Ironicality 101: Adbusters’ War on Your Little Sister’s Flannel Leggings


Don’t get me wrong--I don’t envy young left-partisans from the 1930s.  The high chance of ending up in a gulag or concentration camp or dead in a Spanish trench sounds a bit more terrifying than a paper cut petition-driving or a plastic-cuffing at a G20 protest.  But--excuse the callousness--at least the ferocity of that era was mirrored in their polemics.  A comeback doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.  Eight years ago, bourgeois ideologues of all stripes found in the War on Terror their chance to defend Western Civilization from a new existential threat, but I could never imagine Islamists getting enough support to institute worldwide Sharia Law and deprive us of Baconnaise.  I’m thankful, but can it be denied that our age is lacking in substance?  Augmenting leftist reading lists can keep things lively.  Alas, the latest issue of Workers Vanguard didn’t have enough exclamation points, so I spent part of the Sabbath reading Adbusters and an especially insane Crimethinc. book.

Headlining Adbusters today is, “Philosophy at Zero Point” by contributing editor Micah White. An excerpt:

We are in a moment of cultural stagnation where the only thing to say is that we have nothing to say. The great contemporary philosophers of our age are in intellectual retreat. Something about this historical moment is leaving the discipline of Western philosophy blind. The great minds seem aware of a presence, but unable to get to it directly. So they fill the air with empty words that, while philosophically interesting, simply serve as a placeholder, a time-filler while events unfold.

Besides for noting the irony of that passage, I don’t know enough about libel laws to reply further.  There's at least one edifying moment in the article:

The air was charged with political intensity and the most frequent subject of discussion was anarchism. The next year conversations tended toward discussions of political violence. Together, these years anticipated the reemergence of insurrectionary anarchism as a cultural force and heralded the publication of The Coming Insurrection. [emphasis is mine]

Edifying, because it reminds us that the Adbusters Media Foundation is the poster child for an intellectually bankrupt “left” that doesn’t even think in the most basic political terms and instead offers a lifestyle alternative to dropout into.  A protest culture. Adbusters was founded in Vancouver two decades ago and labels itself an “anti-consumerist” movement.  Its modi operandi includes propagandizing through their magazine (circulation over 120,000) in order to instill an anti-consumerist mindset in its readers and “cultural jamming” through some very creative detournement of corporate advertising.  In short, Situationists sans intellectual rigor, Marxism or social relevance.


Fellow “neo-Situationists”, the more edgy “ex-workers” of the Crimethinc Collective openly proclaim their nihilism in their first book, Days of War, Nights of Love:

There is no universal moral code that should dictate human behavior. There is no such thing as good or evil, there is no universal standard of right and wrong. Our values and morals come from us and belong to us, whether we like it or not; so we should claim them proudly for ourselves, as our own creations, rather than seeking some external justification for them.

The glib, self-absorbed passage is reminiscent of the plenty charismatic, part anarcho-primitivist, part proto-fascist character in Fight Club, Tyler Durden.  After an hour or so of pretty intense homoeroticism, his organization’s anti-consumerist manifesto is unveiled:

We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Though the film has been embraced by many on the left, Richard Seymour exposes its underlying ideology:

The film reaches a euphoric climax with the implosion of the banking system – represented on-screen by two towers exploding in flames and collapsing, as the heroes spectate. In Fight Club, the critique of consumerism comes from the right. The longing for an adventure, for a catastrophe like the Great War, recalls the enthusiasm with which European rightists met that war. The idea that a life and death struggle, or an economic depression, would restore lost integrity is ironically one of the most commonplace tropes of bourgeois culture. You only have to recall the forlorn hope placed in a renewed civic nationalism in America after 9/11, and the relief expressed by commentators as diverse as David Brooks and George Packer, that an era of decadence was at last at an end.

