“Privatizing Resistance: AdBusters and the Culture of Neoliberalism” (2007)


Haiven, Max. 2007. “Privatizing Resistance: AdBusters and the Culture of Neoliberalism.” The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 29 (1): 85–110. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714410601090720


AdBusters confronts many […] issues in its publication and public-pedagogical tactics: it draws attention to the alienation of human beings from the world as social concerns are privatized and it highlights the ways in which social identity is mediated and constructed to some extent by the consumer-capitalist spectacle. It notes the rise of corporate power and the ideology of neoliberalism in the form of neoclassical economics. It is deeply critical of the overt racism and repression engaged by the United States in the War on Terror. It acknowledges and illustrates the powerful public-pedagogical force of a variety of social forces, but most notably the popular media and its corporate owners. And it questions the path of humanity into the twenty-first century, focusing on the mental and physical environments as key sites of struggle over what sort of vision will guide us.

But AdBusters bespeaks several problems in its analysis that must give us pause before we evaluate its place or utility in the struggle against neoliberalism. Numerous critics have charged AdBusters with cultivating (and selling) a politics of self-serving distinction which does little to confront the real sources of power in society but rather furnishes its followers with the smug satisfaction of being “outside” or “knowingly critical” of (and thus no longer complicit with) consumer culture. These critiques are no doubt apt, but insufficient. The tendency to fixate on hypocrisy or the realization that a moment of cultural “resistance” is “actually just another aspect of ubiquitous consumer culture,” while sometimes accurate, can all too often boil down to a cynicism and hopelessness as neoliberal culture is reaffirmed in the vacuum left behind when a form of resistance is dismissed out of hand as morally inconsistent or culturally redundant. There is a risk that such epithets serve to reinforce and reflect the search for universal answers to the complex and multifaceted problems posed by systems of power, a search that frequently lead to despair as the answers are much more likely to be evolving, collaborative, and undecidable except in their particular contexts. Criticism which centres on hypocrisy may fall into the same trap to which Imre Szeman (2001) identified AdBusters as having succumbed: the search of a radical and pure “outside” of the pervasive biopolitical apparatuses of global capitalism—a space which simply no longer exists (if it ever did). Taking up the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Szeman notes that our subjectivities and activities are everywhere mediated by forms of social power themselves wrapped up with a global capitalism which cannot be “escaped,” only dealt with through various constellations of solidarity on the level of their own immanence (2001, 11–12). Rather than searching in vain for the pure or authentic revolutionary potential of any form of radicalism (and losing hope to cynicism when they prove complicit with the culture in which they circulate), it seems more fruitful to examine the ways in which radical politics can enable just andlasting forms of collective struggle against the atomizing and depoliticizing tide of neoliberalism and its attendant militarism, cynicism, and hopelessness. My interest, then, is on the ways in which AdBusters might be usefully criticized not for its moral double-standards (of which there are many) but for its ineffectiveness in the face of and even recapitulation of pernicious culture of neoliberalism. It is my hope this can open a critique which prompts provocative questions about cultural politics and the reponsiblilities of culture workers.