Tampere, Finland, August 2001. One hundred and fifty people were gathered at the Tampere University of Technology for a riveting two-day seminar entitled ‘fibres and textiles for the future.’
The textile industry delegates were looking forward to a feast of fibre-related speakers, workshops and discussions, of which the highlight would be a talk from a representative of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the future of employee-management relationships. It sounded too good to miss.
For the textile industry delegates, like industry delegates everywhere, the WTO mattered. Set up in 1995 the global trade policeman, which sets the rules under which international trade must be carried out, has the power to open up entire economies, strike down national laws that ‘hinder’ global trade and give the nod to punitive sanctions on countries which fail to adhere to its free trade gospel. Already, in just six years of existence, it had attracted more controversy (and protesters) than any other international body in history. To opponents it was an undemocratic, ideological vehicle for the extension of Western market values to everyone on Earth; one that had already been used to strike down national laws on health, safety and environmental protection in several of its member countries. To supporters, like the textilians of Tampere, it was a way to ensure expanding global markets for their products. Whichever way you looked at it, though, the WTO’s opinions were going to be well worth hearing.
Hank Hardy Unruh, the WTO’s speaker, turned out to be American; not surprising, perhaps, for an advocate of the global free market. He also turned out to have a large zip running down the back of his business suit, but as he took to the podium to deliver his lecture, it seemed rude to ask why. In any case, the WTO’s take on labour/management relations soon had all the delegates engrossed.
In a powerful and well-argued lecture, accompanied by graphs, slides and statistics, Unruh looked forward to the efficiently-managed, market-focused workforce of the future by examining some of the mistakes of the past. First he argued that the American Civil War – ‘a war in which unbelievably huge amounts of money went right down the drain’ – need never have happened. Fighting over slavery, of all things, said Unruh, was absurd. ‘Left to their own devices’ he explained, ‘markets would have eventually replaced slavery with “cleaner” sources of labour anyhow’. To prove this, he embarked on a ‘thought experiment’ in which he compared the likely current cost of maintaining an ‘involuntary imported workforce’ in the United States with the cost of leaving the potential slaves at home in Gabon, to labour instead in sweatshops or fields of export crops. The latter, he concluded, was much cheaper – demonstrating that ‘by forcing the issue, the North not only committed a terrible injustice against the freedom of the South, but also deprived slavery of its natural development into remote labour.’
While the assembled textilians were digesting the implications of such a revolutionary application of market theory, Unruh went on to look at India. Specifically, Gandhi, ‘a likeable, well-meaning fellow who wanted to help his fellow workers along, but did not understand the benefits of open markets and free trade.’ Gandhi’s ideal of village self-sufficiency, Unruh explained, was just the sort of inefficient protectionist measure that modern India was rightly doing away with.
Finally, Unruh revealed to the delegates the WTO’s vision of the worker-management relationship of the future. A ‘central management problem’, he explained, was ‘how to maintain rapport with distant workers’ – particularly important as multinational companies shift their production around the world, seeking the cheapest labour and laxest regulations. The WTO’s solution was to employ the latest technology. To the sound of a drum roll, Unruh then ripped off his suit to reveal a golden, spangly, skin-tight leotard.
‘This’, he explained to the open-mouthed delegates, ‘is the management leisure suit!’ Before they had time to react, a three-foot golden phallus began to inflate on the front of the suit, with the aid of a small gas cannister.
‘This’, continued Unruh, triumphantly, ‘is the employee visualisation appendage!’ Now fully tumescent, he went on to explain that the ‘hip-mounted device’ was fitted with a telescreen which allowed managers to monitor the performance of their employees, receive data on their productivity (from chips planted under the employees’ skin) and administer electric shocks to the less hard-working. ’I’m very excited to be here!’ he finished, perhaps unnecessarily. ‘Thank you!’ The audience, it seems, were impressed. As he stepped down from his podium, the man from the WTO was given a warm round of applause.
In an ex-council flat in north London, the man who co-wrote Hank Hardy Unruh’s speech can’t stop giggling.
Surely, I’m saying to him – surely the delegates didn’t really think that Unruh was from the WTO? They couldn’t really have thought that the WTO was suggesting that CEOs wear a giant gold willy?
‘They did! They really did!’ he splutters.
