The world’s worst chemical disaster took place in Bhopal, India, in 1984. A leak at a pesticide plant exposed over 500,000 people to a toxic gas, killing thousands. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the company responsible, paid $470 million in a settlement but hundreds of thousands of survivors received inadequate compensation to pay for treating the lifelong health effects of exposure to the poisonous gas.
In 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, they received justice. In a live interview on BBC, a supposed representative from Dow Chemicals – which had purchased UCC in 2001 – announced they would raise $12 billion by liquidating UCC and use the funds to pay for healthcare as well as clean up the site.
Dow’s stuck plummeted and lost over $2 billion in just 20 minutes, before Dow announced that they had been victims of a hoax. The man in the interview is now standing beside me at Roskilde Festival, glass of champagne in hand, hours after interviewing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in front of thousands of Roskilde Festival guests.
“As soon as Dow supposedly took responsibility the stock value plunged,” says Jacques Servin. “That shows why companies don’t do the right thing. It’s not because they’re evil its because they’re in a system that demands the highest profit.”
Taking control of democracy
Together with Igor Vamos, Servin belongs to The Yes Men, which carries out pranks that are designed to expose the democratic threats posed by capitalism and corporations. In their most recent action, Share the Safety, they posed as the NRA to launch a range of guns. When a consumer buys one, the NRA will donate guns to residents of deprived inner city areas who are unable to afford buying guns to defend themselves – from other people with guns.
“People in the US are filled with fear and that feeds into thinking everyone needs a gun. If everyone thinks they need a gun, gun makers can sell more guns. It creates a feedback loop in which the fear is exploited to sell more guns which increases the fear until you have as many guns as people in a country. It’s insane, we are more armed than Yemen because of gun manufacturers.”
Another example of how corporations and fear can limit our freedom is surveillance, he argues. Companies such as Google and Facebook track and store digital data about our online behaviour to sell to advertisers. This data is also in high demand by intelligence agencies, which argue that we should accept violations of privacy so they can catch terrorists and criminals.
“At the heart of our project is the need to take control of our government and actually run it. People need to actually be in command of democracy, which has been eroded so much. Any time you leave it to corporations and the profit motive, things end up really, really bad.”
Servin and Vamos met more than 20 years ago, brought together by their love of pranks. In 1994, Vamos made headlines when he launched the Barbie Liberation Organization. He and a team bought 300 Barbie and G.I. Joe’s, swapped their electronic voices, and returned them to stores. I’ve lifted this bit from Wikipedia: “the soldiers ended up saying things like “Let’s go shopping!”, while the Barbies exclaimed “Vengeance is mine!”.”
Servin gained notoriety – and lost his job – when he inserted a feature into SimCopter that caused men in swimsuits to appear and kiss each other.
“I did that as a lark, not thinking it would be an activist project but I was captivated by how it played out in the media,” says Servin.
In their latest film, The Yes Men are Revolting, the pair set about to address climate change denial after being reinvigorated by the Occupy protests. The movement started in 2011 and was quickly derided in the media for its inability to bring about the democratic change it advocated. But Servin says the movement was dismissed too soon.
“That’s the people that don’t understand social movements and how change happens. Change is always like that, it looks like a blip. The civil rights struggle in the US looked like a bunch of blips. But in hindsight you realise it’s moving somewhere.”
Servin says the Occupy movement was motivated by the same root causes that launched Donald Trump’s rise – a rejection of the status quo.
“There’s a lot of anger for being excluded from the system. There is a justifiable anger and fear that is being exploited by this idiot asshole. But there’s also Bernie Sanders. He’s a phenomenon – he’s Occupy’s latest tactic. Occupy occupied squares for a while then was evicted, but now it’s the same people pushing a presidential campaign. It’s all the same ideas. Sanders would not have been possible without occupy.”
We are being manipulated
The anger that is polarising politics across the West, is largely emotionally driven, argues Servin, which is why Trump has gotten away with irrational and conflicting policy messages.
“It’s an emotional gut reaction. People think, ‘things aren’t working out for me, I’m afraid and I’m gonna do something about that’. And somebody comes up with the answer, ‘vote for me and I’ll build a wall’. It’s preposterous! Migration is not even a problem. And a wall would be insanely expensive and do not good. There is no rationality. It’s a completely visceral experience – they are possessed by fear. Maybe it’s the same here, the same reason for Brexit.”
Servin says he is still driven by a rational optimism, but that his focus is moving from identifying problems to understanding the underlying psychology of how we are manipulated into accepting harmful policies.
“We are still focussed on the evisceration of democracy by corporations and the problems posed by corporate rights. But now added to that is an investigation of the precise emotions that are being manipulated, how human nature works and the connection between that and how corporations use them. We can say ‘let’s take our democracy back’, but how does that actually happen? Then we can have a clue about how to resist being manipulated. There is resistance taking place by Occupy and other groups. But we need more.”
So how do my readers resist being manipulated by anti-democratic forces?
“Just know that corporations are manipulating your emotions and are eager to profit of your basest emotions. So when you have an emotion just ask ‘what is happening and what do I want to do about this emotion?’ The answer should usually be ‘nothing’. Don’t buy that thing, don’t get that gun. Instead get mad at the people trying to manipulate you and your emotions. Don’t do anything about the emotion, do something about the manipulation.” M