Capitalism yields contradictions that can only be addressed by contesting its social forces directly, not the socially created commodities it produces.  Instead of attempting to escape them or by seeking to light the alienating, emasculating stuff on fire, cadre of the authentic Left (including most anarchists) seek to empower individuals by overcoming inequalities of power in a society characterized by equality, solidarity and democratic participation.  Primitivism and nihilism are antithetical to this tradition.

an ironic call for sincerity

I thought I was done with Adbusters after Micah White’s onanism, but coincidentally I had another article emailed to me that was considerably more interesting--Douglas Haddow decrying the hipster as “the dead end of Western Civilization.”  Well written and coherent, one can sympathize with Haddow’s longing for sincerity in the sea of irony.  It’s true that hipsters appropriate, almost incomprehensibly, the ascetics of past countercultural movements and bury the sterility of their lives with mass-produced commodities and often self-destructive behavior.  Haddow is completely right to see the hipster within us as being a product of, and completely embedded within, late capitalism: “…marketers and party-promoters get paid to co-opt youth culture and then re-sell it back at a profit. In the end, hipsters are sold what they think they invent and are spoon-fed their pre-packaged cultural livelihood.”

Yet has there even been a truly “authentic” counterculture?  Michael Harrington, writing in 1972 about the iconic counterculture of his day, asked, “I wonder if the mass counterculture may not be a reflection of the very hyped and video-taped world it professes to despise?”

If anything, what made the 1960s feel more “real” were, first and foremost, a set of unique objective conditions.  In part, higher education was expanded due to the shortages in the postwar economy for technicians and researchers.  Mass institutions of learning greatly expanded during this time of heady economic growth. This growth led to conflict.  Crowding, bureaucratization and paternalism aggrieved youths.  Capitalist development had created a potential enemy in students that had time for leisure, relative privilege and the knowledge necessary to challenge racism and structural inequality.  This coincided with an era of Third World nationalism and American barbarism in Vietnam.  Politically, Marxism was still ostensibly a vibrant force for not only interpreting the world, but in its Leninist variants, for providing a blueprint for struggle.

One cannot exactly will into being the perfect storm that yielded May ’68 in France, the American anti-war movement and Blonde on Blonde.  And, besides for maybe resurrecting pre-Jesus Bob Dylan, we shouldn’t want to.  Even in an era of further regression and apolitical identity politics, it would be misguided to look upon the politics of the 1960s through rose-colored glasses:

Certainly the 1960s marked a political crisis, but one in which the Left, instead of evaluating the legacy of the 1930s Stalinism, reproduced those very structures and tendencies it sought to overthrow.

One reproduction that Khan refers to is that of Maoism, the “anti-Stalinist” Stalinism that played a corrosive leading role in large swathes of the New Left.  She continues:

In his essay “Resignation,” Adorno emphasizes that even though the return of anarchism is that of a “ghost,” that is, of unresolved problems of Marxism, “this does not invalidate the critique of anarchism.” In his attempt to transcend both Stalinophobia and Stalinophilia, Adorno stressed the necessity of critiquing the contemporary form of Marxism and its problematic relation to its past.

I’ll temper my Adorno quoting by mentioning the one important lesson I picked up from Negri and Hardt, the importance of the joy of struggle.  At its best, even while futile, the worst of anarchist actions and literature showcase an epicurean spirit and a cultural literacy that other leftists can’t match. 120,000 people subscribe to Adbusters Magazine and CrimethInc.’s publishing strength is surprising.

Yet it’s still high comedy that members of the Naomi Klein-left have such contempt for their lensless-rimmed peers.  In a way, the decadence and glibness they decry are mirrored in their own brand of lifestyle.  The fact that we have a subculture trying to express discontent with the banality of late capitalism without the political is a reflection of the zeitgeist of a contemporary Left that eschews introspection, political debate and organizational discipline.  Once the Left turns the corner, I have faith that in this generation’s youth we'll find folks that are not only less misogynistic and less racist than previous generations, but are willing to devote their time and energy to a worthwhile political project.

Back to present reality, at the very least one can note that hipsters are fully aware of the contradictions of a “counterculture” in a totalizing capitalist society.  Not only does Douglas Haddow seem like terrible drinking company, he fails to see that it is his version of “emancipatory” politics that’s proving Fukuyama right.  Adbusters: The Dead End of Western Civilization.  Anti-capitalism, stripped of its subversion, mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum.  Leave the pretty girls wearing lariants out of it and take a good, hard look into the mirror.

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