Come on, I say – really? Maybe they were just being polite?
‘No,’ he says, ‘you know – it makes some sense. The employee visualisation device is hip-mounted – it’s more convenient that way, it leaves your hands free. I mean, freedom of movement, less repetitive stress injuries â€¦’ He’s still giggling. ‘I guess we thought, well, this might not work, but even if it doesn’t, there might be a photo taken of it, and the photo might be published and it will say ‘world trade organisation’, and there’ll be this guy in a gold spandex suit with a three-foot golden phallus â€¦ And that’s what happened!’
Surreally, it was what happened. The next day, one of Finland’s leading newspapers, Aamulehti, ran a serious and lengthy piece on the conference (‘intelligent clothes and innovative fibres are part of everyday life of the future’) illustrated with a large photo of Hank’s, erm, appendage. In colour.
‘It was totally straight up!’ he howls, with no pun apparently intended. ’There’s this picture, and it’s like “here’s the WTO!”, and there’s this massive, greatâ€¦.’ He trails off into laughter.
The man I’m talking to may or may not be called Mike, and he may or may not be from New York. He’s a hard man to pin down; I’ve been trying to get hold of him for months, and have corresponded with him under at least two different names. Mike is one of the Yes Men, the funniest, oddest, most mysterious and most brazen political activists around, and he has some explaining to do.
Hank Hardy Unruh’s talk, of course, was a daring spoof. Hank Hardy Unruh himself was not an official representative of the World Trade Organisation but Mike’s co-conspirator, Andy, who lives in Paris. Mike has a shock of curly brown hair, a loud Hawaiian shirt and a dose of jet lag – he’s on his way to see Andy, and on the way, he’s stopped to explain what the Yes Men are up to, and why.
‘The Yes Men started by accident,’ he says. ‘We set up a website – www.gatt.org – around the time of the Seattle protests [in 1999]. We thought of it as just a satire site about the WTO, and we hoped people would accidentally end up there instead of at the WTO site’. Gatt.org, which still exists, is such an effective parody of the official WTO site that you have to read it very carefully to see that it’s a spoof – one which works by taking the WTO’s real, live aims and actions to their logical extremes, and thus demonstrating their absurdity. The WTO sent their lawyers snapping ineffectively at the Yes Men’s heels and posted a warning about them on the (real) WTO website. Mike and Andy thought all this was quite fun, but didn’t think it was much else. Until they started to receive emails from people who hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
‘People started emailing us asking if Mike Moore [then head of the real WTO] would come and give a talk at their conference or meeting’, says Mike. ‘The first few we sent on to Michael Moore [the American anti-establishment comedian]. We thought it might be funny if he went along instead, but he didn’t reply. But then we thought, wait a minute, we can go ourselves! So the next one that came in, which was to a law conference in Salzburg – off we went.’
The Salzburg lawyers’ conference was where the Yes Men were born. ‘Dr Andreas Bichlbauer’ arrived in Salzburg in October 2000 as an official representative of the WTO and delivered a PowerPoint presentation about the obstacles which still had to be overcome if the process of globalisation was to fully succeed. They included the Italian siesta (an unfair barrier to trade, since few other nations indulged in it) and America’s one-person-one-vote democracy.
Bichlbauer explained that the US’s campaign finance system, under which corporations pay politicians to persuade voters to put them in office to pursue the corporations’ agenda was ‘grotesquely inefficient.’ He explained to the assembled lawyers, says Mike, ‘that the solution was just to open voting to the markets and allow companies to pay people directly for votes.’ Bichlbauer, like Hank Hardy Unruh, was actually Andy (who, Mike explains, ‘actually becomes these characters – it’s a little scary!) And Bichlbauer, like Unruh, was warmly applauded. No-one objected to his speech and no one questioned his identity.
‘It was kind of unreal’, says Mike. ‘We couldn’t believe that the lawyers didn’t realise what was going on. We expected to be kicked out, thrown off the stage or something. We were so shocked that they didn’t realise it that we kept trying to get something more out of them. So we went to lunch with them, and Andy just kept pushing them, trying to get them to realise what was happening, trying to get this glimmer of realisation. So he was saying that Hitler’s economic model had a lot to be said for it. People were a bit sceptical, but he explained he wasn’t talking about the social problems, just the economics, then they came round.’
