Just Say Yes
An interview with the Yes Men, the ultimate 'cyber-hoaxers'
The Ecologist, November 2002
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
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
'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
'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
' 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
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,
.' 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
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
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.