Culture Jam

Faceless, nameless, meaningless shoppers offer a mirror onto our lives. Image: Qgil via Flickr.

Occupy Wall Street has impressed and inspired many.

For those still unaware of its origins, it’s a movement in response to corporate greed, corporate socialism, the outsize influence of money on politics and federal policy, and its resulting social and economic inequality.

The growing world wide Occupation movement is one signal of end-stage capitalism. People are waking up en masse to the fact that we can no longer extract resources from the earth without forethought and balance. And we can’t use the planet as an endless garbage heap and still expect to inhabit it in a healthy way.

The world as we know it is starting to unravel. And the Occupiers are asking, What kind of world do we want to replace it with?

We’re all culpable

Though they’ve played an especially mendacious role in our predicament, it’s not just the big banks that have created our manifold problems. We all play a role every time we spend our hard earned money. Each one of us feeds the hyper-consumption beast by shopping at big box stores and malls, by using disposable cups and straws, and by confusing petty indulgences for necessities.

The #OWS movement offers a clear opportunity to shine a bright light on the issue of what role we each play in what’s come to be the dominant paradigm of debt-based consumption. And we can respond to that and participate within it without actually having to take a trip to an Occupation in NYC or elsewhere (though seeing an Occupation for your self is a good idea.)

Simply by re-localizing the flow of wealth into our own communities we begin to shift the paradigm in concrete ways.

To participate means to reject the main stream media’s lens on the Occupation movement: its judgements, caricatures, and vitriol. Instead, we can ask ourselves candidly what role we’re playing in feeding the Wall Street and consumption beast? We’ve got to each take a cold hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, Where does our money go? Not just into your 401k, but with every purchase you make, you’re either feeding the beast or feeding THE BEST.

Which kind of world do you want to see grow?

To get to a better world, we have wake up from our consumer trance. And we have to help others to wake from their consumer trances, too. Fortunately, there’s some tools to help

Black Friday is now Buy Nothing Day

Buy Nothing Day was started by Adbusters (the Canadian media group that launched the Occupy Wall Street movement) in the early 90′s as a day of action to increase awareness about how our pace of consumption is ruining the economy, our culture, our humanity, and the environment.

Since then, Buy Nothing Day has grown into an international event celebrated all over the world through everything from refusing to shop to staging performance antics in public marketplaces. It happens on so-called Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), that day of madness extolled by corporations and the media as the day to buy, buy, buy for the holidays.

But simply buying nothing for a 24-hour period can be a life altering experience.

To stop and consider, for just one day, all that we buy and consume, can reveal our personal relationship to the bigger picture of society and economy. It’s very possible that we’ll find ourselves more deeply entangled in the cat’s cradle of consumerism than we might have imagined. And it may be just that experience that helps us get out.

This is an especially powerful practice for families since parents are pressured with the “gimmes” at this time of year. Those “gimmies” are the stock and trade of a corporate culture with a pervasive if not hegemonic reach into human behavior that’s intentionally designed to come between kids and parents. We could say that “resistance is futile.” But the #OWS movement believes individuals can reclaim their power and begin disentangling from the messaging, the monoculture, and the miasmia of corporatism.

If you want to get on board, Buy Nothing Day is November 25, 2011 in the US and November 26 in the UK.

Culture jammers unite, general delight!

In addition to not purchasing anything on Buy Nothing Day, there are fun public culture jamming activities you can participate in to help expose and deconstruct over-consumption. Staging one of these can help you to build a community of like minded individuals, too.

I learned about culture jamming when my daughter took a sociology course on consumption. Culture jamming is a playful form of activism rooted in opposition to commercialism. It’s a fun way to “make trouble,” have some fun, make new friends, and bring attention to the important issue of over-consumption that is otherwise hidden in the everyday habits of our existence.

It’s precisely the hidden feature that’s killing our planet. We need to achieve consciousness of how we live, do, be and consume in order to make different choices.

Whirl-Mart is a culture jamming ritual aimed at retail superstores. It consists of a group of supposed shoppers who get together at a big box store to push empty shopping carts silently through store aisles. They purchase nothing. Forming a large line of non-shoppers who continually weave and whirl through a maze of store aisles for up to an hour at a time, they create a disturbance that cannot help but confront other mindless shoppers, if only to engender a “What’s going on?”

Culture jammers mimic and mock what they perceive as the absurdity of the shopping process. When these participants are confronted by security or store management they can simply state that they’re engaged in a peaceful consumption awareness ritual. If employees approach or threaten action, Whirl-Mart participants generally scatter to various store aisles to continue their empty basket shopping solo style for a while.

Zombie Walk

Who doesn’t love the symbolism of a 21st century zombie?

Well, in a Zombie Walk, the cheerful dead wander around malls marveling at the blank, comatose expressions on the faces of shoppers. The zombies are happy to be among their own kind, but slightly contemptuous of those who have not yet begun to rot. Zombies don’t shop in malls, but they might get the shoppers to wonder who the real zombies are.

Both of these actions are completely legal. You won’t risk arrest by participating in these non violent demonstrations against the absurdity of mindless over consumption. Think of it as an adventure, as therapy, or as speaking truth to power through art.

There’s a new game in town

Actions that push back corporate rule are a necessary first step to giving our local communities the opportunity to prepare for peak oil, address climate change, and re-localize our economies.

As someone who was arrested in front of the White House last summer while taking a stand against the XL Tar Sands pipeline, I can personally attest that non violent actions are good for the soul. You’ll feel differently about shopping after taking part in these harmless culture jamming pranks.

In addition to culture jamming actions, we have to also point to the world we want to create. One in which we value presence over presents. Bill McKibben’s $100 Holiday is a short sweet read on this topic.

Also, the Center for a New American Dream offers lots of ideas and resources for simplifying the holidays.

The 3/50 project (no relation to Bill McKibben’s asks the question “What three independently owned businesses would you miss if they disappeared?” It then suggests that each month you spend $50 each with three locally-owned merchants or service providers. You know, choosing a local restaurant over a corporate chain, the local hardware store over the Big Box home warehouses, a local grower over the supermarket produce aisle or meat counter.

There are many approaches for untangling from corporatism, gently confronting it, choosing new paths, and describing a more desirable lifestyle.

“Less is more” is the new black!

–Dr. Susan Rubin, Transition Voice