Shrewd observers will by now have noticed that everything the Yes Men’s ‘WTO’ says is, while hardly likely to be put about by representatives of the real thing, perfectly consistent with free market economics. In the reductionist, neoliberal trade-uber-alles ideology of the times, everything that Bichlbauer and Unruh said in Salzburg and Tampere actually makes perfect economic sense. Cultural differences are a barrier to one global market; third world sweatshops are cheaper than imported slaves; Gandhi’s homespun village economy would be firmly illegal under WTO rules, which ban countries from subsidising, protecting or promoting their own industries in the face of foreign competition. Everything that the Yes Men say to their audiences is merely market logic taken to its most extreme. That, says Mike, is the point of the exercise.
‘The whole premise is that you’re exaggerating and mirroring what the people you’re talking to are already saying’, he explains. ‘I suppose the point of the Yes Men is to try and demonstrate how problematic liberal economics is, and where the trajectory that we’re following is leading. Saying, let’s follow the ideas that most of the world is tied up in in one way or another to their logical extreme, and see where they get us. The idea is that at some stage, among your audience, there’ll be some moment of realisation. Trouble is, there isn’t always. That’s what we’re realising – how much crap people will take if it comes from a person in a suit representing something official like the WTO. The stuff people will believe in the name of free trade. These people in our audiences weren’t stupid – they’ve all got PhDs and law degrees and all the rest. And we can stand there wearing a giant gold member and say that abolitionism was a waste of time and money – and these guys don’t even murmur!’
The 21st century Emperor, in other words, wears clothes after all – spangly gold ones, with a giant penis attached. In two, hour-long lectures, a couple of pranksters had demonstrated, more efficiently than any number of books, protests and learned texts, how virtually anything can be justified, to anyone who wants to believe it, in the name of free trade.
What the Yes Men are doing can be bracketed with other actions in which dissidents, mischief-makers and campaigners use art, humour or absurdity to make a point about economics and society far more effectively than they would be able to if they just marched about waving banners, or wrote cross letters to newspapers. This kind of thing, from pie-throwing to billboard-altering to preaching the anti-consumerist gospel in Starbucks, is often called ‘culture jamming’, and the Yes Men are merely taking it to its most absurd – and yet strangely logical extreme. All this is very post-modern. It’s also, says Mike, ‘just fun. People like it, and so do we!’ Which sounds as good a reason as any to keep doing it.
Over the last few months, the Yes Men have been as busy as ever, responding to more invitations to talk. (‘I guess at some stage, people are going to rumble us,’ says Mike. ’You’d think it would have a short shelf life, but the invitations to talk just keep coming.‘) Andy has also done a live television interview, as a WTO representative, naturally, in which he announced the WTO’s plans to introduce ‘justice vouchers’, which would discourage torture by oppressive regimes. Operating on the same basis as carbon trading schemes intended to tackle climate change, justice vouchers would ‘give countries an economic incentive to give up torture.’ The interviewer was surprised, but since the suggestion made economic sense, he didn’t push the matter.
What happens next is anybody’s guess – it seems unlikely that the Yes Men know themselves. Since I met Mike, though, the stakes have been upped. At his latest speaking engagement, in Sydney, Australia, in May, ‘Kinnithrung Sprat’ announced to a group of accountants the official winding-up of the World Trade Organisation, and its replacement with a Trade Regulation Organisation based on the UN Charter of Human Rights. ‘There are countless signs in the world today showing us the problems with our approach to trade’, he told them. ‘We at the WTO are reacting to these signs by refounding our work upon new principles-human rather than corporate ones.’
Unfortunately, the real WTO has failed to follow the Yes Men’s lead. Instead of dissolving itself, it has just appointed a new director general, Supachai Panitchpakdi, and is currently mulling over the corporate triumph that was the recent Earth Summit in Johannesburg. There, to the horror of environmentalists, the WTO was handed the task of deciding how to ‘resolve’ the legal conflicts between international agreements to prevent climate change, protect biological diversity and clean up the environment, and the WTO’s own rules, promoting unhindered global trade at any cost. No prizes for guessing which will come out ahead. The Yes Men, it seems, have enough ammunition to keep them going for a long while yet.