In 1999, anti-corporate pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno started running a website, purported to be that of the pernicious World Trade Organisation. In fact, the website slyly exposed the various ways in which the WTO allows corporations to operate unhampered by international law, human rights or environmental strictures. All very clever – but some visitors didn’t realise the site was a spoof, and the duo found themselves invited to represent the WTO and speak at conferences around the world. This documentary duly follows the pair around as they deliver preposterous “lectures” to the great and good of the international business community.
It’s almost impossible to believe how easily the pair are allowed to carry out their charade. All they need do, it seems, is deliver their spiel in the bland cadence and jargon of corporate-speak. At a Finnish conference, none of the audience bat an eyelid as they deliver a presentation explaining how slavery is no longer necessary since it’s more convenient for pittance workers to be kept in their own countries. When they demonstrate a “management leisure suit”, featuring a TV monitor attached to a phallic protrusion enabling managers to keep employees under surveillance as they work out, they provoke snickers but no outrage. Only when they deliver a powerpoint presentation to a group of young students explaining how First World excrement can be converted into burgers for Third World countries do they excite indignation. But still, no one cottons onto the joke, provoking them into their ultimate stunt – announcing the disbanding of the WTO. And even then, they’re taken seriously.
The Yes Men is extremely funny, yet underlying it is a feeling of despair – not only at the apparent worldwide sense-of-irony shortage, but that the grey ranks of the corporate have become so dulled to the outrageous moral implications of their quotidian iniquity that they can barely recognise it, even when it’s waved so blatantly in front of their faces.
By David Stubbs