Counter Culture Interview: Mike Bonanno

Mike Bonanno forms one half of the prankster activists known as the Yes Men (with Andy Bicibaum). On the eve of the UK release of their documentary we asked Mike to tell us more about what they get up to and why.

Can you explain what it was that motivated you to form the Yes Men?

We were motivated by the huge amount of disturbing criminal activity that was going on in the world. Huge corporations are stealing from the poor and destroying the environment. Someone has to do something.

Why the ‘Yes Men’?

This comes from the american expression that describes someone who will agree with the boss’s repugnant ideas to get ahead in the world. When we went to represent the WTO, we were essentially saying “yes” to free trade ideas, turning up the volume until they were revealed to be absurd.

What is wrong with the WTO in your eyes?

The WTO’s goal is to help businesses do business. We need global organizations that PROTECT the powerless from the predatory practices of business, not vice versa. Having global regulatory organizations is very important in this global economy- but the WTO is essentially a de-regulatory organizations, designed to allow the rich to do whatever they please. And the absurd idea that helping the rich will help the poor is just that- absurd.

What do you think your behaviour at gatherings where you masqueraded as WTO representatives proves?

There are a number of things that it demonstrates. First of all, it shows that we can’t trust experts with issues as important as these, because most of them are asleep at the wheel or have such deep faith in this free trade philosophy that they will let anything slide past unchallenged.

We think our actions also prove that the ideas of these free trade proponents are in fact really very funny- if you live in the first world and can afford to laugh rather than cry.

Why the generally polite and non-critical acceptance of your most outrageous statements, eg ‘involuntarily imported workforce model of work’ in the textile industry for slavery and the sale of votes? Is it respect or awe for your perceived authority?

Its a combination of respect for the WTO and belief in a totally stupid idea. We didnt really stray from the basic premise of the WTO: simply getting out of the way of business, not allowing civil society to regulate, thats in keeping with our proposals at the meetings such as managers in the first world wearing a 3 foot golden phallus through which they administer electric shocks to sweatshop workers in the 3rd world.

And while we are on the subject of electric shocks- its also easy to liken the response to the Milgram experiment of the 1950’s. There is was shown that people obey authority… even in the face of extreme depravity.

How do you finance your jaunts?

We work regular jobs. These experiences are a bit like eco-tourism. Or extreme eco-tourism. Also, we have gotten some art grants from private US foundations.

Do you think that people might start imitating your actions? Would that please you?

Well, not precisely imitating. I cant imagine someone making a golden suit and flying to Tampere to lecture textile experts… but there are plenty of yes men (and women of course) out there. And there have been many before us too. And all that makes us happy!

Will you become victims of your own success as people become more aware of you? An example of this is the British character, Ali G.

We wont worry about that until we are famous! So far that hasnt been a problem.

Have there been legal attempts by the real WTO to stop you?

Well, there were a few little things.. cease and desist letters, etc. Lately though, they have tried to embrace us. In fact, we were there last week when the movie opened in Switzerland, and they invited us to show the movie there! We turned it down and went to the WEF in Davos, where we got a much less warm reception…

Have you any formal political background?

Nothing formal… although both our grandfathers were killed by nazis in the second world war. Does that count?

Have you ever felt guilty about deceiving people?

There have been a handful of times where there was some guilt- but it hasnt lasted long. We plan the actions carefully so as not to make people look bad- we want the corporate criminals to look bad, thats our target. Sometimes we have felt bad for a little while – in the case of this recent incident where we were able to pose as Dow Chemical on BBC World News and announce that they were cleaning up their mess in Bhopal, India, there were initial reports of the gas disaster victims being given false hopes by the action. It turned out that most of that was a fiction based on one interview, and that the victims and activists were overwhelmingly supportive because of the attention that got paid to the cause.

What was your reaction when George W Bush condemned you? Did you throw a party?

Yes, and sent out a press release!

We loved the Barbie Liberation Organisation (BLO). Any plans for a comeback?

Not unless Mattel makes more talking barbie dolls!

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