why it’s so hard to solve is because it’s so much a part of our culture – we live and breath it and to get your head around the idea that something else is possible is difficult to start out with and that’s one of the things that we’re really trying to work against. That’s why we’re what I guess you’d call story tellers – we create these media events that are about telling stories and we’re making those stories increasingly about how we can achieve alternatives and about how we don’t have to accept the hand that we’ve been dealt by capitalism.
One of the things that we’re doing right now is called the ‘Yes Lab’ where we work with non profit organisations to train up different groups of people to do Yes Men type actions on their own. That’s been really successful so far and we’ve had a couple of really great actions that came out of it that were done autonomously by organisations that were working with the brain-stormers and the trainers. So then the other component is that people that sign up for the mailing list side of it at http://theyesmen.org/join become part of a global network of people who are asking to take part in actions so hopefully we will be able to build on that and get a lot more participation.
We noticed your recent Chevron campaign. Did you feel that hitting the streets and reclaiming something in the public sphere of vision had a resonance that say doing something in a board room surrounded by targets and a camera didn’t?
Those kinds of actions had always inspired us. The campaigns from the Billboard Liberation Front and the culture jamming movement we heard about and learned about in the late 80’s certainly had an impact on us. Now of course we want to engage those issues and in the case of the Chevron thing it was a great chance to ask people to participate in something and get behind the campaign. It was one of the Yes Lab campaigns developed by Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch with us, and taking it out on the streets was super important because we don’t want to be just big show activists you know, we don’t want to be just signing petitions, we want to be out there doing things in public space and helping to reclaim some of it. You have a problem where all of the communications infrastructure is bought and paid for and if you let money dictate what kind of speech happens in public then you are necessarily going to have a lopsided perception of the public and I would argue that you can’t have decent functioning democracy because whoever has the most money will speak the loudest. In a system that is increasingly leaning toward giving more back to the rich, we end up with a disproportionate amount of speech on behalf of the rich and on behalf of the corporations as opposed to the interests of disenfranchised people. It’s not fair and it doesn’t work for democracy because you need an informed citizenry in order to participate in self governance and the original idea of a free press was to ensure that democracy could function but we don’t really have a free press if its freedom is tethered to money.
You guys have been doing this for 10 years and obviously most of that 10 years has been a rampant economic boom, do you think we are hitting a time where there is a larger ground swell of activism as the cuts bite?
I think that it’s going to be really interesting because typically at times like this the reactionary movements gain strength, just look at Germany in the 1930’s. But also in times of belt tightening we’ve seen progressive movements emerge like the 1930’s in the US where there was a mass mobilisation of people which resulted in far more socially beneficial policies in government, so it can go either way. Hopefully we can turn lemons into lemonade by getting a lot more people friendly and environment friendly policies out of the really rough time that we are going to be going through.
The media seemed to take great pleasure in portraying you as victimising the poor. How do you respond to that – for example the Bhopal action, did you ever feed into that, were you ever hurt by that or did you immediately recognise it as a tactic?
At first we believed the media – I mean it was the BBC for God’s sake – we had to believe them. They were the ones who reported initially that there were tears of joy and then we had raised false hopes in India. We were suckers. We were sort of pathetic lefties who had weird paternalistic feelings about victims and we know better now because they are the only ones who are really in a position to understand their tragedy. When we talked to actual Bhopal disaster victims about our project and about impersonating Dow on the BBC and asked whether that was a good thing or not thing they looked at us incredulously because they couldn’t believe we would ask them such a question. They totally understood that it was important to get the word out in places where Dow shareholders lived like the United States and get the word out that the Bhopal site had never been cleaned up and that they hadn’t been adequately compensated. They knew all too well who was actually victimising them and the very idea that a couple of guys playing pranks was causing them pain was comical. We got some laughter when we brought it up. So for me that was a moment to reflect and really think. Beyond the media, huge numbers of people wrote in – people who were on our mailing lists, people with the best intentions, lefties who thought that previous things we had done were really positive wrote in to say what a horrible thing we’d done. We had to realise that we weren’t giving the people affected enough credit and autonomy and we’d perhaps perceived them as little more than victims instead of incredibly sophisticated activists who had been fighting for justice for 25 years and understood better than anybody who was working on the issue exactly what was of benefit to them in the long run and what kind of input their struggle needed.
You can’t help but think about the people behind the press releases who retract all the things that you guys have said. Do you think that the individuals doing the corporate bidding are intrinsically morally bankrupt or they are swept up in a system?
I think that quite a few of them are swept up in the system. Most people are like cogs in the machine – you end up in a job and many of them are ready to revolt or rebel given the opportunity, or don’t believe in what they are doing. But there are a few who are different and who actually have some issues. They know full well what’s going on and are culpable but I think the challenge is to try to push culture in a direction where we privilege other things other than simply making a larger income and where we are ready to take actions like quitting our jobs in order to do the right thing. We have to keep pushing to change our culture so that it’s not acceptable to just go ahead and support an organisation that’s doing wrong through your labour.
And how’s the law suit panning out?
That’s in a holding pattern. The US chamber of Commerce is suing us but we’re waiting to hear whether the judge dismisses the case or not. A few different motions have been filed and to check up on the latest on that you can go to the http://www.eff.org/ web site – that’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation and search for the Yes Men on there. They’re great, they’ree our pro bono legal team along with a large law firm that’s come on to support it and we’ll just have to see what happens. The Chamber continues to do horrible, horrible things, undermining US environmental laws, trying to repeal the Clean Air Act and trying to roll back all kinds of progressive legislation from the last 30 years. Another thing that they have been doing lately since the US changed its laws is funding election advertisement trying to get more right wing “freaks” into office.
And there’s already a fair few.
Speaking of organisations like that, despite the odds being so heavily stacked against activism and the voices protesting against these waves of money, are you encouraged by a landscape where there are so many well organised sophisticated funded groups who are resolutely taking a stand?
I think it’s amazing and right now any way of fighting the system is really important. The movement needs big funded organisations and it needs small and lovely ones as well. It needs different methods of working – we need mass movement and we need people protesting in the streets and we also need people sitting behind desks working on changing laws and organising people. It’s a critical moment and we need every possible angle in which people can participate and use whatever skills they have.
That was great, it was really fun to work on different aspects of it and I think having it out on the streets was something that people really had a great time with. There were about 800 people who volunteered to hand it out and seeing the look on people’s faces was just priceless.
What are you doing and what’s the plan for 2011?
Right now, we’re focusing on this Yes Lab concept where we are working with organisations to intervene at critical moments and come up with events and actions that serve the needs of their campaigns at critical moments. It’s an attempt by us to prove what we are doing in the service of groups that have like a sustained commitment to a cause and to have the capacity to carry through an idea and continue to run with it long after we’ll be laying there exhausted on the sidelines after having worn ourselves down on a project. That and growing our mailing list which is now not just a mailing list but a list of participants. We’re planning on launching a social network kind of website for people who do this kind of thing. Right now we have http://challenge.theyesmen.org/ and we’re going to overhaul that to make it more functional and more engaging and make it easier for people to participate. It hasn’t been working out but we didn’t have the adequate resources to dedicate to making it work so that’s the next thing.