The Yes Men Are Coming

From the October 2011 PNL #808

by Saptarshi Lahiri and Anneka Herre

“How many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb? ”

Think about it…

“Twelve, one to climb the ladder and 11 to file a lawsuit…

What about Indians? Oh just one. We would of course never wish to imply that an Indian life is worth more or less than another... I myself believe in the sanctity of all life. But the market has its own logic, and if we’re willing to live with it, we must make the most of the choices it makes,” says Erastus Hamm. Behind him a bar graph indicates the exalted status of Americans over Indians. Evidently, human life is a quantifiable, exchangeable commodity. The bar graph says so.

Who is this huckster at the podium?

Hamm is one of several inspired nommes de guerre of Andy Bichlbaum (also a pseudo-identity; his real name is Jacques Servin) and a role that he adopts in the documentary The Yes Men Fix the World. ‘Erastus’ was making a not-so-subtle point about the impeccable capitalist logic of locating poorly regulated industries in the so called “third world.”

Culture Jamming for Change

For those unfamiliar with them, The Yes Men are “culture jammers” who belong to a new breed of activism. They employ Gen X irony and self-deprecation to drive home inconvenient political truths. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (real name: Igor Vamos), the group’s two members, are mavens of anti-consumerism, challengers of corporate hegemony and trenchant critics of globalization. While they use humor freely, the topics they take on are no laughing matter. Mike Bonnano plays the straight man to Andy’s covertly flamboyant disguises. At a Canadian petroleum conference as an Exxon executive, Bonnano described a Soylent Green-like situation (while decrying tar sands processing in Alberta) by proposing to burn the human beings, who would die as a result of tar sands extraction, to keep the fuel flowing.

Their activities include organizing news conferences impersonating corporate officials, creating fake websites for actual mega-corporations and attending business conferences, where they pass themselves off as company reps....Watching the response of big time execs to their outrageous proposals is both horrifyingly hilarious and telling. These acts seek to sabotage the dominant paradigm and point out the consequences  of putting shareholder profit above the common good.

The Union Carbide exposé, one of The Yes Men’s great triumphs, references the 1984 explosion at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India which left 5,000 people dead and at least a 100,000 people sick for life. The case was settled between UC and the Indian government for $470 million, meaning that most victims received less than $1,000. When corporate giant Dow took over Union Carbide, they announced that they would compensate for UC’s previous negligence, but instead did nothing.

Yet when sued by 14 asbestos plaintiffs in Texas, Dow promptly shelled out $2 billion. This clear inequity prompted Bichlbaum’s poignant line about American lives having greater market value, which he delivered in perfect dead pan while posing as a Dow representative at a financial services conference. He captivated his audience of execs with the promise of an “acceptable risk” calculator to quantify the “cash value of human life.”

Effortlessly driven home was the point about capital’s unerring ways of finding cheap labor and unregulated economies.

Infiltrating the BBC

But the real coup de grace for the Yes Men was their 2004 infiltration of the BBC. Bichlbaum, posing as a Dow spokesperson, announced that Dow was “accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe and allocating $12 billion to finally, justly compensate all the victims.” This became a BBC scoop and sent shockwaves through the stock market. Dow lost $2 billion in stocks “for doing the right thing”—as Bichlbaum bemusedly observed later. The action highlights that the stock market’s “health” and people’s well-being are completely disconnected within global capitalism.

The Yes Men are featured in two acclaimed documentaries satirizing and exposing corporate treachery: The Yes Men and The Yes Men Fix the World. Both are viewable free online under a creative commons license.

Better yet, you can come out and hear Mike Bonnano of The Yes Men in person at SPC’s 75th birthday (see box for details). Perhaps their powerful form of creative direct action will inspire SPC activists to expand our bag of tricks for the next 75 years.

Saptarshi is an ESF graduate student and PNL editorial committee member. Anneka works at the Urban Video Project, Syracuse