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Just say yes

As the anti-corporate pranksters the Yes Men launched their new film, {Red Pepper} dispatched Brendan Montague to meet them and get the lowdown on their unusual form of activism

October 7, 2009
8 min read

Yes, I’m in the men’s. And behind me is one of the Yes Men. Mike Bonanno has cut his hand and is trying to stem the small trickle of blood with tissues. This is particularly important because Mike’s primary role today is chief hand shaker.

We are at the UK press screening of his new film The Yes Men Fix the World, and when I emerge from the impressively plush toilets at the Hospital private members’ club in London’s Covent Garden a few moments later Mike is there handing out bottles of B’Eau Pal mineral water. We exchange a few pleasantries and before long he is trying to recruit me to a protest at the Dow headquarters in London giving out more of the aesthetically pleasing bottled water.

B’Eau Pal is not the latest expensive table water found at the Ivy. Instead it is a prop designed to remind the staff at Dow and the wider world about the continued contamination caused by the explosion at the Bhopal chemical works in India, which left more than 15,000 dead and half a million poisoned.

Eye-catching hoaxes

Mike and Andy Bichlbaum are not stars in the traditional sense. They are political activists, and their speciality is performing eye-catching hoaxes to name and shame corporations in the world media. In short, Mike and Andy are walking public relations disasters. Their targets so far have included Dow Chemical, Halliburton and the post-hurricane privateers of New Orleans.

The Yes Men’s biggest achievement to date has been hoaxing the BBC into broadcasting worldwide an interview in which Andy claimed to be from Dow Chemical. He offered to compensate the victims of Bhopal – and the ‘news’ wiped $2 billion from the market value of Dow.

Their second film is a human, behind the scenes documentary of the stunt and a whistle-stop world tour of conferences duped by the ‘culture jamming’ antics of the Yes Men. During the feature Mike and Andy begin to understand, to their frustration, that individual chief executive officers do not control the future of their companies. Instead the ‘free market’ delivers extreme and sudden punishments to any firms that try to adopt genuine corporate responsibility over environmental and human rights issues – as we see with the Dow hoax.

The film is co-directed by Kurt Engfehr, who has worked with Michael Moore, and it has much of the informed polemics found in Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. The difference from Moore is that this stuff is knockabout funny; what we are witnessing here is the rise of comedic journalism.

The trials and tribulations of the likeable, affable and fallible Yes Men provide the narrative thread that holds the story together as we watch their chaotic journey from one high-jinx situation to the next. But the plot tends to meander and viewers not committed to the cause could be lost along the route. The film also lacks some of the visual power and humour of the stunts themselves.

Changing the world?

The important question, however, is whether the Yes Men have really changed the world? And was this their ambition?

‘If the environmental movement did not exist then the world would be much more fucked than it is and there would be no hope of reducing our carbon emissions and all that,’ says Andy.

I interviewed the Yes Men at the roof restaurant of Soho House in London. Both men look like fish out of water in such luxurious surroundings, despite the fact they have made going undercover at lavish corporate events a life’s work. They would clearly be happier at a protest or activist meeting.

Andy continues: ‘The decision to go on BBC World and pose as a spokesperson for Dow came out of a discussion with Greenpeace and was successful in linking the name of Dow to an incident they did not want to acknowledge. The decision to go to New Orleans came from a suggestion from an activist and friend who is working down there with people locally. Everything we have done has been through working with activist groups which are following these issues in a longer-term way.

‘We have this position and way of working with the media and getting stories into the international press and finding creative ways of doing that. We do what we know how to do to contribute to the bigger movement.’

So how do the Yes Men feel when they are surrounded by Halliburton executives? Are they really trying to persuade them to introduce ethical products or is it only a stunt for the mass media?

Andy replies: ‘When we hoaxed the SurvivaBalls [spoof climate change survival suit] from Halliburton we were trying to say this was a very individualist approach in which the richest people would be protected from the climate change catastrophe which their carbon intensive companies had caused. Yet we had people coming up to us afterwards and congratulating us on the product. So, this is about getting the message in the press. This is about getting people to become involved in the movement and acting on the issues we have tried to raise.’

A chance to reconsider

The film comes out during a global recession. There is extensive explanation of market forces and neoliberalism. But will people still care about corporate responsibility at a time of financial crisis?

Andy thinks for a moment, and then says: ‘We really hope that the recession will make it more likely that people will see and understand what is happening. It is because of irresponsible lending and inadequate laws and financial rules that allow them to do these crazy things and run these pyramid schemes.

‘We would like to see government bringing in new laws that prevent this from happening again. There is much to fight for because this is a chance to reconsider and do things differently. Companies can’t really claim now that they are acting in our interests. The public must be mobilised to make this change happen. It is not going to happen because the corporations won’t act unless we force them.’

He adds: ‘The argument over the last 30 years was that the more profit people made the better it was for everyone, for ordinary people. The financial crisis is now going to cost these people their homes. We were told that there was “trickle down” and we got Milton Friedman on the television saying we were “free to choose” – that was the dogma. When I was growing up at school we didn’t get religious lessons but we did get Milton Friedman.’

The Yes Men give a resounding ‘no’ to the policies of the pioneer neoliberal economist Friedman in the film. But, I ask, are there any other dead, male, grey haired economists they do like? Keynes? Marx?

Andy says instantly: ‘Keynes, probably. There are some very simple things we can do now, things which are common sense – not allowing corporations to carry on at the expense of everything else. For example, we could just eliminate corporate lobbying from Washington and introduce a tax based on how much damage is done to the environment.’

I have time for one more question. Do you think Obama will make a significant difference? Mike, who has been taking a phone call, steps in: ‘This is a very difficult area, but there is a lot of hope. There has to be a lot of action and campaigning on the ground – much more than there has been for the last eight years.

‘In the United States under George Bush we could have shouted however loudly we wanted and the government would have carried on and done what it wanted. Now, the more pressure we assert on Obama the more likely he is to enact the laws that we need to protect the environment.’

However, he adds: ‘This is a really desperate time. The way I see it, this is make or break time. This is it. This is the moment when we decide whether or not we have a future. But everybody keeps carrying on. We need to make laws that define what is possible for this world. The market is always going to do whatever makes the most profit. The market left alone will not make what we need it to make.’

The Yes Men have presented themselves as comic superheroes dressed in gold lamé at corporate events and their daring attempts to fix the world are genuinely inspiring. I remember Mike’s invitation to protest at Dow and try to disguise my desire to join these maverick crusaders. As we say goodbye Andy grips my hand, looks me directly in the eye and says sternly and conspiratorially: ‘We’re looking for new Yes Men, you know.’

Read the full interview at Brendan Montague’s newsblog

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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